One of the basic notions in Catholic social teaching is “subsidiarity”. I’ve usually heard this principle explained in this way: social problems should be solved at the lowest possible levels that are up to the task. What a person can reasonably do for himself, he should do. What a family can do for itself, the city shouldn’t do. What the city can do for itself, the state shouldn’t do. This popular in some circles currently, because it militates against big government, something it’s clear we have too much of.
However, Brandon has written a post on subsidiarity that shows that this is not quite what the Church is saying. It would be more accurate to say that certain institutions arise naturally in human society (e.g., the family) and that these institutions are naturally good at doing particular things—and that it is the responsibility of these institutions both to do what they do well, and to support the other institutions in doing what they do well!
Thus, if the family is naturally good at ensuring the well-being of children, then the state should do what it can to support the family in this role, rather than taking on this role itself. In American society today, I think that responsibilities do need to move downwards toward the family and the individual and away from the state, and that the state should be trying to encourage the family rather than replace it. But that’s happenstance.
We can see this in the current HHS attack on the Catholic Church. The Church is not really in any kind of simply hierarchy with the federal government. The federal government is not above the Church nor below the Church; they are independent. The Church does some things well; healthcare, education, and feeding the poor happen to be three of them. These things serve the public good, and the federal government should encourage them rather than hindering them.
Anyway, take a look at Brandon’s post; he’s more interesting than I am.