July 26, 2012

Responsibilities To and From the Government

Catechism Readings:  Paragraphs 1878 – 1927

This week’s reading of Chapter Two, The Human Community focused on The Person and Society, and Participation in Social Life.  Up to now we have read on how the individual is responsible to act relative to following the example and words of Jesus.  This chapter speaks of how the individual is to act relative to society and his social communities, including government.  As we’ve read previously, man’s ultimate destiny is unity with God, which starts here on earth.  But that unity with God is for all men, and so all men are also destined for unity among themselves, and that too starts here on earth.

“There is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love.  Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God. 1878  The creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged … for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities.  It develops the qualities of the person, especially the sense of initiative and responsibility and helps guarantee his rights.” 1882

“The Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions.  1883  What individuals can accomplish by their initiative and efforts should not be taken from them by a higher authority.  A greater and higher social institution must not take over the duties of a subordinate organization.  YOUCAT Q323  Another task of the state is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector.  However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society.” 2431  I think the preceding are crucial paragraphs in this week’s teachings.  It is Catholic doctrine that responsibility begins at the individual level, and then goes upward for what cannot be accomplished by the individual --- the state has responsibilities, but it comes LAST in the chain.  Further, the state should not interfere with these individual or lower  level responsibilities, therefore, for example, a government program to feed my neighbor should only come after failed attempts for him to feed himself, me (his neighbor) to feed him, his church to help, his city to help, and his state to help.  And all these lower people and institutions have an obligation to help before seeking state help.  It’s John F. Kennedy’s famous speech:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (and your neighbor).  “(God) entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing.  The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism.  It sets limits for state intervention.”  1885

“The inversion of means and ends, which results in giving the value of ultimate end to what is only a means … engenders unjust structures which ‘make Christian conduct in keeping with the commandments of the divine Law-giver difficult and almost impossible.” 1887   This is another crucial doctrine of the Church which we so often forget or confuse.  Often it is stated as “The ends do not justify the means.”  Therefore, for example, a good thing like “making sure someone has food to eat” does not make any means of achieving that end ALSO a good thing --- you can’t shoot someone to steal their food to achieve that good thing of helping someone else.  The same rationale holds true for cheating on your taxes or lying to get your abusive husband thrown in jail.  You may not accomplish a good thing by doing something bad.  The ends do not justify the means.  Coupled with subsidiarity above, the government can’t seek to do all kinds of “good things” and by violating the principle of subsidiarity, which would be a bad way to do things.

“The human person needs life in society in order to develop in accordance with his nature,” 1891 and by violating the principle of subsidiarity the government should not limit man’s development in society.  This principle aligns with the doctrine of Freedom and Responsibility which we learned in a previous lesson.  “Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself … but must act for the common good as a ‘moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility.’” 1902

“If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.” 1903  “It is incumbent on those who exercise authority to strengthen the values that inspire the confidence of the members of the group and encourage them to put themselves at the service of others.” 1917

“An authority acts legitimately when it works for the sake of the Common Good.  The Common Good follows whenever the fundamental rights of the person are respected and men can freely develop their intellectual and religious potential.  The Common Good is best served where the good of the individual person and of the small units of society (for instance, the family) is central.  The individual and the smaller social unity need to be protected and promoted by the stronger power of State institutions.  The Common Good must be the business of everyone.  This happens first of all when men get involved in their particular surroundings – family, neighborhood, workplace – and take responsibility.  YOUCAT Q 326-8  YOUCAT had a great summary point, and raised the point about the value of the family and the necessity for government to protect it --- and not declare the family and marriage as we know it to be null and void.

Next week we will do the last article in this chapter, Social Justice, and begin with the first article of the next chapter, The Moral Law.  Social Justice should be interesting to understand; it’s certainly a term that is thrown around often enough in our society.  See you then.


  1. I agree that these are very important chapters. I'm thinking in particular about 1883-1885. John F. Kennedy had it right. On the other hand, Roosevelt, during the great depression proposed a chicken in every pot - with the government providing the chicken.

    That was all well and good, BUT when the the drought ended and the economy improved, and jobs were again available, the government kept programs alive that violated the principle of subsidiarity when the government denied individuals, groups and organizations of their normal function of feeding the poor, etc.

    It seems that once the Government sets up a program (for a real need),they keep the program in place even when longer needed. That's how the Government grows. In our present day our government is monstrous.

  2. I meant 'when No longer needed'.duh

  3. You raise a good point, Maryellen. Even IF it were proper for the government to perform a role because a lower organization could not, once that lower organization CAN perform that role, the government should back away, or else it is violating the principle of subsidiarity. Our government rarely ends programs; I think there used to be talk about "sunset rules" which provided a provision of when a law would end, but I don't know if ANY law includes them now. Perhaps they should.