ARLINGTON, VA — One of the most interesting sideshows of the
healthcare debate was the dustup between the United States Conference
of Catholic Bishops — which opposed enactment because the law subsidizes
abortions — and the Catholic Health Association (CHA), which lobbied
tirelessly for enactment, claiming that the law does not violate Catholic
teaching on abortion.
The bishops had the better of that argument. CHA camouflaged its
position by relying on people’s general amnesia about the fungibility
of money and taxes — but it clearly cares not a whit about paying
for abortions with our tax money.
Both the bishops and the CHA were wrong, however, about the merits
of the bill abstracted from the abortion dispute. Ensuring that no
federal funds would support abortion would not make the new law acceptable
to the Catholic Church’s longstanding social teaching based on
the natural law tradition and the principle of subsidiarity embodied
One wonders why so much is made of the “invisible hand” in
human affairs when the operations of a divine hand are so visible.
The continuum on which these mysterious workings glide is the one extending
from the impersonal to the personal. In the fullness of time, as the
expression goes, God gets up close and personal.
I am not a philosopher, but I know of none who has worked out the
implications of the fact that the Big Bang of philosophy — the lives
and thought of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — preceded by fewer
than five centuries God’s decision to take both personal and
human charge of human history. I call that very visible spadework for
Fast forward 1800 years. In the colonial backwaters of the empire
unable to observe sunsets, another Big Bang occurred, a collectivity
of political genius called WashingtonAdamsJeffersonFranklinMadisonEtal.
The members of this remarkable group — although theologically regressive
in their sympathies with deism and unitarianism and ignorant or contemptuous
of the natural law tradition found in Augustine and Aquinas — intuitively
grasped and endorsed the central social tenet of that tradition, the
principle of subsidiarity. They called it limited, constitutional government
in a federal system, a system of divided powers and checks and balances.
The principle of subsidiarity (most explicitly spelled out in Pius
XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno) rests most
substantially on a negative injunction: the roles and functions of
smaller elements are not to be taken over by its larger elements. The
health and stability of a society are shaped, first of all, out of
the virtue and competence of its individual citizens — and then,
in descending order, out of solid family life, cultural and economic
associations, churches, schools, and the small government entities
closest to those citizens and institutions.
But the principle is entirely reciprocal. It is right and proper
for larger entities to do those things individuals, families, churches,
and other private associations cannot do. It does not violate the principle
of subsidiarity for the state of Iowa to build roads to connect its
farms with its towns.
Nor is it wrong, as the American Founders understood, for the central
government established by the Philadelphia Constitution to coin money,
establish post offices, secure patents and copyrights, raise and support
an army and navy, regulate foreign trade, and declare and wage war
(see Article I, Section 8).
The principle of subsidiarity was in the Founders’ bones, if
not in their hearts and intellects. Unfortunately, it no longer animates
the federal government they established. If, before, there was doubt
on this score, the enactment of healthcare “reform” dispelled
it once and for all. In America today, the nanny state is the Red Queen.
Off with your head if you do not buy health insurance.
Honoring subsidiarity leads to stable, healthy, organic societies
able to survive in a Hobbesian world. Ignoring it leads to societal
Sister Carol Keehan, CHA’s president, probably did not have
subsidiarity foremost in her mind during the debate. Her position earns
her $856,093 per annum, which she turns over to her order. That is
more than the top executives of the American Medical Association and
the American Bar Association earn. Four of Sister Carol’s top
staffers are, combined, paid more than $1 million. Lloyd Dean, the
non-Catholic head of CHA West and an Obama donor, earns more than $5
You would think that executives worth that much would be especially
foresightful. You would think they would have asked themselves, somewhere
along the line: How can this country, already deep in debt and well
on the way to making its citizens the economic serfs of the Chinese,
afford to add 32 million people, willing and unwilling, to government-subsidized
health insurance plans?
How can we afford to do this and continue to prop up the massive
regime of entitlements with which we had already gifted ourselves —
in complete defiance of the principle of subsidiarity — with Social
Security, Medicare, and Medicaid?
Clearly, neither Sister Carol nor the bishops ever asked how many
Americans will have secure retirements or decent health care insurance
after the American economy goes belly up. Or, for that matter, what
will happen to the abortion rates when mothers and fathers are led
by tightening economic circumstances to conclude they cannot afford
another mouth to feed.
Bishops, show us you still grasp the perennial philosophy of Thomas.
Sister Carol, go read your catechism to remind yourself why God created
you. It was not to funnel a bundle to your order.
The Unrepentant Traditionalist is copyright © 2010
by Frank Creel and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved.
Frank Creel, Ph.D., a columnist and author, was an English teacher
in the Peace Corps in Turkey. He is fluent in the Turkish language
and in Arabic script.
See a complete biographical sketch.
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