Earlier this week we noted that Patrick Brennan posted a paper, “Subsidiarity in the Tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine,” which unpacks some of the recent background and implications for the use of the principle in Catholic social thought. As Brennan observes, “Although present in germ from the first Christian century, Catholic social thought began to emerge as a unified body of doctrine in the nineteenth century….” Brennan goes on to highlight the particularly Thomistic roots of the doctrine of subsidiarity, “a new idea creatively culled from the depths of the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition that had roots in Greek philosophical speculation.”
While recognizing the innovativeness of Taparelli’s thought and the genius of 19th and 20th century revivals of neo-Thomism, it is also worth noting the basic “catholicity,” or universality, of a doctrine like subsidiarity within the broader Christian tradition. If Christian social thought has been around since the first century, then so have its constitutive elements, in more or less developed form. And pace Brennan, it is not clear to me that there is one univocal version of subsidiarity, at least as it arises out of the early modern period.
With this in mind, I have just posted two papers that explore the early modern backgrounds of subsidiarity and related concepts like natural law which focus particularly on the provenance of these ideas in the Reformed tradition.
In “State, Church, and the Reformational Roots of Subsidiarity,” I explore “some (although certainly not all) of the antecedents in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras that stand behind more contemporary expressions of the doctrine of subsidiarity,” specifically within the ecclesiastical and the political thought of the Reformed.
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.
These papers should be appearing in print sometime next year, and the versions posted at SSRN represent various stages of finality with respect to the text itself. Most changes should be superficial, however, and so the content of these two papers is essentially reliable at this point. I commend them, and the principle of subsidiarity itself, to your study. We can also look forward to the scheduled publication in which Brennan’s essay will appear, Subsidiarity in Comparative Perspective, ed. Michelle Evans and Augusto Zimmermann (Dordrecht: Springer, forthcoming).