Subsidiarity and Tech

The principle of subsidiarity is perhaps one of the most crucial and most misunderstood in Catholic social teaching. According to the principle of subsidiarity, decisions should be made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. A little moral theology and then some practical tech application.

In Quadregesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI is concerned with the common good of society and in particular with both the growing power of the state and an increasing individualism (see paragraph 78). It should be noted that Pius is concerned that we will end up with a social order in which there are individuals and the state – with no intermediary communities, institutions or levels. The richness and diversity of human society is what Pius seeks to promote and protect. Thus he writes in paragraph 79:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

To further clarify subsidiarity, Pope John XXIII once again returns to the two-sides of subsidiarity and frames it within the context of scientific advancement and cooperation in society in Mater et Magistra

54. The present advance in scientific knowledge and productive technology clearly puts it within the power of the public authority to a much greater degree than ever before to reduce imbalances which may exist between different branches of the economy or between different regions within the same country or even between the different peoples of the world.

What does this all have to do with tech? One of the problems facing many school districts is the lack of internet connectivity, especially in poorer neighborhoods. In the Bronx about 40% of the households do not have internet connections. Recently, workers bolted an internet antenna — a flat, rectangular-shaped box fitted onto a metal pole — to the side of the rooftop of a Catholic school in the South Bronx. It beams free wireless internet to people who live in the immediate area.

The Bronx project, led in part by a clean energy start-up called BlocPower and community organizations including South Bronx Churches, is among many that try to tackle this big problem by thinking small. The initiative uses technology that creates improvised internet signals that cover a defined area with relatively little hassle, bureaucracy or cost.

Small-scale internet projects like this are far from perfect. They can struggle for lack of money, technology problems or failures to get residents involved – but it is subsidiarity in action.

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