For a long time, I’ve appreciated the role that churches, associations, and other nongovernmental institutions play in providing things that individuals and families need — outside markets and when markets fail — in civil society. Tocqueville wrote about them in Democracy in America. Edmund Burke called them “little platoons” (artfully rearticulated in Charles Murray’s In Pursuit).
From books such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, I also appreciated that these institutions, vital sources of social capital, were being worn down by various forces in modern life. However, I have only recently come to appreciate the fact that the size and scope of government is prone to expand in their absence.
Today marks the anniversary of two important documents in the Roman Catholic tradition, which speak directly into this causal relationship. Rerum Novarum was published on May 15, 1891, by Pope Leo XIII. Set against the rise of socialism and working-class unrest, it represents an important development in Catholic teaching about capital, labor, and economic justice. These ideas are predicated on the idea of subsidiarity: “that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.”
[12.] . . . We have the family, the “society” of a man’s house — a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.
13. That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must in like wise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group. It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance. A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.
14. The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop. Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself. “The child belongs to the father,” and is, as it were, the continuation of the father’s personality; and speaking strictly, the child takes its place in civil society, not of its own right, but in its quality as member of the family in which it is born. And for the very reason that “the child belongs to the father” it is, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “before it attains the use of free will, under the power and the charge of its parents” (Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. x, art. 12, Answer). The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.
In short, the family—here represented by the father and his biological offspring through marriage—is recognized as the primary unit of society. Indeed, it is the foundation upon which society is built. It has moral authority and integrity that should not be violated by the state. The family produces goods for society at large when the father (and the mother) fulfills his (their) natural duties and obligations to their biological children (and to each other).
The passage is striking for its prescience about efforts of some who might wish to tear down these impediments to broadening state control. Forty years later, in Quadragesimo Anno, published on May 15, 1931, Pope Pious XI would push this idea further to show how the state simply fills the void left by the collapse of the family, associations, and other mediating institutions:
78. When we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind, not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed “individualism” that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.
79. As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.
80. The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.
These are fascinating insights, which are all the more remarkable for being so clearly articulated 84 years ago. Today we readily see how the state has expanded of necessity to cope with the breakdown of these institutions.
Leo XIII’s answer to our predicament was equally clear:
[27.] If human society is to be healed now, in no other way can it be healed save by a return to Christian life and Christian institutions. When a society is perishing, the wholesome advice to give to those who would restore it is to call it to the principles from which it sprang; for the purpose and perfection of an association is to aim at and to attain that for which it is formed, and its efforts should be put in motion and inspired by the end and object which originally gave it being. Hence, to fall away from its primal constitution implies disease; to go back to it, recovery.
Visit here to read more about the concept of subsidiarity.