Too Big to Succeed

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is not flourishing within the Church. For that matter it is not flourishing anywhere in the modern world, where centralized, top-down organization has long been spreading, with its promises of “planning” and economies of scale.

False promises these are, invariably. I am most concerned with the Church, but she makes so small an impression on the contemporary spiritual and cultural landscape, that I’m inclined to start with the things we can see. Big business and big government, coalescing through massive lobbying from one side, and massive regulation from the other, is what can be seen, everywhere.

The promises are false because life is actually conducted on a human scale. This is not some idealist formulation: it actually happens in that way, and even a man who is President of America is surrounded by a remarkably small circle in his everyday life. He has regular human contact with, at most, a few dozen of his fellow creatures, and if he can remember the names of a thousand people, or even ten thousand, they will be a microscopic sampling of the population at large. He can only be in every living room by electronic projection.

Alas, technology has made “virtuality” possible.

Bureaucracy is not a theory. It is the inevitable consequence of top-down management. It pertains as much to huge companies as to huge government departments. Services may be delivered with more or less efficiency, but the administrative overheads for serving millions are necessarily vast.

A repairman who comes to fix your Internet connection may be dispatched from a call center on the planet Neptune, but must nevertheless be physically present at a very local place and time. He may follow stipulated procedures and protocols, from which he deviates at the risk of his job, but he is still faced with a specific task, in all of its disconcerting uniqueness.

Subsidiarity is the reverse principle of organization. Power should be, as much as possible, diffused, devolved. Decisions should be made at the lowest practicable level, and informally in preference to formally. Problems not soluble at the local level should be passed upwards, if and only if that proves necessary. Indifference from above should skid them right back. There should be penalties for creating a nuisance, and the expense that entails. People should learn to deal with a world, which since the Fall of Man has been demonstrably imperfect. They should “cultivate their gardens.”

For dependence on massive bureaucracies (whether nominally “public” or “private”) is dehumanizing. The most obvious effect, visible in all modern urban directions, is now called “failure to launch.” The average citizen of our fair democracy is not compelled to behave as an adult and is therefore unlikely to acquire the skills. He need take no responsibility beyond turning up for work. Maturity is optional, and as I have seen with my own sad eyes, many now arrive in the nursing homes without ever having taken one conscious risk.

Now, it is my understanding that the Church to which I belong is – if we overlook current staff and property holdings – not of this world.


In ages past, and in some remote areas today, she operates on administrative principles that would leave a modern bureaucrat scratching his noggin. She is commanded to operate on a mandate from Jesus Christ – not to maintain nor to change the world, but to save its inhabitants.

Or rather, she was. From Rome I receive a constant audio-visual buzz about grand political, economic, and environmental issues upon which each little Catholic is instructed to obsess. By such as Cardinal Archbishop Cupich of Chicago (not my favorite bishop, truth to tell), I am told that the Church should consider emulating the “best management practices” of multinational corporations, in order to clean up the stinking sexual corruption that has been soiling our brand in so many countries.

Let me charitably assume he was joking.

At a website to which a priest directed me (that of Taylor Marshall), I find “subsidiarity” recommended towards the same end: cleaning, or helping to clean up, our unholy mess. We are already behaving like a multinational corporation, with mega-dioceses that have replaced the much smaller and more personal dioceses that were normative in the past.

How can a bishop possibly minister to hundreds or thousands of priests, and often millions of the baptized, except through an isolating diocesan bureaucracy? Is it any wonder that our Church becomes so worldly, or that the most hideous deformations occur, when the only difference between our big organization and others is a doctrinal raison d’être that – in the absence of belief – has only the effect of enhancing temptations?

As Dr. Marshall would agree, huge as it is, the monstrous size of dioceses is not our primary problem. Sudden mass conversions have out-sized dioceses in the past. It takes time to break them down into units small enough that a bishop’s primary function becomes pastoral, instead of administrative.

Meanwhile, sin is universal, and we practice it ourselves. Honest Catholics take it to Confession; they fast and do penance for themselves and for the world. Our primary “social problem,” now and through the ages, has been dishonest Catholics: those incapable of sincerity because they don’t really believe in God. Sometimes this decadence sets in from the beginning.

Yet I invite gentle reader to review some Church history. Consider, for instance, the size of medieval dioceses and parishes: the intimate scale in which they flourished through so many centuries; the monastic life that was everywhere close at hand.

I am, like most Catholics, deeply ashamed to discover that our remote hierarchs are behaving no better than we are. This is certainly a public relations disaster. I am likewise bothered that they preach from high hills, on topics that aren’t even plausibly Christian.

Paradoxically, they might be made less worldly, by bringing them closer to Earth.


*Image: The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1339 [Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: