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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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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