The Structural Demands of Subsidiarity

One of the pleasures of teaching in a comprehensive theology program is that I often have to teach outside of my zones of specialization.  This spring I taught a senior-level course with lots of Catholic Social Teaching, a topic that somehow never came up in all my years of theological training.  It was only my second time to teach the course, so in many ways I was learning along with my students.

This time around, I saw more clearly the many implications of the famous “principle of subsidiarity,” classically defined in Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:

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.

Here’s another formulation from John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus:

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.

Reading through this time, I saw how this principle needs to shape the activities of all kinds of governing bodies.  It could reshape our debates about education, health care, and welfare, just to name a few.

But I also saw—and this was new to me—that this principle can be used to critique not only the activities of governing bodies but even their structure.  Most generally put, governing bodies should be set up such that the principle of subsidiarity could be put into practice.

To take one particular case: if a higher governing body has no function that could not be performed by a lower body, then that higher governing body should not exist.

For example, I serve on the Board of Directors for my local food bank.  The Board carries out functions that no lower group or individual can perform.  But suppose there were erected another group whose sole function was to have authority over the actions of the Board.  We’ll call this higher group the Board Oversight And Review Dictatorship (BOARD).  Every time the Board wanted to approve a budget, it would have its decision reviewed by the BOARD.  Every time the Board wanted to change a policy, it would have to appeal to the BOARD.

This arrangement is mechanically possible, but its existence would be “a disturbance of right order.”  The BOARD would take function away from the Board to no purpose, since the Board can function quite well on its own.

One reason the BOARD would fall into this difficulty is that it would not be a “community of a greater and higher order.”  It would be “higher” in the sense that it had authority, but it would not be “greater”:  its duties would not extend to any wider field than those of the original Board.  If there were several food banks in a league, then it might make sense to have one governing body of the league that had authority over the lesser governing boards of the individual food banks.  But where there is only one food bank, and that one a small organization where everyone can sit in one room, it would be strange to institute another governing body over the Board.

Does this kind of mistake ever happen in real life?  Believe it or not, I think it does.  But I would rather use my imaginary example, because my interest right now is in the principle more than its application to this or that situation.

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A sensational account of heaven

In politics and other news, the world seems beleaguered and bleary.  It’s a great time to talk about heaven!

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The truth about elephants

We’ve all heard the story about the blind men who investigate an elephant.  But the story doesn’t mean what people think it does….

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How the Mass is a Sacrifice

This semester, students at WCC set their theology teachers a theme:  the liturgy.  Teachers chose topics within the theme, and students arranged the topics into a semester-long series.  Just like that, the students gained for themselves a full “practicum” on the liturgy, while each teacher has only to give two or three talks.  It’s a great arrangement!

Recently, I was tapped for a talk on “the theology of the Mass” or “how the Mass is a sacrifice.”  You can download it here, or listen online:

Students loved the talk, but they seemed especially excited about the explanation of transubstantiation in the Q&A.

By the way, I’m wondering whether I should post more of these recordings or even start a podcast.  Your feedback would be helpful.

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Whether teachers in a liberal arts college are employees

[This is the third in a three-part series on liberal education: (1) Whether the purpose of a liberal arts college is to teach; (2) whether teachers at a liberal arts college teach for the sake of their students; (3) whether teachers at a liberal arts college are employees.  For background on the subject, see my post on Pieper’s book.  For a glimpse into the kind of enjoyment I hope this post offers, see my comments on the scholastic question format.]

Article 3: Whether Teachers at a Liberal Arts College Are Employees

Objection 1. It seems that teachers at a liberal arts college are employees, because an employee is someone who does something for pay.  But teachers are paid for teaching.  Therefore, teachers are employees. Continue reading “Whether teachers in a liberal arts college are employees”

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My father’s book made the news

The Arkansas Catholic, a diocesan newspaper, ran an article about my father’s book The Cross My Only Hope.  It’s a nice piece and a fitting venue because, as the article notes, the title of the book was taken from a homily by the former bishop of Little Rock, Andrew J. McDonald. Continue reading “My father’s book made the news”

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Is the child in a family an image of the Holy Spirit?

