(Vatican Radio) The roar of over 100 thousand Harley Davidsons have enveloped the Vatican Saturday, as bikers marked the 110th anniversary of the US motors founding. 1,400 bikes with their riders wi...Read more
(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis received the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso in private audience at the Vatican on Saturday, with EU integration, the current economic cri...Read more
Subsidiarity is often confused with the word subsidiary, which is a partaking of some aspect of a higher authority, a “delegated authority,” as in the case of a business executive who permits an employee to exercise a task he does not have time to do himself.
While there can be elements of the subsidiary involved in subsidiarity, the latter is a much broader and deeper concept of the inter-relatedness of persons and actions in the human community. This important concept in Catholic social teaching has been articulated in Papal encyclicals such as Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno and John Paul II’s Centessiums Annus and other Church documents. For the sake of brevity, and leaving aside the facets and qualifiers that are inevitably associated with the subject, we might reduce the principle to this:
Subsidiarity is the principle which states that freedoms and their inherent responsibilities are best managed by the smallest competent authority at the level most appropriate to the nature of the persons involved. For example, the family, not the state, is the “first teacher” of the family’s children. Governments may assist the family if parents are unable to exercise their subsidiarity, but the state should do so only as a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or personal level. In other words, the government and its administrative organs, such as a department of Education, must serve the family, and not the other way around.
The Catholic understanding of the term is comprehensible only in the light of the whole truth about man. Man is a creature both temporal and eternal, of flesh and spirit. Our position in the cosmology God brought into existence is an exalted one, for in the hierarchy of creatures we are far above the animals and a little lower than the angels. We are situated so high because we are created in the image and likeness of God; our faculties are an intimate sharing in the life of the Giver. Moreover, we are redeemed by God himself who became one of us in Christ.
In his masterful essay On Fairy Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “sub-creation” for the writer’s freedom to create imaginative worlds and universes, and emphasized the correlation between this human faculty and the image of God-the-Creator in us. He takes pains to note, however, that no matter how wildly imaginative the sub-created world may be, it must never depart from faithfulness to the moral order of the real universe. The fish might fly through the air and the birds swim in the depths of the sea, the sentient beings might have green skin and wings, but the imaginative universe must not violate the divinely ordained moral order. In other words, a writer’s subsidiarity will remain healthy to the degree that it is moral sub-creation. But this morality is God-given, not a subsidiary of any social or state pressures, not servile to the ever-unstable, imposed ethical systems of sociopolitical theorists. This is why “political art” almost always fails as art, because in the process of choosing servility the political artist abandons the more personal relationship of sonship of the Father and consequently blocks certain graces and inspirations which God wishes to bestow upon the creative imagination. In this regard one need only ponder the artistic and intellectual sterility of Marxist “Socialist Realism” and the propaganda art of Hitler’s Reich Kultur Chamber.
In less odious forms there can still be much confusion regarding the function of artists in society. Take for example the problem of commissioned art, and more specifically sacred art. Local parishes, dioceses, or religious institutions still from time to time commission a painter to create a work to “decorate” their walls, and it is common for them to appoint a committee to oversee its “production.” Depending on the maturity of committee members, the artist may find himself with carte blanche license to be as outrageously iconoclastic as he wishes, or alternatively find himself at the other end of the spectrum where every detail of the work is dictated, as if he is no more than an insensate brush in the hand of the committee. Clearly, from the Catholic point of view, neither of these approaches are acceptable, nor are they fruitful in artistic and spiritual terms. Neither do they exhibit an understanding of the artist’s subsidiarity.
How, then, to exercise a fully Catholic subsidiarity in such situations? First and foremost, the artist must recognize that he is responsible to God. He knows that committees do not produce works of art, yet he keeps in mind that committees are there (potentially, theoretically) to assist him. Above all, he must pray for inspiration, and if he is a wise artist he will be asking for the prayers of the committee and those of the community for which the art is being created. He must be willing to discuss themes, suggest various media for expressing them, and perhaps consider alternative stylistic aspects as well. At some point, however, after an ingathering of insight and reflection, the artist should be permitted to act according to what he has received and absorbed, and while not disregarding the needs of the community his primary attention will be from then on turned to the “still small voice” of the inspiration. He is neither a controlled machine nor a free-floating autonomous power. In a word he is a member of a community.
Ideally the community will understand that his “talents” are a unique gift, a kind of charism for the service of the Body that cannot be replaced by any other kind of charism. Put another way, the artist’s subsidiarity cannot be replaced by the collective opinions of committee members, no matter how well they have been formed in aesthetics. By the same token, if the artist hopes to serve Christ he must paint in the attitude of humility, and such humility cannot be imposed by exterior pressures; it can only be lived from within the artist’s soul. Likewise the commissioning body needs humility, if it would truly assist the artist in his work. Again I must underline that all parties need a sensitive balance that should never be a passivity to human taste and whims, but rather a constant striving for docility to the Holy Spirit.
Subsidiarity is crucial in other fields such as love and sexuality, where the theology of co-creation has been discussed with increasing depth of understanding, notably in John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” When a man and woman conceive a child together they are creating a new human life, an eternal soul. They are doing so not as bio-puppets or animal functionaries, but as knowing beings in harmony with natural law given by God and infused (in its most consecrated form of marriage) with grace. In this way God creates not only through his human creatures but also with them.
