Subsidiarity lies at the core of the Christian faith. Our challenge as believers is to understand this essential principle and to develop a spirituality around it.
Growing up as a young person, whenever I’d compromise a conviction, undermine a virtue, or not stand up for a friend, my father would remind me, “Know who you are, or else you’ll become what everyone else wants you to be.” In his own way, my dad was teaching me about the importance of self-possession, the power of knowing and owning oneself in a healthy way.
Our self-possession is grounded in our dignity as human persons, who are made in God’s image, and who have a share in his own divine reason. Biblically our self-possession is called “the heart,” which the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls our hidden center, the place of truth, decision, covenant, and the arena where we encounter God.
As such, our self-possession calls us to relationship. For many, this summons leads to marriage. As the Bible describes, a man and woman cling to one another, and the two become one. The nuptial friendship is the exemplar of all other relationships.
From marriage, men and women learn about love, acceptance, self-control, mercy, and kindness. The fruit of these hard-earned lessons is the bringing forth of new life, as husband and wife are open and welcome children. It is this growth from one’s heart, to marriage, that leads to family, which Pope St. John Paul II called “the cell” of society.
The family, therefore, is the basis and the proving ground of every other human association and affiliation. Humanity only knows solidarity, community, and relationship because of the family. All bonds of human fraternity find their genesis in the nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. All human virtue find their first (and best) expression in the family. It is only by learning virtue, to greater or lesser extent, in the closeness of a family that a person has any context in which to comprehend goodness and evil, duties and expectations, rights and responsibilities.
Is it for this reason that John Paul II also taught: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
From the family, or based upon it, we form intermediary groups. These are either confederations of families, or associations of people, for reasons of worship, professional labor, healthcare, civic rapport, fraternity, or service. These are the vast array of houses of worship, work places, and clubs, groups, and guilds in which people collaborate and form community life.
From the heart of the person, marriage, family, and the intermediary groups of community, we form society. As the members and families of such a society, we acknowledge a need for government and agree to be governed. We choose how the various leaders of the different levels of society, such as local, state, and national, will be selected and what their proper powers will be.
Such duly chosen leaders can choose, on behalf of those whom they govern, to enter into international organizations and agreements. Such actions are always bound to, and must be in service to, those whom national leaders owe their authority.
This structure and outline of human life is reflective of the divine constitution of the Church, which consists of baptized believer, the domestic church of the family, the local parish, the territorial diocese, and finally the Apostolic See. Consisting of a series of hierarchical communions, the Church serves as a model of the internal template of human interaction.
This series of overlays within human society, from the most intimate to the most global, is summarized as subsidiarity. Admittedly, the term “subsidiarity” is a bit overly technical and can be hard to say, but it has fundamental lessons that cannot be ignored.
Subsidiarity teaches us that our autonomy is contingent, and is not absolute. It shows us that we are all a part of an intricate network of interactive relationships, rights, and responsibilities. We are connected to one another.
Subsidiarity also instructs government that it relies on human dignity and stands upon the foundation of the family. And these must be the primary concerns of those in government. The people do not live for the government, rather government serves at the discretion of the people. And global organizations exist and function at the pleasure of sovereign states, not vice versa.
In summary, believers can nurture a spirituality around subsidiarity, which teaches us both boldness and humility, since it instructs us on human dignity, the existential value of the family, the genuine ordering of community and relationships, the appropriate context of political authority, and the foundation and importance of our rights and responsibilities.
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