I recently received some questions about how the family is an image of the Trinity. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously mapped the relationships in a family onto the relationship within the Trinity, such that the child in a family is seen as the proceeding love of the husband and the wife and so corresponds to the Holy Spirit who proceeds as the love of the Father and the Son. Scott Hahn picked up that outline in his popularization of Trinitarian theology. Is this a good way to talk about the Holy Spirit?

It can be difficult to dispute Trinitarian theories, because the Trinity is the deepest mystery of our faith. And within the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is arguably the most mysterious of the three persons: What does God’s “breath” or “wind” actually mean? Scripture tells us so little about him!

But our scarcity of information about the Holy Spirit is one reason I would resist describing the Holy Spirit in terms of the child proceeding from a husband and a wife. We have so very few things that we can say for certain about the Holy Spirit that each gleam of light is precious. One of the very few solid things the Church has defined about the Holy Spirit is that he does NOT proceed as a son.

When we speak of the child as the proceeding love of the husband and the wife, I think we get into difficulties on the side of marriage as well. Although beautiful and noble in itself, the union of husband and wife ultimately finds its goal and completion when it is subordinated to the good of children. Speaking of the child as though it WERE the union of husband and wife confuses the two ends of marriage to allow union (the lesser good) to gobble up children (the greater good).

All things considered, I think it best to follow the example of John Paul II. He spoke of the family as an image of the Trinity, but he kept his comparison at the level of “communion of persons.” The family is the first natural communion of persons, and so it points to even more primal Trinitarian communion. John Paul did not attempt to make the Father line up with a husband, the Son with a wife, and the Holy Spirit with a child. When you press the likeness that far, you end up in difficulties.

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Coffee: the agony and the ecstasy

The blog has fallen silent over the past week. To explain why, I have to take you back ten years or more.

It all started when my sister bought me a book called Coffee Basics: A Quick and Easy Guide. The transition from hard-core addict to Coffee geek was easy, and I began visiting my local coffee roastery, sipping regional cups with discrimination, and experimenting with every imaginable brewing method at home. Continue reading “Coffee: the agony and the ecstasy”

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Two habits for happiness

“Oh give thanks to the Lord!” cries the Psalmist repeatedly (Psalm 107:1; 118:1; 136:1; etc.). “All your works shall give you thanks!” (Psalm 145:10). “Give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul commands, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1Thess 5:18).

It turns out that giving thanks to God is not only good but good for you: with the success of clinical trials, gratitude exercises and gratitude diaries have become standard in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Books like One Thousand Gifts have popularized the benefits of gratitude.

Why is gratitude so helpful? There are two reasons:

  • The usual explanation is that a habit of gratitude keeps us focused on the good things rather than the bad things. A gratitude diary, for example, keeps us on the lookout each day for the good things happening right in front of us.
  • But another reason gratitude is helpful is that it invests good things with meaning. When you give thanks, you recognize a good thing as a gift, as something from someone to you. Recognizing good things in life is not as powerful as acknowledging gifts.

Now that gratitude has “gone big,” so to speak, it’s time to bring back gratitude’s sister, “offering it up”.  “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,” Paul says, “and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). What gratitude does for good things, “offering it up” does for bad things.

  • When you offer up your sufferings to God for someone else, you contain the bad things in your life by packaging them as a gift and mentally sending them off. The bad things are delimited, set within a kind of box.
  • Sufferings that you offer up for someone else are invested with purpose. It’s amazing how much bad stuff we can endure for a purpose: soldiers go through war for their country, athletes go through tough training for a prize, a father grinds through work every day for his family. Suffering is truly intolerable when it feels like a waste. But for a Christian, that never needs to happen.

Gratitude for the good things and offering up the bad. With these two habits, you pretty much have life covered.

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From Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday

“It is great and worthy of admiration that on Sunday, which is the first day, on which God began to be engaged in the creation of the world, the Savior enters into the labor of his Passion, and on the seventh day, having been engaged in our salvation throughout this week, which is called the ‘Greater Week,’ he ceased and rested in the sepulcher.”

Rupert of Deutz  (+c. 1129), quoted in James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred

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