Notes on subsidiarity

“Subsidiarity” is a basic concept of Catholic social teaching. according to which “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 co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” Catholic social teaching, some interpretations of social justice to the contrary notwithstanding, promotes decentralization. The idea, it seems, is that man is active, moral and social. It follows that his good in society can only be achieved through various reciprocal social relations that require everyone’s active participation if the good is to be achieved. While formal public authority has a role to play, it’s not primary either in the construction of society or in the establishment of good order. If you want good order there’s no substitute for good people: to say otherwise would deny the dignity of man. (Here are quotes and cites that give an idea of what subsidiarity is about.)

All of which sounds wonderful, but how is it to be applied? Naturally, the tendency is to bring the abstract principle in line with other goals and preconceptions and say Catholic social teaching properly understood really means whatever you want anyway:

  • If you like, you can say subsidiarity means laissez-faire capitalism, on the theory that the best way for public authority to coordinate activities is to recognize property rights and establish procedures to vindicate them, allow free contract, suppress force and fraud, and let people and freely-formed associations have the responsibility for choosing the goods they will pursue so the common good can emerge from their dealings with each other. It’s likely many people will mess things up, but public authorities are no less human so it’s equally likely they’ll mess things up, and private messups are more self-limiting than public messups.
  • On the other hand, you can bring subsidiarity in line with what is in effect centralized bureaucratic socialism simply by saying that when the lower-order communities don’t do things right, and there will always be serious fault with what many of them do, then “coordination” means the higher-level authority steps in and insists that things be put in proper order. The end result is that the top-level authority determines and enforces everything that matters, and everybody else either goes along voluntarily or gets forced to go along. The lower-level authorities become in effect state instrumentalities allowed more or less autonomy as seems most efficient in view of ultimate goals. That is why the EU can claim subsidiarity as one of its principles, and a Catholic theologian can (at least seemingly) say that subsidiarity means that after we’ve set the amount of money people should be allowed to keep for themselves at some moderate figure the government should wait to see if they’ll give the excess away for a sufficiently good purpose before it moves in to take it away from them.

All of which shows—I’m not quite sure. For starters it shows that good faith is an absolute necessity, and in an age of clashing institutional interests and spin, when everything seems up for grabs, it’s hard to come by and even harder to be confident it’s really there. You end up with a low standard of discussion, and the issues never really get joined. It also shows, I believe, that in advanced technological society, in which people believe it possible to reconfigure anything into anything else, subsidiarity—which requires a settled balance of legitimate authority with the local and particular—doesn’t seem to make sense. A conception of natural social order preceding the state becomes impossible to maintain, and what we’re left with is either radical individualism or the state as creator of all order and thus in effect God on earth. Hence the immense importance of family issues to a Catholic understanding of society. If natural social order is to be found anywhere it’s in the natural family, and if even that goes then there’s no escape from society as pure artifice and in the end no alternative to an eternal struggle between chaos and tyranny.

20 thoughts on “Notes on subsidiarity”

  1. Laura Ingraham, a recent conv
    Laura Ingraham, a recent convert to Catholicism I understand, had a debate on her radio show last week between a Dorothy Day type and Traditionalist Catholic.The issue of subsidarity was discusses in some detail. The Liberation Theology Catholic made little sense but did toss out enough chaff to make a non-Catholic wonder what conensus there is, if any, in the church. Thanks for taking the time to explain.

    • Dorothy Day
      Dorothy Day may well have been a woman of the Left in her views on the political and economic order. According to what I’ve read, she was utterly orthodox on Church doctrine concerning faith, morality, and hierarchical authority. (She even once had a friendly luncheon with Evelyn Waugh!) Don’t think the same can be said of liberation theologians. Am I wrong? I mean, about DD or liberation theology?


        • That article by the Zwicks was excellent
          Thanks for linking that extremely good, instructive article on Chesterton and Day.

          This bit mentioning neocon Michael Novak, incidentally, got a laugh out of me:

          “Yesterday at this conference, George Marlin recounted how he had taken over the editorship of the Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton for Ignatius Press and how helpful Michael Novak had been in that work, how he will continue to involve ‘Mike’ along with others in the continuing project. He apparently was the person who invited Michael Novak to write the introduction to Chesterton’s Outline of Sanity in that edition, the book that is the most critical of the capitalism of Novak and company that has ever been written. We have to say that having Michael Novak write the introduction to Chesterton is the same as asking Hugh Hefner of Playboy to write the introduction of a book on the sacrament of marriage.”

