Since for Aquinas creation bears the trace of its Creator, it is instructive to begin with God in considering subsidiarity, specifically how He has created and governs the universe. Herein a key principle is Divine Providence. In considering the question of whether God has immediate providence over all of creation, Aquinas draws a useful distinction: insofar as providence refers to God having in His intellect the “type” of all the causes and effects in the universe, He could be said to have immediate providence (i.e. God knows all the chains of causes and effects down to the smallest one—He knows us, for instance, and all we will do, directly); however, as regards governance of the universe (which is the “execution of this order,” this set of causes and effects), He uses intermediaries. Aquinas then makes a general statement about how God governs the universe: “He governs things inferior by superior” (e.g., animals are governed by humans); and provides an instructive reasoning for having these intermediaries: “not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures.”1 This “dignity of causality” is key; while God remains the first efficient cause of all creation, He allows creatures to also exercise secondary efficient causality as part of creation (e.g, a couple conceiving a child; God remains the first cause, but they are allowed to share in God’s creational causality as secondary causes).
Implicit in the discussion of superior powers ruling over inferior ones is the hierarchy of being, central to Aquinas’ understanding of creation. His basic tenet is that a diversity of goodness in creation is a better expression of goodness than a single being (because God’s goodness will infinitely exceed any single being’s capacity for goodness); therefore, God’s self- diffusive Goodness is made manifest in different levels of goodness in creation. Thus, the angels are better (have more goodness) than humanity, humans have more goodness than animals, and so on down the line (note that for Aquinas goodness and being are coterminous, such that we could call the “hierarchy of being” the “hierarchy of goodness”).2 Even within the angels, there exist hierarchies; yet note that all such hierarchies are not a deficiency, but a mark of God’s goodness.3 Nonetheless, “A higher power can do many things that an inferior power cannot do to those which are subject to them,” and thus the higher powers rule over the lower ones.4
Earthly Rule and Subsidiarity
Already in his consideration of divine providence, Aquinas begins to hint at subsidiarity in human government. He notes as an objection to God’s immediate providence over everything: “It belongs to the dignity of a king, that he should have ministers; through whose mediation he provides for his subjects”; he responds that God (the great King) does use ministers for the execution of His providence (i.e. governance), but He also has a form of providence that an earthly king does not possess, because a king does not know all the “order” (i.e. the whole set of causes, effects, rules, etc.) of his governance (i.e. he does not know every detail of every one of his subjects, or even of every single rule and law in his kingdom).5 The key here is that there is a fittingness to a king having ministers who provide for his subjects—mediation is a part of his dignity as the one with highest power.
This brings us to a consideration of Aquinas’ political philosophy and theology. As in his general philosophical approach, Aquinas is heavily Aristotelian in his consideration of politics. Thus, the whole question of politics derives from the idea that man is inherently a political (or for Aquinas also “social”) animal. Aquinas also draws from him the key principle that the whole is greater than its parts, from which Aristotle concludes that the state (polis, the Greek city-state) is a greater community than those that make it up (e.g., households and neighborhoods)—in fact, the political community is the perfect community.6 Aquinas follows this, applying this “perfect community” status to the city (civita). However, while it is a unity greater than its parts, it is a “unity of order,” as opposed to an “absolute unity”; this means it is a unity made up, not solely of individuals, but of smaller unities (which have some level of independence) ordered together.7
For Aristotle, one of the keys to the polis being perfect is its relative degree of self- sufficiency. Aquinas follows suit, but interestingly applies this category of self-sufficiency to other communities as well: thus, an individual has no self-sufficiency (we are, after all, social animals); a household has some degree of self-sufficiency (for instance, for “the giving of birth to offspring and the provision of food”); a neighborhood also has some (a “neighborhood” in Aquinas’s time being inhabited by those who practiced a trade together, they had the self- sufficiency in regards to that particular trade); a city has its level of self-sufficiency as well, though even that is not complete; for a province (combining cities) has a higher level of self- sufficiency, such as the sufficiency for providing for defense against enemies.8 This is subsidiarity at its best: each level of community has its own levels of self-sufficiency, and thus of self-governance. This is seen also in his consideration of kingdoms (a step above the civita); thus he says: “under one king there are different cities, which are governed by different laws and administrators,” where it is worth highlighting the level of autonomy of the cities, despite the fact that there is a more perfect community above them (the kingdom).9
Aquinas saw this same dynamic in the government established by Moses over the Israelites, where elders were appointed to help Moses in his leadership, and seem (by their number, a multiple of twelve) to have represented the tribes (the tribes thus appearing to be a significant division of the nation).10 He also saw it at play in the Church, where the Pope ruled over all, and yet there was power and jurisdiction for each bishop over a diocese, and for parish priests over their parishes; furthermore, even in the conferral of the Sacrament of Orders, different powers were reserved for each level of ordination.11
For Aquinas, subsidiarity begins with God’s Providence, wherein God allows His creation to participate in causality by governing over those parts of creation inferior to them. This same reality is then seen in human communities, be they social/political or ecclesial. The key is that each level of community has its self-sufficiencies, and thus their capacity to govern. While the higher community is more perfect, it depends on governance at lower levels.
1. ST I, q. 22, a. 3, respondio; see also ST I, q. 103, a. 6, respondio: “Now it is a greater perfection for a thing to be good in itself and also the cause of goodness in others, than only to be good in itself. Therefore God so governs things that He makes some of them to be causes of others in government; as a master, who not only imparts knowledge to his pupils, but gives also the faculty of teaching others.”
2. ST I, q.5, a. 1.
3. Summa contra Gentiles, III, 71.
4. ST I, q.96, a.1, ad1.
5. ST I ,q.22, a.3, obj.1 and ad1.
6. Nicholas Aroney, “Subsidiarity, Federalism and the Best Constitution: Thomas Aquinas on City, Province and Empire,” Law and Philosophy 26, no. 2 (March 2007): 176, 183.
7. Aroney, 176-77.
8. Aroney, 179, 183.
9. ST I, q. 108, a. 1, respondio.
10. Aroney, 218.
11. Aroney, 219. ScG IV, 76.