Two concepts deeply embedded in Catholic social teaching -- solidarity and subsidiarity -- are often viewed as separate strains of the tradition and even in opposition to one another when applied in the context of today's polarized politics.
Solidarity is seen as the portion of teaching with a communitarian emphasis and inclination toward large, society-wide solutions. Subsidiarity, on the other hand, is popularly understood as inclining toward the individualist, let-the-locals-take-care-of-things end of the scale.
That separation, however, is a misreading of the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity, said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. His remarks came as part of a panel discussion held June 15 during a daylong session on the tensions between extreme individualism, represented especially in libertarian views, and solidarity, its "theological antidote," as the title to one panel described it.
Catholics understand community, he said, "not as so many individuals connected by contracts, but as a corporate whole -- a moral and cultural body that, like any body, is comprised of limbs and parts the differences of which contribute to the good of the whole."
In that scheme, he said, "the ethic that pertains to the unity of the body is called solidarity. The ethic that pertains to the role of the parts is subsidiarity. And the good of the whole by which solidarity and subsidiarity are measured is called, in Catholic social teaching, the 'common good.' "
The conference, titled "Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity & Faith," was sponsored by the institute and the AFL-CIO and was held at the labor movement's Washington headquarters. It was the second on the theme of "erroneous autonomy" -- the first was held a year ago at Catholic University.
The conferences are an indication of the loosening that has occurred under Pope Francis of the ties that previously bound the Catholic conversation to a narrow and limited range of issues, mostly having to do with personal sexual morality.
They also appear to signal a revitalized relationship between the Catholic church and labor. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has attended both, introducing the main speakers.
The two gatherings have attracted, as speakers and attendees, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and chairman of Francis' Council of Cardinals, who gave the keynote a year ago, and then-Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., who responded to Rodríguez.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., was the keynote speaker at the most recent gathering. Cupich, now archbishop of Chicago, attended, as did Bishops Robert McElroy of San Diego; Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.V.; George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio; and auxiliaries Denis Madden of Baltimore, Alberto Rojas of Chicago and Mario Dorsonville of Washington.
Francis' increasingly insistent and deep critique of global economics and his stern warnings in "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home" of the threats posed to the environment by unbridled capitalism and consumerism are bound to raise anew considerations of solidarity and subsidiarity.
"In Catholic circles," said Schneck, "those who militate against an emphasis on institutions of solidarity often do so with reference to the idea of subsidiarity. As if subsidiarity were in some fashion opposite to solidarity."
With its basis in the Catholic understanding of community, said Schneck, subsidiarity instead "refers to the appropriate balancing of responsibilities and functions among the parts of a social order."
In practical terms, he said, labor unions are "perfect examples of subsidiarity in practice." Unions are "constitutive parts of the whole of the economic order" as they represent individual workers.
"Against the macro order of the global economy, unions are critically important," he said, "to help the members of the body social not be destroyed or absorbed by the faceless forces of the global throwaway economy."
In that light, he said, subsidiarity "is not the opposite of solidarity, it is the organizing of solidarity," a way not only of engaging individuals in the larger social organizations for the common good but also protecting their interests.
[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]