As with all human activity, spousal love is inseparable from accountability to God, a measuring of how well we use our gifts in union with the will of the Giver. Indeed all man’s choices in the flow of time are leading toward the eschaton, the Last Judgment when we will render accounts before the Lord regarding how well we have cared for his creation. Parents will render an account of how they have nurtured their children in all aspects of their humanity toward the salvation of their souls. The educator will render an account of how faithfully he has imparted truth to other people’s children entrusted to him. The artist will render an account of how well he has used his talents toward the creation of “words” that give life, that enrich the lives of other human beings toward the salvation of their souls
These faculties of human nature — to love, to reason, to create, and so forth — are not mere static possessions but are to be used by man in freedom integrated with responsibility, in a world that is both inexpressibly beautiful and fraught with perils, not least of which is the possibility of losing our identity, indeed of never reaching our eternal destination. They are to be used as God would have us use them, that is, for the restoration of creation to the divine order. In short, we live in neither a mechanistic universe nor a fully restored universe. It is a dynamic universe, in which we live and move and have our being in a state of impermanence and incompletion, yet bearing within ourselves glimmers of eternal glory. This is no promethean light stolen from the “gods” but an indestructible divine light given by the Father.
Creation, it goes without saying, is damaged, and the primary damage has been done to human nature itself, for we are the point through which Satan continues to strike at the Holy Trinity. God chooses to remain so vulnerable, and will continue to be so until the end of time. In this as in so many other of his attributes one can see the nature of his love. We are damaged but not destroyed, and even in our present condition we are beloved. Beloved to the point that in order to free us God entered into creation as a man and submitted himself to a shameful and agonizing death for our sake. From Christ’s submission to the Father came the Resurrection, and at the end of time this submission will bring about the final defeat of Satan and death itself, and the restoration of the entire creation to divine order.
Submission is not a popular word these days, for in common usage it has come to mean a negation of the self, denial of personal identity, and even oppression or forceful suppression. In fact, a true and wise submission is the only way to find oneself, to learn one’s identity and to live it fruitfully. The word derives from the Latin sub missio — within the mission. But how to find this sub-mission when human nature — even baptized human nature — remains so full of unruly contradictions and willfulness? A helpful first step is to admit a few certain truths about our present condition. Saint John of Damascus once wrote that when Adam fell, man lost the likeness of God but he did not lose the image of God. Only with Christ’s redemption does it become possible for us to be restored to the original unity of image and likeness. The theology of the Latin West, no less than that of the Christian East, was vitally concerned with the Imago Dei for more than a millennium, and only in the late Renaissance did this consciousness wane as the excitements of the new humanism gripped the artists and thinkers of the time (we shall leave aside here the subject of how this humanism affected Machiavellian princes, bankers, and merchant-barons). As the Christian humanism gave way through historical pressures to an increasingly autonomous humanism, the awareness of man’s complete identity declined, with the result that new aberrations manifested themselves in all spheres of human activity. Culture expressed it like a barometer.
Consider the fact that Boticelli’s “Madonnas” (sensual Venuses disguised and “legitimized” with Christian hieratics) were followed only a few short centuries later by chopped Picasso women, butchered by a painterly meat cleaver and reassembled according to the artist’s morbid curiosity or malice divorced from any sense of reverence for women. This is not Goya protesting the violation of man, it is the celebration of violation. And this in turn has given us the world of the absolutely anti-human, the feast of hell that one finds in the horror-sculptures of artists such as Mark Prent and the blasphemy constructions of artists such as Andreas Serrano. These are the sons of Nietzsche, each a creator-as-destroyer, a “wrecker of values” who considers himself to be accountable to no one. Such figures in the world of contemporary culture are numerous. Their works are symptoms of radical loss of any sense of who we are, often accompanied by the willful demolition of any manifestation of human dignity. It is informative that such art (which appears to be anti-rational) has arisen in a culture that is overwhelmingly dominated by rationalism, a rationalism that not only dissociates man from God but at the same time separates man from himself, fragmenting his inner life, convincing him that he is a bio-mechanism composed of separate parts such as mind/body/emotions, while denying the existence of that dimension of his being which is eternal. As one of the characters in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov points out, “If there is no God then everything is permissible!”
But if God does exist, then every good becomes possible. In his 1999 Letter to Artists Pope John Paul II wrote:
Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but “fully reveals man to man”. (23) In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, “awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.
In Love and Responsibility, (first published in Polish in 1960 and in English in 1981) Karol Wojtyla pointed out that the scientific rationalism of modern man has obscured the sacred order of creation, and this makes it difficult for us to understand the principles on which the moral order is based. He says that Natural Law has its origin in the divine will of God and cannot be tampered with without negative consequences. To alter the order of existence is a right that belongs only to the Lord himself. When Christ walked on the water, multiplied the loaves and fishes, and (most significantly of all) rose from the dead, he was exercising his divine right. The Apostles understood this and worshipped him. Only the Creator, who holds authority over all creation, can suspend the laws of creation. But even in his omnipotence God never violates the moral order of the universe. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus always acts with total responsibility.
So, too, when God gives creative powers to the artist, he does not do so in any simplistic subsidiary mode but rather in genuine subsidiarity — that is, he does not drop raw power into the artist’s hands and then abandon him to his own autonomous will. Neither does he treat the recipient as a tool or depersonalized appendage of himself. The receiver of the gift is a person in a community of persons, regardless of whether or not he knows it. The generosity of the Father is an act of faith on His part, an entrustment of power and authority into the hands of a creature who is by nature unreliable. At the same time, through the graces invoked by prayer and assisted by the wisdom of the Church and her traditions, the recipient can mature into responsible sonship. He is free to ignore all such aid or to humbly learn from it. He can use his gifts for good or for ill. He can even go so far as to employ them exclusively for the pursuit of pleasure, the most obvious example being the procreative gift of sexuality. But I am speaking here of the creative powers of art.