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Subsidiarity goes both ways: when the big guy ought to protect the little guy

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI (pictured with Pope Francis in 2013), said there was no theological basis for national episcopal conferences. The synod is currently discussing whether national conferences should be able to adopt pastoral practices regarding the family that are radically different from preceding practices. Photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI (pictured with Pope Francis in 2013), said there was no theological basis for national episcopal conferences. The synod is currently discussing whether national conferences should be able to adopt pastoral practices regarding the family that are radically different from preceding practices. Photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters.

Letters from the Synod: Special edition 2 – 10 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and around the world on the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II

As Synod 2015 ends its first week of work, a crucial point of conversation and debate over the next two weeks is coming into clearer focus as other, more mediagenic proposals fade into the background: Should the Synod affirm the proposition that national or regional conferences of bishops have the authority to make pastoral provisions for local churches that differ dramatically from the pastoral practices previously in force throughout the universal Church?

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Those arguing in favour of this proposal frequently appeal to the core Catholic social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity.” In an extension of that principle, which they understand to be implied by Vatican II’s theology of collegiality, they further suggest that these national or regional conferences of bishops enjoy an authority “between” that of the Bishop of Rome and the individual, local bishops in communion with him. This latter question will be addressed next week in this space.

In order to further discussion of whether the principle of subsidiarity “works” as a buttress supporting this proposal for pastoral-disciplinary devolution, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD is pleased to present, in this weekend Special Report, an important essay co-authored by Cardinal George Pell and Dr Michael Casey. The essay originally appeared in a volume published in Berlin by Duncker & Humblot, Besinnung auf das Subsidiaritätsprinzip [Reflections on the Principle of Subsidiarity], edited by Dr Anton Rauscher as Volume 23 in the series Soziale Orientierung [Social Orientation]. The full academic apparatus accompanying the essay, offered here with minimal references, may be found in that volume. XR2

Subsidiarity and Organisational Reforms in the Catholic Church

The Principle of Subsidiarity

 Subsidiarity is an important “constructive principle” for bringing about coherence and cooperation in “multi-layered” societies. Social life usually comprises a large number of autonomous associations and institutions. There is considerable variation in place and time, both in the level of organisation these different entities attain and in the complexity of relations between them. As Pope Saint John XXIII observed in Mater et Magistra (1961), the growth and development of society is “the creation of men who are free and autonomous by nature”, and it is “vital” for “the full development of human personality” that these associations and institutions “be really autonomous, and loyally collaborate in pursuit of their own specific interests and those of the common good”. Subsidiarity is an ordering principle for bringing about the right balance “between the autonomous and active collaboration of individuals and groups, and the timely coordination and encouragement by the State of these private undertakings” (#63-67).

The role of the state looms large in subsidiarity, both in discussion and also in practice. For example, in the European Union subsidiarity has been incorporated as a political and legal principle for balancing the powers of the EU and its member states. In the social teaching of the Church, however, subsidiarity is not confined to questions of law and politics. It extends beyond these important considerations to questions about the nature of human community and the meaning of the common good. In addition to the state and its instrumentalities, subsidiarity encompasses “a great variety of forms and expressions of human community” such as the family, unions, clubs, corporations and schools. As Nicholas Aroney puts it, “the basic idea” is that each of these communities “should be allowed to make its own distinctive contribution to the common good without improper interference from the governing institutions of other communities, yet at the same time with appropriate ‘help’ or ‘aid’ (subsidium) from other institutions where assistance is warranted”.

Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) remain the great milestones in the development of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching. For both Leo XIII and Pius XI, discussion of the principle also revolved around the proper role and limits of the state. Professor Patrick Brennan has suggested that a further question underlying subsidiarity for these popes and their successors is the place of the Church and the communities it comprises in the social order of modernity. This also goes to whether it is still possible to differentiate the Church from other “intermediary institutions” in modern society, given its special nature. These are important and interesting questions, and they point to a further question.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches “the Church is in history, but at the same time she transcends it. It is only ‘with the eyes of faith’ that one can see her in her visible reality and at the same time in her spiritual reality as bearer of divine life”. Among the many aspects of the Church as a visible and spiritual reality, it is both a community embodied locally and universally, and a society “structured with hierarchical organs”. The Church is also led by the Successor of Peter, who “by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (CCC, #770, 752, 771, 882). In short, the Church is a unique “polity” and society in its own right. How does subsidiarity apply in this context?

Before turning to this, there is a further point about subsidiarity that it is important to highlight, concerning the appropriate weight that should be given to this principle.

