Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Subsidiarity: a misunderstood principle of Catholic social morality

Apparently, Louisiana has passed a law which allows those with permits to carry concealed guns to carry them in churches as well.

The law also permits churches to place a restriction where the law does not. From the AP article:
The law allows concealed handguns in churches, synagogues or mosques for those with a valid permit and training. It also says those with authority over a church have the final say in their church.

This actually strikes me as exactly the right balance for a government with no ecclesiastical ties. Why? The principle of subsidiarity.

Here is how the Catechism describes subsidiarity:
The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."(Centissimus Annus, 48)
The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

In other words, the State (in this case, Louisiana and the United States of America,) has no right to intervene beyond its own limits; for example, under the roof of a church. So, while adjudicating the civil right to keep and bear arms does indeed fall under the authority of the State, this authority holds only for the public sphere.

I would expect a court to uphold my right, for example, to forbid concealed weapons within my own residence, for example.

But setting "limits for state intervention" is merely one of the effects of subsidiarity; it is not its purpose. The purpose of subsidiarity is to keep different kinds of authority, and different levels of authority within those different kinds, in good order. Subsidiarity applies to families and corporations just as much as it does to governments.

(This, by the way, is what Deal Hudson gets wrong in his article at InsideCatholic. He seems to conflate subsidiarity and privatization. A private collectivism is just as inhumane as a public one. Not that I want to critique Gov. Christie - I don't know the man from Adam, so I'm in no place to judge. But Hudson's argument, at best, lacks sufficient proof.)

Keeping the different kinds of authority distinct and in orderly relationship with each other is a trick. It's true that a person owes very different kinds of allegiance to (for example) his parents, his boss, and his government. Sometimes, these authorities come into conflict, and sometimes they seem to overlap. (Another example: parents and government both have legitimate reasons to set educational standards.) And this is where subsidiarity helps out: the "lower" and more local authorities are the ones with direct authority; "higher" and more general authorities exist in order to support the work of the lower authorities.

So, in the example of education, the government's proper role is to support the parents, who are the ones who have primary and final authority over the education of their children.

And this brings me ever so tangentially to the purpose of this blog: the promotion of human dignity. There have been many arguments over capital punishment in the comments here. But it is subsidiarity the allows us to see clearly the Church's teaching.

The Church, after all, is a most general authority: she speaks to the nature of human life in the light of God's revelation. Her authority extends to those things that we all hold in common as creatures of God, saved through the blood of his Son, and called to perfect union with him. Therefore, the way she usually exercises her authority is through teaching and admonition.

The State has a very practical and concrete authority: it is charged with the preservation and promotion of the common good of a particular society (for example, Utah or Louisiana). It exercises its authority by promulgating laws and then enforcing those laws.

The Church has no authority over the State with regard to the on-the-ground decisions of how to enforce law and order. But the Church does have authority to teach and admonish the State (and it's legislators and agents) on the nature of human society and the nature of law and order.

So, the Church identifies capital punishment as a way that the State has legitimately exercised its authority in the past; but she also recognizes that (as with everything in this world shattered by original sin) capital punishment is not the ideal way to achieve order and good in human society. Therefore, she admonishes the State to be wary in using capital punishment - perhaps even to forgo it altogether - lest the cure become worse than the original illness. She shines the light of God's divinely revealed mercy on a justice that is so easily tempted by vengeance.

And yet, she does not declare that capital punishment is a sin. She notes that it is not irredeemably evil (as, for example, torture is). Rather, she exercises her own authority, in teaching and admonishing, in support of the State's exercise of it's proper authority.

Sorry about the long-windedness, but sometimes that's the only way for me to work through the muddiness to clarity.


  1. "lest the cure become worse than the original illness."

    In the last few years the US has had about 16000 homicides, and 50 executions per year.

  2. kkollwitz:

    More homicides than that - by orders of magnitude - when you include abortions.

    So if your point is that capital punishment is not the most critical issue on our moral plate, I entirely agree with you.

    And yet, that doesn't excuse asking whether any executions also should be numbered among the homicides.

