One of the most exciting memories from my lifetime was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland. The Communist regime–which came from a so called worker’s revolution–was itself overturned by a genuine worker’s revolution. The ironic justice of it was exquisite. The shipyard workers of Gdansk rose up in a grass roots movement which eventually overturned not only Poland’s communist regime, but once that domino fell, the rest of the Soviet empire soon followed.
That Pope John Paul II was in the middle of it, shrewdly maneuvering the situation without ever overplaying his hand was another exciting aspect to this momentous event. When he visited Poland in June 1979–eight months after his election for his triumphant return– in his speech to millions he addressed the relationship between two principles of Catholic social teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity. (You can read a contemporary New York Times report on his amazing visit here.) Solidarity is the simple concept that no man is an island and we are our brothers’ keeper. This corrects the tendency towards extreme individualism and the tyranny of individual rights. The principle of subsidiarity is that problems are best solved and initiatives most effectively taken at the lowest level of society possible. In other words, top down bureaucratic solutions are not an expression of solidarity. They are an expression of tyranny.
Socialism (and her ugly sister communism) show us the distortion of the principle of solidarity while unrestrained Capitalism shows us the distortion of the principle of subsidiarity. It is interesting to note that these two economic systems invariably produce a culture that matches the economic theory. A Socialist system will produce a top heavy, bureaucratic government led tyranny that suppresses the little guy. In such a system subservience to the state is exalted and the only virtue that remains is patriotism. Meanwhile a Capitalistic system will produce a culture of complete and total individual freedom where self interest is exalted and the only virtue that remains is tolerance.
Pope Pius XII rightly observed that any system based in materialistic, economic and utilitarian theory is ultimately a system of this world and the Lord of this World. Any system that is based solely on economic theory therefore will ultimately collapse.
The foundation for Catholic social teaching is not an economic system, but a belief in God given human dignity both as individuals and in community. Catholic principles on economic justice flow from that…the right to property and capital balanced by the demands of economic justice, fair wages and working conditions and the responsibility of the wealthy and powerful to the weak and vulnerable.
The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary. In his visit to Poland John Paul II said about solidarity and subsidiarity: “the state understands its mission to solidarity according to the principle of subsidiarity, namely that it wishes to express the full sovereignty of the nation.” In other words, to be authentic solidarity–the union of people in a shared cause and shared concern for one another must begin at the lowest level possible. The grass roots movements gather steam and accomplish their cause. Great ideas, five year plans, bureaucratic solutions are top heavy and invariably fail.
With this in mind, all government organizations should seek to serve the grass roots, but in our present society it is the other way around. Increasingly the grass roots are expected to serve the bureaucracy-the elite ruling class. This is the recipe for resentment and rebellions. The enormous support for Donald Trump and the nationalist movements in Europe like Brexit–are examples of ordinary people saying they have had enough and rising up to challenge the top heavy governments.
Unfortunately, too often we see the same seduction of power in the Church. Instead of the dioceses supporting the grass roots movements we see the people being pressed for more and more money to support an ever burgeoning bureaucracy. If they are not careful Bishops’ Conferences become politburos and the Vatican becomes the Kremlin. Not only do they abuse their power, but the whole system has nothing to do with the way of faith in the world.
In the book I have coming out in May called Immortal Combat I explain how God’s way of working in the world is always small and secret. It begins in the out of the way place, with small ordinary people. God’s way in the world does not begin with grand ideas and huge fundraising efforts for some great project that will happen one day. Instead it is ordinary people who roll up their sleeves and get on with the job at hand and then God blesses with the resources that are needed.
The same is true in the political sphere, or in any sphere of life. The reality is not the headlines, the politics, the plans and the big deal. The reality is in the ordinary work of ordinary people in ordinary parishes, schools, families and workplaces.
We tend to think of “Solidarity” as the big stuff, but solidarity begins at home. Subsidiarity is the starting point and solidarity is the goal. If you begin with top down “solidarity” the little guy is squashed, but if you begin with bottom up “subsidiarity” true solidarity is strengthened and empowered.