Few trends are more damaging than the relentless march of the state into every area of life. With each passing year, the state brazenly exposes its contempt for the dignity of the individual and thereby testifies to its own illegitimacy.
The Church recognizes that while man is a social creature, he himself is prior to society; prior to the state. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it.” CCC 1930.
Human society is first composed of its individual members, who form numerous associations for survival, companionship and every other human need. Whether the group is a family, a church or any other co-operative effort, every institution derives its governing authority from the consent of the individual person. Society has an order that must be respected.
Pope Leo XIII taught that “Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” Rerum Novarum, 7.
Regarding the next societal level—the family—he wrote, “[T]he 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 community, and founded more immediately in nature.” Rerum Novarum, 13.
This natural ordering of society is known as the principle of subsidiarity.
In 1931, Pope Pius XI lamented the “near extinction” of these intermediate institutions that left the individual standing alone before his master, the state. In the place 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.”
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.
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.
Subsidiarity is a principle of respect, and of justice. Subsidiarity best promotes the common good at every level of society. Nations fall. Civilizations die, but every person we meet is an immortal being, higher than anything in the physical creation; above and before the state. So let’s show some respect.