The Institute for Human Ecology’s Program on Subsidiarity and the Constitution studies the conditions of human flourishing. It examines the “space,” as Alexis de Tocqueville termed it, in which human free activity operates and the extent to which government intrudes in that space and interferes with the natural yearning of people to order their lives and the surrounding world. It develops practical solutions to ensure that government is citizen-directed and protects the rights of the individual. Government that functions according to those principles fosters solidarity and, with that, peace and tranquility.
American federalism is a form of political subsidiarity. It apportions to the federal government limited, enumerated powers. General powers remain with the State: as James Madison noted, those which “in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people” and those which concern “the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.” In Bond v. United States, a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court observed that this division “enables greater citizen ‘involvement in democratic processes.’”
Some Questions Prompted by the Study of Subsidiarity and Constitution
- Do certain practices, as Pope Pius XI phrased it in Quadragesimo Anno, “take from individuals” what they can do or “assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do”?
- When the federal government usurps local tasks, does it create inefficiencies or institute policies weighted more to the administration of government rather than the delivery of assistance and the public good?
- Does government take from the individual opportunities to practice, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes, “the natural tendency . . . to associate with one another for the sake of attaining objectives that exceed individual capacities.” Are such takings disproportionately injurious to the weak and the poor by depriving them of precious opportunities to be persons of prominence in their communities and to grow in stature?
- Do such practices invite government to favor one faction over another for private gain rather than the public good? Has it become what Alexis de Tocqueville warned of: “an immense tutelary power . . . that every day . . . renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare” and that dampens the “spirit of freedom”? Do its practices lead to divisiveness rather than to solidarity, peace, and tranquility?
The Foundation of Catholic Social Doctrine
“The Church’s social doctrine . . . is based on man’s creation ‘in the image of God’ (Gn 1:27), a datum which gives rise to the inviolable dignity of the human person and the transcendent value of natural moral norms.”1
Man has to subdue the earth and dominate it, because as the ‘image of God’ he is a person, that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself, and with a tendency to self-realization.”2
The Universality of the Creative Process
The creative process “embraces all human beings, every generation, every phase of economic and cultural development, and at the same time it is a process that takes place within each human being, in each conscious human subject. Each and every individual, to the proper extent and in an incalculable number of ways, takes part in the giant process whereby man ‘subdues the earth’ through his work.”3
The Principle of Subsidiarity
The principle of subsidiarity is that “[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.”4
“[T]he principle of solidarity . . . is clearly seen to be one of the fundamental principles of the Christian view of social and political organization.”5
“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.”6
Subsidiarity Protects An Essential Human Activity: Socialization
“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.”7
“If higher- order intervention takes place in absence of systemic failure, lower orders are forcibly divested of what they do best, the common good of all suffers, and the principle of subsidiarity has been violated.”8
“The concept posits a hierarchy of social action and responsibility that begins with the claim of primacy for the smallest units in society, including community associations, families, and individuals.”9
“One must pay tribute to those nations whose systems permit the largest possible number of the citizens to take part in public life in a climate of genuine freedom.”10
The Broad Reach of Socialization
“Leo’s learned treatment and vigorous defense of the natural right to form associations began, furthermore, to find ready application to other associations also and not alone to those of the workers.”11
“This socialization also expresses the natural tendency for human beings to associate with one another 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.”12
Subsidiarity and Socialization Lead to Solidarity, The Highest Form of Diversity
“Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.”13
“Apart from the family, other intermediate communities exercise primary functions and give life to specific networks of solidarity. These develop as real communities of persons and strengthen the social fabric, preventing society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass, as unfortunately often happens today. It is in interrelationships on many levels that a person lives, and that society becomes more `personalized.’”14
1 Andrew V. Abela and Joseph E. Capizzi, A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions & Insights from Catholic Teaching, 26 (The Catholic University of America Press 2014).
2 John Paul II, Laborem Excerns (On Human Work), ch. 6 (1981).
3 John Paul II, Laborem Excerns (On Human Work), ch. 4 (1981).
4 Catechism of the Catholic Church., par. 1883, citing John Paul II, Centisimus Annus 48, par. 4; cf. Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 184-86.
5 John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 10 (May 15, 1991).
6 Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1885.
7 Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79 (May 15, 1931).
8 Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Subsidiarity, Society, and Entitlements: Understanding and Application, 11 Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, Issue 2, pp. 549-579 (1997).
9 Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Subsidiarity, Society, and Entitlements: Understanding and Application, 11 Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, Issue 2, pp. 549-579 (1997).
10 Catechism of the Catholic Church., par. 1915, citing GS 31, par 3.
11 Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 37 (May 15, 1931).
12 Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1882, citing CF, GS 25, par. 2, CA 12.
13 Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 38, quoted in Andrew V. Abela and Joseph E. Capizzi, A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions & Insights from Catholic Teaching, p. 9 (The Catholic University of America Press 2014).
14 John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, par. 49 (May 15, 1991).
Foundational Principle of the United States of America
The American founding rests on the idea that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”1
This idea sources human dignity in the infinite, beyond human compromise and corruption. Its embrace lifts all. It is the strongest political expression of the individual’s dignity.
