Excellent. A blow struck for subsidiarity

Theological Buzzword Significant Learning Opportunity Moment: Catholic doctrine, as we should all know by now, has an amazing genius for taking really nifty, common sense insights and wrapping them up in forbidding, Latinate terminology that confuses people for centuries. “Merit” is one such term (see my discussion of it here). The one thing everybody thinks it means (“Extra stuff you have to do to make up for Jesus’ inadequate efforts on the cross”) is what it does not mean. Same with “sacred Tradition” (which doesn’t mean “stuff we dreamed up over the centuries and arbitrarily decided to make everybody believe.”) Similiarly, “subsidiarity” is one those baffling terms that Protestants figure Catholics coin just to sound impressive. Actually, it’s quite sensible and something most people believe: namely, don’t centralize everything in some giant, lumbering, inefficient, uber-bureaucracy. Let the people closest to the problem, handle the problem. Everybody (except the Department of Education) agrees with this. So, though a World Court sounds really cool to some people, (the sort who think that centralization is Where It’s At and who were enthused by Stalin’s willingness to break eggs to make omelettes), the Catholic (and human) instinct is to de-centralize and let local people handle local problems locally. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than centralization.

This is, by the way, what informs Catholic ecclesiology too, which is why Rome is not (contrary to popular belief) the Vast All-Controlling Octopus Treating Bishops Around the World as Puppets while the Pope Micromanages All Behind the Scenes. Some Popes have, to be sure, been more micromanaging than others. But this Pope, in particular, takes seriously the reality that the local bishop is, in fact, the head of the Church in his diocese. The disadvantages of that, we have seen. Freedom abused is a nasty thing. All of a sudden, everybody who was complaining that the Pope is trying to get into our bedroom before starts demanding that the Pope post a Helvetian guard in every rectory bedroom in the world.

But that’s not how it works. The local bishop is supposed to govern his diocese, not act as Papal puppet while the Pope decides what color the drapes should be in the parish coffee room. What is to be done when the local bishop fails in this task is a matter for much debate. But massively centralizing the Church is just not going to happen. Neither, I hope, will massively centralizing World Government anytime soon. Happily, Europeans are behind the push for a World Court, and their reputation for efficiency that can only be described as, well, “european” fills me with hope that the World Court will soon achieve the sort of power and prestige that the League of Nations wielded.

To recap: Subsidiarity means (surprise!) that the hierarchical, medieval, monarchical Catholic faith is actually quite amenable to democracy. It means, as Chesterton said, that “the democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.” There are, of course, paradoxes here I don’t have time to explore. But I thought you’d like to know about this.