The accumulation and exercise of power is on the rise in public life. The secular culture is obsessed with power, especially the universities and those institutions most directly influenced by them, including the media, even local government, and, sadly, service-oriented non-profit organizations. Corporations are also exercising power in new and frightening ways. Power is the ultimate mark of prestige and status in the world today. The abuse of political power is possible only when limitations on its growth are greatly diminished if not entirely removed. Religious institutions that check political ambition become targets for persecution. The Church’s influence is thus increasingly confined to the private sphere of life. As God is pushed to the margins of society, a dictatorship of moral relativism fills the void and power becomes the only currency.
The Church asks us to look higher. The mission of the Church is the salvation of souls. Any commentary on the public role of the Church must not ignore this central fact. If the Church is concerned about social justice (rightly understood), or the alleviation of poverty, or a rightly ordered political system it is because these issues have a direct consequence for the spiritual wellbeing of all members of society. This includes the souls of the typical person on the street as well as the souls of the political leaders. This is why the proper response to abortion-supporting Catholic politicians begins first with prayer and fasting for their conversion.
The secular world understands political power as being so closely linked with “social justice” that the two concepts are nearly indistinguishable. We are told that power is simply the ability to distribute goods to individuals and groups of the political actor’s choosing and possession of the monopoly of violence. The concept of soft power in politics—the exercise of influence through diplomacy—has largely been forgotten. Both should be seen as a sign of the times, for both the emphasis on hard power and the loss of any concern for decency and diplomacy strip man of his dignity by affirming the normalization of violence as the way to solve problems.
What does the Church teach about power? The Catechism says precious little about political power, save for directly linking the abuse of power to man’s fallen nature through original sin (CCC 407). The much-misunderstood social teaching of the Church offers clarity, however, on what political power is for: the establishment and preservation of the common good. Working for the common good is the essence of solidarity, and is based on St. Paul’s warning “if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). The principle of solidarity is the recognition of this principle and put into action. Popes in the modern era have repeatedly built on St. Paul’s words. One such example is Pope St. John Paul II’s joyful declaration that solidarity is the dedication to the common good and wellbeing of every individual because we truly are our brother’s keeper.
Solidarity is plausible only when inseparably linked to the other central political concept from the social teaching of the Church: subsidiarity. This can be understood as the placing of decision-making power in the hands of the most locally possible authorities. Subsidiarity gives preference to the local exercise of political power, without denying the possibility that some problems may only be solvable by a central government at the national level. Subsidiarity, according to Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, is a guarantor of the love Christ preached when he commanded us to love our neighbor.
The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something that often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human. (Deus Caritas Est, 2005, #28)
By contrast, secular advocates of social justice divorce solidarity from subsidiarity and in the process open the door to tyranny in the form of a silk-gloved socialism. This is the direct result of elevating the state to the level of God, complete with ritualistic worship in the form of fawning over political candidates and a near total dedication of our time to their service. G.K. Chesterton’s observation that once we eliminate God from the public square the state becomes God is both apt and terrifying, for while God is the definition of Good, human beings are something else entirely. If in a democratic society we get the government we deserve the nature of sin dictates that government will always be to some degree corrupt. Governments in a democratic society always reflect the nature and spiritual health of the people they represent.
Subsidiarity and solidarity when properly understood respect families and communities. Solidarity means we are our brother’s keeper; we are to love our neighbor. Subsidiarity is the placing of decision-making power in the hands of the most local competent authority. In a democratic republic this means local authorities make the decisions that affect the lives of everyday people if the issues are within their competence. In a properly ordered society, distant governments rarely make decisions that affect the education and welfare of children and families.
Public policy debates that concern themselves principally with fulfilling the maximal potential of families and communities reflect the Church’s ideal definition of a just society. Instead we have the society that Chesterton warned us about in What’s Wrong With the World. Labeling the wealthy elite Gudge and their socialist counterparts Hudge, Chesterton warned that all political decisions should be judged based on how they affect the family. Chesterton writes “Gudge rules by a coarse and cruel system of sacking and sweating and bi-sexual toil, which is totally inconsistent with the family and is bound to destroy it. And Hudge calls women’s work freedom to live her own life, and says the family is something we shall soon gloriously outgrow.” Both offer the same solution to our problems, the centralization of power and the functional abolition of the family. This is in stark opposition to subsidiarity and solidarity, a lesson we should be reminded of in these turbulent political times.