Who Decides?

Subsidiarity strikes me as a dull word. Read it, and then pass on. But the concept is important. Loosely, it may be defined as allowing decisions in society to be taken at the lowest practicable level: higher authority may not arrogate decisions which can properly be made at a lower level. The principle is explicit in the Catholic Church’s social teaching, and it applies to the Church itself as a community – as Pius XIIth taught in Quadragesimo Anno.

Many of us will have experienced it in bringing up children. We gradually introduce it through encouraging the child to make its own decisions. And this is difficult because we are concerned for the child’s safety yet we know that our instinct to protect can lead to the child going into the outer world with no experience of making decisions or of understanding the consequences. Subsidiarity in parenting is a matter of continual judgment.

It is also necessary in secular organisations. One of the important changes in the second half of the 20th century was the recognition that allowing workers at different levels to make their decisions rather than to direct them by detailed instructions produced better results. This was so in both commercial organisations and in others, such as hospitals.

Of course it is not a free-for-all. Depending on the nature of the work, some rules will always be necessary. But it is the authority’s tendency to trust their workers’ motivation and capacities which brings the best outcomes. It is not always easy for authority to do this well. It somehow seems safer to enforce rules – giving independence is asking for things to go wrong. Many organisations are under the genuine belief that they observe subsidiarity when in fact it scarcely exists.

It is interesting to consider how the Church stands up to its own principle of subsidiarity. At first sight it does not look promising. Its structure is headed by an absolute ruler. He is surrounded by a huge civil service, called the Curia, which is responsible for the different activities of the organisation. Then we have the bishops who, provided they obey the pope and the Curia, have full power over the diocese, through to the parish priest and finally to poor little us. However the structure itself is not the whole story: if each layer is inspired by subsidiarity it can work perfectly well.

But does it? Those who say no might point out that Catholic morality has always been a matter of obedience. Despite its acknowledgement of conscience, and the occasional reference to charity, it’s obeying the rules which appears to count. Theologians who appear unorthodox can be dealt with by methods of medieval justice. Despite Cardinal Newman’s insistence that the witness of the laity is an important element in the belief of the Church, this is largely ignored. When the English-speaking bishops produced a new liturgical translation in line with the teaching of Vatican 2, the Curia created a new set of rules, rejected the translation, and wrote their own. It’s the one we use today. While such attitudes are gradually improving, much helped by Pope
Francis’s example, we have a long way to go.

(Perhaps I am influenced by experience here. I am one of the few people who has had an Imprimatur withdrawn after it had been granted and the book published. Interestingly a paragraph specifically criticised by the Holy Office was drafted for me by an archbishop.)

Yet, even as I write this, I am aware that the solidarity and the certainties of the Church have played an important part in the strength and orthodoxy of the Church. I only have to look at other denominations to see the dangers which can arise from the lack of central authority. How do we relate the essential truths of faith and morals to an increasing freedom of its members to make up their own minds?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Church and Society, Pope Francis, Quentin queries and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Who Decides?

  1. galerimo says:

    Thanks for the topic Quentin. In the area of the translation of liturgical texts, Subsidiarity seems to be gaining more ground.

    Translating Latin into local languages has been one of the most controversial and acrimonious issues in the Church since the end of Vatican II.

    When Pope Francis decentralized authority over how the texts used in the Catholic Church’s liturgies are translated from Latin into local languages, moving most responsibility for the matter from the Vatican to national bishops’ conferences, he was on the right “subsidiarity track”.

    In a Motu Proprio (Magnum Principium, Sept. 9th), Francis says he is making a change to the church’s Code of Canon Law (Canon 838, effective Sunday) so that the Second Vatican Council’s call to make the liturgy more understandable to people is “more clearly reaffirmed and put into practice.”

    The rewritten Canon says simply that the Vatican is to “recognize” adaptations of Latin liturgical texts approved by national bishops’ conferences.

    Where before the Vatican was tasked with “authorizing” all liturgical translations, it is now asked simply to “review” translations made by the bishops’ conferences.

    A bit more confidence from the local bishops’ conferences is what is needed to make subsidiarity work. I think the Pope is encouraging them to do so. HIs move here seems to have been a very diplomatic way of getting round the established Curial structure, you mention, while dealing directly a Church wide issue.

  2. Geordie says:

    Some of the translations in the present English liturgies are often incomprehensible or banal. The “Communion Prayer” often doesn’t make sense. Nobody seems to care because it is a small part of the Mass.
    There is another translation which I find irritating and I think it comes from the Jerusalem Bible; the word “happy” is used in place of “blessed”. “Blessed” has a much more profound meaning than “happy”. However I suppose, instead of the Beatitudes, we’ll just have to get used to the “Happitudes”.

