Certain images leave a lasting impression on us. The photograph of the lone young Chinese man in Tiananmen Square in 1989, standing his ground and asserting his individual human dignity as he blocked the progress of a column of army tanks is one of those images. The man was called “tank man” in the media. Apparently no one knows his name or what happened to him. Likely he was tracked down and imprisoned; maybe killed. But maybe he got away.
The photograph frequently appeared in the media recently in connection with the 25th anniversary of the freedom protests and the subsequent massacre of civilians by the Chinese military. For many the photo is an icon of human courage against tyranny. It is a vivid reminder of the ruthlessness that the Chinese Communist dictatorship and other authoritarian regimes use to maintain their power and privilege.
Successful societies, just societies, have institutions which mediate between the state and individual citizens, that is, groups and entities which stand between the relentless demands of the state and the individual citizen. They include fraternal, economic, and political groups formed by individuals to protect their members’ rights and interests, as well as the family. These mediating entities help to give individual men and women a unified voice in the public arena for the creation of a just society and for the protection of human dignity in general. They shield those individuals against raw governmental power.
“Tank man” stood alone before the power of his government, symbolically and literally, because that government had long ago destroyed the mediating entities which stood between government and individual citizen, and in varying degrees buffered the individual citizen from the direct power of the state. Authoritarian regimes cannot tolerate mediating institutions because they interfere with their exercise of absolute power. Tyrannical governments demand that the individual citizen stand naked before unchecked power.
The Church has a much more exalted purpose than only mediating between citizens and their government, namely, being the instrument of Jesus Christ in the reconciliation of man, and the world in general, to the proper relationship with God. But the Church does also serve as a mediating institution in society. The Church’s inherent unity as well as its size, and not least its independence from the government, presents a substantial buffer between individuals and the state. Indeed, this is a most important function of the Church, and one that is essential for its fundamental evangelical mission to mankind because mediating institutions help to preserve religious freedom, and ensure that while Caesar may get his due, he gets no more than that.
These thoughts about state power, mediating institutions, and freedom of religion have come to mind because the winds of state power are blowing so much harder these days against the family, the Church, and other mediating entities. Consider the various governmental regulations that require entities like Catholic Charities to provide adoption services to homosexual couples or lose their licenses and cease doing adoptions, thereby reducing the presence and evangelical effectiveness of such entities in society.
Consider too the interference by public schools and government education bureaucracies with the rights of parents to teach their children in important areas, notably including human sexuality, a move which seeks to restrict the preeminent role of parents and family in the education of children in favor of a more direct involvement between government and child. Another example of attacks on mediating entities are the corrupt actions of the Internal Revenue Service in harassing private citizen political groups who seek legal status under §501 (c) 4 of the Internal Revenue Code, as well as that agency’s seeming propensity to audit citizens and businesses who criticize the increasing power of the federal government.
However, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, is surely one of the more grandiose and egregious examples of government actions weakening mediating institutions. The magnitude of the governmental overreach of this law and its deleterious effect on the mediating institutions in our society, including most especially the Church itself, should not be underestimated. It directly orders citizens and institutions to buy a service, and then dictates what that service will include and not include, and who will render the service. There is virtually no choice but the government’s choice.
Even after the recent United States Supreme Court case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby which exempts closely held corporations from the mandate to purchase contraceptives and abortifacients for their employees, literally thousands of non-profit entities remain under that same mandate, including Catholic hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, schools, and universities, and there is no genuine exception in the statute or the implementing regulations allowing for moral objection.
Apparently there are many Catholics, including some Catholic bishops, who would support Affordable Care Act if this law did not support and promote abortion. But what they fail to acknowledge is that it is not just the coercion to support contraception and abortion that makes this statute unacceptable. This law is a wholesale violation of the principal of subsidiarity. That principal is an integral part of Catholic social justice teaching, and is essential for a just society precisely because it protects and promotes mediating institutions, which in turn protect human dignity and freedom, especially freedom of religion.
Saint John Paul II concisely described the principle of subsidiarity in his encyclical Centesimus Annus: “Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: 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. (Centesimus Annus 48)”
David A. Bosnich of the Acton Institute expounds on the teaching presented by the late pope on this principle: “One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.” (Emphasis added.)
The abortion and contraceptive mandate is not just an objectionable part of an otherwise acceptable law. This coercion to force citizens to act immorally arises from the essence of Obamacare, which is one law among a plethora of laws of the modern welfare state that are designed to push aside anyone or anything that stands between a government intent on the consolidation of its power and the individual whom the politicians and bureaucrats want to control. In short, the plaintiffs in the multitude of lawsuits seeking relief from the law’s contraception and abortion mandate because they refuse to accommodate the state’s immoral demands are fighting for their institutional existence.
On the other side of the coin, the decline of mediating institutions is also the consequence of the increasing demand by Americans for radical autonomy. The attacks on family, the Church, and other mediating entities come not only from the government, but also from individuals who subordinate all creation to their own personal will and desires. Ironically, the radically autonomous modern American is busy tearing down the castle walls to be a better individual target of governmental power. But it is also true that the state has its hand in the promotion of such radical autonomy. The government’s attacks on mediating institutions are almost always done in the name of individual freedom from the “shackles” of religion and tradition.
Yet regardless of the source of the attacks, the diminution of mediating institutions quite clearly leads to the diminishment of our freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Unless met with a united and determined resistance religion, and the truth which it proclaims, will be further limited, and then banned from the public arena altogether. It is not for nothing that the Obama administration in Washington speaks only of freedom of worship and not freedom of religion. Religion is less of a threat if it is confined within the walls of its church buildings. But we know from history that even a confined religion at some point becomes intolerable to the state, and must be destroyed or co-opted. China is a prime example of this, with its ersatz government sponsored “Patriotic Catholic Church,” and the government persecuted underground Church, the true Catholic Church in union with the chair of Peter.
The necessity of healthy and diverse mediating institutions is manifest, and to promote their vitality in our society we need a vibrant catechesis within the Church in this country on the necessity and social benefit of the robust exercise of the principle of subsidiarity. Hopefully the fruits of this catechesis would spill over into the public arena. The consequences of not doing this include the continuing destruction of not just mediating institutions, but ultimately of our ability to govern ourselves justly and effectively, and to protect our basic freedoms.
Indeed, the United States has reached the point where the expansion of the size of government at all levels, but especially that of the central government, with a concurrent demise of federalism and the effective power of state and local governments, is making reasonable and responsive democratic governance impossible and unaffordable. But more disturbing than even the corruption of the American democratic project and its financial bankruptcy, is the further diminishing of religious freedom, with the Obamacare mandate being only a part of this profound problem.
The principal of subsidiarity is an antidote to the consolidation of power by the state and its inevitable lust for its citizens’ money and freedom. A society that recognizes and promotes subsidiarity nurtures social conditions conducive to the creation of mediating institutions. That in turn strengthens one’s freedom to worship, and to live, and to interact in society in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.
A “tank man” is not free to do these things.