As a high school student, I wanted to engage the culture. I could see our world inching farther and farther away from the One who is True, Good, and Beautiful. I imagined that the Church needed voices crying in the wasteland of modern society and dreamed of working in the public sector defending truth. While my passionate response to the problems in our society was noble, I now realize that this large-scale strategy alone is not sufficient to renovate our culture. Such a transformation depends on the interactions, witness, and charity that we as Christians have with others.
Throughout the past few years, I have been fascinated by the Catholic principle of social justice known as subsidiarity. Simply put, this principle holds that a task should be done by the most basic unit of society capable of performing the task successfully. (CCC1883) This means that what the family can do well, the state should not do, and if a task can be done well by the state, the federal government should not interfere.
Subsidiarity is really the flip side of another Catholic principle, the principle of solidarity which demands that we have “friendship” or “social charity,” with others. (CCC1989) As Catholics, we all stand united, no matter where we may be. After all, we believe in the Communion of Saints and spend much time, money, and effort as a Church serving those in need.
But despite what we know to be Catholic Social teaching, we easily forget to live it. Today, I can think that someone else is taking care of the poor or that throwing a few pennies to support another’s effort fulfills my responsibility to show charity to my neighbor. There is always a new Facebook cause and I am aware of many governmental efforts to alleviate the effects of original sin. By simply wearing a rubber bracelet or by buying a specific brand I can go to sleep peacefully knowing that I stand in solidarity with a good cause. And though these gestures help a little, charity demands much more of me and because of it subsidiarity is important.
Subsidiarity is really a guardian of charity and of solidarity. When my neighbor is far removed and those within my near vicinity are not my responsibility, it is easy to neglect works of charity. I can like a cause on the internet, but the principle of subsidiarity is personal and requires more of me. When one is moved in charity to care for his or her neighbor, both solidarity and subsidiarity are at work. Instead, when one assumes that a higher institution will care for his neighbor and it does, subsidiarity decomposes because solidarity has disappeared.
In the Gospel of Luke Christ is asked “Who is my neighbor?” He responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) In this story, the Samaritan enters into solidarity with the man who has been robbed and left for dead on the road. Unlike the Priest and the Levite, the Good Samaritan shows compassion to the injured man and does not leave him there on the pretense that someone else will assist him. Rather, he himself ensures that the man is cared for.
Unlike the Good Samaritan, we easily confuse the abstract with the concrete. Peter Kreeft states that loving humanity can, in fact, be a fallacy when “the abstraction ‘humanity’ substitutes for concrete individuals as objects of love.” (Kreeft, Logic, p.111) Subsidiarity is precisely what protects us from this threat because it demands that, like the Good Samaritan, we care for those whom God has placed in our path. This does not mean that we are exempt from supporting others’ efforts to help the poor, or that these efforts are bad or unnecessary; but this support, along with an abstract love for humanity, cannot replace the charity that we must, as individual persons, display towards our neighbor: our spouses, parents, children, students, and patients, the poor in our community, the sick in our local hospitals, and the children in our parishes.
The Church is our Mother and it is not surprising that Her teachings correspond to our nature. The principle of subsidiarity has much to do with the manner in which hearts are transformed. Reflecting back to my dreams of converting hearts to Christ through the public sector, I see in myself the abstract love for humanity. During my senior year of college, I read Cardinal Newman’s The Grammar of Ascent. This book put into words something that I had begun to realize in my earlier college years.
Newman discusses the ways in which the human person comes to see and to accept truth as such. Man does not do this simply through the use of reason. If this was the case, there would be far less confusion in our world. Instead, it is the witness of others that prepares our hearts for truth. Saint Paul reminds us that we are the Body of Christ and that we are to approach others with humility, gentleness, and patience as we support one another in charity. (Ephesians 4: 1-6) It was the meekness and humility of the early Christian martyrs that transformed Rome. It was their witness that transformed the history of all of humanity.
This world is engaged in a battle for souls, and while we need loud voices in the desert, we are in desperate need of individuals that dedicate themselves to their very proximate neighbor. We need teachers, spouses, parents, doctors, and coworkers who tirelessly work out of charity for the hearts that have been placed on their path. All of us are these individuals. Although it is easy for us to simultaneously want to change our culture while neglecting the manner in which we answer the lady at the store, it is ultimately these interactions that will win one heart at a time and eventually transform our society.
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.