Drawing up budgets requires having priorities
Catholic social teaching provides a framework for the discussions that we need
By John Huebscher
|An Advent series on Catholic Social Teaching|
As our elected officials in Washington, Madison, our counties and local municipalities work to draw up a budget, they have to set priorities.
Setting priorities means making judgments as to those functions that are the most important responsibilities of these various governmental bodies and those functions properly left to others. This means, in turn, considering anew the proper role of government in society.
As we do so, we could do worse than to reflect on the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that larger organizations should not assume tasks performed better by smaller ones.
Pope Pius XI introduced subsidiarity in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo anno, written to mark the 40th anniversary of Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum novarum.
In Quadragesimo anno, Pius XI discussed social relationships in the context of a severe worldwide depression. He reaffirmed Leo's assertion that government has a more active function than had previously been the case. He also noted that many things once done by small associations or groups now had to be addressed by larger ones.
But Pius then reminded the world that centralization and bigness should not go too far. He emphasized human dignity suffers when individuals and communities are absorbed by larger economic and political institutions. He offered the principle of subsidiarity as a check or point of reference so citizens would always ask whether it was necessary to turn to the larger, more remote association to address a problem.
Writing 60 years later, Pope John Paul took up the same question in his encyclical Centesimus annus. Like Pius, he urged citizens and leaders to follow the principle of subsidiarity when attempting to strike a balance between using government institutions to improve social conditions and avoiding excessive government involvement in activities best left to families and smaller communities always with a view to the common good.
However, like much of Catholic thought, subsidiarity is nuanced. It is about more than whether local associations have the knowledge, expertise and creativity to address social problems.
When we recall the common good involves the sum total of conditions that contribute to the well being of society, we must also ask other questions. Such questions might include:
Does the smaller community organization have the means to solve the problem?
Does it have the will to do so?
For example, citizens and families in "property poor" communities may be in the best position to know what services they need, but they lack the means to procure them. This is relevant for state governments in considering issues such as school aids or shared revenues.
Other times, local associations may have the means but not the will. The federal civil rights laws of the 1960s were enacted because the demands of social justice trumped the demands of "state's rights" on questions of racial equality. In this instance, the federal government intervened on behalf of the individual because local governments would not.
What does this have to do with various governmental budgets?
We will hear much about whether providing a given service or good is the duty of the federal government, state government, municipalities, or whether government should deal with the problem at all. We will debate whether the state should collect taxes or allow municipalities to do so. We will debate whether changing conditions require different state, municipal or private sector arrangements than we have known.
The solution to these debates may come down to a simple matter of which special interest groups have the power to protect their interests. But if these debates are resolved by honest discussions that include the principle of subsidiarity, the common good of all people will be better served.
(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)