The Threefold Cornerstone
Are Expressions of Human Freedom
All Three Principles are Important
Oriented Towards the Creator
The Three Principles
Catholic social teaching is built on three principles: Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity (Pope St. John Paul II, 55); Pope Benedict XVI, the greatest of which the Church insists is the first: A correct understanding of the human person embodied in the principle of Human Dignity: This is the prime principle!
Catholic social teaching informs us that good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles. It “is not an economic or political programme, but it offers a powerful way of thinking about what the common good requires, and how structures in society can promote or undermine human well-being and the requirements of justice.” (Vincent Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster)
Catholic social teaching is the provenance of the Holy Fathers. It “is an expression of the prophetic task of the supreme pontiffs to give apostolic guidance to the church of Christ and to discern the new demands of evangelization.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 12) And, the Catholic Church has done a lot of thinking and reflection on the macro issues: what form of government and economic system is best for promoting human freedom; why must faith be part of the public square; what are the pathologies destroying our culture and how do we fix them; how should we address the issues of developing countries; what are the dangers of a “welfare state”; among many other vexing issues facing modern societies.
Catholic social teaching is so important and comprehensive that Pope Saint John Paul II called on lay Catholic leaders to form their consciences on the tenets of the Church’s social doctrine. (Pope St. John Paul II, 67)
Yet, most Catholics are largely unaware of Catholic social doctrine. Even if we attend Mass regularly, go, or went, to Catholic schools and are active in our parishes we know little of this teaching.
Catholic social teaching is universal. It has “gradually and imperceptibly worked its way into the minds of those outside Catholic unity who do not recognize the authority of the Church. Catholic principles on the social question have as a result, passed little by little into the patrimony of all human society.” (Pope Pius XI, 21)
Solidarity vs. Subsidiarity
The principles of Solidarity and Subsidiarity, resulting from over a century of magisterial reflection in major encyclicals on politics, economics and culture, are occasionally presented as independent of each other or even, at times, in conflict.
In fact, these foundational principles of Catholic social teaching are both offspring of the prime principle, Human Dignity. Both are born in and are expressions of Human Dignity, and both are absolutely central to Catholic social teaching.
The case for Solidarity deriving from Human Dignity may appear easier to grasp than that for Subsidiarity. In fact, Subsidiarity does flow from Human Dignity: “undoubtedly the principle of subsidiarity [is] an expression of inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person” which “respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 57)
Any debate over the primacy of one of these principles over the other has been settled by Pope Benedict XVI who told us:
- “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”
- Subsidiarity without solidarity leads to “social privatism”
- Solidarity without subsidiarity leads to a “demeaning” and “paternalist” form of social assistance.
Spiritual Dimensions of Solidarity & Subsidiarity
In a piercing insight, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that “the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity…have the potential to place men and women on the path to discovering their supernatural destiny.”
“True solidarity” he said, “begins with an acknowledgment of the equal worth of the other” and “comes to fulfillment only when I willingly place my life at the service of others.”
“Similarly, subsidiarity…manifests a ‘vertical’ dimension pointing towards the Creator of the social order. A society that honors the principle of subsidiarity liberates people…granting them the freedom to engage with one another in the spheres of commerce, politics and culture…they leave space for individual responsibility and initiative, but most importantly, they leave space for love.”
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles: “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, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 15)
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image. This is “the basis not only of the unity of the human family but also of our inviolable human dignity” (Pope Benedict XVI) and it is in this beginning that human rights are grounded.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (Pope St. John Paul II, 38). Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment. “We cannot believe in God the Father without seeing a brother or sister in every person, and we cannot follow Jesus without giving our lives for those for whom he died on the cross.” (Pope Francis)
Subsidiarity identifies how decisions in society need to be taken at the lowest competent level. “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 by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, 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 the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI, 79)
Centesimus Annus Pro Pontificate, Inc (CAPP-USA) is the United States affiliate of Fondazione Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice at the Vatican.