I am pleased to welcome Dr. Jordan J. Ballor as a new contributor here at the PT Blog. He is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. In addition to his growing contributions to contemporary discussions in economic and political ethics, he is very well-versed in the political theology of the Protestant Reformation and the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Now that the election season is over in America, it might be a good time to take a step back and take a longer, more substantive look at some of the principles of Christian social thought than is sometimes possible in the midst of soundbites and stump speeches. Given the religious makeup of the candidates at the top of the tickets, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) was the focus of some attention in the national political conversation. It’s been noted that the political overlays onto religious faith are often just as constricting and reductive as partisanship itself. As Robert Joustra has observed, “Isn’t it ironic that the ecclesial conversation is essentially a thinly-baptized version of exactly the same disagreements in the secular world, but with less technical capacity and more theological abstraction?”
This is in some sense what has happened to principles of CST like subsidiarity and solidarity. The former has become seen as the hallmark of politically-conservative Catholic advocacy, while the latter is taken as characteristic of liberal, progressive, or “social justice” Catholicism. In this respect, Prof. Meghan Clark is right to point out that these principles are more substantive and not reducible to one side or another of political debates. “It is a mistake,” she warns, “to approach the principle of subsidiarity within the context of the perennial American debate concerning the size and scope of government.”
A more helpful approach is to take up these principles within their intellectual and social historical context, as Prof. Clark does with respect to subsidarity and the papal encyclicals. Prof. Patrick Brennan likewise has posted a paper exploring “what subsidiarity means in Catholic social doctrine, period.” Prof. Clark cites the preeminent statement of subsidiarity within the context of CST, from the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (par. 79):
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.
Or as Centesimus Annus would later put it, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”
Much of the modern academic interest in subsidiarity outside of Roman Catholic circles is due to the explicit integration of the term into the formation of the European Union. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 “established the principle of subsidiarity as a general rule, which was initially applied to environmental policy in the Single European Act. This principle specifies that in areas that are not within its exclusive powers the Community shall only take action where objectives can best be attained by action at Community rather than at national level. Article A provides that the Union shall take decisions as close as possible to the citizen.” In the context of this latter point regarding local proximity, there has been some advocacy to have the term subsidiarity enter the popular lexicon.
Within the broader scope of the idea’s history, however, subsidiarity has not been restricted to the realm of politics. There are, in fact, as I have argued elsewhere, ecclesiastical as well as civil political roots of the modern conception of subsidiarity, and the idea has broader implications for the social order as a whole rather than simply the organization and relationship of various levels of government and jurisditions. As Prof. Clark puts it,
The principle of subsidiarity is about the well-ordered society directed towards the common good and this requires the state, individuals, institutions, civil organizations and churches all work together in civil society.
The lexical background of the term is, in fact, military in origin. The Roman subsidium was a military unit held in reserve until such time as it was need to step in to provide help for or to replace a failing unit, or to add resources in the collection of spoils after a victory. By analogy this idea of “help” or “reinforcement” was applied to social thought and philosophy, first more generally and later more technically and carefully. Brennan, in fact, notes the more technical use of subsidiarum as a lexical background.
Just as subsidiarity is a broader social and cultural principle rather than merely a political device, it also has deeper roots in the Christian tradition beyond its formulation in modern Roman Catholic Social Teaching. Subsidiarity is linked closely with the Christian conception of natural law, and is rooted in the challenge of moral proximity and the Augustinian order of loves (ordo amoris). As Augustine eloquently observed regarding these obligations,
all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. For, suppose that you had a great deal of some commodity, and felt bound to give it away to somebody who had none, and that it could not be given to more than one person; if two persons presented themselves, neither of whom had either from need or relationship a greater claim upon you than the other, you could do nothing fairer than choose by lot to which you would give what could not be given to both. Just so among men: since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you.
Subsidiarity within the context of Christian social thought is a diverse and dynamic Augustinian legacy, with implications for the arrangement of social institutions, both with respect to one another as well as in terms of internal organization. The forthcoming volume, Subsidiarity in Comparative Perspective, edited by Michelle Evans and Augusto Zimmermann (in which Prof. Brennan’s paper linked above will be included), promises to enrich contemporary discussions by developing these dynamics from a variety of religious and political perspectives.