Sometimes the best help comes from own efforts

To the editor:

I’m writing this letter on behalf of the Catholic community that I’m actively and proudly part of. As Americans, we want to be good citizens, like our moms and dads, so we look for policies that align with our faith. That means building a country that respects the dignity and rights of everyone, one where I can have a good job, a safe place to live, the medical care I need, and a good education for my friends as well as myself.

As Americans, we think we all agree that these things are important, whether we’re Catholic or not. Where we disagree is how best to achieve these common goals, and in particular, what the role of government should be. After all, we don’t want anarchy; that would be chaos. And we don’t want an all-powerful government because then we aren’t really free. So as fellow neighbors, how do we understand the balance between different levels of authority and how do we know who should be responsible for what and when?

The answer is an idea from the Catholic Church: It gives us a way to understand the role of government in the broader effort to build the best country for everyone. It’s called the principle of subsidiarity. The idea of subsidiarity is that the responsibility for addressing social and economic problems belongs to the closest community or authority that can handle those problems, so individuals are responsible for things like doing their jobs, making purchases, etc. Every family should be in charge of deciding where they want to live. Larger authorities like churches, community organizations and local governments should do those things that individuals can’t do alone, like protecting the homeless, feeding the needy, or fighting fires. Finally, state and federal governments should handle those big things that other organizations can’t, things like building bridges and fighting terrorism.

Let me give your readers an example of what subsidiarity looks like. In a family setting, my friend Stephen Forstmeier is responsible for doing his math homework every night, but sometimes he encounters a really tough problem and he needs his mom to step in and help. Now, she shouldn’t ignore him because she has a responsibility to help him learn, but she also shouldn’t just do the homework for him. She needs to provide him the right level of assistance when he needs it because that’s the best way for him to learn and grow.

It’s exactly the same with government. It’s most effective when the local authorities are empowered to address the issues closest to them. Now, it can be tempting to think that the federal government should address a lot of problems in our society. After all, it has the most money and resources. But when the federal government gets involved with everyday issues, it can rob local authorities of their ability and their responsibility to do their job. It’s like if Stephen’s mom just did his homework for him while he was on the couch watching television all night. Stephen might think that was great at first, but in the long term, it’s not good for anyone.

Today the people in our community are being asked a lot of questions about responsibility. Who should select a child’s school? Who should decide which doctor or health insurance plan your family should receive? Who should care for a local family in need? Who should help the unemployed pay their bills? Who should save for your retirement? For each of our questions, we need to ask ourselves “Can I do that for myself? Or “Do I need a larger authority to assist me?”

A lot times we notice other people seeing problems and they say, “Someone should do something about that.” Maybe what we need to realize is that someone could be us. And maybe it’s time we give it a try.

Jonathan Hayes