The modern understanding of subsidiarity and government are of course fairly unknown to the Church Fathers. The primary forms of government they were familiar with were empires, particularly the Roman Empire, as well as warring tribes, such as the Visigoths. The relationship between Rome and the Church was also very different from modern, Western governments, where it varied from outright persecution to official standing. Similarly, the Fathers’ concerns within the Church tended to be more paternalistic than the modern situation, with a heavier emphasis on the bishop leading his diocese. Yet the Fathers still developed the themes of subsidiarity proper to their times, which do elucidate a modern conception as well.
First, Ignatius of Antioch frequently addresses issues of hierarchy and order within the Church, especially about the need for the faithful to be united to their bishop. In one sense, this represents solidarity, in that they are all united together for the common good. Yet this also exhibits subsidiarity. Given the variety of letters Ignatius wrote to diverse Churches, each of which had its own local bishop, Ignatius is clearly an important individual in the early Church who would assumedly be a source of authority. He may, in some sense, represent a higher-level authority beyond that of the individual bishops. Yet, he writes, “I do not issue orders to you, as if I were some great person.”1 Ignatius likely could have ordered something of these communities, yet he did not. Instead, he asks the faithful to “follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles.”2 Unity must begin at the lowest level, unity with individual presbyters and with the local bishop. Ignatius does not claim to interfere with their lives, except to exhort them to follow their bishop and be faithful to the Church. Any specific issues he mostly leaves to the particular bishop.
Ignatius also specifies a particular hierarchical order: “let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishops; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.”3 There is not a single, highest authority who is to have mastery over every other member.
Instead, each group of individuals is to report to a nearby level. He extends this to the Trinity, where the highest authority, the Father, sent a nearer representative, the Incarnate Son. This principle, then, is not merely a practical and useful one, but rather one that even the Trinity Himself employs. Ignatius is speaking specifically of the Church, but his principles are ones that could be extrapolated to other institutions, such as governments.
Next, Athanasius writes that, “God, knowing the weakness of men made provision even for their carelessness . . . by sending a law, and prophets, men such as they knew so that . . . they might have their instruction from those near at hand. For men are able to learn from men more directly about higher things.”4 Athanasius is speaking specifically of how God revealed Himself to mankind: first through the Law and the prophets; then, through the God-man. God did not reveal Himself directly through divine revelation to humanity, but always through some mode more familiar to individual men. Clement of Alexandria makes a similar statement: “it is time for us in due course to say who our Instructor is. He is called Jesus. . . . It is he who teaches Moses to act as instructor.”5 Jesus, as the Instructor, is perfectly capable of instructing mankind. Yet instead, He chose to instruct one particular man, Moses, that he may then instruct others. The manner of God’s revelation, then, exhibits subsidiarity: God permitted lower levels of reality to reveal Him. This principle can then be extended to encompass more than revelation. For example, educating individuals about healthcare, or building trust to participate in a democratic polity. In such situations, men will trust and understand those who are similar to them, who relate to them on a local level, more than they would if such information or encouragement came from the highest levels.
The Church Fathers also comment on the role of secular government. Athanasius, speaking to secular authorities, writes, “Intrude not yourself into Ecclesiastical matters, neither give commands unto us concerning them; but learn them from us. God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us He has entrusted the affairs of His Church. . . . Neither therefore is it permitted unto us to exercise an earthly rule.”6 This statement is partially a matter of protecting the Church and Her interests, but even more Athanasius is making a statement about different institutions having different areas of authority. There is a strong contrast here between the State, which has authority over secular affairs, and the Church, who has authority over moral and spiritual affairs. In a sense, these two institutions are not part of the same hierarchy. Yet that cannot be totally true, otherwise Athanasius would not be able to command the authorities to mind their own business. The Church does not meddle in secular affairs, except when it becomes necessary, when the State is either dealing with moral or spiritual affairs, or when it is acting in a way contrary to the Church’s faith. Different institutions have their own areas of responsibility, where they can address issues directly and effectively, and each institution does not interfere with the others’ areas, except when it becomes necessary.
Augustine also comments on the nature of government in his work City of God, responding specifically to the fall of the Roman Empire and the sack of Rome. Speaking of a hypothetical situation, he says that, “human affairs being thus more happy, all kingdoms would have been small, rejoicing in neighborly concord.”7 Augustine clearly believes that smaller kingdoms would be more amenable to promoting the common good and the happiness of individual members. By keeping kingdoms small, “neighborly concord” is possible; with the gigantic Roman Empire, the concept of a “neighbor” was virtually completely foreign. A smaller institution permits those who run the institution to be concerned with the affairs of individuals within their institution, who would have something common, whether ethnicity or culture, etc. These individuals can be considered neighbors, and not just subjects of the Empire. This critique does not necessarily need to be leveled against large governments as such; rather, the critique can be leveled at large governments that attempt to manage the affairs of the entire State, rather than allowing more local, “neighborly” institutions to manage the local affairs.
1. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians (longer version), III.
2. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (longer version), VIII.
3. Ibid., IX.
4. Athanasius of Alexandria, Incarnation of the Word, 12.
5. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, I.VII.
6. Athanasius of Alexandria, History of the Arians, VI.44.
7. Augustine of Hippo, City of God, IV.XIX.15.