The order of social institutions

In this post I would like to continue with some notions I raised in a prior post, about the relationship between individual people and social institutions. The Compendium brings the subject up fairly regularly, so it is reasonable to infer that it is important to the overall perspective of Catholic social teaching.

‘far from being the object or passive element of social life’ the human person ‘is rather, and must always remain, its subject, foundation and goal’ (CSD §106).

In other words, our social institutions and culture “must always” be oriented toward the good of people. Clearly there is a sense in which this orientation primarily centers upon the common good of society, but the wording of §106 makes it pretty clear that to focus solely on the common good is myopic.

Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society (CSD §132; emphasis added).

We see the same principle again: “the primacy of each human being over society.” The principle in operation here is subsidiarity:

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms. ‘By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.’ (CSD §187; emphasis added)

Subsidiarity is the idea that local problems should be handled locally rather than by some central agency someplace else, staffed by nameless bureaucrats who cannot possibly appreciate the local distinctiveness of a problem. As Merriam Webster says of the term:

a principle in social organization: functions which subordinate or local organizations perform effectively belong more properly to them than to a dominant central organization.

People ought to be encouraged to take care of themselves insofar as they are equipped to handle them. We see the same principle affirmed with respect to families:

The priority of the family over society and over the State must be affirmed. The family in fact, at least in its procreative function, is the condition itself for their existence. With regard to other functions that benefit each of its members, it proceeds [sic; precedes?] in importance and value the functions that society and the State are called to perform. The family possesses inviolable rights and finds its legitimization in human nature and not in being recognized by the State. The family, then, does not exist for society or the State, but society and the State exist for the family. (CSD §214; emphasis added)

It is not good for man to be alone, as God says in Genesis 2. So the institutions and cultures we develop are made for the benefit of the participants and not vice versa. A society which forgets its proper orientation is one which is degenerating into either anarchy or statism, both of which are vicious extremes in which the individual and the family are trampled for the sake of political ends. This is why the Catholic Church condemns (and has always condemned) socialism.

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Posted in Rerum Novarum

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