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Subsidiarity, Foreign and Domestic Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 02 February 2013

We Americans like to think of our political arrangements as permanent and unchangeable. The Constitution displayed in temple-like fashion in the National Archives is the very document adopted in 1789 that gave rise to our Republic. But permanence is not a principle of justice.

France is on its fifth republic since that year. Germany in the last century shot from Kaiser, to Weimar Republic, to National Socialism, to democracy and reunification. Orthodox Russia lurched from tsar to atheistic communism to oligarchy (with democratic ornamentation along the way). Both external conquest and internal dissent drive such changes, which are the norm in history.

The U. S. Constitution has been amended and reinterpreted, sometimes dramatically, as we were reminded again on the anniversary of Roe v Wade. The results have been significant over the years – as in the growth of the power and resources of the central government – but gradual.

But that gradualism has come to endanger the fundamental principle of subsidiarity.

There’s a lesson in another country with a record of relative stability in recent centuries: the United Kingdom. Britain has often stood apart from political jostlings and cultural flings across the English Channel.

When the European Coal and Steel Community was formed shortly after World War II, its key leaders were Catholics: Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Robert Schuman of France, and Alcide de Gasperi of Italy (all of whom have been proposed for beatification). They sought to integrate the economic power of Germany into a structure that would open the way to long-term peace and prosperity for all of Europe, without centralizing power dangerously.

The United Kingdom chose not to join, preferring its traditional distance from things continental. But as the European common market grew, the British rethought their position for fear of being left out of economic growth. After an initial rebuff from France, Britain eventually became a member of the European Communities in 1973.

Still, ambivalence remained. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was dubious about the growing role of Brussels and famously obtained a rebate for British contributions to the E.C. (now the E.U.). with the demand, “We are simply asking to have our own money back.” 

The persistence of that view has just forced Prime Minister David Cameron to promise a referendum on Britain’s E.U. membership by 2017, if his Conservative Party retains power through the expected 2015 elections. In the meantime, he hopes to negotiate new terms with other E.U. members for British participation that would change the minds of the half of U.K. voters who say they would like to exit the E.U. 

Cameron has updated the image of his Tories, but many see him as an unprincipled opportunist.  He is certainly one of the few recent Western politicians to mention moral relativism repeatedly as a cultural, and thus political, problem for his country, though he does not seem to have a solution.

           Prime Minister Cameron depicted as a mad bomber in the European press

His announcement of the referendum drew objections from Germany and other staunchly pro-E.U. governments, including the Obama administration.

But still, other countries also have doubts. The Finns have put Eurosceptic forces in power recently. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has angered many pro-E.U. commentators with a new constitution that some see as undemocratic. Such criticism is partly justified, and Orban’s government has introduced changes to respond. 

Yet the volume of vitriol aimed at Orban seems to stem in part from his open rejection of the dominance of Brussels. That rejection brings charges of nationalism (and he indeed attracts some unsavory, right-wing populist supporters as well). 

Some of the reaction to Orban outside Hungary may be sharpened by the reference to Christian roots in the new constitution’s preamble – a striking contrast to the refusal of the drafters of the failed E.U. constitution a few years back to include Christianity among the sources of contemporary Europe. 

The core principle at stake is that of subsidiarity. According to this vital Catholic teaching, all questions should be decided at the lowest possible level of community. This assuredly does not rule out national governments and international organizations.  It accepts the need for higher authority (for example, a pope) where local entities cannot competently handle a problem.  But it constrains impositions from above, and the European Union claims to accept the principle. 

The reaction to the growth of E.U. authority in the United Kingdom and elsewhere is, in effect, an assertion that subsidiarity is being violated.  “We are simply asking to have our own rightful power back,” many people seem to be saying.

This debate suggests that as strong as the elite-driven centralizing forces have been in the E.U. for decades, there are strong decentralizing forces at work today.

This holds lessons for the United States. The American Founders, through arduous compromise, devised a system of federal government strong enough to do what was necessary for the common good while reserving many powers to the states – in its way, a system of sensible, prudent subsidiarity. That balance has changed substantially, especially since the beginning of the progressive era with Teddy Roosevelt and, in a different vein, Woodrow Wilson. 

The founders knew from study of democratic experiments since ancient times that their arrangements were fragile, vulnerable to all the dangers by which ordered liberty might give way to oligarchy and mobocracy.

As is happening in Europe, considerations of subsidiarity in this country can force a critical discussion of the basic purposes and forms of government.

