Pope Benedict: Pursuing the Common Good- How Solidarity and Subsidiarity Can Work Together

Faith in the Trinity enlightens the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity proposed by Catholic social doctrine, says Benedict XVI.

The Pope affirmed when he addressed participants in the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences [on May 3, 2008]. Their meeting is focused on "Pursuing the Common Good: How Solidarity and Subsidiarity Can Work Together."

The teaching of 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, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

"How can solidarity and subsidiarity work together in the pursuit of the common good in a way that not only respects human dignity, but allows it to flourish?" the Holy Father asked. "This is the heart of the matter which concerns you."

And though certain elements can help to understand these concepts, he said, "the solidarity that binds the human family, and the subsidiary levels reinforcing it from within, must however always be placed within the horizon of the mysterious life of the Triune God, in whom we perceive an ineffable love shared by equal, though nonetheless distinct, Persons."

He continued: "My friends, I invite you to allow this fundamental truth to permeate your reflections: not only in the sense that the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are undoubtedly enriched by our belief in the Trinity, but particularly in the sense that these principles have the potential to place men and women on the path to discovering their definitive, supernatural destiny.

"The natural human inclination to live in community is confirmed and transformed by the 'oneness of Spirit,' which God has bestowed upon his adopted sons and daughters.

"Consequently, the responsibility of Christians to work for peace and justice, their irrevocable commitment to build up the common good, is inseparable from their mission to proclaim the gift of eternal life to which God has called every man and woman."

Serving all people

Benedict XVI explained that with faith, it is possible to see that "the heavenly and earthly cities interpenetrate and are intrinsically ordered to one another, inasmuch as they both belong to God the Father."

Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.

The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons.

Solidarity helps us to see the "other"-whether a person, people or nation-not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our "neighbor," a "helper" (cf. Gen 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.

John Paul II, encyclical On Social Concern

"At the same time," he continued, "faith places into sharper focus the due autonomy of earthly affairs, insofar as they are 'endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order.'"

The Pope affirmed to the pontifical academy that "you can be assured that your discussions will be of service to all people of good will, while simultaneously inspiring Christians to embrace more readily their obligation to enhance solidarity with and among their fellow citizens, and to act upon the principle of subsidiarity by promoting family life, voluntary associations, private initiative, and a public order that facilitates the healthy functioning of society's most basic communities."

Horizontal and vertical

The Holy Father further noted that the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are not simply "horizontal."

"They both have an essentially vertical dimension," he said. "[T]rue solidarity -- though it begins with an acknowledgment of the equal worth of the other -- comes to fulfillment only when I willingly place my life at the service of the other. Herein lies the 'vertical' dimension of solidarity: I am moved to make myself less than the other so as to minister to his or her needs."

"Similarly, subsidiarity," the Pontiff continued, "insofar as it encourages men and women to enter freely into life-giving relationships with those to whom they are most closely connected and upon whom they most immediately depend, and demands of higher authorities respect for these relationships -- manifests a 'vertical' dimension pointing toward the Creator of the social order."

"When those responsible for the public good attune themselves to the natural human desire for self-governance based on subsidiarity," he added, "they leave space for individual responsibility and initiative, but most importantly, they leave space for love, which always remains 'the most excellent way."

"As you strive to articulate the ways in which men and women can best promote the common good, I encourage you to survey both the 'vertical' and 'horizontal' dimensions of solidarity and subsidiarity," the Pope concluded. "In this way, you will be able to propose more effective ways of resolving the manifold problems besetting mankind at the threshold of the third millennium, while also bearing witness to the primacy of love, which transcends and fulfills justice as it draws mankind into the very life of God."

May 4, 2008


The Foundations of the Church's Social Doctrine Fr. Thomas Williams LC


On Social Concern John Paul II
Quadragesimo Anno Pius X

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