While the recent contraceptive mandate controversy has exposed the Obama Administration’s disregard for religious freedoms, it has also reveled their natural disdain for subsidiarity. As George Weigel notes, this incident tells us “something very important, and very disturbing, about the cast of mind in the Executive Branch.”
It is no exaggeration to describe that cast of mind as “soft totalitarianism”: an effort to eliminate the vital role in health care, education and social service played by the institutions of civil society, unless those institutions become extensions of the state. As my colleague Yuval Levin has pointed out, it’s the same cast of mind that gave us Obamacare (which massively consolidates the health insurance industry into a small number of players who function like public utilities) and the Dodd-Frank financial sector reform (which tries to do to banks what Obamacare did to insurance).
The social doctrine of the Catholic Church emphasizes the importance of the mediating institutions of civil society in living freedom nobly and well. John Paul II coined the phrase “the subjectivity of society” to refer to these institutions, which include the family, religious communities, and voluntary organizations of all sorts. In Centesimus Annus, the late pope taught that, among their many other contributions to the common good, these institutions are crucial schools of freedom in which the tyrants that all of us are at age two are turned into democrats: the kind of people who can build free and virtuous societies.
When the State is allowed to dictate and control how mediating institutions are allowed to function, the result in the inevitable replacement of essential liberties (e.g., freedom of conscience) with consumerist rights (the right to free abortifacients).
A robust adherence to subsidiarity is certainly not a panacea for all that ails America. But it would provide a necessary firebreak to prevent the spread of this “soft totalitarianism.”