The Flip Side of Subsidiarity


Over the course of three days in March, the Supreme Court spent six hours hearing oral arguments about the most significant achievement of Barack Obama’s first term: the Affordable Care Act—or, as it is now called by both supporters and detractors, “Obamacare.” The case before the court has to do with the law’s requirement that everyone above a certain income level buy health insurance or pay a penalty. (Those who cannot afford coverage on their own will receive financial assistance.) In principle, the mandate was a step toward universal coverage—and the best way to make sure that insurers could afford to cover those who need health insurance the most. For some critics, however, the mandate has confirmed suspicions that Obama and his fellow Democrats are determined to implement a government takeover of health care. The question before the Court is straightforward: Can the federal government require all Americans to purchase a product (health insurance) on the private market? But the question underlying the case is one of the most basic in American political life: How much government is too much?

The Catholic Church has never attempted to answer this question definitively, but it has proposed subsidiarity as the general principle that ought to govern how power and responsibility are distributed among various actors in a society. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus, Pope John Paul II offered a brief...

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About the Author

David Golemboski is a doctoral student in the department of government at Georgetown University.