          As for the unrefined economic notions of this group founded by Chesterton and Day, many will find themselves in complete agreement who certainly are no leftists. I’d assumed that systems giving free rein to unbridled capitalist greed—yes greed, unbridled greed: let’s call this mammon-worship and inhumanity by its right name—are anathema to the tradcon outlook (or, to that outlook as I imagine it). Godless capitalism isn’t as bad as, say, Marxist-Leninist collectivism. It’s worse—far worse. It’s a no brainer as to which I’d rather live under, if required to choose one. No one who knows truth when he sees it—who, when he stumbles across truth, can smell it in his nostrils, can feel it in his heart, in his brain, and in his guts—need be an economist to recognize the one-hundred-percent soundness of the views of Chesterton’s and the others quoted in this article about a third way between pure distilled Wall Street and socialism; neither does one need to be a theologian to know that only societies permeated by godliness have any hope of getting there, the others fated to finish under slavery of inhuman Capitalists or slavery of inhuman Stalinist Nomenklaturas.


          “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

        • Dorothy Day is one reason why
          Dorothy Day is one reason why states with large Catholic populations have a propensity to elect representatives such as Rosa DeLauro, Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy. So she was not a communist. She could not have done much more damage had she been one.

          She feed those who preach class warfare, those who accuse others of “greed”, those who seek not a just society but a society which levels and denigrates, which puts a select few in charge of others..s

    • Laura the Babe
      Oh what wonderful news. She is gorgeous, extremely intelligent, and ladylike. I have adored her for years. I also adore Grace Kelly, Nicole Kidman, and Olivia Williams. I mean is Olivia Williams’ agent a complete moron? I think so; pitiful, as Jed Clampett would say.

      Just for the small-film-deprived, Olivia Williams was the wife of Bruce Williams in The Sixth Sense.

      The relevance of this comment: fun, and traditionalists love beautiful, powerful, intelligent women.

      • Ms Ingraham was not well rece
        Ms Ingraham was not well received by many at Dartmouth College. But then like, you know, Dartmouth is hick city. Even more provincial and campestral than Wesleyan. ?

  2. “Of the Left politically” AND “orthodox on Church doctrine”?
    I don’t wish to quibble, but while I think I can see ways—just barely—in which a person can be “of the Left in his views on the economic order,” yet “utterly orthodox on Church doctrine concerning faith, morality, and hierarchical authority,” I don’t see how someone can be “of the Left in his views on the political order,” yet “utterly orthodox” on these Church doctines. Whether one be talking about the 1930s, today’s world, or any period in between, I don’t see how it’s possible. I don’t know anything about this person but either she wasn’t fundamentally of the Left politically or wasn’t utterly orthodox on the Church doctrines named.


    “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

  3. Just in case Muhlenberg isn’t being sarcastic …
    Forgive me, I don’t get Muhlenberg’s comment on Miss Ingraham, I assume because I know nothing about her or her experience as an undergraduate at Dartmouth (I just googled “Laura Ingraham Dartmouth,” so I know she went there and was a founding editor of the Normal student journal there, “The Dartmouth Review”). As for Dartmouth being “hick city,” I don’t know whether Muhlenberg is being sarcastic or not. In case he isn’t, I’ll throw in that I was born and raised in Queens, NYC, and infinitely prefer Hanover, New Hampshire, to anything the Rotten Apple has to offer. If Muhlenberg wants to see the real hicks, yes provincial, benighted, bigoted, crude, unpleasant, slovenly, uneducated, loud people who speak with an appalling accent, have no manners, taste, or culture, maintain their city in a shocking state of ugliness, and with whom it is impossible to have an intelligent conversation, let him go take a look at your typical New Yorker.

    “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

    • I think Muhlenberg is having
      I think Muhlenberg is having a little fun because I went to Dartmouth. Miss Ingraham was after my time though. The big problem with Hanover today is that the area has been absorbed into contemporary America — malls, golf courses, condo developments, retirement communities for rich people (it’s nice to be near the college and Mary Hitchcock Medical Center). It’s much less distinctive than it was. Also there’s the general posturing and fraudulence of current university life. And for the record I have no special opinion about Miss LI, although the one time some time ago I saw her on TV for a couple minutes she struck me as a bit brash and lacking in soul (she kept saying things like “let’s cut to the chase, OK?”) To each his own though.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Apologies for not making it c
        Apologies for not making it clear I was being facetious. Well….half facetious. I was raised in a Yale bedroom community. Partied at Mt. Holyoke, Franconia College (now that’s New Hampshire Hickvilles, Jim), in HS took a date to the Bobby Seale /Erica H uggins Black Panther rally on the New Haven Green which so consumed Hillary Clinton, Bill Lann Lee, William Sloan Coffin, Doctor Ben Spock and other notables. Worked with SDS at Yale New Haven Hospital. The whole late 60s’ early 70s thing.

