Monday, May 21, 2012

Authoritarian Subsidiarity? Roman Catholic Social Theory

By David Rockett

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. The concept is applicable in the fields of government, political science, cybernetics, management, military (Mission Command) and, metaphorically, in the distribution of software module responsibilities in object-oriented programming. Subsidiarity is, ideally or in principle, one of the features of federalism, where it asserts the rights of the parts over the whole. (Wikipedia)

John Naisbitt's 1982 best seller Megatrends ( heralded that one approaching trend upon the world was decentralization. Soon we would be rid of old-stogie, centralised and often heavy-handed corporate structures and institutions. After all, had not anti-trust actions recently broken up AT&T? Nor did IBM seem to be faring well against smaller niche rivals. Perhaps the trend in technological miniaturisation would yield forth Naisbitt's megatrend of institutional fragmentation and decentralisation? To the chagrin of millions, E. F. Schumacher had zealously argued in his own popular Small Is Beautiful, ( 9 years earlier in 1973.

Of course, size and structure are only two aspects of a social theory. We might first, before delving into the details and interplay of localism and authority (Roman Catholic in particular) be wise to consider setting Social Theory in its cultural context. From where does a Social Theory come? The secularists amongst us will no doubt argue modern societies' social theories, despite their diversity, arise ultimately from the natural rights of man devised in the late European Enlightenment. Of course, this betrays a Western presuppositional posture or world view. It sees the world as having all lived through a class in Western Civilisation, having adopted most if not all its notions of the flow of history, and especially the modern philosophies of progress.

It is likely the very act of parsing out the particular minutia of a social theory is of itself a distinctively if not peculiar western habit. Richard Weaver might say it grew out of our scientific method which insists upon breaking all things down into their particular parts, and thus forever fragmenting the whole unity of a praxis. (Ideas Have Consequences, first published in 1948.

Yet the truth for millions these days is the shocking realisation that much of the world never experience early or Medieval Roman Catholicism, the Italian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, or what our secularists insist upon calling the West's Age of Reason and Enlightenment.  This is a Medieval European experience and history which certainly Asia, Middle Eastern Byzantium and most of Africa, were content to miss out completely on. Yet adding amazingly to our shock, most of these people experience civilisation, in some form, without them! Considering this comprises the large part of the world, especially in terms of population, we might pause for a strong dose of cultural humility.

Nevertheless, growing out of Greek philosophy, we find a natural if not curious bleed over. How we think about reality, philosophically, will ultimately influence how we think about man, life and society. That the Greek struggled to balance the One and the Many – that is, the Universals with the Particulars – shows up in social theory. If the Universals prevail, the One is likely to swallow up the many particulars. Yet if the Many particulars prevail – the threat of anarchy and losing the centre of unity of things might lead to chaos. So we see at least conceptually, the various threats, and need to balance Unity and Diversity, One and Many, Universals and Particulars.

Though not often set in historic and philosophical context, most students in the west stumble over these issues as they relate to Western democratic theory. How does a society balance authority and liberty – yea Authoritarianism and Libertarianism? In the U.S. this often arises in discussion of the constitutional sharing of powers. We call this Federalism. Certain rights and powers belong rightly to the federal government, then state governments, city and local government – and ultimately to family and self government. We jokingly admit that we don't want to make everything a federal matter or case. Some issues are State and local issues, while others are even more intimate family, if not personal, matters.

Protestants typically will contend that this U.S. Federalism grew out of the Reformation’s respect for Scripture, especially the decentralised Judicial and Tribal divisions modeled in the Old Covenant Law God gave to Israel before they insisted upon a King. From Martin Luther and John Calvin onward, just how the Church was to relate to the State, and the State to the Church, was of supreme importance. We must remember that these discussions (which ultimately lead to numerous wars and thousands of deaths over the next several centuries) occurred within a European context dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, and a dozen or so Monarchies – Kings. It is more difficult than we imagine, to set aside our modernist presuppositions, especially our notions of democracy and Individualism, to consider late medieval Europe at the time of the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

This effort is made far easier for us if we avail ourselves of Robert Nisbet's 1953 classic and invaluable work The Quest For Community, ( Nisbet gives the careful reader an excellent sense of what Medieval societal structure was like – and the disruptive nature of structures in life in that grand transitional century from 1660-1760. This 100 years saw the old Medieval, Monarchical world dominated by Roman Catholicism, yield in most every cultural nook and cranny, to the Modern world of Enlightenment Individualism. This secularization of Life would go on to reach it's crown of Naturalistic Optimism in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

This optimism was largely deflowered and dashed by two bloody World Wars, a eugenics Holocaust (compliments of Charles Darwin), followed by another half-century  of smaller wars, abortion and euthanasia. Those of us who came of age on the tail end of a fading optimism of Enlightenment modernism have difficulty imagining its former secular and rational glory. Ours has been a reluctant transition to the Post-Modern era, which is now dominated by a technological and existential ethic of Personal Peace and Affluence, to borrow a phrase from the late protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer. Speaking of the early 1960s Schaeffer says:

