Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

UN, EU, World Court, Supreme Court:
Subsidiarity, Anyone?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 22, 2004

A recent Catholic World News story outlined the efforts of the United Nations Human Rights Committee to dictate liberalized abortion in Poland. The UNHRC reviewed Poland’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and concluded that “the State Party should liberalize its legislation and practice on abortion.” Needless to say, pro-abortion legislators in Poland are delighted.

Beware Experts and Judges

As most users must know, the UN’s efforts to pressure member nations into adopting the Western sexual revolution are legion. In this case, the Human Rights Committee is made up of 18 self-styled "experts" acting without accountability to any of the nations they advise. (I suppose advocating the slaughter of children in the womb qualifies one as a human rights expert, but on whose side?)

The same problem plagues the new European Union and the World Court, where we see the highest officials and judges rejecting Christian values and attempting to impose secular hedonism on member nations. And, of course, the same problem plagues the U.S. Federal government throughout all branches at times, but especially the Supreme Court. In fact, it is not too much to say that the farther an official is from accountability to a local constituency, the busier he will be in attempting to impose the ideology du jour on the masses.

Why Is That, Anyway?

There are many reasons why this has always been true, including the following three:

(1) Worldliness and the Rise to Power. The people most interested in rising to positions of authority are on average more worldly. Granted, there will always be some few who aspire to public office from a genuine desire to serve others, but most are drawn to high positions because they like the limelight. And to get into the limelight, the world being what it is, one must cater to worldly rather than transcendent values.

(2) Pride and the Desire to Rule. As people rise to high office, there is an increasing temptation to pride. Insofar as pride divorces people from God, it causes them to think in increasingly secular terms. It also causes them to believe they are more qualified than other people to figure out how life is best lived. Finally, it adds to their drive to direct the lives of others.

(3) Ideology and the Attempt to Control. It has been frequently observed that the more ideological a person is, the less likely he will be to tend his own garden. Rather, the ideological person is inclined to neglect his true (and therefore usually local) responsibilities in favor of putting himself in a position to control the attitudes and values that animate the social order, thereby shaping the lives of the citizens.

These three reasons are frequently enough to ensure that those who are most highly placed and least accountable will attempt to impose the worst values on others (whom they have come to hold in contempt). Exceptions notwithstanding, the very best people are reluctant to run for public office or to seek judicial appointment (or to become bishops or to run for office in the USCCB), while the worst people desire this sort of preferment in order both to satisfy themselves and to dominate others.

The American Example

America is as good a place as any to study this principle of power. All too frequently, moral policies desired at the local level are prevented by rules made higher up. Similarly, it is an axiom of pro-life politics that it is easier to enact sound social values into law at the State level than at the Federal.

And at the Federal level, the same pattern holds true. The House of Representatives, where delegates are elected every two years from relatively small constituencies, tends to be more likely to preserve local values than the Senate, where members have six year terms and represent entire states. The Presidency tends to be a battle-ground for the culture wars and is somewhat of a special case, but the Supreme Court caps the argument with its life terms and apparent utter disdain for tradition, democracy and even God Himself.

This is so true that America currently stands at a crossroads, wondering whether or not democratic republicanism has died and the rule of law has ceased, while agonizing over the possibility of a new revolution to free itself from judicial tyranny.

The Solution is Subsidiarity

The solution to all this is the Catholic Church’s first social teaching: the principle of subsidiarity. This principle states simply that each task in any commonwealth should be handled at the lowest level possible and that, conversely, there must be a compelling reason to remove authority in any matter from a more local to a less local jurisdiction.

The principle of subsidiarity is based on a strong awareness of the dignity of each human person, and the appropriateness of each person acting through his own natural communities to order the affairs common to the group. Human dignity is preserved and honored when this ordering of life is decided and implemented as much as possible by the same people whose lives are being ordered. As long as matters can be handled in a reasonably effective manner locally, imperfections at this level are far preferable to the unavoidable drawbacks of moving things to a higher and inherently less accountable level.

Chief among the drawbacks of locating authority at a great distance is loss of freedom. In fact, it is not too much to say that, in the absence of subsidiarity, the Western ideology of personal liberty is completely hollow. The size, scale and bureaucratic character of our organizational forms result in far more public control of personal life than in many previous cultures which emphasized personal liberty less while valuing natural local institutions more.

The widespread failure of our “highest” organizational forms is leading most of us to rethink (and hopefully reclaim) the social order. Subsidiarity is the starting point.

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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