LUENSE: Applying Catholic Social Thought into life

February 12, 2019

The Catholic Church has always taught that Christian faith has implications for how believers live in society. Beginning in the late 19th century, however, there has been a concerted and renewed engagement of the Church’s teaching office with regard to the social order.

This teaching has been forwarded in a particular way by a series of popes, beginning with Pope Leo XIII and continuing right up to Pope Francis. The collection of this teaching is often referred to as Catholic Social Thought (CST). Two interrelated and important themes developed in CST are the notions of participation and subsidiarity.

One level of teaching on participation is the way in which workers are called to participate in economic life. Workers are not merely instruments of production or consumers of finished goods. St. John XXIII in his encyclical Mater et Magistra writes that workers should be partners in the enterprises in which they work and should have influence in the whole of the activity.

This theme is picked up by St. John Paul II when he writes that a labor system should be shaped by, “the principle of the substantial and real priority of labor, of the subjectivity of human labor and its effective participation in the whole production process, independent of the nature of the services provided by the worker” (Laborem Exercens #13).

St. Paul VI offers reasons and rationales for such participation. He sees the desire to participate as innately human, reflecting the dignity of the human person. He writes, “two aspirations persistently make themselves felt in these new contexts... the aspiration to equality and the aspiration to participation, two forms of man’s dignity and freedom” (Octogesima Adveniens #22). Given this reality, he sees participation as something of real value that is not be sacrificed. Instead it is to be nurtured and developed just as carefully as economic progress.

CST goes further to develop an even wider understanding of participation. Participation in economic life grants people certain rights. People ought to be able to participate in the political life of the society of which they are a part. Reflecting on the plight of immigrants, St. Paul VI deplores the difficulty, “for them to make any sort of social vindication, in spite of their real participation in the economic activity of the country that receives them” (Octogesima Adveniens #17).

He sees several legitimate grievances in his time. These include, “when whole populations destitute of necessities live in a state of dependence barring them from any share in social or political life” (Populorum Progressio #30).

He acknowledges, “The passing to the political dimension also expressed a demand made by the man of today: a greater sharing in responsibility and in decision making... However, although limits are sometimes called for, these obstacles must not slow down the giving of wider participation in working out decisions and putting them into practice” (Octogesima Adveniens #47).

St. John Paul II continues and strengthens this theme. He declares that some, “nations need to reform certain unjust structures, and in particular their political institutions, in order to replace corrupt, dictatorial, and authoritarian forms of government by democratic and participatory ones” (Sollicitudo rei socialis #44).

Analogous to the individual within a nation, nations themselves are to be assured participation in an international order. St. John Paul II envisions, “new regional organizations inspired by the criteria of equality, freedom and participation in the comity of nations” (Sollicitudo rei socialis #45).

The notion of subsidiarity is presented in Catholic social thought as a way of ensuring individuals and groups their rightful practice of participation. The notion of subsidiarity states that the lowest level of organization that can effectively handle a given situation is to be allowed to do so. In this way individuals can best be assured the opportunity to participate in economic, social and political life.

In the words of the American bishops, “this principle guarantees institutional pluralism. It provides space for freedom, initiative, and creative activity on the part of many social agents” (Economic Justice for All #100).

The notion was first defined by Pope Pius XI, “Nevertheless, it is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish with their own enterprise and industry. It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies” (Quadragesimo anno #79).

St. John Paul II elaborates, “Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather it should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (Centesimus annus #48).

Lest it be argued, however, that the notion of subsidiarity precludes any action by the state or the international order, it is to be noted that this notion seeks only to place appropriate limits on what it regards as legitimate aims. When St. John XXIII invokes the principle of subsidiarity to set boundaries on the conditions under which the state may own goods (Mater et Magistra #117), he implicitly acknowledges the right of the state to own goods necessary to ensure the common good.

The principle of subsidiarity sometimes compels a higher order group to act. The American bishops insist that, “The principle of subsidiarity calls for government to intervene in the economy when basic justice requires greater social coordination and regulation of economic actors and institutions” (Economic Justice for All #323).

St. John Paul II, after enumerating a number of goals that a just society is called to achieve, invokes the principle of subsidiarity in demanding the involvement of the state. “The state must contribute to the achievement of these goals both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity by creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity... Directly and according to the principles of solidarity by... placing certain limits on the autonomy of parties...” (Centesimus annus #15).

In summary, CST sees participation of the individual in economic, social and political life as in keeping with the dignity of the human person. The principle of subsidiarity protects and guarantees this participation. 

Brian Garcia-Luense is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.