6.2.4 Subsidiarity, work and family life

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Unit 6 Contents

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In the rest of Hochschild’s chapter he argues that “one manifestation of the natural law” is CST’s principle of subsidiarity (p. 119).  This principle was introduced briefly in Unit 1, where I gave the following short definition of it (1.1.6):

The principle of subsidiarity (from Latin subsidium, ‘help’) holds that governments should play a subsidiary role in relation to all kinds of non-political communities/institutions and, therefore,

(i) that government action must avoid taking over what people acting freely in civil society can do best, like bringing up children and running businesses (except in emergency circumstances)

(ii) that political authority should be exercised at the most local level compatible with the common good.

As this definition suggests, it is mainly to do with the question of the role of government.  For this reason, it is among the main principles of CST that can be studied in Module B, ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’.

However, Hochschild’s chapter, the rest of which you are asked to read now, means we can give it attention here.  And it certainly is important to appreciate how subsidiarity relates to the issues of economic and family life studied in this module.

Indeed one point that Hochschild makes is that this principle applies as much within large economic corporations, and indeed any kind of organization, as it does in political societies (p. 120).  He says that within companies and “ecclesial polities”, for example, power should be held and exercised at higher levels only to the extent necessary to assist what is done at lower levels to be done well. It should not take over or “absorb” the activities that are proper to the latter.

What is especially valuable is the way Hochschild brings out that subsidiarity is a matter of natural law.  In other words, it is required by the very nature of family life, economic activity, etc.  The most important page in the reading is p. 121.  With reference to marriage and family, he argues these have by nature their own proper “mission, vocation or gift of service”, to the end of the common good.  Other institutions in society, including government, must therefore stand back in order to let family life fulfil its proper role.  The same line of argument applies in relation to businesses, trade unions and educational bodies, among others.  Together these various kinds of association make up a natural social order in which a “plurality of gifts” is brought to the community.1

As you read, notice that Hochschild brings out how the principle of subsidiarity makes CST’s vision different from those of classical liberalism and socialism.  This will bring to mind some of the main points we have looked at in Units 4 and 5.

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Reading (4pp)

 Hochschild, ‘Natural Law’, in McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching,  pp. 119-123

Note

The discussion in the Conclusion on pp. 122-3 is not as helpful as the rest of the chapter because it is less clear, it seems to me, but you can assess it for yourself.  The main point to take away from it, I suggest, is that ‘social justice’ requires families, businesses and all kinds of social body, as well as government, to fulfil their proper vocation or service.

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At risk of moving into the territory of the Module B, it is worth making the point that there are, or course, circumstances in which it certainly is part of government’s role to intervene in families, businesses, and other social bodies.  The basic reason for this is that any of these can fail in appalling ways to stick to its proper vocation or role.  The consequences can be devastating, including violence, child abuse, exploitation of workers and fraud.  These are rightly regarded as crimes and it is precisely not contrary to the principle of subsidiarity that governments maintain a criminal justice system to ensure they are dealt with effectively – this is one of the most basic aspects of the state’s role.

In the context of your study of this module as a whole, the ‘Discussion’ section by McCarthy at the end of Hochschild’s chapter is especially valuable.  It connects up what Hochschild has said about natural law with working life and, indirectly, with business.  It then looks further at what it means for families.  This section therefore helps us to see how Catholic Social Teaching on the topics we looked at in units 4 and 5 fits with its understanding of natural law.  In all these areas of living, natural law leads us towards human wellbeing.  This point cannot be overemphasized.

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Reading (4pp)

McCarthy, ‘Discussion: Subsidiarity, Labour Associations and Family’, in McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teachingpp. 123-127

Note

In the final section, McCarthy suggests a few very practical things that the vision of family life to which natural law and subsidiarity lead might mean.  While these relate to really serious issues, they are presented so briefly that they might strike some people as unrealistic or, in some cases, tokenistic.  We shall be looking at much more substantive such practical ideas in the final section of the unit.

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Reflection

In light of McCarthy’s suggestions on pp. 126-127, what do you think some practical implications for you might be of what CST on natural law and subsidiarity mean for family life?

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End of 6.2.4

Go to 6.3 CST ON FAMILY LIFE IN SOCIETY

 

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  1. Hochschild says (p. 204, n. 27) he has drawn the phrase “the plurality of gifts within a community” from the moral philosopher Russell Hittinger. 

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