Subsidiarity in the Church

views updated


In the encyclical Quadragesimo anno (1931), Pius XI taught that the principle of subsidiarity, which had become a staple teaching among Catholic thinkers, was applicable to society at large on the basis of the natural law. The formulation of the principle was urgent at the time, given the emergence of various European totalitarian states. In 1946, Pius XII informed the College of Cardinals that the principle of subsidiarity was applicable not only to society at large but to the Church as well. Pius XII reiterated his teaching in 1957. At Second Vatican Council, the ecclesiological principle of subsidiarity seemed more assumed than expressly enunciated. The only explicit references were to the principle as one of Catholic social theory (Gravissimum educationis 3 and 6 and Gaudium et spes 86). Nonetheless, the Synod of Bishops in 1967 and 1969 called for the implementation of the principle in a proposed new edition of the Code of Canon Law and in understanding and implementing episcopal collegiality. But when the new Code appeared in 1983, the principle was never cited or invoked. This neglect of what many considered a secure teaching of the Church led to a further challenge of the principle at the extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985. There, further clarification was called for regarding the meaning and applicability of subsidiarity in the Church. In response, the last 15 years have resulted in many helpful studies of the principle.

Meaning of the Principle of Subsidiarity. Three aspects of the meaning and limits of subsidiarity emerge in Quadragesimo anno (aa. 7980). First, Pius XI insists on the primacy of the individual person. Second, he emphasizes the priority of small groups vis-à-vis larger, more complex, state-sponsored agencies. Finally, he points to the necessity of assistance on the part of the state when either an individual or smaller social units cannot achieve their purposes. Taken together, these general ideas constitute "the principle of subsidiarity." Although Pius XII invoked the principle in respect to the Church, he never addressed the question of how these three aspects interact and modify one another.

W. Bertrams and F. Klüber highlighted how the principle of subsidiarity is bound up with an entire anthropology, whether philosophical (Klüber) or theological (Bertrams). Klüber also stressed the mutual coordination of three fundamental principles: the principle of the person (radical dignity and hence primacy of the person), the principle of social solidarity (radical openness of the person to others), and the principle of subsidiarity, which mediates between the first two principles and truly effects them. Two distinct functions of the principle emerge clearly. On the one hand, when an individual can achieve a goal necessary for his full development, the individual, in freely assumed and more or less spontaneous relationships, retains the right to self-determination of the goal and the means to achieve it. On the other hand, in those instances where mutual social activity is rendered difficult or impossible, the next higher group of individuals or agents must assume this responsibility. Higher or more complex agencies assume functions that can no longer be met adequately by individuals or small groups of individuals.

Postsynodal Clarifications. In light of the call of the Synod of Bishops for clarification regarding the applicability of the principle of subsidiarity to the Church, a number of important ideas have surfaced. Some theologians have claimed that Vatican II's enunciation of an ecclesiology of communion have rendered the teaching of subsidiarity in the Church redundant. By insisting on the Church as the People of God, the council abandoned the older theology of the Church as a societas inaequalium,i.e., a society based on the distinction between the "hierarchy" (higher) and the "faithful" (lower) founded in the will of Christ. Another group of scholars, however, pointed to Vatican II's continued teaching on the Church as societas. Though the Church is a mysterium, the category of societas emphasizes its genuine historicity and social location or concreteness. These authors argued that ecclesial communio runs the risk of becoming an ineffectual panacea when it is not anchored in juridically established institutions or laws. Communio itself needs to be specified, since the council used it in two distinct though related senses: communio of the People of God and hierarchical communio. In ecclesiology, both the christological and the pneumatological dimensions of the Church demand expression as they mutually effect the Church as mysterium. The Church is always both universal sacrament of salvation (in Christ) and communion in grace, or the mystery of divine self-communication (in the Spirit). In a word, the modern traditional teaching of the Church as societas has not been abandoned but reordered, with the result that the role of subsidiarity in the Church continues to occupy an important place. Finally, several writers have pointed to the analogical character of the role of subsidiarity in the Church when compared with secular society. Like other societies, the Church is structured, but this structure must be such as to enable the Church to accomplish its distinctive mission. The principle of analogy suggests that the place of subsidiarity in the Church is "never less" than that which it holds in the Church's social theory for society in general. Yet ecclesial subsidiarity is unique by reason of the specific mission of the Church, and so is not simply interchangeable with the social determinations of any given society but is free to rethink them in the light of the gospel.

Bibliography: w. bertrams, "Das Subsidiaritätsprinzip in der Kirche," Stimmen der Zeit 160 (1957) 25267. j. beyer, "Principe de subsidiarité ou 'juste autonomie' dans l'Église?," Nouvelle revue théologique 108 (1986) 80122. j. j. burkhard, "The Interpretation and Application of Subsidiarity in Ecclesiology: An Overview of the Theological and Canonical Literature," Jurist 58 (1998) 279342. p. du fay de choisinet, "La subsidiarité, un principe juridique contesté?," Praxis Juridique et Religion 7 (1990) 5566. j. l. gutiÉrrez, "El principio de subsidiariedad y la igualidad radical de los fieles," Ius Canonicum 11 (1971) 41343. w. kasper, "Der Geheimnischarakter hebt den Sozialcharakter nicht auf. Zur Geltung des Subsidiaritätsprinzips in der Kirche," Herder-Korrespondenz 41 (1987) 23236; "Zum Subsidiaritätsprinzip in der Kirche," Internationale katholische Zeitschrift Communio 18 (1989) 15562. f. klÜber, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 2d ed., s.v. "Soziallehre." m. krebs, Subsidiarität und kirchliches Leben. Das Subsidiaritätsprinzip in Anwendng auf die Kirche nach Pius XII, S.T.D. dissertation (Rome 1991). a. leys, Ecclesiological Impacts of the Principle of Subsidiarity, tr. a. van santvoord (Kampen 1995). o. von nell-breuning, "Subsidiarität in der Kirche," Stimmen der Zeit 111 (1986) 14757. j. n. schasching, "Das Subsidiaritätsprinzip in der Soziallehre der Kirche: Reflexionen zu einer Anfrage," Gregorianum 69 (1988) 41333.

[j. burkhard]