Sunday 23. January 2022
#154 - November 2012


The Social Model and Subsidiarity


The Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan draws a provocative perspective on the European Crisis.


Across the Atlantic, with the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaign reaching its climax, and with the issue of the Economy proving to be a key differentiator between the two candidates, focus has been drawn to the case made by the Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan—Congressman and Chairman of the House Budget Committee—regarding the importance of debt reduction and reform of State provision of welfare, appealing to Catholic Social Teaching or the ‘Social Magisterium’ in defence of his position.

In his role as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan highlighted the problem of an approaching debt crisis—in fact making explicit reference to the experience of European nations, forced to implement austerity measures in the midst of an unprecedented debt crisis—and the effect that this has on the most vulnerable in society:


Further heightening economic uncertainty is the explosive growth of government debt, propelled by uncontrolled spending, and threatening an economic crisis here at home. Having failed to take proper action in advance, many European nations have sought to cope with their debt-driven crises through harsh and painful measures, including drastic cuts in benefits to the retired, the sick, the poor, and millions of public employees.


The case elucidated by Ryan for reform of State welfare provision emphasises the deleterious effect of the “Social Assistance State” on the dignity of the individual as—quoting from Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical ‘Centesimus Annus’— it leads to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.


Ryan’s reading of Catholic Social Teaching is somewhat provocative as it is clear that the “Social Assistance State” to which Blessed Pope John Paul II refers in the encyclical is not in fact an empirical reality but is a distortion of the social model that destroys all initiative. Ryan rightly acknowledges the importance of the principle of subsidiarity—which is inseparable from the principle of solidarity—which says that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” but there is a danger that in seeking to decrease government debt, as spending on welfare assistance is targeted, the subsidiarity principle could be used to justify a transfer of responsibility to the voluntary sector.

Centisimus Annus states that “certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need” and this is only possible when those providing the assistance offer “genuine fraternal support” to the recipients of such assistance, but it is fallacious to assume that this necessarily means that centrally funded and co-ordinated programmes of welfare assistance are in contradiction to the principle of subsidiarity.

Furthermore, that spending at unsustainable levels—particularly on welfare assistance—is the primary cause of the current debt crisis in Europe is misleading, however it is indisputable that pursuing debt reduction/austerity measures impacts “the first and the worst” on the most vulnerable in society as they are “hit three times over: by rising costs, drastic cuts to the programs on which they rely and the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees and others in need.


In light of Ryan’s approach to debt reduction and reform of State welfare provision, it is clear that the challenge for Europe is to consider how best to satisfy the needs of the vulnerable of today whilst simultaneously considering the legacy left to the European citizens of tomorrow who will inescapably experience lower standards of living.


Stephen N. Rooney


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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.