To practise what we preach

Subsidiarity is a dull word for a very important principle. In brief it means that decisions within organisations should be taken at the lowest possible level. Higher authority should only apply when, in a particular set of circumstances, it is necessary for the good of all. This principle of autonomy is firmly rooted in the Church’s social teaching: it appears in Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI) and in Mater et Magistra (John XXIII). And, as you would expect, it applies not just in the secular world but also to the Church itself, as Pius XII emphasised in 1946.

Interestingly, over the last 50 years the principle has proved itself in secular organisations again and again. In the early part of the last century it was taken for granted that efficient organisations needed comprehensive set procedures which the worker had to follow. It was clear that relying on the decisions of responsible authority, who surely knew best, was the way to go. And this was well suited to operations in which the function of the worker was to be no more than a human machine.

But times changed. As more and more mechanical operations could be carried out automatically, so the worker could potentially take more responsibility for his own decisions. Many managements were fearful about this. Their mindset told them that workers only responded to sticks or carrots, and that to allow them autonomy would lead to abuse and chaos.

But it turned out that the opposite was true. The more autonomous the worker the more motivated he became, and the more he brought his intelligence to bear on doing a good job. Organisations which genuinely practised subsidiarity were more successful. But it had to be genuine; in too many cases businesses made changes, usually referred to as “empowerment”, which turned out to be cosmetic internal public relations. But workers were not fooled, they recognised responsibility only when they were allowed to exercise it meaningfully.

Of course it isn’t quite as simple as that. Every organisation has to have its key objectives and its essential principle of operation. And there will always be some necessary regulations which have to be observed. These will vary according to the nature of the business. There can be no comprehensive formula. But there is a radical difference between managements who believe that as much as possible should be controlled with the minimum left to the autonomy of the worker, and the managements who believe in maximising the autonomy of the worker and reducing the control of management to its smallest essential level. The latter is subsidiarity expressed in practical terms.

But we have an example of the failure of subsidiarity immediately available to us. Over the last 10 years over 3,600 new criminal offences have been created, stretching our system to bursting capacity. It is as if Government believes that we can only have a good society if it is controlled in minute detail. And as different regulations fail to achieve their objectives (or are abused by petty bureaucracy) further corrective measures have to be introduced. If we need proof that over-management creates a society with no sense of personal responsibility we only have to pick up a daily newspaper.

I am not suggesting ill-will. Government sincerely believes that it is creating a better society through regulatory minutiae backed up by more intrusive surveillance. Like the good-hearted Victorian employer it believes that it knows best and fears that without its kindly eye disaster will ensue. Basically it is afraid to trust, because inevitably there will be occasions when trust is abused. But unfortunately the effect of taking responsibility away from individuals is far more damaging than the occasional abuse that will occur. Pius XI, John XXIII and Pius XII had it right after all.

But, ironically, the Church herself, also with good will, is in practice not very good at subsidiarity. I am not of course suggesting that we should be a democracy but it is possible to ensure the truths of basic doctrine and the essentials of good order while maximising the autonomy of the lower echelons. If secular, commercial organisations can do this to their great benefit, why not the Church?

A few examples demonstrate areas which ought to be examined. Despite Vatican II emphasising that the bishops hold their authority by consecrated right and not as delegates of the papacy, is this in fact what happens? Why are new bishops chosen by the Pope and not by the local community concerned? Why was the translation of the liturgy wrested from the ICEL commission, and taken directly under the Curia’s wing? Kitchen cabinets and bureaucracy fight subsidiarity in any kind of organisation – political, commercial or ecclesiastical; it leeches their power. Little wonder that the reform of the Curia, called for by Vatican II, has made little progress over 40 years.

All of us know thriving parishes in which much work, from the administrative to the pastoral, has been delegated by the parish priest, and the dead parishes in which the invitation to the laity is both nominal and grudging.

True subsidiarity operating in the Church is no danger to unity or truth. The pope would always retain the right to refuse an episcopal appointment, but this should be very rare – and taken as a severe criticism of the local choice. The parish priest would not lose his ultimate responsibilities, but his work would ordinarily be done through good leadership rather than with a heavy hand. The result would be a lively, growing and loyal Church in which love and not law would predominate.

But you may disagree, or perhaps you can think of other examples in which the Church’s own principle of subsidiarity is abused. Or upheld. I look forward to your comments.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to To practise what we preach

  1. Horace says:

    When I was young I was very attracted by the concept of Distributism, a political philosophy not only very different from Communism but also different from today’s almost universally acclaimed Democracy.

    It is clearly based on the notion of Subsidiarity.

    As I remember the idea was that elections should be held by relatively small groups, [determined by residential locality or occupation] whose members therefore would all know each other. These elections would determine one or two representatives who would combine with those of similar groups to form a more broadly based group, which in turn would elect representatives – and so on.

    “Subsidiarity is a dull word” and this kind of political organisation would be equally dull, (contrast it with the excitement and razzmatazz of the recent American Presidential election) perhaps this is why it never seems to have ‘caught on’ as a political possibility.

  2. claret says:

    When it comes to the Church, at parish level, there is an inbuilt ‘catch 22’ with subsidiarity. Will the Parish Priest allow it?
    It is totally in his power to do so or not. Even if the benefits of it are overwhelming all he has to say is ‘No’ and ‘No’ it is.
    And this is where compulsion would have its benefits. A parish priest , could for example, be compelled to have a parish council. No such compulsion exists, only a recommendation that he should.
    He must have a finance committee (no suprise there,) but even then he decides on who sits on it and on what it will decide, and it will normally decide on what he says it should , or be disbanded.
    Laity involvement is one of those lovely catchphrases that promises much and delivers little unless the pp says it can, for
    as long as he cares to let it.
    Sitting in the pews we are constantlty reminded ( with a misplaced sense of pride,) of how the Church is not a democracy. It could be added that it is a dictatorship, at pp level.

  3. Of course the dictatorial power of the pp, to which Claret refers, is paralleled in business. I am not confident that a parish council is the answer. It may be necessary but it is not sufficient. Several years ago my wife and I resigned from a parish council when we discovered that we were merely being required to validate the pp’s decisions.

    General experience shows that subsidiarity most easily starts from the top. In this sort of case the bishop, too, must share responsibility. (In turn of course we must look to the bishop’s superior and, ultimately, back to the Pope. Tough on him, I realise, but it comes with the territory.)

    However changing an organisation in the direction of subsidiarity needs a change in culture. It takes time, there are plenty of setbacks, but it can eventually succeed. It must succeed if we are to rescue the declining Western Church.

    Meanwhile, we have to be grateful for the strong and confident pp who succeeds in creating an island of subsidiarity in his own parish.

  4. Vincent says:

    Surely we have an interesting example of how Quentin’s subsidiarity goes wrong. The current financial crash seems to have had a number of causes. But at the heart of many of them were traders to whom power was delegated, and who then used this much praised autonomy to make transactions which were profitable for a long time but basically unsound. How does Quentin answer that?

  5. Since you challenge me, Vincent (welcome to the blog, by the way – the first comment of many I hope) I will try an answer.
    First, as I said in my column, subsidiarity will sometimes be abused, but that the occasional abuse is better than not having subsidiarity.

    That is usually true but I admit that the Crash does strain the principle to the limit.

    However the ultimate fault here was the failure by management to establish the necessary fundamental principles (as I describe in my column). Indeed they seem to have encouraged and rewarded their traders to act against sound banking principles.

    While the current crisis calls for subsidiarity to be temporarily checked by Government, it should be reinstated as soon as possible, and the essential principles only (clearly thought out) should be applied and properly supervised.

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