I’ve been very busy this week and haven’t yet gotten around to writing my commentary on the middle section of Rerum Novarum, but we’ve already seen that one of the key doctrines developed in the encyclical is the doctrine of subsidiarity. Like many key doctrines, it is too often over-simplified and consequently misconstrued. As we read later documents, we’ll be able to see how this doctrine gets elaborated as the social teaching tradition develops, but those who can’t wait to know more might read a paper recently published online by Patrick McKinley Brennan of the Villanova University School of Law, entitled “Subsidiarity in the Tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine,” which will soon be published as one chapter in Subsidiarity in Comparative Perspective, edited by Michelle Evans and Augusto Zimmermann.
In his abstract, Brennan says:
Subsidiarity is often described as a norm calling for the devolution of power or for performing social functions at the lowest possible level. In Catholic social doctrine, it is neither. Subsidiarity is the fixed and immovable ontological principle according to which the common good is to be achieved through a plurality of social forms. Subsidiarity is derivative of social justice, a recognition that societies other than the state constitute unities of order, possessing genuine authority, which which are to be respected and, when necessary, aided. Subsidiarity is not a policy preference for checking power with power. This chapter traces the emergence of the principle of subsidiarity to the neo-Scholastic revival that contributed to the Church’s defense against the French Revolution’s onslaught aimed at eliminating societies other than the state.
It seems to me he makes an important point: that social justice demands that all authentic societies (associations among people which “constitute unities of order”) be respected. The State’s duty toward such societies is not to subsume them into itself, but to aid them when necessary.)We see this indicated very clearly in the middle section of Rerum Novarum.) These smaller societies — including the family and the local community — are themselves necessary to the common good, just as is the State itself.
I also find interesting the fact that he sees this doctrine emerging from the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-99). The French Revolution, of course, infamously attempted to destroy all unities of order (such as the Church and the aristocracy) that might compete with the authority of the secular State, perhaps the first time in the Christian era that such a thing was attempted. I look forward to reading Brennan’s paper.