The understanding of subsidiarity and the role of the government revolves around the relationship between individual persons, the person to the societal whole, and the societal whole to the person. There is ample evidence to be found in both the Old and New Testament scriptures for this principle. In Old Testament tradition, we can conceptualize subsidiarity and role of government with respect to the lasting relationship between God and Israel, established in the covenant.
Thank, for example, of Moses’ decision to appoint well-regarded men in the community to assist with hearing the disputes of the Israelite people: “So Moses gave heed to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves” (Exodus 18:24-26). Heeding the advice of his father-in-law, Moses recognized that lower authority was better suited to hear the vast number of disputes, and he would be consulted in difficult cases.
Likewise the prophets are situated in the midst of this covenant to be mediators of this relationship. There are two key components that feed into the covenantal relationship, that being righteousness and justice. Righteousness is having a right relationship with God and seeking to mirror one’s life with others in the same manner as God with Israel. The prophet Jeremiah states, “O Lord of hosts, who triest the righteous, who seest the heart and the mind” (Jeremiah 20:12). A part of being in right relation to God is being righteous, knowing and understanding God’s expectations. Justice then is the relationship that exists between people, being in right relation to one another. The sanctity of the covenantal relationship is that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. This helps us to understand where subsidiarity begins.
Subsidiarity compels the people of Israel to always be attentive to the needs of the community. Isaiah in the first chapter makes clear what it means to exercise justice. “ learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). The words of the prophet make clear the specific criteria for just conduct between individuals. The principle of subsidiarity focuses on handling matters away from a central authority, focusing more on the lowest or least centralized authority. With regards to justice, the prophets place particular attention on those who are helpless and powerless in the community. History at this time is patriarchal and some of the lowest in society were the fatherless: the resident alien, the widow, and the orphan. This theme is noticeable in the twenty-second chapter of Jeremiah, “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3). The prophet Ezekiel clearly explains what it means to commit to the community:
Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that he has committed he shall die. Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die (Ezekiel 33:13-15).
Here we see the relationship between righteousness and justice. By virtue of justice, the people of Israel are called to stay in right relationship with those in community. In doing so, one lives righteously with God.
Although the topic of subsidiarity is never addressed directly in the New Testament, there are a few examples of where one can derive this principle of Catholic Social Teaching. Subsidiarity, at its most basic level, has to do with the proper ordering of communities beginning at the lowest levels. If subsidiarity were a series of concentric circles, individuals and their families would be at the center, followed by progressively more complex levels such as extended families, neighborhoods, ecclesial communities, etc. At the highest level are entities such as the state.
Despite the fact that subsidiarity is never explicitly mentioned in the New Testament scriptures, we see Jesus’ endorsement of it, for example in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:15-18).
In this case, Jesus is instructing his disciples how to deal with the question of fraternal correction. Since correction primarily has to do with the righting of relationships, Jesus tells us to begin conflict resolution first at the lower levels (individuals) and then move to the higher levels (the community) when necessary. Jesus endorses this again earlier in Matthew’s Gospel when he encourages his disciples to settle their disputes outside of court (See Matthew 5:25-26). This method of ordering of society is proper because it respects the way the human beings naturally organize themselves. Disputes can be better dealt with at the lower levels in which people understand the complexity of the problem, rather than by the judge, who does not understand such complexities.
We see a similar ordering in Luke’s account of the first Christian community in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The community was experiencing issues with properly ministering to the needs of its varied segments, in particular the Greek-speaking widows:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Proch′orus, and Nica′nor, and Timon, and Par′menas, and Nicola′us, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them (Acts 6:1-7).
In this example, the Christian community recognized the fact that efforts of individual charity were insufficient in order to provide for the needs of this segment of the community. This is largely because of cultural and language differences that were present among the members of the community. Rather than continue to neglect the Greek-speaking widows, the community appoints seven men to oversee the distribution for these widows. Thus, the next highest level in society was able to solve the problem better than the lowest levels.
However there are often times in which the highest levels of authority need to be summoned to deal with problems or give guidance to the lower levels. Once again the scriptures provide the context of caring for widows. Paul instructs Timothy about how the Christian community in Ephesus should decide who should be admitted to the order of widows. It seems as though the community may have had a limited amount of resources allocated for the distribution, and needs some direction as to who should be included. Paul gives Timothy the following advice to deal with the situation:
If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us. For some have already strayed after Satan. If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are real widows (1 Timothy 5:8-16).
Here we see an example of those in the highest levels of decision making helping to direct the lower levels. In this case Paul, as the founder of the community at Ephesus, carries the authority of an Apostle, and thus he gets involved only to ensure the well being of individuals at the lower levels of the community.
Thus while the scriptures do not make explicit reference to the principle of subsidiarity, there are examples of its practice both in the instruction of Jesus and in the early Church. So there seems to be a solid base from which to build future doctrine on this matter.