Subsidiarity and Solidarity
A couple of months ago, the bishops of the state of New York enjoyed a working luncheon with our new governor. It was a productive and enlightening visit.
At the conclusion, Governor Andrew Cuomo made an observation that has stuck with me. He commented: “Most people who come to see me lobby on behalf of their own needs, their own group, or their own cause. You bishops have just spent an hour talking to me about the needs of inner-city school kids, prisoners, immigrants, the uninsured sick, the elderly, moms and their babies, and nursing homes.” [We had also spoken about the unborn and the defense of marriage.]
The governor thoughtfully concluded, “I am moved by your agenda, because it’s not your own, but for others, especially those in need.”
Okay, flattery will get you everywhere, but we bishops, in spite of some serious differences we may have with our governor, appreciated his observation, and sure hope it is deserved.
We bishops are not politicians, but pastors. So we preach principles — not our own, but those rooted in the Bible, especially the teachings of Jesus, Natural Law, and the tradition of our Church. We then trust such principles will enlighten those who look to us for guidance.
As Blessed Pope John Paul II remarked, “The Church does not impose; she only proposes.”
And a fundamental proposition is that care for those struggling, the poor, sick, and abandoned, the vulnerable and defenseless, has a priority in our attention to what we call the common good.
This was the theme of a letter I sent — written in my capacity as president of the bishops’ conference last January — to each member of Congress as they got back to work, as well as a letter on the budget sent last month by my brothers, Bishop Stephen Blaire, chair of the bishops’ committee on domestic policy, and Bishop Howard Hubbard, chair of our committee on international policy sent recently to the House and Senate. This was the theme again in my recent correspondence with Congressman Paul Ryan, which built on those two earlier letters.
When we bishops propose moral principles — most often allied, by the way, with the basic philosophy of our beloved country, as enshrined in our normative documents like the Declaration of Independence — we get both blessed and cursed.
One side usually blesses us when we preach the virtue of fiscal responsibility, the civil rights of the unborn, the danger of government-tampering with the definition of marriage, and the principle of subsidiarity — that is, that the smaller units in our society, such as family, neighborhood, Church, and volunteer organizations, are usually preferable to big government in solving social ills.
Yet this same side then often cringes when we defend workers, speak on behalf of the rights of the undocumented immigrant, and remind government of the moral imperative to protect the poor.
The other side enjoys quoting us when we extol universal health care, question the death penalty, demand that every budget and program be assessed on whether it will help or hurt those in need, encourage international aid, and promote the principle of solidarity, namely, society’s shared duties to one another, especially the poor and struggling . . .
. . . and then these same folks bristle when we defend the rights of parents in education, those of the baby in the womb and grandma on her death bed, insist that America is at her best when people of faith have a respected voice in the public square, defend traditional marriage, and remind government that it has no right to intrude in Church affairs, but does have the obligation to protect the rights of conscience.
So, we bishops get both blessed and blasted, a friend or foe of bloggers, pundits, and politicians, depending on what the issue is.
But, once again, we’re used to it. We try our best to be pastors, not politicians, teachers, not tacticians, shepherds, not strategists; we do not need to run for re-election (good thing, since most of us would probably lose!); and the only platform we have is God’s Word, as hardwired into the human heart and handed on by His Church, especially as taught by Jesus, who reminded us that, “As long as you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”