Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Subsidiarity within the Church?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 27, 2010

Since I’ve been writing more frequently about the principle of subsidiarity over the past year, I’ve received several dismissive comments that run something like this: “Perhaps it would be possible to take subsidiarity seriously if the Church would apply it to herself.” In the background, one can almost hear the collective intake of breath as a crowd prepares to cheer the courage of a commentator who tells it like it is!

But unfortunately such a comment doesn’t tell it like it is at all. The principle of subsidiarity applies to the ordering of temporal things, not spiritual things; and it applies especially to societies in which participation is involuntary, not to organizations which one can enter or leave at will. The main lines of Catholic vision (the truths of the Faith), Catholic organization (the hierarchy of orders), Catholic goals (union with God) and Catholic means (sacramental life) have been established by God Himself. Only a complete idiot would argue that what has been revealed by God would really be better decided by committee. And, of course, if anyone doesn’t happen to like what God has revealed, or doesn’t believe He has revealed it, that person is free to leave the Church and join another religious movement, start his own, or leave religion alone altogether.

This is not to say that Catholics should not be free to make important decisions about their own spiritual lives, or to establish organizations to give adequate scope and support to their own particular noble aspirations, within the limits set by what has been revealed. Indeed, it is a mark of spiritual maturity for the laity to participate in the life of the Church in this way, as well as to extend the influence of Christ in the world. Wherever pastors unnecessarily oppose such legitimate freedom, instead of welcoming and guiding it according to the Church’s mind, an unfortunate clericalism creeps in which weakens both the Church and her mission. But unlike the temporal order, in which it is up to human persons to decide the purposes and methods of social organization within the very broad constraints of the natural law, the optimum program for the spiritual order is set down clearly by God Himself.

Nor is this to deny that any good organization will seek to get the most out of its members by affording them the widest possible latitude to determine their own course within the framework of the organization’s purposes. A parent will encourage a child to assume ever-greater responsibility within the moral and social constraints of family life, a political party will wisely have reference to the opinions and goals of its members, and every good pastor will rely heavily on lay volunteers in shaping his parish’s social life and charitable works. But the need to operate in this way is far stronger in societies from which people cannot freely withdraw. If the person who runs your club doesn’t foster your participation in devising its plans, you can quit or even start a rival organization. If your government doesn’t foster your participation, you can’t.

Within the Church there are two sides of this problem of the participation of the faithful. On the one hand, if your church doesn’t foster your participation within the limits of its structure, values and mission, your church is being rather poorly managed. But on the other hand it is even worse if your church fosters your participation in the wrong things, such as the fruitless task of second-guessing what God has established as its structure, values and mission. For in that case, your church is self-destructing.

There is a secular mindset too often found among nominal Catholics, perhaps especially Catholics who have been “educated” in those institutions which dissent from what God has revealed. It is a mindset which routinely applies a horizontal attitude to a vertical problem, taking the notion that “we’ll figure it out as we go along” from the social order and applying it to the spiritual order. This mindset completely forgets that we can know very little about God, even less of our spiritual nature, and absolutely nothing of our eternal destiny, unless God reveals these things to us.

On our own we have little more than a relatively vague understanding of right and wrong, a conviction that we are liable to judgment, and an intuition that God has planted this profound sense of reality in what we call the faculty of conscience. But beyond this, our only course is to follow the next logical assumption—that a God who cares enough about us to build these ideas into our conscience must also care enough to reveal Himself to us. Accordingly, we ought to make a point of identifying and following this Revelation. Once we have found it, we would be very stupid to throw it away again by rewriting it for our own purposes, or submitting it to a vote.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Feb. 01, 2010 11:18 PM ET USA

    The idea of the principle of subsidiarity implies a hierarchical nature to reality, temporal and spiritual; however, as you say, it can not apply to the spiritual realm concerning those things of divine revelation such as the constitution of the Church: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church..." Part of the confusion is the nature of the Church itself: a society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ; a visible society and a spiritual community.