The incorporation of subsidiarity into the legal framework of the European Union does not seem to have helped in clarifying this particular question. Christopher Henckel has suggested that “subsidiarity in its theological context” can “only serve as a political guideline or a mere principle”. In the EU context, however, where subsidiarity is defined variously in legislation as a political principle, as “a narrowly defined legal principle”, and as a “mandated decision making-process” involving “complicated procedural steps and controversial substantive judgments”, it remains “notoriously ambiguous”, according to Henkel.

Professor Ken Endo has also drawn an important distinction has also been between negative and positive concepts of subsidiarity. The negative concept serves as a limitation, either discretionary or mandatory, on the competence of the higher level authority to intervene: a higher level of authority either cannot or should not intervene if “the lower entity” can carry out its functions without assistance. The positive concept of subsidiarity highlights “the possibility or even the obligation of interventions from the higher organisation:” the higher level can, or should, or even must intervene if the lower entity is unable to carry out its functions unaided. The “double meaning of subsidiarity,” as both a limitation on intervention and an obligation to intervene in different circumstances, explains the “wide spectrum” of interpretation and application to which it is susceptible.

In part, this problem arises because the application of subsidiarity is a matter of prudential judgment, and what prudence requires in one situation may vary significantly from what is required in another. The papal magisterium of social encyclicals is very clear that intervention by a higher authority must be limited in time and scope, and must be only for the purposes of enabling communities and protecting “the mutual rights” of groups and individuals. In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII stipulated that “the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further” than is necessary to “justly and properly . . . safeguard and strengthen” the rights of citizens (#14).

In Centesimus Annus, Pope Saint John Paul II also underscored that action taken under the principle of subsidiarity is “supplementary.” It must be “justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, [and] must be as brief as possible” to avoid the danger of the state permanently removing the functions or role of important associations and institutions. This also minimizes the danger of “enlarging excessively [and permanently] the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom” (#48). As Pius XI emphasized on Quadragesimo Anno, each subsidiary intervention of the state and “every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (#79). The positive and negative concepts of subsidiarity arise from its nature as an enabling principle for civil society, which strengthens society as a whole.

A further consideration in assessing the weight that must be given to subsidiarity as a matter of prudential judgment is Pius XI’s description of it “as that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed”, and which “remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy” (ibid).

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 organisations can do.

Professor Brennan argues that this language means we should understand and apply subsidiarity “not as a ‘policy’ or a mere political preference, but instead as one among the unchangeable ontological principles of the socio-political order”, along with other principles such as solidarity and the common good.

Subsidiarity and the Catholic Church

Catholic teaching on subsidiarity was developed, especially by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, as a response to the anti-religious sentiments and activities of hostile revolutionary governments, which began with the French Revolution of 1789, continued after the 1848 revolutions, and re-emerged with the Nazi, Fascist and Communist governments of the earlier parts of the twentieth century.

It remains to be seen whether the substantial freedoms enjoyed by Christian communities in Western Europe since the Second World War are essential components of the future or whether the 19th– and 20th-century forms of harassment and persecution of Christian communities will be resumed here and there, justified perhaps as part of the anti-religious restriction of freedoms likely to be introduced in response to the disaffection and violence emanating from Islamic communities in Europe.

It would be ironic if the governments of the formerly Communist Eastern Europe emerged as the new defenders of religious freedom, of the rights of Christian communities to continue to teach and practise publicly their doctrines on sexuality, marriage, family and life issues, especially within institutions which receive government funding. On a similar but different front we all know of individuals, in (for example) Canada and the United Kingdom, who have been harassed by commissions and courts for giving out Christian teachings on sexuality. We know of the Fortnight for Freedom program endorsed by the bishops of the United States in 2013. In the ongoing struggles to maintain religious freedom in an increasingly irreligious, superstitious, and childless western world, the argument from subsidiarity to religious freedom will remain important. This, however, is not our theme here.

With the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, the Catholic Church has entered an exciting new phase, with the Holy Father enjoying a worldwide approval level not previously experienced, even in the early days of Saint John Paul II.

A wide range of expectations, some of them contradictory, has arisen on moral matters such as divorce and remarriage and homosexual practices, while the creation of a regularly meeting Council of Cardinals to advise the Holy Father and an expanded role for the Ordinary Council of the Synod have given new life to aspirations for change to the organisational patterns embodying the authority of the pope as the successor of the Saint Peter and individual bishops as successors of the apostles.

In the pontificates of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict liberal and radical Christians living in countries with a more “liberal” episcopate were often keen to decrease the authority of the Roman Curia and complained about excessive centralisation of decision making in the Vatican. With the advent of a new pope often estimated (wrongly in our belief) to be a doctrinal liberal, some of these more liberal elements might be more relaxed about Roman leadership, preferring that to a devolution of wider decision-making powers to a national hierarchy of a more conservative hue.

