Subsidiarity: Theory X versus Theory Y

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.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries, subsidiarity, Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Democracy or Tyranny?

Perhaps we have all read, more than perhaps we wanted to, about clerical abuse and the summit of bishops led by Pope Francis , which ended on 24 February. So today I want to look at a more basic factor but which may have played an important part in the traditional behaviour of diocesan bishops. I am referring to the quaint arrangement which in effect gives complete disciplinary power to the bishop. I use the term ‘quaint’ because, unlike Victorian times, most successful secular operations nowadays not only listen to their staffs but deliberately look for communication and feedback. And of course, either by choice or by law, staffs have important rights.

There are some who would turn at this point to the powers given by Christ to the Apostles, and so to their successors. That closes the case. Or does it? The secular operations to which I have referred continue to have boards and bosses, and a range of executive levels. And necessarily there are rules and formal behaviours which are necessary for success and legality. They are neither democracies nor tyrannies.

Some 50 years ago Donald Nicholl, a leading lay Catholic at the time, wrote an article in the Clergy Review called “The Layman and Ecclesiastical Authority.” He quoted a sociologist, Professor Revans, who had conducted a study of communication in hospitals. Revans took a group of hospitals and compared those which had low turnover of staff at all levels and those which had high turnover. He examined a range of hypotheses which might throw up essential factors. The contrast turned out to be the quality of communication.

The poor hospitals were of course communicating, but the direction of communication was typically downwards. Each level treated the level below as idiots, and the final level of idiocy was the patients at the bottom of the heap. Virtually no communication travelled upwards, and, interestingly, there was very little lateral communication – that is, the different professional functions chose to insulate themselves from each other.

The good hospitals had an easy flow of communication upwards and downwards, and the professional groups worked comfortably together to maximise efficiency. In only one respect did the good hospitals have a higher turnover: the patients had shorter stays because they got better quicker. It was as if the poor hospitals existed to maintain themselves, with the patients as no more than an unavoidable nuisance, while the good hospitals worked together, and with the patients, in the shared objective of healing.

Hospitals and religious communities are different in many ways but both of them share imperatives. Both of them contain different functions which are nevertheless related. Both of them flourish through sharing responsibilities. Both of them are concerned with healing. Is it possible to have a Church in which communication and respect throughout is the key to presenting the life of Christ to the world?

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 42 Comments

Human flourishing

Before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger spoke of Socrates as “in a certain respect the prophet of Jesus Christ”. He saw him as a philosopher who was concerned with the fundamental questions of whether man alone sets standards for himself or whether we can be confident of man’s capacity for objective truth. Socrates never wrote down his conclusions because he never arrived at one: he could only move towards truth through critically challenging his own ignorance.

Socrates tells the story of how the Oracle of Delphi said that there was no man wiser than him. This seemed so unlikely that he felt it necessary to test it by discussions with politicians, savants and craftsmen. He found that they knew many things which, on examination, turned out to be untrue. He concluded that his wisdom lay, by contrast, in not thinking that he knew things when he did not.

The philosopher’s approach was maieutic. Instead of proclaiming his own views, he asked questions which enabled his friends to explore what they claimed and, in doing so, to discover their errors. But he must, I suspect, have been a rather trying conversationalist, always ready to challenge what he heard. For instance, one debate – about whether God loves the good because the good is lovable or the good is lovable because God loves it – involves around 170 exchanges and still ends inconclusively. At one point his interlocutor calls him a bully.

But his fundamental principle is straightforward: virtue is the necessary outcome of knowledge. If we fully understand how our behaviour contributes to the flourishing of mankind, then that is how we behave. To behave otherwise is the result of ignorance. Perhaps his best-known quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, sums him up. This is much more extensive than a simple examination of conscience; it requires us from time to time to face up to and confirm our deepest values, and judge how well we express them in the conduct of our lives. When was the last time we set aside an hour or two for deep self-examination?

