Subsidiarity requires that what single individuals, using their own resources, can do of themselves, must not be removed and taken by higher authority. We associate the development of the principle to the 1950s. It was realised that there were two approaches. The first, and traditional, approach that workers only performed in response to reward or punishment; the new approach held that workers would be at their best through their sense of fulfilment, recognizing their potential value through their work. They were referred to as Theory X and Theory Y.
While the far greater effectiveness of Theory Y was plain it was very difficult to institute. Every business had necessary rules and controls, so it was not easy to discriminate between obligation and responsible choice for the worker. Many businesses claimed to have introduced Theory Y when, on evaluation, it turned out that the application was nominal. In practice it had remained Theory X. An important factor here was whether the seniors who were responsible for introducing the new approach had themselves got to the top through using Theory X.
It became clear that Theory Y could only succeed if the seniors really believed in the principle. So they minimised the rules as far as possible, and looked continually for opportunities to encourage workers to have personal commitment in their jobs and, whenever possible, to make their own choices.
Historically, the Catholic Church has been solidly Theory X. And not surprisingly as it lived in a Theory X society. But it began to change towards Theory Y round about the same time as secular society. A major expression of this was the Vatican Council in the 1960s. But, as one might expect, the application of Theory Y at the local level remains at least mixed – notwithstanding a Pope who is clearly Theory Y and prefers to ask questions and make suggestions rather than rulings. No wonder he is unpopular with some of his colleagues – that’s par for the course. Some twenty years ago, when I was writing a book on the subject, I researched at some depths the use of authority at the level of the Curia and the curial Congregations. At that time it was clear that Theory X still ruled. Has it changed?
But we are concerned with the diocesan bishops. They too have requirements which they need to enforce through their authority. But, like the business manager, they must decide between Theory X and Theory Y. Are they all about power or are they truly about leadership? As Lord Acton put it “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
What would a Theory Y diocesan bishop look like? While he is aware that he must make some unquestionable decisions by reason of his office he must be continuously in touch with his congregation. First of course he must be in frequent dialogue with his parish priests and other formal institutions. Then he must be very aware of the views of the laity – which may require regular representatives meetings. In listening to the views of these groups he must be aware that beyond the arguments he is listening to the people of God. He must be open to their experience and their spirituality.