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?