Subsidiarity on Earth and in Heaven

Several years ago I attended a lecture at Marquette by John Allen, the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, in which he addressed the stereotype of the Vatican passing down commands to be implemented by 5000 bishops and subordinate clerics, as well as the various religious orders.  He dissipated the stereotype with a depiction of the way that the various “dicasteries” in the Vatican – Congregations, Tribunals, Councils, Offices, etc. – actually operate. Like Rome itself, the Vatican is a wonder: some sort of unity emerges from fantastically disparate personalities and objectives.

Allen continues this clarification in his recent All Things Catholic blog:

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The bit of mythology in play, which we might call the “Policy Myth,” is the following: When Rome says “jump,” everyone in the Catholic Church responds, “how high?” If there’s a problem in the church, therefore, it must be due to some Vatican policy (either explicit or secret); to resolve the problem, the trick is to get the Vatican to issue new marching orders. As the Italians would say, Magari! If only it were as simple as flipping a switch in Rome, and all would be well. Catholicism, however, is a remarkably decentralized system with regard to everything other than doctrine.

In other words, forget about Roma locuta est, causa finita est!  Yes, there is a certain unity of command structure, but “subsidiarity” reigns: independence and trust is given to individuals regarding their particular realms of jurisdiction. Ironically, the recent sexual abuse crises brought a clamor for more control over bishops, on the part of many who would like to see no Vatican control at all.

Subsidiarity is a long-standing principle in the Catholic doctrine of social justice.  Since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical, Rerum novarum, multiple encyclicals and pronouncements have come from Rome emphasizing the importance of subsidiarity in all social and political situations.  Pope Pius XI spelled out its centrality in his 1931 social encyclical, Quadragesimo anno: “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus (1991) and Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in veritate (2009) have continued applying the principle to more recent issues.

The principle of subsidiarity has also been frequently invoked in the secular sphere, in regard to conduct of state and local governments, corporations, etc. For example,, the website offering information on the European Union, defines the subsidiarity of their member nations as follows: “The subsidiarity principle is based on the idea that decisions must be taken as closely as possible to the citizen: the Union should not undertake action (except on matters for which it alone is responsible) unless EU action is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local levels.” In other words, action from higher echelons is only warranted when for some reason more localized components are clearly unable or unwilling to act effectively. This, like our own constitutional ideal of respect for states’ rights with limited areas for federal intervention, is the ideal arrangement, precariously prone to dismantling by those in power.

Justice William O. Douglas applied the principle to industries and corporations in the U.S.: “Industrial power should be decentralized. It should be scattered into many hands so that the fortunes of the people will not be dependent on the whim or caprice, the political prejudices, the emotional stability of a few self-appointed men. The fact that they are not vicious men but respectable and social minded is irrelevant.”

It is interesting that this secular and ecclesiastical principle also has theological counterparts – if we consider subsidiarity in the larger sense, i.e., in Creation.  St. Thomas Aquinas, following Gregory the Great and Pseudo-Dionysius in their descriptions of the ordering and interrelationships of the nine choirs of angels, discusses the ways in which the higher orders share insights and coordinate the operations of divine providence with the lower orders. According to Catholic tradition, angels are not only entrusted with the care of each individual human being at birth, but also assigned to parishes, cities, and nations. Aquinas (Summa I, 108,) suggests that the divine government of “peoples and nations” is entrusted to the third order of ministering angels, the “Principalities.” As a possible instance of this arrangement, the angel who came in 1916 to prepare the three visionaries at Fatima for the apparitions of Our Lady the following year, told the children that he was the “guardian angel of Portugal.”

Apparently the care of angels is not completely “top down” but involves some interaction and discussion. For example, in Daniel 10:13, the angel Gabriel explains to the prophet Daniel that the delay in response to his prayer for his fellow Israelites is due to the fact that “the Prince [angel] of Persia resisted me for 21 days.” Aquinas explains this development in the Summa in his article (I, 113) on “Whether there can be conflicts or discord among the angels”: “The ‘prince’ of the kingdom of the Persians,” writes Aquinas, “was an angel who was opposing the liberation of the Israelites….  It happens sometimes that in various dominions, or in various individuals, pros and cons obtain…. The angels are said to ‘resist’ each other insofar as they need to consult the divine will about the merits or demerits….”

One could argue that one of the most significant cases of subsidiarity in creation was biological evolution, in which, not leaving everything to chance, the Creator artistically coordinated the inborn tendencies of all creatures, freely expressed according to their natures, over billions of years, to bring about the creation of Adam.

Prima facie there is some similarity between the principle of subsidiarity and the long tradition of sensus fidelium – the idea that much that happens in the Church has been the result of “bottom-up” groundswells, leading to things like the creation of canonical saints, pronouncements of dogmas like the Immaculate Conception, and various ecclesial restructurings. In the modern era, the development of Catholic social doctrine, including the principle of subsidiarity itself, seems to be the result of such a groundswell.

But the “sense of the faithful” has to be distinguished from movements in the last few decades such as Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), Call to Action (CTA), “We Are the Church” (IMWAC), and the American Catholic Council (ACC) – which insist that the Church’s positions on doctrine and morals should coincide with the views of their own members, who have no delegated charism or delegated ministry or teaching jurisdiction on faith and morals. The fact that contraception, abortion, gay marriage, etc., are widespread and popular, does not make them into manifestations of the “spirit of God.”

Subsidiarity in all areas – civil, ecclesiastical, theological – is a two-way street: the autonomy and jurisdiction of both the leadership and the subordinates have to be recognized, maintaining a harmonious unity-in-distinction.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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