In recent weeks, I have rigorously been contemplating and writing about the fundamental principles of the Catholic social teaching (CST), wherein the principle of subsidiarity holds a key place. Other principles are solidarity and the common good, while other components of CST are either core or derived values, the latter derived from the former. In short, principles are the foundation (fundamental assumptions) for building or supporting something, while the object being built or supported itself is derived from the same foundation/principles. The objects supported by a principle are values (the values directly derived from a principle are core values, and those later established by combining, comparing, or mixing multiple core values are values in a broader sense). Perhaps the image of a tree will help understand the relationships between principles and (core) values. Having a tree in mind, the roots represent principles – which, although invisible, are necessary for the tree to stand upright in its place, grow and bear fruit; the trunk denotes core values; and the leaves and fruits symbolize values (that which is worth).
The principle of subsidiarity refers to the will or request to perform a certain doable action. In the developmental stage of a child’s life, once the child can manage a task independently (e.g. wash its hands before a meal), the principle of subsidiarity compels the parents or older siblings to refrain from helping. The child should – as it now can – wash its hands on its own. This example illustrates best, I believe, the meaning and content of the term and principle of subsidiarity. It is generally held that the subsidiarity principle requires that certain actions (when referring to responsibility, authority and competences) be delegated to the lowest possible level that can perform them without interfering (assistance) from higher levels and is commonly applied in the context of political and social state and management of social relations among different (hierarchy) levels. Thus, at the level of the European Union, the subsidiarity principle is reflected in the varying nature of binding documents of the European Commission (and, by extension, in the very concept of responsibility, authority and competences of the EC), since an EC directive on an issue is not the same as an EC regulation, opinion, decision or recommendation. The difference among said instruments is illustrated here.
Subsidiarity is dual in nature: both passive and active; its passive nature is evident on higher levels (parent versus child, society versus individual or community / association, state versus local government) that should refrain from helping if lower levels – which need to be active by nature – can perform independently what is asked of them. If the lower level cannot carry out a given task (if the child is too small to wash its hands on its own), then the higher level should be active in providing help to the lower level (parents or older siblings should help the child wash its hands).
Now that I have, I believe, sufficiently illustrated the content and meaning of subsidiarity, I wish to present here several ideas and thoughts introduced by the late Franciscan Špiro Marasović. It is a matter of further theological expounding (theological speculation, in the words of Prof. Nikola Bižaca) on the concept, and possibly, by extension, on the principle of subsidiarity, in the context of the theology of creation.
The theology of creation in itself implies the duality of God’s creative act: creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua. The former Latin syntagm implies that God creates everything that exists (the totality of reality) from nothing (no pre-existent matter or anything else), while the latter points out that everything that exists is never utterly separated from God, who maintains the existence of all that lives continuously as long as it exists. In short, God created the world (totality of reality) out of nothing and keeps it in existence. While it exists, the world seems to develop somewhat autonomously (never in the ontological sense, as it would fall into nothingness) and freely, as attempted to be described and explained by the natural sciences. God has created and is keeping in existence a world that evolves – in accordance with its own laws and mechanisms, as studied and explained by the natural sciences. God is active in the act of creation, while the world is passive. But the self-evolving world is prominently active, so creatio continua appears as God’s passivity (“maintaining an existential cold drive”) as opposed to the self-evolving world. The very general presentation of the concept of creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua indicates the principle of subsidiarity and its dual nature – activity and passivity.
Furthermore, a world that evolves independently (but not ontologically independently), governed by natural laws, and in relation to God the Creator, can be understood as a lower level that must independently – in line with its inherent responsibility, authority, and competencies – carry out what is required of it. The request God placed before the created world is: “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.“, and “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And God saw that His creature – this world in which we live, move and are – had done so and that it was good.
All these changes of God’s creation – the evolution of biological diversity – have taken place in accordance with the natural laws that govern the totality of (physical) reality – without exception and entirely effectively. Stone will always fall to the ground, oil will always float on water, and biological organisms will always come forth from each other and disappear into themselves. Natural laws are God’ substitute (substitute – that which replaces another) in the created world. As such, they are permanent, universal, and permanently and universally effective – irreversible, just as God’s unchanging will to keep the created world in existence until the time of its redemption is fulfilled. (Romans 8:21) God is present in his creation – in a way consistent with the principle of subsidiarity – via and according to the laws he has woven into the fundamental structure of (physical) reality.
Likewise, when God created diverse biological forms – directly, as creatio ex nihilo, and by means of His natural laws, as creatio continua – He created them each “after their kind” so that each biological organism has its own nature that makes it different from all other biological organisms. Said nature, attributed to every biological organism according to the species to which it belongs, is another substitute for God’s presence in the created reality, demonstrating that the concept and principle of subsidiarity can be applied to the theology of creation. For as long as a creature, in the immensity of biological organisms and their inherent natures – each after its kind – does what its nature impels it to do, it acts in agreement with the principle of subsidiarity because it, as a lower level in relation to God the Creator and Redeemer, does what is required of it.
Man, as one of the innumerable biological organisms, also possesses its own inherent nature. Therefore, as long as we authentically meet the requirements of our own nature, we act in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity as a lower level with its own inherent responsibilities, authorities and competencies. (Gen 1: 28-30) Man was created and was appointed up to be a gardener. (Gen 2:15).
With man I conclude my text arguing the idea that subsidiarity can be understood in the context of theology of creation (natural laws and nature as a substitute for God’s presence in the world), where we see reality as a lower level tackling requirements defined through God’s act of creation (ex nihilo), while reality is supported in action through continuous maintenance in existence. However, man is the weakest link in this chain on account of having corrupted his own nature and, as such, is no longer a reliable gardener (he was, thus, fired and transferred to another job). Another substitute was needed to correct the gardener’s mistake and renew human nature in a bath of novel and graceful creation/birth of man. (Titus 3,5)