By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
One of the hot topics in political discourse today is globalization – that is, the tendency for the world population to become more integrated, or at least more technologically connected. Some people see this tendency as a threat to local communities, while others rejoice in it for its economic and social effects.
How should Catholics respond? Obviously, this is a more complex question than I can treat adequately, let alone in a single column. Nevertheless, I would like to contribute to the discussion by offering two principles from Catholic Social Teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity. To focus my reflection even further, I’ll present these two principles using an important source in our tradition, The Rule of St. Benedict, which is one of the most influential constitutions in the history of community life.
According to Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1939-1942), solidarity is a direct demand upon us all, given our common origin and destiny as human beings. Solidarity is a “social charity” or “friendship” that manifests itself in a particular distribution of material and spiritual goods. It is a requirement of the moral order at all levels of human association, including the association of nations. Globalization can therefore be a very good thing, if it increases social charity through the just distribution of goods. However, as history clearly shows, higher organizations can sometimes harm or divide those they should be bringing together, and so we need another principle to help us discern true solidarity. Therefore, the Church speaks also about subsidiarity, which stipulates 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” (§1883).
What does that look like? Chapter 35 of The Rule of St. Benedict offers an example of these two principles in action. St. Benedict says all the brothers should serve each other at meals, “for such service increases reward and fosters love” (35:2). While he makes some exceptions, such as for those who are ill, he insists that even those who are weak should be helped so that they can serve, rather than simply be dismissed from service. He says, “Let those who are not strong have help so that they may serve without distress, and let everyone receive help as the size of the community or local conditions warrant” (35:3-4). In the monastery, every resource or “help” is distributed according to need, or in a way that allows everyone in the community to flourish. It might seem easier to dismiss the weaker brother and send only the stronger to serve. But St. Benedict doesn’t want that, because he wants the weaker brother too to serve and grow in love. He knows that our ability to assume the tasks of lower associations does not mean it is always right to do so; we do not want to deprive someone of agency when that agency is necessary for his full flourishing. Yes, the monks need to be fed. Yes, allowing the weaker monks to serve is inefficient, from at least a certain point of view. However, mealtime in a community is not just about filling bellies. It is a place where the monks can grow in their love by mutual service, and that love is essential to their fulfillment; and therefore it must be kept in mind, lest a desire for efficiency ruin it. The proper understanding of “help” in the Rule is not a thoughtless handout or centralization, but the oftentimes more demanding effort to enable each individual to realize his fulfilment through his own agency. The higher order does not displace the agency of the lower; it helps it to exercise its agency.
These two principles are demanding. To serve human flourishing, we must welcome higher levels of association, since we should work in solidarity for a distribution of goods that enables all people to reach their fulfillment. But those associations should offer true help. And that means, in addition to refusing every temptation to serve themselves, that the higher associations should serve in a way that respects the initiative and agency of the lower associations. Bureaucratically, it might seem more efficient to sideline the weak monk, because his weakness makes it seem more difficult to bring him along; but then he loses his opportunity to grow in love and we all lose sight of our true goal – the integral fulfillment of all. Higher levels of organization prove their legitimacy when, like the strong monks in the monastery, they enable weak ones to act and participate in the common good, rather than displace them.
Father John Bayer, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.