        Yankees are provincial. We Connecticut Yankees are among the most provincial. Much of the Ivy League reflects that. Not that one cannot receive the best education in the world at these colleges. One can and most do. But there are religious, cultural and political assumptions that are so much a part of New England society that it is easy not even to notice they exist. There is nothing, in some circles, to compare them against.

        Laura Ingraham, as a conservative, was out of step with her peers in college. Not sur e when she attended Dartmouth but she was far removed from the women I knew several years earlier at Mt. Holyoke who thought a fun Saturday was going to Westover Air Force Base to get arrested at an antiwar protest. And today her thought is far removed f rom the political and religious beliefs one finds dominate at most universities.o

        • Can totalitarian radical leftist ideologues educate others well?
          “Not that one cannot receive the best education in the world at these colleges.” (—Muhlenberg)

          I’m not so sure about that. The one-sided bullying leftism at a place like Harvard “University” which one reads about cannot result in a proper education. Leftists simply do not teach both sides of an issue, but solely the leftist side. Not only do they teach only one side but they approve only of that side, and sort of punish students who stray. One reads accounts of this all over the internet, constantly. Can that kind of leftist indoctination be called a good education? No, of course not.

          “But there are religious, cultural and political assumptions that are so much a part of New England society that it is easy not even to notice they exist. There is nothing, in some circles, to compare them against.”

          Can Muhlenberg give an example of a “religious assumption” that is “a part of New England society” in the way he means?

          “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

          • Is an Ivy League traditional/good education possible?
            From what I understand, the hard sciences are fine at our major universities. Conservatives maybe difficult to find in other fields but they are not extinct. There are liberal professors who do tolerate differing views. David Gelernter, a computer sci ence professor at Yale when he was maimed by the Unibomber, writes on conservative issues (not familiar with him so I’m not sure how conservative he is but he is no Peter Singer or Cornell West).

            Perhaps Jim Kalb will reply to your question. I’m curio us to know if Yale Law, for instance, replaced Robert Bork with other strict constructionists.

            I do agree with you, Fred, that there is a serious problem. Unless one wants to join the social sciences/media/liberal government complex, there is little po int studying under many at these universities.

            New England has turned more secular since I left in the late 1970s but some of the general assumptions among swamp Yankees were: Religion is a private matter. Catholics are a threat. Baptists are a threat. Those who wish to inject faith into politics are a threat. Non-Christian faiths are fascinating.

            My first political memory is of a torch light parade in support of Richard Nixon. Madison, Connecticut had turned pretty much Democrat by that time. But JFK would, everyone knew, take orders from the Pope. He was a threat.

          • I don’t have much enlightenin
            I don’t have much enlightening to say. You can learn things at Ivy League schools, although I wouldn’t call what they provide a “good education,” and there are lots of bright people there some of whom get into interesting things. Yale and Dartmouth for some reason have always produced a steady trickle of right wingish graduates, Harvard less so but there are exceptions. That’s Yale undergrad — there are law school graduates who go off on various tangents but the trad right isn’t likely to be one of them. The connections, ambitions and ways of thinking are too tied to established institutions and besides everybody works too hard.

            One point is that if you do get to be a professor at someplace like Harvard you can probably say what you want to a greater degree than other people. You can become co-author of The Bell Curve if that’s what you want. I get the impression that there’s more selection against heterodoxy today than in the past though. I don’t think there’s a Robert Bork 2 at Yale Law School just now for example.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Yale President urged North secede from the Union
            Yale and Dartmouth for some reason have always
            produced a steady trickle of right wingish graduates..

            The ghosts of Yale President Timothy Dwight who, urging New England secede from the Union quoted 2 Corinthians 6:17:

            “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean ; and I will receive you”

            A few references to Dwight and northern secession are here and here.
            Dwight despised Thomas Jefferson as much, I suspect, as some presidents of Ivy League schools detest George W. Bush today. For many of the same general reasons too.¯

  4. Future sophistry-based attacks do not disqualify a principle
    “The end result is that the top-level authority determines and enforces everything that matters, and everybody else either goes along voluntarily or gets forced to go along. So the EU can claim subsidiarity as one of its principles, [etc.].” (—from the log entry)

    Yes, but if this keeps happening the onus of proving its necessity and basic impartiality will fall on the upper-level authorities, an implication whose validity will be transparent to all, so impossible to obfuscate for very long by means of the usual totalitarian sophistries and Orwellian double-think trotted out by the usual collaborating mass-media suspects.

