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.