Subsidiarity is a very dull word. Which is a pity, because it describes a very important idea. It is in fact the approach of authority or leadership most like the one which Christ taught us. In simple terms it means that a higher authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at lower or more local levels. We have all experienced subsidiarity as parents or children.
Parenthood is an exercise in managed separation. At the beginning the parent has to make all the decisions but, gradually over time, the parent must stand back and allow the child to take more and more responsibility. The apogee is when the child, now well versed in personal responsibility, is able to enter the independent adult world. It is a parental task which requires endless courage and good judgment. Our immediate instinct is to keep our children safe, and it is easy to find reasons why our authority should prevail. But unless we take the risk of progressively passing on responsibility we will ensure that we send inadequate adults out into the world.
The same principle of subsidiarity applies to organisations. And the need has become greater as these become more and more complex. Increasing technology has pushed decisions further down the line. I have written before about how the efficiency of hospitals can be gauged by the degree and quality of communication between different levels, including the patients, and different departments – from the administrative to the medical. We communicate because we wish to share actively in our common objectives. And I would distinguish sharply between the organisation which only communicate what it is obliged to, and the organisation which only holds back communication when it has to.
But, as parenthood shows, it is not black and white. There may be restrictions. For some years I had the experience of directing a large investment company. Since we were in effect the trustees of public money we were bound by a number of rules emanating from statute. And rightly so. It made it all the more important that everyone, down to the most junior understood the position and took responsibility for their own accuracy.
Yet there is an inherent difficulty. It can be a matter of temperament. A number of people in management positions find it very hard to stand back and allow their juniors to take decisions. They feel secure when they are in charge, and nervous when they are not. They know that their juniors are likely to make mistakes, and that they may be held responsible. Most of us will have had the experience of being delegated to do a job, only to find the delegator standing behind our back at every point. It is not only temperament: many people in senior positions have succeeded to their posts in a culture where rules were rules. We should not be surprised at their discomfort when this no longer obtains to the same degree.
Since subsidiarity is emphasised by the Church we would expect it to operate in an exemplar way within the Church itself. As Pius XII said, it applies “to all levels of life in society as well as to the life of the Church, without prejudice to her hierarchical structure.” I wonder if, over the centuries, the Church would be easily recognised as a good example of subsidiarity.
There is no doubt that Vatican II was a potential turning point. We might think of the dramatic repudiation of the past in recognising the qualities and values of other denominations. The autonomic powers of the diocesan bishops were clarified. High level synods enabling the pope to consult with senior hierarchy were established. A reform of the Curia was proposed. A liturgy in the language of the congregation was introduced. The traditional sovereignty of conscience was reinforced. The watchword was collegiality.
Progress some 50 years later has not been encouraging. The recognition of other denominations led to schism. The selection of bishops remains under Vatican, rather than local, control. Until recently the papal consultation synods have been neutralised by oppressive management. The Curia remains a kitchen cabinet. The translation of the liturgy was removed at a late stage from the English-speaking bishops and replaced by the headquarters’ version. The disciplinary procedures of the Holy Office remain medieval. How many marks out of ten?
Christ taught us, as he washed the feet of his disciples, that authority is not a power of domination but a service which we hold as delegates from God. Subsidiarity exists not to control freedom but to increase it. He chose a risky path in giving us free will: the ultimate gift of subsidiarity. But like all good rulers he also gave us, through grace, the wherewithal to make the right, free, choices.