The standing of the Roman Curia in worldwide public opinion was severely damaged by officials in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Partly in response to this, and partly for wider theological reasons, some succumb to the temptation to embrace a negative and simplistic view of subsidiarity, in which the higher level of authority (Rome) either cannot or should not intervene, so that the lower entity can carry out its functions without interference.

What is of particular interest is that many espousing this point of view envisage a transfer of authority away from the Roman congregations to national or continental conferences rather than to individual bishops.

One unusual characteristic of the Catholic Church is that it is such a “flat” organisation, in which even metropolitan archbishops have little authority to intervene in other dioceses. Unlike a multinational corporation, the Church has no national, much less continental, general managers. Each bishop as a successor of the apostles, with his own authority as priest, prophet, and ruler, and not as a delegate or representative of the pope, is still directly responsible to the Holy Father as the successor of Peter, the rock man of the Church (Matthew 16:8). While individual bishops have a solemn obligation to cooperate, to strive to enhance communion, to work for a diocese–wide, national, and indeed universal unity (not uniformity), no bishop can be compelled by a national conference of bishops to adopt any particular policy. To what extent might a proper understanding of subsidiarity contribute to clarifying these ancient but evolving challenges?

The definition of subsidiarity offers considerable challenges. We have quoted Pope Pius XI on the one hand, who saw subsidiarity as “that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed” and which “remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy,” while Professor Nicholas Aroney has pointed out that in the European Union at least, and in all other polities where Christian presuppositions are not accepted, the concept remains “notoriously ambiguous.”

Every definition of subsidiarity within a religion flows from the nature of the particular religious community. Groups of evangelical Christians generally have little internal structure, no sacraments, and no intercommunity structures. Orthodox communities are regularly grouped as national churches, often linked to patriarchates, such as Constantinople or Moscow. Anglicanism was originally the Church of England.

The visible and spiritual reality of the Catholic Church as “one, holy, universal and apostolic” can only be accepted with the eyes of faith. But the obligations to maintain a world-wide unity – Christocentric, inspired by the apostolic tradition, nourished by the seven sacraments, and governed by a hierarchy of pope and bishops – define what is meant by the [ecclesial] common good and what is required for the flourishing of the Church and the service of the baptised and the wider “world.”

Only within this specific context, which acknowledges the binding power of the creeds, of baptismal formulae, and of the dogmatic definitions of popes and councils, can one identify the distinctive contributions of various elements. Only within this context can one judge whether right order is being disturbed by a pope and the Roman Curia in the universal Church, by a synod or council of bishops in a nation or continent, and indeed by a bishop in his diocese.

Professor Endo’s “positive concept” of subsidiarity highlights the “possibility or even the obligation of interventions from the higher organisation”, and what is required regularly from the pope and sometimes from individual bishops would be impossible in other hierarchically organised Christian Churches, and unthinkable in the many, unlinked Christian communities. One generally unremarked but extremely important and traditional role of the Roman Curia is to protect the local clergy, religious, and laity against unjust exercise of power by bishops.

Another preliminary clarification is to recognise that the doctrine of subsidiarity was developed to protect the rights of individuals and intermediary institutions in secular society, as they work towards the common good in free and active collaboration. One risks further complications if a theory developed for society generally is applied as such to the Catholic Church, while disregarding the differences between Church, state, and society and especially the supra-natural self understandings of the Church. Prescriptions for a civil society do not always translate exactly into prescriptions for a Church founded on the New Testament and Catholic tradition. For example, the Catholic Church is not a democracy. However, of course, the principle of subsidiarity is one of the fundamental principles of canon law; and Pope Pius XII, referring to Pius XI’s teaching in Quadragesimo Anno in an address to newly-created cardinals in 1946, made clear that the principle of subsidiarity does indeed apply to the Church, but without prejudice to its hierarchical structure.

A comparable confusion has emerged many times over the past fifty years when the rights of individuals and communities to practice their religion without interference from state authorities (except when the common good is damaged), as espoused in the 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council, have been applied willy-nilly to the internal life of the Church, in order to assert the primacy of the individual conscience to resist New Testament, magisterial, and papal teachings, while claiming to remain fully Catholic – asserting a right to so- called “loyal dissent” even in central doctrinal and moral teachings in the hierarchy of truths. Too rarely have local bishops followed their consciences and acted on their duty to maintain and preserve the apostolic tradition by disciplinary action.

Just as one’s faith is defined by belief in, or rejection of, the divinity of Christ, so one’s Catholic ecclesiology is defined by the status ascribed to the papacy, to the pope as successor of Saint Peter. Sometimes our enemies understand better than we do the importance of the papacy. In every country the Communists controlled they attempted to set up a national church independent of Rome. We know also from Hitler’s table talk that he intended to set up a pope in every country he conquered.