    So if your point is that we should just look the other way and not do what we can - little though it may be - to make our criminal justice system truly just, I entirely disagree with you.

    Morality is not a zero-sum game; becoming more moral in one area of life does not take away from morality in other areas of life.

  3. The fact is, the death penalty is not immoral, abortion and homicide is always immoral.

  4. Robert,

    You can't have it both ways. Either capital punishment is morally legitimate or it's not.

    Your first post says it is legitimate, but yet when an argument is made for its use, you argue that it's not legitimate.

  5. I don't see how I'm trying for both ways. Rather, I'm trying to make a distinction.

    Capital punishment is a legitimate exercise of a legitimate government's authority. No one is arguing otherwise.

    However, capital punishment, like all exercises of authority, can be used in an abusive fashion. It can be used improperly and immorally. It also may not be the appropriate exercise of authority for each and every situation.

    The Church admonishes the State to use capital punishment only in a moral fashion - suggesting that the reasons for its legitimate and moral use are increasingly rare.

    Let me give an example, in hopes of clarifying.

    A parent legitimately has the right to spank his child. This is a moral and acceptable form of discipline.

    However, if the parent spanks his child without provocation, then it is an abuse of parental authority.

    Moreover, when the child grows to adolescence, other forms of discipline (such as grounding or withholding allowance) become more effective and spanking becomes less appropriate.

    Similarly, the Church says that capital punishment A) is often used abusively, without due prudence and caution about on whom it is used; and B) that it is less appropriate a means of maintaining justice than other methods available in most nations today.

    This in no way implies that capital punishment (or spanking) is illegitimate. It simply is an argument from prudence - one which the faithful may dispute but must at least consider.

  6. Robert,

    I take it back. On reading your post again, I can see that you simply misunderstood kkollwitz's argument. Which in turn made your argument rather cryptic but which looked to be :

    When kkollwitz gave the ratio of 320:1 when qualified by his quote of you, the understanding is that at some point the numbers will become sufficiently disproportionate so that capital punishment can be legitimately used.

    To which you dismiss his ratio by citing an even higher ratio of disproportion by an order of magnitude which shall never be equaled.

    Which is to have your cake and eat it too because :

    You grant capital punishment can be used, but then you turn around and set the bar so high that it never could be justified.

    Which is at the least for practical purposes to make it illegitimate.

    AS to why you misread kkollwitz, I suspect it's because this blog has a peculiar habit of assuming all comers are enemies to be combated.

    And I suspect I misread your post because it made sense from past experience on this blog that the bar would be set too high.

  7. I suspect I was wrong the last time I was here, I highly doubt the specific difference of torture is irrationality caused by violence. I suspect it's much closer to the distinction between mud and very wet dirt.

    Given that torture is an intrinsic evil, I don't see how it could not have an immediately recognizable specific difference, but the transition appears to have the character of a quality such as slowly adding water to dirt to where at some point the dirt becomes mud.

    Why is this relevant? because there is a difference between mud and dirt, but in past discussions I would often find myself wondering if a drop of water in a pound of dirt was too much for some here.

  8. ltg-

    I'm not sure I understand your arguments. My intent is not to "assum[e] all comers are enemies to be combated," but to seek clarity.

    If I misunderstood kkolwitz, I'd hope he would set me straight.

    Moreover, my original post was to point out a place of agreement - that the numbers show that capital punishment is a numerically small issue compared with other serious moral issues - and to challenge a conclusion that might be drawn from that - that the numbers have a bearing on the morality of the issue.

    My argument is that if capital punishment is abused even once, that abuse is still wrong. Period.

    Therefore, it seems to me that we as a society should do whatever we can to make sure that capital punishment is not abused.

    I'm not the one setting the bar high; that's JP2, who sets out some very good reasons for setting the bar high. His approach has been confirmed by inclusion in the Catechism. This does not mean it's the final word on capital punishment, but it does mean that Catholics need to consider his arguments and give them the assent due them.

    As to your post on torture not having a specific difference, I'm not sure I follow it at all. Was it waylaid from another conversation?