Will Pope Francis be successful in his mission to reform the Church so that it can approach more closely its vocation to be The Mystical Body of Christ? I emphasised, in my last column on this subject, the essential need for communication – which must operate downwards, upwards and laterally. Today I want to look at another essential factor: subsidiarity. It means that authority must be devolved to the maximum practical extent. Higher authority must not arrogate the functions and decisions which can properly be exercised at a lower level.
Subsidiarity is not a covert ploy for wresting power from authority, or a simple management device, it is, in fact, an outcome of Natural Law, and so mandated by human dignity. Its apotheosis is found in God’s gifts of free will and reason. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the concept is strongly emphasised. However, the references here are to secular society. Does subsidiarity also apply to the Church?
Indeed it does, for the Church has all the characteristics of a secular society notwithstanding its sacred mission, just as we individuals retain our all too human characteristics, although we are a redeemed race. And Pius XII confirmed its application to the Church in his “Address to New Cardinals” in 1946.
The desire for power is a form of concupiscence; it entered the human race with the Fall. That power can be rational and necessary is undoubted, but the desire for power in itself is destructive. The obvious example is the politician who, convinced of his essential value to society, becomes a stranger to the truth. When Lord Acton famously said that all power had a tendency to corrupt, it was in the context of the Renaissance popes. But it is present at any level, and we are all susceptible to the itch to control – we rarely cede it willingly. It is no coincidence that love of power and lust are connected: Henry Kissinger told us that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac and, at one time, the power of a ruler was defined by the size of his harem.
Unfortunately the Church, even in modern times, does not have a good record on subsidiarity. Cardinal König wrote, for example, “…the curial authorities, working in conjunction with the Pope, have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who carry out almost all of them”. (Tablet, March 27 1990). The bishops’ synods of that era were emasculated by curial authority and the very concept of subsidiarity was forbidden or criticised (in one case, ironically, by a certain Cardinal Bergoglio).
The sad story of how the Congregation for Divine Worship wrested the translation of the liturgy from the English-speaking bishops after their many years of work is well known. Not only was this a direct offence against subsidiarity but it produced a translation unworthy of the language which gave us the King James Bible.
In more general terms we may describe the past model of the Church as subjecting Christian existence to authority, regulating life even into its most intimate preserves, and thereby attempting to maintain control over people’s lives. Too harsh a verdict? I have taken it directly from a 1991 address to bishops by Cardinal Ratzinger. There is hope here. He goes on to say that this “pre-conciliar” model is superseded by the model of freedom, and claims – rightly in my view – that this is the older tradition.
In terms of structural subsidiarity, the appointment of bishops is significant. While the recommendations of relevant persons may well be considered, the choice is reserved to the Holy See. There are historical reasons for this, and there remain some territories in which it is needed, but there is no good reason why, in most cases, a diocesan bishop should not be chosen by the local Church as a whole – with perhaps a final veto for truly exceptional cases. This limits the danger that a pope may, even unconsciously, prefer bishops who conform to his own views, and thus damage the representative quality of the episcopal college. The bishop is not a papal delegate, he is, in his own right, the leader of the Church in his own diocese.
But in the end, the core of subsidiarity does not lie in structures – for these can only follow the fundamental attitude. In eradicating the lust for power – a difficult task indeed once it is indurated – the right kind of structures will follow. The secular term for this is “tight-loose”. In pursuing its objectives the organisation must be firm and executive in those few matters where this is necessary, and allow maximum room for freedom and initiative where it is not.
Pope Francis has already shown by his example that authority exists for its functions of service and not to sustain rank. He is putting together structures which should push power further down towards those who can use it better. The early documentation for the forthcoming Synod on the Family suggests that there will be serious engagement with the issues important to everyone in the Church. We shall see.
But true subsidiarity, like true communication, will not be easily won. There will be hotheads who will damage the cause through their excesses, and conservatives, full of fear, who will desperately batten down the hatches. We saw all of this following Vatican II. Indeed had Vatican II been fully implemented, much of Francis’s work would already have been done.