The principle of subsidiarity, and thinking the unthinkable

2 mins read
Oval Office
Wikimedia Commons

Scott RichertWhat if you woke up tomorrow and found that the office of the presidency no longer existed? Would your life change in any meaningful way?

Would you spend the rest of your days on this earth working to restore the office of the presidency? If so, why? If not, why not?

I rarely indulge in thought experiments. I’m an empiricist, in the old Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas sense. I take the world as given to me and rely on experience to form my understanding of my surroundings. I don’t think there’s much to be gained by imagining a world in which the sky is green and the grass is blue.

But when it comes to human institutions — truly human, not divinely ordained — sometimes it’s useful, and even enlightening, to take a step back and to ask, as I did in my last column, “What if?” (Sept. 13, 2020). That’s especially true when the question is, for most of us, literally unthinkable (that is, one that would never occur to us until someone else asks it), like “What if it matters very little who actually occupies the Oval Office?” or “What if the public preoccupation with the presidency is itself part of the problem?”

So let’s remove the office of the presidency from the equation. That’s not that odd of an idea; after all, most Western democracies operate under a parliamentary system, where the legislative body is supreme, and even in the United States, the framers of the Constitution saw Congress, not the presidency, as the chief governing institution of our republic. With the exception of the five years of the U.S. Civil War, the presidency was very much limited in scope and power until World War II. Even the expansive vision set forth by Alexander Hamilton of what the presidency could one day become pales in comparison with what it is today.

But wait — haven’t I just undermined my own thought experiment? Since the presidency is so powerful, isn’t it obvious that our lives would change dramatically if it went away?

Perhaps — but in ways rather different from what we might expect.

The expansion of presidential power is a symptom of something much deeper, a process of centralization that has characterized the modern world since the Renaissance. The Church’s understanding of subsidiarity — the principle that political and social authority begins with the family and expands outward — was explicitly developed in opposition to this process of centralization (though its roots, of course, lie in the fundamental principles of the Church’s moral theology). Catholic social teaching, especially as expressed from the time of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum on, has made it clear that political and social issues should be addressed at the most immediate level, and not handed off to governmental institutions far distant from where a problem has occurred. (Of course, modern media makes us think that the president resides in our living room rather than in the White House, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

In other words, in the course of our daily lives, there are relatively few things that a central, national authority should be involved in. National defense is an obvious one, and in any constitutional system (not just that of the United States) more local authorities may agree to delegate certain responsibilities to a central government, especially to navigate disputes among those local authorities. Even functions of government that we think of as essential to the common good — the keeping of the peace through the enforcement of criminal law, for example — can and therefore should reside with the most local level of government possible.

As Catholics, we should understand this implicitly, from the Church’s moral theology and social teaching. As modern men and women, though, and as Americans, we have absorbed from an early age the presuppositions of a world that not only does not reflect that moral theology and social teaching but is in many ways antithetical to it.

That’s why, every once in a while, it’s a good idea to spend a little time thinking the unthinkable.

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.