I was privileged to participate this week in a conference at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, hosted by the Division for Roman Law and Legal History, “Law and Religion: The Legal Teachings of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.” My paper today was titled, “Natural Law and Subsidiarity in Early Modern Reformed Perspective.”

In this paper I explore some of the theological context in the sixteenth century among Reformed theologians like Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Franciscus Junius that form a part the early modern pre-history of the modern principle of subsidiarity.

In this respect, I argue particularly that

The link between natural law and the idea of subsidiarity in this early modern Reformed context, then, is in the affirmation of the natural moral obligation to help your neighbor, both at the individual as well as at the institutional level. Subsdiarity, in its most basic (if not yet principled) sense is in this way a corollary of natural law, in that it is an aspect of the rational ordering of society, including human individuals with a common nature (including dignity and relative autonomy) as well as a variety of institutions with different ends (natures). Subsidiarity is an answer to the question of ordering variegated social institutions and relating them to the individual, an answer which became increasingly developed and mature as Reformed social thought progressed.

20120509-001219.jpgI was reminded of the ongoing significance of the “natural moral obligation to help your neighbor” when watching the acclaimed film Winter’s Bone recently. Ree is Sonny’s older sister, and even though she is still in high school she is the sole provider for the family. The family is under enormous financial and legal pressure, and with this background we have this exchange between Sonny and Ree. They see that their neighbors have recently killed a deer, while Ree’s family is starving:

Sonny: Maybe they’ll share some of that with us.
Ree: That could be.
Sonny: Maybe we should ask.
Ree: Never ask for what oughta be offered.

“Never ask for what oughta be offered.” In that short phrase we have a deep insight into the assumed social obligations in this example of Missouri hill country, as well as the rather remarkable willingness to go without, and perhaps starve, rather than ask for what someone is morally obliged to provide. It captures wonderfully the simultaneously coexisting rugged individualism and social conscience of historic American culture.

Ree’s neighbors have full knowledge of her family’s troubles, and later that evening they do in fact bring food to them, with the explanation that the neighbor didn’t want them to think that they “forgot” about their moral obligations.

These scenes are one small illustration of what I argue is the Reformed “vision of a society as one of mutual aid.”