Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty: Christian Reflections on the Size, Shape and Scope of Government
Mcilroy, David H., Journal of Church and State
In the last century and a half, the shape of Christian political theory has been re-thought, both in Catholic and in Reformed1 circles. Fears of excessive centralization have led to attempts to identify theologically grounded principles limiting the reach of "big government." In Catholicism, the principle of subsidiarity has been propounded, while the Dutch Reformed thinker, Abraham Kuyper, expounded a theory of sphere sovereignty. Are these ideas viable? Are they ways of saying the same things to different theological audiences? Do they contradict one another or complement one another? Or are they merely theological and political cul-de-sacs?
The principle of subsidiarity was enunciated by Pope Pius XI in the Papal Encyclical Quadragesima Anno.2 In that encyclical, Pius XI stated that "it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community."3 Decisions should be taken at the lowest level possible which is compatible with good government.4
This principle has been incorporated into the legal order of the European Community. Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC)5 seeks to apply the principle of subsidiarity in the following way:
In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community. Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.6
Professor John Warwick Montgomery has been critical of the theology and the usefulness of the principle of subsidiarity in a short article in Law & Justice entitled "Subsidiarity as a Jurisprudential and Canonical Theory."7 His theological critique is that Pope Pius XIIs purported to derive the principle of subsidiarity from Ephesians 4:11-16 and 1 Corinthians 12, whereas Professor Montgomery contends that the texts do not bear the weight or the interpretation placed upon them. In short, concludes Montgomery: "The Papal development of subsidiarity is the product of a theological failing by no means limited to Roman Catholics: that of basing a teaching on single passages of Scripture taken out of context and without regard to the totality of biblical teaching ('the whole counsel of God')."9
In theological terms, Montgomery bases his rejection of subsidiarity on the following principle: "'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23): [therefore] sin cannot be restricted to any subgroup of the human race or to any one party or level of human society."10 He argues that "Subsidiarity tacitly assumes that the centrist, higher levels [of government] are more tainted with original sin than the democratic, lower levels. Not so. Every societal level must equally justify its actions in terms of the greater societal good, and none is in a pre-set subsidiarity relationship vis-a-vis the other."11
In terms of its usefulness as a jurisprudential principle, Montgomery argues that subsidiarity has been over-hyped. It cannot, in fact, act as an effective restraint on "big government." "Subsidiarity . . . is no insurance policy against the growth of centralised authority, since it does not define what specific functions of a society are in fact best carried out at lower, rather than higher, levels."12
However, even if subsidiarity was effective in re-locating power downwards, its implementation would be undesirable. "The problem with subsidiarity is that it does . . . establish a mandatory structural order: one in which centralised or higher authority always has the burden of proof in justifying its actions. If that burden is not …
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Publication information: Article title: Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty: Christian Reflections on the Size, Shape and Scope of Government. Contributors: Mcilroy, David H. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Church and State. Volume: 45. Issue: 4 Publication date: Autumn 2003. Page number: 739+. © 1999 J.M. Dawson Studies in Church and State. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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