    In the end, of course, everything comes down to people having the wits to defend themselves against the most blatantly obvious attacks. If for some incomprehensible reason the people under attack by, let’s say, enemies who’ve won over, bought off, or otherwise co-opted the people’s own élites (who normally would be defending them) turn out time after time after time to be incapable of defending themselves, they and/or their way of life and all they hold dear will simply have to disappear from the world stage in the end. They’ll have had the misfortune of having been created defective without the power to see threats and dangers right in front of their noses. In a deep way there’s a certain rightness about that, of course: in the overall scheme of things, provision is made for extinctions sometimes happening.

    If the American nation, the Ancient Nations of Europe, and all their derivative nations of the Anglosphere and so on, cannot see for example that multi-culti, “diversity,” anti-racism, excessive incompatible immigration, and so on, are naught but the simplest, most basic sort of deadly attack on their white-Euro-Christian communities and way of life and nothing other than that notwithstanding all the obfuscating left-liberal rhetoric and propaganda on earth, then they’re destined to disappear pure and simple, and not only can’t it be helped, but it shouldn’t be.

    It’s childsplay to see though the other side’s propaganda and lies ceaselessly repeated with a bold face. If the great mass of white-Euro-Christians can’t even see they’re under attack by enemies who mean them no good but only harm and final extinction, then … bye-bye, it’s been nice knowin’ ya …

    In the meantime, for those who are beginning to bestir themselves in the right direction, like the Vlaams Belang, it’s entirely fitting that they explicitly include the principle of subsidiarity in their party platforms (as the Belang just did), no matter that its spirit might in future be contravened by sophistry-drenched élite deceptions and trickery. We’ll see later if they as a people prove able or unable to recognize that tactic employed for the billionth time since civilization began, by the usual suspects, and take the simplest steps in self-defense.

    “If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.

  5. An advanced technological soc
    An advanced technological society certainly can reconfigure anything. But should we accept a “can” as a “must” and retreat, as Robert Bork and others have suggested, into family, private or home schools and gated communities? A tactical withdrawal has gre at benefits; a stragetic retreat which does not venture out to recapture lost ground may result in total defeat. The moral relativists, the situational ethicists, the deconstructionists and other barbarians wait outside the gates—patiently and something s not so patiently—for us to emerge. The gates, be they social as the family, or physical, as are found in my town, may not hold. John Paul II touched on the need to engage in a lecture to university scholars:

    “Rooted in the perspective of trut h, Christian humanism implies first of all an openness to the Transcendent. It is here that we find the truth and grandeur of the human person, the only person in the visible world capable of self-awareness and recognising that he is surrounded by that su preme Mystery which both reason and faith call God. What is needed is a humanism in which the perspectives of science and faith no longer seem to be in conflict. Yet we cannot be satisfied with an ambiguous reconcilia- tion of the kind favoured by a cu ltu re which doubts the very ability of reason to arrive at the truth . . .”

    Reported in Bulletin 64. Pax Romana. Secretariat for Scientific Questions. Lumen Christi Institute.?ˇ

    • I said that in advanced techn
      I said that in advanced technological society it “seems” possible to reconfigure everything and I just strengthened that language to avoid any implication that I believe in the possibility. Things follow their own laws. It’s possible to disrupt and disorder family life, but I don’t think it possible to reconfigure it into something nonsexist, nonhomophobic and multicultural as current public standards demand. A society that persistently tries to do that will destroy itself by disrupting a necessarily fundamental institution.

      I agree it’s necessary to engage the world and keep on making our pitch. No man is an island etc. I do think that engaging the world comes after straightening out our own lives and putting them on a reasonable footing, but both are necessary.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • I agree. Those seeking to rec
        I agree. Those seeking to reconfigure society to eliminate all injustices—both real and perceived—will never succeed. In fact, they don’t say much about how their new society would function. Their main focus is demolition. Once that is complete somethin g or other better will take its place. So they assume, I guess.

        Then there are others who enjoy the demolition for the sake of demolition. They want a continuing revolution.

        As you mention, it is best to fight on all fronts. The utopians do. They offe r Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, Kim Il Sung and Emma Goldman as well as everything in between. E

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