Subsidiarity: A lesson from the United States

In a society, besides freedom one also needs values. It is indispensable to reconcile the principle of subsidiarity with that of solidarity, in order to respond to the challenges of globalization. An interview with Fr Robert Sirico, founder of the Lord Acton Institute


“It is relatively easy to create a free society. But we must never forget that freedom is as necessary as it is insufficient. This is because freedom without other value directions is tantamount to a life with infinite and equivalent possibilities but totally aimless. In this framework, religion represents a bulwark, because it teaches personal responsibility within freedom.” So says Fr Robert Sirico, one of American Catholicism’s most original thinkers, speaking.

Fr Sirico has a fixation, which is education-education to freedom, first and foremost, and to responsibility, particularly in the field of economics. For this reason, he founded the Lord Acton Institute, to reconcile economic tradition and Catholicism. This is an epoch-making task, synthesized also in a book (Il personalismo cattolico e la società libera [Catholic Personalism and the Free Society], Rubbettino, 230 pp). “Before the Reformation,” Fr Sirico explains, “there were already flourishing economic powers like Bavaria, Milan, and Venice-all Catholic areas. Besides, the great sociologist and economist Joseph Schumpeter maintained that the science of economics was invented by the first disciples…”

You have got it into your head that you want to put economics back in its place, right when a certain kind of anti-global rhetoric is accelerating its criticism of the economy. In short, aren’t you risking being left holding the bag?
For a Christian, there is really no danger of getting stuck, when we speak of a market economy. And notice that I am not the one who says this. The Social Doctrine of the Church says it, Pope John Paul II says it in his encyclical Centesimus annus. The Pope maintains that cooperation, freedom, and service are the moral foundation of work and the economy in general. And he adds, “The free market is the most efficient instrument for allocating resources and responding to needs effectively.” For him there exists a good capitalism, rooted in a morality that guarantees contracts and property, and a bad capitalism that is immoral and utilitarian.

And the Pope assigns a mission, as it were: to work with others and work for others. This is a mission especially for entrepreneurs.
Not only for them, but certainly whoever builds a business has a greater responsibility. But precisely on this theme a certain kind of Catholicism goes completely off the track, to the point of demonizing the economy as such. What astounds me most of all is the weakness in terms of economics of modern religious thought, which takes the form of an incomprehensible lack of confidence in the function of entrepreneurship. But it is the Pope here again who tells us that the capacity to risk and invest is one of man’s most crucial virtues. Which is why for a Christian the true mission is to sanctify work, in the ongoing battle between the two forms of application of capitalism that we have just mentioned.

This seems almost like a Copernican revolution, given the winds that are blowing inside and outside the Catholic world, especially about the question of globalization.
Here too, little attention is paid to what John Paul II says. The Church is not against globalization. The great battle he is fighting is to make people understand that it is indispensable to reconcile the principle of subsidiarity with that of solidarity, because it is only from the union of these two poles that we can restore dignity to man. True economic freedom is the freedom regulated by the moral imperative that says that the rights of the lower social orders must be respected in their functions. And at the same time, it is the one that is able to liberate solidarity, imprisoned for decades in the too-tight shackles of the social state. Only the market is capable of giving a true solidarity, because it distributes wealth without limiting the possibility of personal action.

But many Catholics maintain that without a strong state there can be no true solidarity. In short, that subsidiarity and solidarity do not really go hand in hand…
As far as that is concerned, there are also theologians ready to maintain that the Good Samaritan is a parable of the welfare state. But above and beyond easy quips, it seems to me that there is a confused idea of charity in circulation, because if first there is not individual compassion toward the needs of others, then nothing good can come out. I am thinking above all of Mother Teresa, when she urged people not to reproduce yet another class struggle. For her, the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich, in a reciprocal relationship. In short: philanthropy is a good thing, but the mission of the Church and of Christian charity is something else. It involves individual anthropology, and is a broader mission than the idea of State can contain. Natural society is always a mutual encounter.

In your book, you maintained that there are two types of globalization, which oppose each other, and that the future of freedom will depend on their confrontation/collision. Can you explain this to us?
In this delicate phase of history, two precise ideas confront each other. On one hand, there is a negative thrust toward globalization, of a political sort, ie, the temptation to hand over to a few large organizations (the World Bank, the IMF, etc) the power to intervene in the lives of billions of people. But there is also a temptation on the part of some countries to interfere in the affairs of others, by hook or by crook. It is an imperialist temptation that has characterized, for example, the United States under a democratic government. This type of globalization gives neither solidarity nor subsidiarity, because it still guarantees enormous power to the states.

Let’s go on to the second type of globalization.
This is the increase of economic, cultural, and social exchange. The market economy, free trade, if interpreted correctly and not subjected to the control of gigantic bureaucracies, whether public or private, cannot help bringing wealth and prosperity, defending the commonweal and rights. Following this path, people can be free to utilize their talents in the service of others, on the basis of the principle of cooperation rather than that of coercion.

Where do people go wrong, in your opinion, in criticizing globalization and capitalism?
A very grave error, an anti-modern one, I would say, is thinking that pity can replace technology. Without technology, it would be impossible to use the things of the world for the greater glory of Christ. The greatest error made by those who criticize globalization ideologically lies in their very scanty knowledge of economic theory. At the center of the economy is the real person, while for example in Marx and Keynes, the economy and man were only an abstraction, maybe an excuse. Free initiative is an important part of the freedom that man, created in the image and likeness of God, possesses by nature.