The most vivid example of this in the English-speaking world was the 16th-century assertion by King Henry VIII that he was head of the Catholic Church in England. Henry dissolved the monasteries, then the only sources of social welfare, and distributed much of this wealth to the local aristocracy, so securing their long- term support. But only one bishop, John Fisher of Rochester, resisted Henry.

Fisher, a fine patristics scholar, devoted years of study to the early history of the papacy and decided that this then-fifteen-hundred-year-long history was not just a unique and spectacular sociological and historical achievement, but a development, rooted in Christ’s teaching as reported in the New Testament, which represented God’s essential plan for the Catholic community. He believed this, and died for the belief, despite the fact that no pope in his lifetime would today be regarded as a “good” pope.

It was Fisher’s years of study that persuaded Thomas More, writer, lawyer and former Lord Chancellor of England, to adopt a similar position and so suffer a similar fate. We too believe in the traditional Catholic teaching on the role and office of the pope, and this has vast consequences for any theory of subsidiarity in the Church.

If the papacy is seen [primarily] as a spectacularly successful human story, despite the split with the Christian East in 1054 and the Protestant revolt in the sixteenth century, it is easier to see the pope as Patriarch of the West, whose span of influence has increased with the spread of the Latin Church through the missionary activity that accompanied western conquests in the Americas and Africa and western penetration into Asia. In such a naturalistic perspective, one could argue for a substantially increased role for continental synods, something akin to the ancient patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and then Constantinople. One would also risk repeating the mistakes, resurrecting national rivalries, as in the first millennium.

We have mentioned that bishops are successors of the apostles, who receive their authority at their ordination, and that while they receive their authority through him, they are not delegates of the pope. The Second Vatican Council developed the notion of collegiality (a term from Roman law and not the New Testament), whereby the whole college of bishops, always with and under the pope, is one expression of supreme authority in the Church. With a little stretching, one could regard the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council as an exercise of the principle of subsidiarity, where the proper functions of the bishops are spelled out to complement the teachings of the First Vatican Council (terminated prematurely in 1870 by the consequences of the Franco–Prussian war), which dealt only with the prerogatives of the pope and defined papal infallibility.

The special role of the pope in appointing or approving the appointment of bishops is also appropriate as a better guarantee of evangelical vitality, doctrinal purity, and Church unity, but recommendations and much information are regularly collected from the dioceses and provinces involved. The rights of German cathedral chapters in the appointment of bishops are not universal.

Modern communications have transformed the work of the Roman Curia and the nature of the papacy. When one of the authors came to Rome as a student fifty-one years ago, it was impossible for distant bishops to attend regular meetings in Rome. Neither were they appointed to Roman positions. Today bishops from around the world meet regularly as members of Roman congregations and councils, while the Internet, e-mail, etc., provide almost instant worldwide communications.

We have claimed that the “application of subsidiarity is a matter of prudential judgement,” and the Church has been organised somewhat differently over the centuries within the framework of papal and episcopal leadership. The traditional style of leadership of the Catholic Church owes much to the ancient Roman Empire, although Gospel values rule supreme.

Ancient Rome was not excessively centralist. Neither should this excessive centralism be the aim of any pope or any of the Roman congregations. It is good, and indeed necessary, that the number of senior or professional officials in the Vatican be limited. In every way the Vatican is a far cry from the Pentagon.

Theologies are many, but essential doctrine is not susceptible to regional differences. People tend to believe as they pray (lex orandi, lex credendi). This leads us to conclude that it is entirely justified and necessary for the Holy Father to take special care to preserve the purity of the Latin rite celebrations, and indeed the proper form of celebration in the other rites. So, for example, it is an appropriate example of subsidiarity for vernacular translations of the common liturgical texts to be prepared within the language groups and only then formally approved (recognitio) by the Congregation for Divine Worship.

In the first centuries, when Christians wanted to be sure they were teaching as Christ taught, they appealed to the churches founded by the apostles as custodians of the apostolic tradition. The church in Rome had a double claim to pre-eminence, being founded by both Peter and Paul. However the principle of subsidiarity might be applied prudentially within the Catholic Church from time to time, this will not change. The role of the papacy as providing the last word, defending the apostolic tradition, will always be unique.

George Cardinal Pell is Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See. Michael A. Casey is Senior Advisor, Church Policy, in the Australian Catholic University’s Office of Government, Policy, and Strategy.


…for the Synod and the Church to hear

“Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale.

“Who can be so grudging to men, so full of hate for God, as to try to prevent it? But it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.

“The understanding, knowledge, and wisdom of one and all, of individuals as well as of the whole Church, ought then to make great and vigorous progress with the passing of the ages and the centuries, but only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning, and the same import…’

Saint Vincent of Lerins [Patrologia Latina 50, 667-668]

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