He did not, I think, use the phrase “natural law”, but this has become the description of the behaviour we require for flourishing. It was later to be explicitly identified by the Greeks as the principle of Stoicism. Stoicism was adopted by the Romans and influenced Christianity in the development of natural law, which remains the basis for moral teaching to this day.

Natural law has by no means been popular with all philosophers. Take the 18th-century writer David Hume: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning, concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Arguably, Hume was the patron saint of logical positivism. This held that the metaphysical questions addressed by traditional philosophy had no meaning since, by definition, they could not meet Hume’s criteria.

We have assumed in the past that natural laws do not change – after all, it was God who created human nature. But perhaps we should remember that He did so through the process of evolution over some 3.5 billion years, and it continues to evolve. For example, the modern habit of women to have children later in life will eventually increase the typical age of the menopause. Moreover, as we understand more and more about human nature through genetics and psychology, we are helped towards a deeper understanding of how we may flourish in modern circumstances. Socrates would have been the first to investigate aspects of existing moral law.

An interesting example is Fr Josef Fuchs, SJ. He was appointed to the official contraception commission as an expert, and an orthodox, moral theologian. But having discussed the matter with the representative female witnesses he concluded that, through marital experience, they understood aspects of the natural law unrealised by the ecclesiastics. But others might argue that the widespread use of artificial contraception has effectively separated sexual activity from fertilisation – and so from marriage, with consequences which may be far from human flourishing.

Socrates would have had little truck with moral rules presented to him by external authority: his emphasis was always on his individual grasp achieved through questioning and confirmation. The moral theologian Fr James F Keenan SJ records Fuchs saying to him: “You Americans are so emphatic with your judgments. You finish your statements with a period. I find a question mark much more effective.” Socrates would have agreed.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy | 57 Comments

Who knows?

There has been considerable discussion over the last year or two concerning the question of admitting Catholics in a second marriage to the Eucharist. I summarise this by the statement of Pope Francis in 2016: In his September 5, 2016 letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis endorsed their interpretation of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, saying that the bishops’ document “is very good and completely explains the meaning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”

The document by the Buenos Aires bishops, entitled “Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia”, allows communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, saying that in “complex circumstances” when the remarried couple could not “obtain a declaration of nullity,” the priests can nevertheless move forward to grant them access to Holy Communion.

On the other hand Cardinal Müller recently affirmed that the Catholic Church is the “instrument of salvation”, that heaven and hell are eternal, and that moral teaching is essential to the path of salvation. He said that the divorced and remarried cannot receive the Eucharist if in a sexual relationship. (This is, in effect, confirmation of what the Church has traditionally taught.)

So what do you think? Behind this particular issue lies a broad and important question with regard to Catholic moral teaching. Briefly, the basis is the Natural Law. Or, to put it another way, if we follow the requirements of our nature, we flourish; if we go against our nature we damage ourselves, and often others. Traditionally adultery has always been taken as against the nature of marriage – which is not surprising given that Scripture is equally clear on the matter.

It looks to me as if Francis, and those who agree with him, are arguing that the established principles of natural law may not apply in certain circumstances. Presumably there is reason to argue that in such cases the importance of sexual expression in the second marriage may be seen to be closer to human flourishing than abstention. This is not entirely novel: Josef Fuchs SJ, the great natural law theologian, accepted the possibility of artificial contraception after he had discussed with married women their understanding of flourishing as it might occur in marriage.

Are we moving towards a situation in which the morals laws, as they are described, for instance in the Catechism, should be regarded as strong guides rather than absolute rules. And what might be outcomes be?

Posted in Moral judgment, Pope Francis, Quentin queries | Tagged | 56 Comments

Have I made a mistake?

Why is the first paragraph of this column so important? That is easy to answer. If the first paragraph sounds sufficiently interesting you are more likely to read on. And, providing that your interest continues as we get into the thick of it, you will read to the end. But we may not be aware that this may be a simple instance of how evolution frequently leads us into error. You may like to consider the most usual ways where psychologists tell us we tend to go wrong.