And the great majority of people had come to the place where they had only two horrendous values. Absolutely horrible values: Personal Peace and Affluence. Now, because I'm going to use terms over and over again in this episode let me define them carefully, and I'd urge you to please listen with care. As I use the term personal peace, I mean, I want to be left alone. And I don't care what happens to the man across the street, or across the world. I want my own lifestyle to be undisturbed. Regardless of what it will mean even to my own children and grandchildren. Now that's what I mean by personal peace. Affluence means things, things, things, always more things. And success seen as an abundance of things.”  [From How Shall We Then Life video”]

But let us not rush ahead of ourselves. We did not arrive here at this point in a day, or even a single century. Nisbet teaches us an important truth in the transition Europe trod from is Monarchical and Roman Catholic era, to our Modern and quickly dominant Post-Modern world. So, before our modern era of rank Individualism Nisbet says:

“Amid all the interpretations and judgments of historians regarding medieval society...The first is the pre-eminence in medieval society—in its economy, religion, and morality—of the small social group. From such organizations as family, gild, village community, and monastery flowed most of the cultural file of the age. The second fact, deriving from the first, is the centrality of personal status, of membership, in society. In the Middle Ages, Jacob Burckhardt has written, 'Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. The reality of the separate, autonomous individual was as indistinct as that of centralized political power.”

”It is a different story when we come to the sixteenth century. We are now at the beginning of a world in which the individual—the artist, scientist, the man of business, the politician, and the religious devotee—become steadily more detached, in area after area, from the close confinements of kinship, church, and association. This is preeminently the century of the beginnings of secularism, religious dissent, economic individualism, and of political centralization. And in these massive institutional changes we can miss the decline of much of the communalism that flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.” [pages 73 & 77, Nisbet, The Quest For Community]

It is from these various “subsidiary structures” in old European society Nisbet argues that modern Secularism and the democratic State has over the past several hundred years sought to liberate society. Thus, “subsidiary structure” like state or local government, church, gild, fraternity, and family would stand in the way of man's sole identity and allegiance to the modern unitary State.

The Pope of Rome & Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity is...the idea that problems should be solved at the smallest and most intimate level possible. For example, the federal government shouldn't be solving problems states can solve, states shouldn't be solving problems that communities can solve, and so on. This is another aspect of charity. Charity isn't a faceless international bureaucracy doling out tax dollars. It's a soul exhibiting the love of Christ. This also means that our moral obligations to tend for our family are higher than our moral obligation to care for our neighborhood, or community, or city, or state, or country, or planet. We have some degree of moral duty and responsibility towards each of these, but it's best understood as concentric circles. (How to Understand Catholic Social Teaching: Solidarity and Subsidiarity, Joe Heschmeyer.)

One might think that given the strong hierarchical structure and administration of the Roman Catholic Church, that all notions of subsidiarity would militate or rub against this real subsidiarity. After all, the Bishop of Rome is the absolute Pope, or Papa of the Church, with authority over all other Cardinals, Bishops and Priests, to say nothing of local parishioners. This is not an easy thing for any outsider of the Church (Protestants in particular) to keep straight.

But my good Roman Catholic friends will argue that absolute Papal authority only pertains to matters of faith and doctrine. Such authority does not extend to all matters equally. After all, the Pope of Rome has no jurisdictional authority to tell those same Cardinals and Bishops what car to purchase and drive, much less which blender for the kitchen is best for all parishioners!

In other words, there is at least no current reason to expect some future evolution of Papal authority to extend to such lengths as to supplant all notions of subsidiarity, which of course, always existed in seed form from the very beginning. The temptation here is to delve too deeply into ancient ecclesiastical disputes where my Eastern Orthodox friends would argue most Papal claims from the Great Schism (1054) are indeed evolutionary innovations not found in Holy Tradition, all the while appealing to an earlier historic Conciliar Church. But that would take us too far adrift, and into grander disputes than apropos for this article.

As it stands, it appear at least in our day, that Roman Catholic social  theory is more than broad enough to accommodate its historic ideal of subsidiarity. After all, Roman Catholic Libertarians will argue it is they who are closer to authentic Catholic tradition than are others who just as zealously hold to a more Paleo-Conservative Distributism (not to mention far more leftist Liberation Theology and its millions of adherents). So our answer is No. The hierarchical authoritarianism of the Roman Papacy is no threat to a vibrant cultural and societal Subsidiarity...yet. []
A fully registered Stock Broker/Financial Planner for over 16 years, Mr Rockett has worked as The Charitable Steward in planned Charitable Giving the past 15+ years, leveraging or super-sizing assets with a creative use of Life Insurance. A committed advocate of Southern Agrarianism, Mr Rockett has also been a studied reader in Christian theology the past 40 years.

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