Recently re-elected for a fourth term, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ran his campaign the way he runs the country: from the top down. He seldom met would-be supporters in Venezuelan cities and towns; instead he filled all the country’s TV channels, which he controls, with his own campaign propaganda. To be fair, he has had health issues.
In a freer country, citizens on his campaign trail might have complained that governmental control over basically everything was resulting in the nation’s slow disintegration through problems such as widespread shortages, increasing violence and rolling blackouts.
But he won anyway, which I think indicates that Venezuela isn’t a “freer country.”
Though Chavez was once an altar boy, his manner of running his country shows that he is not now practicing an important principle of Catholic social teaching called “subsidiarity.”
On the other hand, U.S. Rep. and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says he does try to follow the principle in his role in Congress, though some have criticized his methods. So what exactly is subsidiarity? Derived from the Latin word subsidium, which means “support, help or assistance,” the Catechism describes it as:
A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (CCC1883)
Essentially, we and the organizations closest to us, acting according to our dignity and responsibility, should be able to meet many of our community’s needs better than a huge national government that tries to cover everything. Under subsidiarity there is a positive role for national government–it should support community and local government efforts. However, unchecked it could overextend itself and harm the family and economic system.
For subsidiarity to work, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church offers a list of requirements: respect for individuals and families; appreciation for local organizations whose work can’t be duplicated; encouragement of private initiative that enables social entities to serve the common good; pluralism and safeguarding of human rights; bureaucratic and administrative decentralization; a balance between public and private sectors and ways to encourage citizens to be more responsible politically and socially.
That’s quite a list and yet the Church has advanced this principle since the 19th century. A lot of popes have had something to say about it along the way. Pope Pius XI wrote:
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.
If a family in need can’t find help from their friends, neighbors or community organizations, they can seek it from the government but it would be a “great and pernicious error” for civil government to have intimate control over the family, wrote Pope Leo XIII.
Likewise the State and other agencies of public law shouldn’t seek control beyond the clear limits of what the common good requires, wrote Bl. Pope John XXXIII. “Otherwise,” he wrote, “private ownership could be reduced beyond measure, or, even worse, completely destroyed.”
The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism, according to the Catechism, “It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.” (CCC1885)
Subsidiarity recognizes private initiative and how it benefits the public, as well as personal responsibility, Bl. Pope John Paul II wrote.
It calls for citizens to find solidarity with others by serving them, which is part of their dignity. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.”
Another reason subsidiarity is a good idea is because, as Venezuelans know, the government just can’t do everything well. According to Pope Pius XI: “The State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”
For as much as has been written about subsidiarity, to Paul Ryan’s defense and in hope for Mr. Chavez, there isn’t a manual on how to implement it.
People of good will, including Catholics who are trying to follow Catholic social teaching, may sometimes disagree on legislation or a course of government action, according to Christopher Kaczor writing on the CatholicCulture website.