Thursday, April 28, 2005

MH - Distributism, Part IV

One of the reasons why these posts come far and few between is the complexity of the subject matter. Books and books have been written on these topics, by minds that are far more educated, far sharper than mine. My goal here is not to write a book on Distributism, but to bring some of these ideas to you - to expose you to them, get you thinking about them, introduce you to other concepts such as solidism, in hopes that they help you look at the world in a different way. They're also meant as a defense of Catholicism, a rebuttal to those who suggest that you have to leave your faith and values at the front door when you enter the public arena. By no means do I consider myself an expert on this; one of the reasons I include so many links is so you can see the original source material, so you can see what it really means instead of trying to understand my babbling!

At any rate. Recently we were at Loome Theological Booksellers in Stillwater (the founder, Thomas Loome, was a one-time student of Joseph Ratzinger, I'll have you know), and while we were there I stumbled upon the book Building the Free Society: Democracy, Capitalism, and Catholic Social Teaching, edited by George Weigel and Robert Royal. Well, it was pretty hard to pass up a book with a title like that, so I decided to add it to our library.

I've just begun to skim through the book, but what caught my eye was an essay by Thomas C. Kohler on Pius XI's famous encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstruction of the Social Order), written in 1931. This was issued to commemorate the fourtieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, which we've discussed previously. (Quad = four, get it? See, you too can learn Latin!)

This essay serves to introduce us to two concepts related to Distributism - Subsidiarity and Solidism. Both ideas, ironically (considering our new Holy Father) come from Germany. According to Kohler, social Catholicism "received its start in Germany under the guidance of Wilhelm Emmanual von Ketteler, the bishop of Mainz (1811-77), and Germany had remained a leading center for Catholic social thought."

Kettner "accepted capitalism and believed that its replacement was not a practical possibility." Instead, he sought to use labor unions, co-ops, and other forms of associations supported by a limited amount of social legislation. This became the principle of subsidiarity - "the state and all other associations exist for the individual. Societies should not assume what individuals can do, nor should larger societies undertake what smaller associations can accomplish." What could not be done by either associations or individuals should be undertaken by the state or larger social institutions, but this would be seen as limited in necessity.

Subsidiarity received its formal definition in Pius' encyclical. Read it all by following the link above, but concentrate on passages 79-80. Here's a sample of what Pius said:
[I]t is a fixed and unchangeable principle, most basic in social philosophy, immovable and unalterable, that, just as it is wrong to take away from individuals what they can accomplish by their own ability and effort and entrust it to a community, so it is an injury and at the same time both a serious evil and a disturbance of right order to assign to a larger and higher society what can be performed successfully by smaller and lower communities. The reason is that all social activity, of its very power and nature, should supply help [subsidium] to the members of the social body, but may never destroy or absorb them.

By keeping economic units small and/or family operated, we promote a more stable society and encourage a Christian way of life.

While the encyclical does deal with subsidiarity, Kohler says the much larger portion "is devoted to enunciating a 'sane corporative system' on which a society can be grounded." This was solidarism, founded by German economist Heinrich Pesch, S.J. Again, according to Kohler,
Solidarism, or corporatism, can be seen as an attempt to work out the principle of subsidiarity in the economic order of a society. Meant to represent a "third way," solidarism rejects the premises of both socialism and liberal individualism. It locates in the nature of man and society a principle for the order of the economy as a whole. Repudiating both centrally planned command economics and unrestricted competition, solidarism proopses the establishment of free, voluntary, and self-governing organizations composed of all the members of the various professions and occupations represented in the economy.

As you can see, once again there is an emphasis on the ability of workers to be involved - the opposite of the "wage slave" Chesterton so scorned. There is no "corporative state," as was the case in fascist regimes. The Church's concern is that the individual remain just that, an individual, recognized as a human being, and not the cog in some powerful machine, whether that machine be operated by big government or big business. When institutions create distant bureaucracies and experts doing other people's thinking for them, it suggests you can't make decisions for yourself - Kohler calls that "truly dehumanizing." He goes on to say:
Moreover, as Quadragesimo Anno points out, institutions that deviate from the principle of subsidiarity tend to hinder material prosperity. Hierarchical, top-down schemes ultimately suggest that administrative specialists and organizational planners can anticipate not only that people's ideas, needs, and desires will be but when they will have them. When we are denied opportunities for self-determination, we are stripped of the conditions through which we actuate our human potential. We become objects of administration, instead of persons free and encouraged to engage in successively more signifcant acts of self-realization.


The encyclical also demonstrates an admirably early understanding of the growing tendency of people to become overly preoccupied with their jobs and relations in the workplace. Because of its abiding interest in the institutional arrangements that affect the development of human personality and the potential for self-realization, [QA] is compelled to focus on the relations between employer and employee.
What does this all mean? That the workplace must exist for the individual and his betterment, in the same way that all other institutions - "since all rightly ordered societies exits for the individual, the emphasis in establishing any sort of social order must be on setting the conditions that will enhance opportunities for individuals to deliberate, choose, and act for themselves. Only by so doing do we treat people as human beings." Those that fail to do so will eventually collapse.

Notice how timely this discussion is, coming on Pope Benedict's warning of the "Dictatorship of Relativism." It is the rampant radical individualism, coming as a reaction to the oppression of collectivist government, that leads to such excess.

I think that's enough for one sitting. But you see how we've started with Distributism, going back to the days of Chesterton and Belloc, and have seen how many of the same conditions exist today. Therefore, this is a relevant discussion. In our next installment, I think we'll get into the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day, among others. What she has to say about how Corporate America prostitutes itself, selling anything for a profit regardless of the effect it has on society, is blunt and worth considering. One of the greatest sins, she says, is "to instill in the heart of the worker paltry desire, so compulsive that he or she is willing to sell liberty and honor to satisfy them."

The rest is for another day. Perhaps a day this weekend.

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