My first example is known as fight or flight. For our pre human ancestors the safest response to any threat was either to prepare immediate defence or to escape from the situation. So our brains learnt to respond instantly, and, even before our conscious thinking, our bodies reacted – for example, a possible danger triggered the adrenalin needed for swift action. Fortunately we don’t meet such threats too often, but our ability to digest our first reactions, and our tendency to maintain them is still with us. For example, the initial impression of a candidate applying for a position can influence the final decision, even in the light of contradictory evidence.

Physical appearance can alter the verdict of a jury or the size of damages. The friendships and the relationships we develop can be affected for better or worse.
Another common source of potential error is confirmation bias. When we have taken a definite view on some issue or another we are liable to maximise the evidence which supports our belief and to minimise the evidence against it. A classic example is climate change. That there were opposing sides to the debate was easy to understand initially but, given the mounting evidence, it is no longer so. Yet there are still those who believe that the claim of likely climate change is some sort of international conspiracy. Their patron saint appears to be President Trump. We may often meet confirmation bias in religious discussions, and we are more likely to be aware of the evidence which supports our beliefs than the evidence which opposes them.

I have personal experience of what are called fixation errors. I may well get stuck when I am drafting a column: what should the next paragraph be?; how is the darn thing going to end?; why did I ever start it? Then I took the advice of Linda Blair (a clinical psychologist, google her). She demonstrated, in a Telegraph article, the value of deliberately switching from one task to another on a regular basis. The studies showed that this regime produced better results than sticking to the first task until completion. It has often saved my life. Since then I have reinforced this through deliberate methods of freeing my brain, allowing it to present me with a range of entirely new ideas.

In theory the broader and wider our experience the better off our decisions should be. But there is a danger that our memories become selective. For instance, following a disappointing holiday in a foreign country, we might carry a general idea about that country for ever afterwards. We may do the same with staff: men versus women, graduates versus non graduates, Irish versus Scottish, may give us long term firm opinions from a single instance in our experience. Prejudice rather than thought out and researched views may well be guiding us.

Which! Magazine (November 2018) has some excellent material about purchasing, on line or in store. The sellers make good use of comparisons – a common source of error. For a simple example, an expensive television may be deliberately placed by a cheaper one – and by comparison the cheaper one seems a bargain. This is reinforced by suggesting that a quick purchase is essential. Our fear of loss (twice as powerful in its influence as the attraction of gain) may rush us into error. It seems odd that respectable businesses should use such ingenious traps to deceive us.

Married or female priests, adultery in second marriages, contraception, homosexuality, clericalism are all issues discussed today. Have your views on any of these been modified in the last 20 years? If so, what has altered your mind? It may be rigorous logic or further information. But it is also likely to have been influenced by the views of others. It is hard to be an outlier; it’s more comfortable, and consistent with evolution, to be in line with people like us. It has been suggested that our tendency to make common judgments is unique to us as a race and a reason for our success, compared for instance with the Neanderthals. Annoyingly, if your views have not changed over 20 years you will then have to consider whether your brain has been active at all.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy | 26 Comments


Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – the classical cardinal virtues. They read well but their old fashioned names allow us to leave them in the back of our minds. So it might be useful to look at some of the virtues which we meet everyday. My first virtue to be examined is Empathy.

This habit is closely connected to loving our neighbour since it requires us to be responsive to him as he is in himself and not merely as we see him from the outside. It should not be confused with sympathy (often good in itself but not relevant here) which means sharing our neighbour’s feelings. Empathy means understanding what these feelings are so that we can react constructively to them.

A hospital nurse will no doubt feel sympathy for her patients from time to time. However she knows that she cannot afford to allow too much emotional involvement; this would not only be an unbearable strain for her but it could well interfere with her professional care. Yet if she is without empathy and so has no understanding of what her patients are feeling or experiencing then her ability to help them will be much reduced.