    • ignatius says:

      “But does it? Those who say no might point out that Catholic morality has always been a matter of obedience. Despite its acknowledgement of conscience, and the occasional reference to charity, it’s obeying the rules which appears to count. Theologians who appear unorthodox can be dealt with by methods of medieval justice. Despite Cardinal Newman’s insistence that the witness of the laity is an important element in the belief of the Church, this is largely ignored.”

      In fact it is probably the management who get ignored by the laity! Certainly in the finer points of liturgy I get the impression that no one much cares and that there is sufficient leeway for nuance as it is.
      Similarly in any matter of morality, conduct or actual belief it is the laity who decide for themselves in any given situation and they also decide, in the main,who to listen to, who to ignore and which church (or none) they are going to attend.

  3. ignatius says:

    Could you flesh that out a little for me so I understand you better? My drift is to say that, from what I see, in the end catholic individuals and families tend to decide their behaviour as best they can according to what they can make sense of – set against their own personal circumstances. The actions/ behaviour they adopt is the outcome of this balancing act and has little to do with what the Cardinals or Bishops decide, particularly in matters of the heart and the desires, but in other aspects as well.

    • Horace says:

      As I understand it – Subsidiarity refers to the principle that “a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level (Wikipedia)” but among such tasks surely ‘actual belief’ must be defined by the Church itself (together with the morality and conduct of individuals).

      So long as the laity are in charge of organisational (liturgical and other) matters then it is “the laity who decide for themselves” and subsidiarity is perfectly reasonable. But the laity cannot decide the truth of the church’s teachings – which is the province of the central authority. [Admittedly opinions put forward by the laity may well be relevant but this is a separate matter.]

      The differences between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Orthodox’ and between the various Protestant churches are NOT ‘branches of a central authority’ and what we are discussing here should be simply the structure of the “Roman Catholic Church”.

      • ignatius says:

        Ok. In principle, you are right about that of course. But I would guess the ‘truth of the church’s teachings’ cannot be ‘imposed’ by anyone. I find during catechesis sessions that most people have only a sketchy understanding of catholic detail though, of course, they will have the central truths of the creed fairly well drummed in. Its probably fair to say that we are as a people overall corralled in by central doctrine and teaching, but individuals always make what they will out of instruction given.

  4. John Nolan says:

    ‘When the English-speaking bishops produced a new liturgical translation in line with the teaching of Vatican 2, the Curia created a new set of rules, rejected the translation, and wrote their own.’

    This is misleading on a number of counts. The Congregation for Divine Worship rejected ICEL’s proposed Ordination rites (which had been approved by a committee of US bishops, not the Conference as a whole) in 1997 on the grounds that it was not only a seriously deficient translation, but that it contained changes and additions which were contrary to what the Church intended.

    It was clear that the CDW was also concerned with ICEL’s proposed Sacramentary which was finally completed in 1998. This was far more than ‘a new liturgical translation’ – it was a radical recasting of the then current edition of the Roman Missal (including newly composed Proper texts, newly composed options for the Ordinary, unauthorized changes to the rubrics, and a clumsy attempt at ‘inclusive’ language that had doctrinal implications). In no way could it be considered to be ‘in line with the teaching of Vatican 2’ as set out in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

    The Congregation’s concerns had been voiced ten years earlier in letters to to the chairman of ICEL and to Episcopal Conferences. Also, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the idea of ‘dynamic equivalence’ in translation, so fashionable in 1969, would no longer do.

    Meanwhile Rome was completing a new editio typica of the Roman Missal which appeared in 2002. The decision to reject the 1998 Sacramentary preceded Liturgiam Authenticam, which came out on 28 March 2001.

    The current translation was not written by the Curia. It was produced by a revamped ICEL, was nearly ten years in the making, and this time the bishops had a considerable say in the project.

  5. John Nolan says:

    Galerimo refers to the recent motu proprio ‘Magnum principium’. However, his interpretation of it needs qualification. Firstly, Francis is not ‘moving responsibility’ for vernacular translations to competent territorial authorities – it has always lain there. SC (art.36) requires that translations be ‘approved, that is to say confirmed’ by the Apostolic See. MP reiterates that after approval of translations by Episcopal Conferences the ‘confirmatio’ of the Holy See is required before they are published.

    Contrary to what Galerimo states, the CDF is not required to carry out a ‘review’ (the bishops are responsible for this) and recognition in the formal sense of a ‘recognitio’ has been replaced by ‘confirmatio’.

    The requirement that texts be translated with ‘integrity and accuracy’, as required by LA, is reaffirmed. The 1998 versions would almost certainly not be confirmed.

    In future bishops will need to take more responsibility. The older attitude of ‘just send it up, Rome will sort it out’ will no longer be appropriate.

    • galerimo says:

      A significant change nevertheless and one that moves subsidiarity forward in the Church. g

      • John Nolan says:

        Agreed. But the liturgical translation issue is not the best argument for subsidiarity in the English-speaking world, since it involves a large number of countries and Episcopal Conferences. The latter, it must be recognized, are advisory and consultative bodies with no authority in themselves.

