Despite its novelty in public discourse, subsidiarity is a principle that has been a central, if contested, nucleus of Roman Catholic social doctrine for more than a century. It has been the subject of a long succession of papal social encyclicals. In this century it is most prominently endorsed by Pope Pius XI in his social encyclical Quadragesimo anno in 1931.
At the centre of the debate is the nature of the Christian imperative to social action. The proper balance between individual interpretation of the social gospel (what Christians should do in practice to better the human condition) and the authority of the Church, is what has long been at stake. Yet out of all the theological wrangling it is clear that subsidiarity is an operational Catholic principle. It is about the devolution of authority and decision- making to the individual to act on behalf of the corporate body of believers. The continuing tension is about the level and extent of personal autonomy - the very issue that now has such prominence in the European Community.
A second stream of thinking about subsidiarity is to be found in the governmental hierarchy developed in West Germany, which adopts a simplified version of the principle. It is an established tenet of constitutional practice that no decision or activity will take place at a higher level than is necessary. Thus many social welfare and health matters are deemed to be the domain of the family and left to its exclusive responsibility.
Similarly certain matters are designated to be in the domain of the local community, the local authority or regional government. The national government deals only with those policies and functions that cannot be dealt with at lower levels.
If Mr Major is serious about subsidiarity as an organising concept for British society, he must recognise that, as Professor Dummett points out, it flies in the face of many of its current policies. It would require a reversal of the rundown of local authorities, the opposition to devolution in Scotland, Wales and the English regions, and the increasing centralisation of control of health, housing and education.
Subsidiarity is a notion that deserves to become a more prominent issue in discussions about personal autonomy in everyday life (as I have learnt through the research of my doctoral student Heather Maclean on the subsidiarity principle in the lives of elderly people). To confine it to '. . . letting nation states retain decision-making powers wherever possible' is analogous to confining justice to the rich or the franchise to men.
Director, Department of Health
and Social Welfare
The Open University
6 JulyReuse content