In the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon’s Republican base warned the nation that if John F. Kennedy were to be elected the Pope would run the country. It was thought that because Kennedy was Catholic his first allegiance would be to the Pope. Oh how times have changed. Now the Republicans are invoking Catholic social teachings as the basis for their policy choices. Just recently Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) commented that his budget proposal was based upon the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Of course, there are several problems with Mr. Ryan’s use of subsidiarity the two most prominent being that he misunderstands subsidiarity and he has violated the separation between church and state.
Mr. Ryan is correct in suggesting that subsidiarity serves the basis of federalism, but wrong when he said that government is not supposed to help the poor because it conflicts with subsidiarity. To understand subsidiarity it would be helpful to quote encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno par. 79 (1931) from Pope Pius XI. “[I]t 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 principle of subsidiarity, then, allows the government to step in when other associations have failed to provide sufficient help to the members of the body social. When individuals and voluntary organizations fail to provide a proper order, the government may step in, but not before. Mr. Ryan’s position seems to be that the government can never step in. That is in direct contradiction to what Pope Pius XI wrote in 1931.
But this is one of the reasons why we have a separation between church and state; to prevent politicians from using religion for their political ends and distorting religious teachings for political gain. When politicians act as theologians we risk blurring the line between religion and politics. When church and state become one, dissent can be silenced through the power of the state and the state decides what is an acceptable religious view and what is not. Those who object to a particular policy can be silenced on the grounds that their policy preferences are blasphemous.