The Constitution’s Purpose: Fulfill the Promise of The Declaration of Independence
“On the same certain and solid foundation [our constitutional] system is erected.”2
The People Are the Ultimate Earthly Sovereign
Sovereignty “resides in the PEOPLE, as the fountain of government; that the people have not–that the people mean not–and that the people ought not, to part with it to any government whatsoever. In their hands it remains secure. They can delegate it in such proportions, to such bodies, on such terms, and under such limitations, as they think proper.”3
“The fabric of American Empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.”4
To Protect Rights The Constitution Divides Power Between Federal And State Government (i.e., the doctrine of American Federalism)
As James Madison noted: “In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people.”5
In the unanimous decision in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court commented, “By denying any one government complete jurisdiction over all the concerns of public life, federalism protects the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power.”6
Federalism is more than an exercise in setting the boundary between different institutions of government for their own integrity. “State sovereignty is not just an end in itself: ‘Rather federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.’”7
The Constitutional Intent is that the Government Closest to the People Has the Most Power
As James Madison noted: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”8
This structure ensures that “powers which ‘in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people’ were held by governments more local and more accountable than a distant federal bureaucracy.”9
Liberty Is At Risk When State Government Fails to Resist Encroachment of Its Power by the Federal Government
Alexander Hamilton argued, “It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system that the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.”10
James Madison was in full accord on this point: “The State Legislatures will jealously and closely watch the operations of this Government, and be able to resist with more effect every assumption of power, than any other power on earth can do; and the greatest opponents to a Federal Government admit the State Legislatures to be sure guardians of the people’s liberty.”11
A Weak State Government Will Be Unable to Defend Against Federal Incursions
In the words of Thomas Jefferson: “It is important to strengthen the state governments: and . . . it must be done by the states themselves, erecting such barriers at the constitutional line as cannot be surmounted either by themselves or by the general government.”12
And in the words of Samuel Adams: “Unless great care should be taken to prevent it, the Constitution in the Administration of it would gradually, but swiftly and imperceptibly run into a consolidated government pervading and legislating through all the States, not for federal purposes only, as it professes, but in all cases whatsoever: such a government would soon totally annihilate the Sovereignty of the several States so necessary to the Support of the confederated Commonwealth, and sink both in despotism.”13
Freedom Requires an Active Citizenry
“It is in the township that the force of free peoples resides. . . they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it. Without the institutions of a township a nation can give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of freedom. . . . despotism suppressed in the interior of the social body reappears sooner or later on the surface.”14 – Alexis de Tocqueville
1 Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
2 James Wilson, Address to the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention (December 4, 1787), The Founders’ Constitution, vol. 1, chap. 2, doc. 14, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch2s14.html.
3 James Wilson, Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention (4 Dec. 1787), The Founders’ Constitution, v. 1, ch. 2, doc. 14 (The University of Chicago Press),
4Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, no. 22 (14 Dec. 1787), The Founders’ Constitution, v. 1, ch. 5, doc. 23 (The University of Chicago Press),
5 James Madison, Federalist Papers, no. 51 (Feb. 6, 1788). An excellent pamphlet on these issues is Where’s the Line? How States Protect the Constitution, by Utah State Rep. Ken Ivory, available on Amazon and at ..
6 Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. 211, 222 (2011).
7 Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. 211, 221 (2011)(internal quotations omitted).
8 James Madison, “Federalist No. 45,” emphasis added. See also Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 33”: “The purpose of the Necessary and Proper clause ‘is expressly to execute [the enumerated] powers.’”
9 National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519, 536, quoting Madison, “Federalist No. 45.”
10 Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 28.” See also Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 85”: “We may safely rely on the disposition of the state legislatures to erect barriers against the encroachments of the national authority.”
11 1 Annals of Cong. 457, June 8, 1789 (Joseph Gales, ed. 1790).
12 Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, December 23, 1791, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 22, 6 August 1791 – 31 December 1791, ed. Charles T. Cullen (Princeton: Princeton Univer- sity Press, 1986), 435–437, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-22-02-0410.
13 Samuel Adams to Richard Henry Lee, August 24, 1789, in The Original Writings of Samuel Adams, ed. Harry A. Cushing, vol. 4, 1778–1802 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904).
14 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Harvey C. Mansfield & Delba Winthrop, eds. (The University of Chicago Press 2000).
The Catholic University Advantage
The Catholic University of America offers many opportunities for students inside and outside the campus. With seven different specialized libraries, state-of-the-art laboratories with specialized equipment, 22 research centers and facilities, and a location inside the nation’s capital that provides many opportunities for internships and research in a wide spectrum of fields and organizations, The Catholic University of America is one of a kind.
The Heart of Washington, D.C.
Located in the heart of Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America offers unparalleled opportunities. The seat of government of the world’s most influential nation is a magnet for businesses, foundations, aid agencies, science and technology centers, think tanks, charities, research institutes, cultural organizations, and policy advocates. For every area of academic pursuit, there are stories of students finding ways to connect, to make a difference, to open doors, and to have an impact here in the heart of our nation’s culture.