Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Kyle Herrington
"Solidarity" and "subsidiarity" are two ideas which make our political party, the American Solidarity Party, a unique voice in American politics. Yet, we do an injustice to these concepts when we 1) distort their meaning beyond recognition, often through a private definition (chiefly injuring those who we are in dialogue with because we destroy the should-be-shared foundation of political discussion); and 2) treat them as unattainable ideals but abandon them when it comes to “practical matters”.
These are concepts we should champion together as values that can and should order a good, healthy society. Seeing as our party’s name includes solidarity, I think it unsurprising that many agree on a basic understanding of solidarity. Subsidiarity, though, is a different story. Ask 10 people on the Registered Members page and you will get 11 different definitions. This is a travesty because these values should be shared amongst all ASP members, and inappropriate uses damage our political unity. Therefore, seeing this damage, I hope to use this post to start a discussion about where subsidiarity comes from, some key insights into what subsidiarity is not, and then share an example of subsidiarity that is working right now to better people’s lives.
Subsidiarity is a key component of Catholic Social Teaching. Many trace the first formulation of subsidiarity to Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. As the name indicates, the document was released 40 years after Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius sought to celebrate the achievements of Rerum novarum and to clarify its teaching for the world forty years removed from it. In Quadragesimo anno, Pope Pius XI offers this observation which many see as a defense of subsidiarity:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (Quadragesimo anno, 79.)
This section provides the foundation for the development of and articulation of a proper understanding of subsidiarity as part of Catholic Social Teaching.
From this definition and others found throughout social thought, some have tried to reduce to subsidiarity to two ideas: “local is always best” and “efficiency”. Both of these fail to provide a full articulation of subsidiarity and do damage to the theological anthropology that Pope Pius XI built in to his encyclical.
While “local is always best” highlights the importance resonance between local governance and subsidiarity, it fails to place subsidiarity into the wider concept of the common good. Subsidiarity and solidarity both serve the common good. However, I do not think it would take long for you to think of a time where a local government has made a mess of a situation either through incompetence or corruption. When used dogmatically, “local is always best” usually fails to articulate a vision of the common good (which unfortunately is a common problem of most political discussions). Formulating this vision is difficult and requires discernment, but without it, subsidiarity and solidarity make no sense and are just concepts deployed to gain power.
Many who see the peril of a “local is always best” approach often then misunderstand the concept of subsidiarity to be saying something about efficiency. It makes sense that a small community might be more efficient at producing a certain outcome. This reduction to efficiency voids subsidiarity of real meaning. In Quadragesimo anno, Pope Pius XI writes about unions, laborers, managers, employees, wages, Socialism, liberalism, etc. It is not a clean and efficient picture of society. Additionally, efficiency is a foreign value to Catholic social teaching; more often it is a value of utilitarian positions. As with the other failed reduction, if subsidiarity is understood to be a simple descriptor, simply a practical method, it is just a veiled attempt to dominate our fellow human being.
The anthropology that Pope Pius and Catholic Social Teaching rests on is articulated beautifully by Dorothy Day:
The final word is love… To love we must know each other … and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. (The Long Loneliness)
Each man and woman is a creature created in the image of the Almighty God, who has poured Himself out for us in the mission of His Son and Holy Spirit. Through sin, we have abandoned God and in turn abandoned our neighbor. Yet, because we are still vestiges of God’s image, we recognize this loneliness as evil and desire instead community. This community is chiefly achieved through the common table of the Eucharist, but it is also found and strengthened through our community life together. In this way, neighborly love and community becomes a sacramental, a sign that points to God’s love for His Creation and desire for it to be united with Him. As St. Augustine might say, we use our opportunity to be charitable neighbors to express our love for God.
Therefore, our communal life and the attainment of justice are NOT simply another’s responsibility, but chiefly OUR responsibility. What is so gravely evil of “assign[ing] to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do,” is that it robs us of the ability to be neighbors. Instead, it treats humans as sole individuals, with no connection to the community around them. It then might make sense to have one organizing body dole out all the supplies we need for life like many utopian films and movies depict (I am thinking of a Black Mirror episode called “Fifteen Million Merits”). However, we know that usually ends horribly and it fails to appreciate the socially-oriented nature of the human person. Our current politics is obsessed with a “local is always best” that reduces everyone to a liberated individual against the oppressive world or an “efficient” means of making everyone supposedly happy and taken care of. However, both these options fail because they don’t really correspond to human nature. They are imposed ideas, imposed from Enlightenment philosophy and its counterpart in capitalist logic. We as a party are called to resist both these reductions and proudly articulate our vision of the human person and how we believe humans live and thrive. This vision rests on subsidiarity and solidarity and we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to get these concepts right.
I hope to end on a more positive note. There are hints of the desire for subsidiarity and solidarity within our country. Unfortunately, they do not often show themselves until disaster strikes. Case in point: the recent and on-going hurricanes. This USA Today story describes the unique network of aid that is currently being dispatched to areas affected by Harvey and Irma. This network is made up by FEMA and charitable religious organizations working to provide the common good for the people affected by these natural disasters. These institutions do not subsume each other, nor should they. They are modeling a helpful image of how subsidiarity can flourish.
These are local organizations and teams partnering with national organizations to help their neighbors, to show love and bring community to those who have lost so much. Subsidiarity and solidarity are not hammers to bludgeon people with or concepts to use in order to dominate. Instead, they are more like the feet of a trapeze artist, the community being the rest of the body. Social life is precarious and because we are mutable creatures, life is constantly changing. However, guided by our two sturdy legs, communities that rely on subsidiarity and solidarity will safely pass on the precarious tight rope of social life. Only in this way can communities provide for the ultimate end of social life, the common good of all people.
Tara Ann Thieke