        Now if a diocesan bishop were to prohibit altar girls and EMHC in his diocese, and insist on kneeling Communion and reception on the tongue, or even encourage ‘ad orientem’ celebration, then this would be a legitimate exercise of subsidiarity.

        Whereupon liberals would drop the whole concept like a hot potato. It is all very well to argue for a principle if it delivers the results that you want, or decide what you want and justify it by retrospective reference to a principle.

        But be careful what you wish for …

      • galerimo says:

        Indeed John, indeed you make a very important point (below) though illustrated by defective Church leadership that has been all to familiar in my life.

        Good governance whether by democracy or subsidiarity does presuppose good will, responsibility and a certain amount of enlightenment. I certainly wish for that like everyone else.

        Indeed too the principle of governance invoked on many occasions can be no more than a rationalised bias.

        So wishing carefully…..

        I wish for a Church that is governed extensively along the lines of subsidiarity – not stopping at the Episcopal conferences; going to those concerned where any issue is involved – interest groups, organised bodies including parishes.

        Western liberal democracies decry too much government with their belief in the free market. My wish too would be something like that for the Church – sacramental support for an inclusive and diverse people exercising the dynamics of community through subsidiarity trusting the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

      • galerimo says:

        For (below) read (above) – it was below my reply when I was composing it!

  6. John Nolan says:

    While we’re on the subject, the preamble to Magnum Principium is itself misleading. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (SC) is not really concerned with translation. When it appeared in 1963 the majority of the Council fathers did not envisage an entirely new rite of Mass entirely in the vernacular. They were looking at how a greater use of vernacular could be incorporated in the existing Roman Rite.

    The ‘Great Principle’ was neither great, nor a principle.

  7. John Nolan says:


    The problem with your argument is that the Catholic Church derives her authority from Jesus Christ, which is exercised by the bishops who are the successors of the apostles. The idea that interest groups and organized bodies can exercise authority is essentially non-Catholic.

    ‘An inclusive and diverse people exercising the dynamics of community’. Did you devise this expression for yourself, or has someone else said it? It is quite literally meaningless, and to try and apply meaningless concepts to actual situations is a waste of time.

    • galerimo says:

      I think your response highlights the problem that subsidiary faces in the church.

      There is a lot of church going on beyond the ranks of the episcopacy and much of it vigorous, intelligent and female. All quite capable of exercising its own authority in pursuit of ecclesial ends.

      But progress continues; as does my wish that the subidiarity evident in Francis’
      hugely significant reforms announced last month in Medellin, Columbia will not stop there.

      I see it as a call to responsible participation in governance at the many levels of Church, undeterred by bullish resistance or timidity.

  8. G.D. says:

    ‘An inclusive and diverse people exercising the dynamics of community’

    From ….. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/egms/docs/2009/Ghana/inclusive-society.pdf …. last paragraph of page 5 might shed some light … of course the ideas need adapting sic ‘social exclusion’ to ‘religious bigotry’ … ‘policy makers and social scientists to … ‘Bishops’ … ‘legal principle, a societal goal’ to ‘spiritual practice’ (maybe) …..

    “The question now is how to make the concept of social inclusion operational, even in the face of
    resistance to change. Indeed, in some cases, social exclusion (religious bigotry) is willfully pursued as it serves vested interests. The challenge for policy makers and social scientists (Bishops) is, therefore, to find ways to dissociate the concept of social inclusion from the utopian realm of a “perfectly inclusive” world vision to redefining it as a practical tool used to promote an inspirational yet realistic set of policy measures geared towards a “society for all.” This requires a paradigm shift so as to
    recognize the dignity, value and importance of each person, not only as an ethical norm and
    moral imperative, but also as a legal principle, a societal goal, (spiritual practice)…..
    …… To this end, social inclusion, as an overarching goal as well as a multi-dimensional process can play a critical role in promoting sustainable human (religous) development.”

  9. John Nolan says:

    Plain English, anyone?

  10. tim says:

    John’s point (I believe) is that it’s too complicated and vague to mean anything useful or helpful. I’m reminded of the scene in ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ in which the kidnapped Ransom tries to translate the self-justification of his kidnapper into words the locals can understand.

    • John Nolan says:

      It’s too complicated and vague to mean anything at all. is this the language of social science? if so, I’m glad I opted to read history.

  11. G.D. says:

    Alas, my ability to be satisfied with horizons beyond logical analysis
    can see meaning, sense purpose, in the vaguest complications.
    The mere dawning of reason brings more light to understanding
    than the surety of reasoned ponderings.
    In the dimness of the suns arc
    the black and the white
    Transfigured to a reconciliation
    of paradox.
    Resurrections in a mornings greyness.
    A curse for completion
    a blessing for creation.

  12. John Nolan says:


    Ah, poetry. I like it. As Gerard Manley Hopkins once remarked about one of his poems which Bridges found difficult, ‘it explodes into meaning’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s