“It is the responsibility of the state to safeguard and promote the common good of society,” writes Pope Francis in his recent book, Evangelii Gaudium. “Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building, it plays a fundamental role, one which cannot be delegated, in working for the integral development of all.”
We know Pope Francis is teaching us every day about the issues of importance for Catholics, like concern for the poor, the importance of the family and more. But in this case, the pope’s words offer an appropriate reflection for how we can answer public policy questions of our time.
Subsidiarity is an expression of human freedom. It means what individuals can accomplish by their own initiative and efforts should not be taken away from them by a higher authority. A higher authority is only to offer help when individuals or smaller institutions find a task is beyond their ability or capacity. Subsidiarity allows individuals to be integrated into society while still allowing them to develop freely (YouCat, No. 323; CCC, No. 1885).
Take education. Parents have the first responsibility for educating their children, but most parents need some help. Families turn to Catholic schools, public schools or home school associations for resources and expertise that would be difficult for them to provide on their own. The larger associations of the church, school district or home school organization support the smaller institution of the family to achieve the task of educating their children.
Solidarity embraces the ideal that everyone should be given the opportunity to access material, intellectual, and spiritual goods (YouCat, No. 332). The more individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others (Centesimus Annus, No. 10).
Solidarity is more than temporal relief of human misery; it is an attitude that understands those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love in society (CCC, No. 2448). Respecting the dignity of human work by supporting just wages is one example of solidarity. Granting access to adequate food or medical care are two others.
The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity offer a good lens through which to evaluate debates in the state Capitol. Consider Medicaid expansion. The federal Affordable Care Act authorized additional funding for states to expand Medicaid coverage for adults under 65 earning less than $16,104 a year for one person or $32,913 for a family of four.
Simply adding more people to the program as it currently operates is one way to provide access to medical care for more lower-income, uninsured adults. Governor Tom Corbett’s Healthy PA plan offers an alternative. His proposal would use the federal money to support those same adults obtaining coverage from the private insurance market.
The first idea leans towards solidarity. Society through the organization of government directly provides a service that will meet a certain need. The second idea more resembles subsidiarity. Society instead would support individual choice to meet a need they cannot provide for themselves.
Both proposals aim to cover uninsured adults without the means to obtain coverage on their own. There are many points of debate about the efficacy and accessibility of either idea; but we cannot dismiss this debate because it is hard or because we think the government should not be in the business of helping the poor. To do so would reject the pope’s call for us to safeguard and promote the common good of society.
We must remain fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building even when the answers are not clear.
A. B. Hill is communications director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs agency of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. Get involved with public policy issues and get action alerts by joining the Catholic Advocacy Network at the PCC’s website, pacatholic.org. Follow the PCC on Facebook and Twitter.
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