Solidarity and subsidiarity are twin touchstones of Catholic social teaching. In general, these two principles are complementary and mutually enriching. In terms of the American polity, one thinks of the abolitionist cause and women’s suffrage movement of the nineteenth century as successful examples of what can be achieved by solidarity and subsidiarity. More recently, the late Pope John Paul II championed the Polish solidarity movement in the face of the totalitarian Soviet regime. What these nineteenth and twentieth century events share is a grassroots subsidiarity methodology wedded to great dreams of solidarity.
These two social principles of solidarity and subsidiarity tend to operate as a kind of religious counterpart to the secular federal system. Subsidiarity, for example, resembles a religious analogue for resolving thorny issues at the family, local, or state levels. Similarly, solidarity serves as an approximate analogue of the tendency of the national government to use its centralized power to address quandaries incapable of resolution by local authorities. This seemingly amicable relationship, however, hits the rocks when either solidarity or subsidiarity is hijacked by ideological partisans who wield the two principles against each other to advance their own agenda.
In the last ten years, the American republic has witnessed misguided solidarity used as a justification for the most egregious and brazen power grab from areas of civic engagement traditionally under the auspices of local communities. The pearl of the Bush administration’s domestic policy was the No Child Left Behind legislation. What is this other than an usurpation of local and state jurisdiction over the education of our children? More recently, the Obama administration has made forays into banking, the automotive industry, and health care, and it now stands poised to exploit the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf with cap and trade legislation.
The rhetoric employed in defense of these schemes typically is rife with intimations of solidarity: Solidarity with the children, solidarity with our national finances [“too big to fail"], solidarity with the unions, solidarity with the uninsured, solidarity with the environment or local fishermen. Why can’t individual communities decide the education for their children? Why can’t banks be allowed to fail and the market correct itself? Why can’t Michigan diversify its local economy or let the unions finish off their industry (non-unionized car plants are doing reasonably well in the South)? Why can’t states be left to craft their own health care solutions like Massachusetts did? Why can’t local and state governments make arrangements with BP without the federal government imposing a ban on offshore drilling further harming an already reeling Gulf economy? In short, solidarity is often kidnapped by sophistic bureaucrats in a shameless display of power acquisition, thus causing confusion and scandal in the faithful such as myself.
It is difficult enough to make prudential judgments without politicians further complicating affairs by manipulating social justice rhetoric to pursue their own ideological ends irrespective of considerations of subsidiarity. And I have not even addressed the Magisterium’s frequent mishandling of these issues, which only further clouds the waters making comprehension a virtual impossibility. I long for the days when solidarity and subsidiarity were still friends. Now the one seems an alien to the other due to political chicanery and poor guidance from the proper ecclesiastical authorities. Maybe it’s just that I am a ridiculous fool and ignoramus conflating politics and social principles injudiciously, thus confusing myself with this sometimes ambiguous and equivocal social justice jargon. It is certainly within the range of possibility! : )