We cannot go back to the very different place that was the United States of 1789.  But a modern centralized state that rejects subsidiarity is unjust. That injustice should move us to restore subsidiarity to our political arrangements.

Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.
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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 02, 2013
The preamble to every EU directive contains a statement that "In accordance with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality as set out in Article 5 of the Treaty, the objectives of this Regulation cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore be better achieved by the Community. This Regulation does not go beyond what is necessary to achieve those objectives."

I suppose at least acknowledging the principle is a start.

As an aside, not only were Adenauer, Schumann and De Gasperi all Catholics, they all came from minority German-speaking areas.
written by Grump, February 02, 2013
Great piece, Joe. Alas, we live in Hamilton's big-government America, not Jefferson's ideal of sovereign state. Talk of secession is in the air these days but doubt any state, no matter how red, will be able to assert its right to leave the union with a new "Lincoln" in the White House.
written by Clement Williams, February 02, 2013
Mr. Wood, "The core principle at stake is that of subsidiarity. According to this vital Catholic teaching, all questions should be decided at the lowest possible level of community."

As I read the Old and New Testaments, your assertion is right, but, the 'lowest possible level' appears to be the Individual and the economy and efficiency of Subsidiarity at the individual, family, and village level is far greater than what has happened with the gradual ceding of this privilege to a 'Democratic''Government'. Democracy, from and Ideal, has become, in effect, an Idol and Government has become exactly what the Lord warned the Israelites in 1 Samuel, Chapter 8, would happen when they demanded a King like their neighbors had.

Looking back over the last 2 years alone, Bill Gates with his foundation has done more than all the Governments in advancing cures on a mass scale of ancient diseases like TB, amebiasis etc. while Warren Buffett, equally wealthy, has been content to bend his knee at the altar of Government.

Why has this happened? I believe that this due to making Our Lord Jesus Christ, the MAN who walked the land of Israel and was SEEN and HEARD first hand by His disciples two thousand years ago, but, with our increasing self-idolization and idolization of 'Leaders' with feet of clay, we have effectively made the same Jesus Christ who we can no longer see except in statues and art, an idol too!
written by Mack Hall, February 02, 2013
Wonderfully said. Thank you.
written by diaperman, February 02, 2013
Subsidiarity as the Church teaches it is really centered around truths of the human person--namely that man is a social being whose family and community life should not be absorbed into the state.

Like many conservatives, you've turned the concept into something more about political economy. With all respect, the Church has no position on the balance between state and federal power in the US or Europe. Conservative Catholics should not suggest otherwise.
written by Joseph Wood, February 02, 2013
D-man: Thanks for your comment. Your first line on Church teaching is correct, as I understand it. But political arrangements are included in the broader principle of subsidiarity (not identical with that principle, but subject to it), because those arrangements greatly affect the lives of the individuals, families, and communities who are part of the larger political structure. Again, you are correct that the Church does not, at least usually, declare some political arrangements to be in accord with subsidiarity, others not. That is a prudential judgment for all of us, conservative or not, to debate and decide, using the principle of subsidiarity (and other principles such as solidarity) as guides.
written by TeaPot562, February 02, 2013
Are the words of Jesus in Matt. 25:31-46 addressed to us as individuals? Or as a government?
The effect of many clergy, both Catholic and non-Catholic, lobbying the US Congress for more and larger government programs suggests the interpretation that Jesus wants the government to "feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, etc."
If the government is supposed to do it, then my duties as a Christian are limited to paying my taxes, right?
I hope that the sarcasm above shows through, as I firmly disagree with the assignment of charitable needs strictly to governmental functions.
written by Mr. M. Savage, February 04, 2013
Another principle of social order that may help one understand the balances of subsidiarity is the relationship of on the one hand, the individual with the state, and on the other, the state with the personality.

In the former, the individual serves the state, whether is represented locally, regionally or nationally. The state ultimately being symbolised by its sovereign.

In the latter, the state must work to serve the proper development of its people, or strictly speaking, each singular personality. Most perfectly, that personality should be Catholic.

As one can see, any imbalance in the duplexity here affects either the state or the person or both.

Similarly, therefore, is the necessity of striking the right balance between working at the lowest level, while maintaining a tangible Common Good.
written by Louise, February 06, 2013
Diaperman, I don't understand your criticism. I think you are defining subsidiarity too narrowly.

It's simply a part of natural law upon which the Church has expounded. Subsidiarity is a principle that applies to every level of organization in which man participates.

Yes, the Church has emphasized the rights of the family by referencing this principle but she has not thereby limited its application to just those relationships nor could she because it is a basic principle of just organization.

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