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All Have a Calling to Community Life

Subsidiarity Is at the Heart of Catholic Social Teaching


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As the Third Global Forum on Local Development recently met in Turin, Italy, we are reminded that we all have a calling to community life.  

Pope Francis, in addressing participants in the Forum, urges us all to consider that “political and economic action are a prudential activity, guided by the perennial concept of justice.”

He emphasizes that “real men and women” have to be taken into consideration before “any plan or program” — men and women who are equal in dignity to those in authority and who “live, struggle and suffer.” They must, he said, “be the masters of their own destiny.”

We must be free to exercise our own self-determination.  

This notion is the principle at the heart of understanding our role in relation to God and our fellow man.  This very idea is one of the most fundamental tenets of Catholic Social Teaching and is called subsidiarity.  The concept of subsidiarity provides that it is wrong to take away from an individual what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community.

We learn from the Catechism that “certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him.  To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged.”  The challenge that we face is in balancing the responsibilities and decision-making in these important institutions of society.

What the Holy Father has reminded us is that we must always be respectful of human dignity and that as Pope Pius XI taught in Quadragesimo Anno, “every social activity ought of its very nature furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”

Indeed it is impossible to promote the dignity of the human person without recognizing and supporting those communities and institutions to which each of us gives life—our families, our social and cultural institutions.  Each of us has a unique place and role to play through what Pope Saint John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis calls the “creative subjectivity of the citizen.”

So as we seek to assist those brothers and sisters to develop ways to grow their economies and improve their quality of life, we must be ever mindful of not usurping local wisdom and insight instilled to facilitate genuine participation in life.  The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes underscores that the primary characteristic of subsidiary is participation.  Participation is what the Catechism refers to as a “duty” to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good.

In our quest to be generous and assistive, we must remember that we must never rob our brothers and sisters of the opportunity to fulfill their calling to community.

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