Empathy preserves us from thinking that what is good for us will necessarily be good for our neighbour. This would be to love him as if he were ourselves. If we love him as we love ourselves then we have to try to love him in his own terms – from inside, so to speak. Only in this way can we love him in the way we love ourselves.

Imagine a situation – quite familiar nowadays – when you have finally reached a customer service clerk after a tedious track through an automated telephone system. How easy it is to allow your aggravation to colour your attitude to what you might see as non-cooperation. But think for a moment how it must feel to be the clerk, who is bound by the company’s regulations and has spent the day, as he does every day, dealing with aggrieved customers.

Does the situation look a little different now.? Is it possible that a better understanding of what the other person is experiencing would motivate us to be more constructive, and might even get us the help we require? As it happens telephone staff rate very low on job satisfaction; you might not care to change places with them except in your imagination.

But more important, perhaps, are our relations: spouses, children, parents, siblings etc. Of course we love them all, but how about our empathy? Have we really thought about their feeling, or just assume them? I look back on a long and excellent marriage. And I can see many issues I could have handled better if I had used empathy more fully. How about you?

Apologies for the late appearance of this blog. Entirely my fault, I fear.

Posted in Quentin queries, Spirituality, virtue ethics | 34 Comments

Finishing Finnis

In a recent blog we were discussing the case of Professor Finnis and homosexuality. It brought us up to the question of Natural Law. So let’s try to remind ourselves of what we know about this.

The concept of Natural Lsw is straightforward. Have you got a washing machine? If so I hope that you use it in accordance with its washing machine nature, so that it performs properly and does not break down. You can find out its nature partly by observation and common sense, but more thoroughly through studying the manufacturer’s handbook.

Human beings are subject similarly to their own nature. As an example we can recognise this because we are social animals. So we need to have rules about, say, telling lies or stealing. And of course we have the manufacturer’s handbook – which we call the Bible. In addition we have a service team appointed and guaranteed by the manufacturer to guide us when we need additional help. We call this the Church. And, like the properly used washing machine, we flourish. But there is a difference of degree here: if we break the rules of the washing machine we may have to buy another one; if we break the rules of human nature the sanction can be the weeping and gnashing of teeth into eternity. Best get it right!

Natural Law has been with us for a long time. We need to go back to the Greeks and to the philosophy of Stoicism – which the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and was readily taken up by the Church, and further developed by moral philosophers. Think Aquinas. There was however an important change in the evidence. For nineteen hundred years after its foundation the Church was able to use biology as a certain source of some elements of the Natural Law. The argument was simple: God had created our biology directly so we could, so to speak, read off his requirements from that. For example, we may never tell an actual lie because the faculty of speech was created for sharing the truth.

Many of the issues here are of course about sexuality, which is necessarily related to biology. The obvious example is artificial contraception. It is easy to see how a condom interferes directly with the nature of sexual intercourse., and so it follows that there can never be a permissible reason to justify it. But here I use the example of homosexuality since this was the major factor in Finnis’s teaching.

No one would try to deny that the male and female sexual organs are the basis of heterosexual activities. So if we use the measurement of biology we must conclude that the homosexual act is evil in itself, and can never be justified. But let’s rephrase that and speak of homosexuality as a mismatch.

A mismatch is ordinarily avoided because it throws up problems as a result. Broadly it is undesirable. But if we suppose that an individual, through no fault of her’s or his, is emotionally ordered towards homosexual desires and away from heterosexual desires, can we find room to excuse a committed homosexual relationship?

Since homosexual promiscuity is a much greater and more damaging mismatch, we might even go further pace Finnis,and formalise committed relationships. I, however, do not think that such relationships should be called ‘marriage’. Marriage is a unique concept and and its identity should not be misused. However I would have no difficulty with a church service which noted, celebrated and prayed for such a relationship. Pope Francis, speaking of homosexuality famously said:”Who am I to judge?” In that context he quoted St John of the Cross “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.”

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 44 Comments