As we saw last time, the principle of subsidiarity means that, as a general rule, the people closest to a particular need or problem should generally respond to it first. We don’t, as we noted, phone the White House demanding that the library parking-lot pothole be fixed. Work done by ordinary people close to the situation is preferred, not intrusions by large, fat-fingered bureaucracies 3,000 miles away. Therefore, says the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, the principle of subsidiarity is opposed to “certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the state in public mechanisms.”

Note, however, the all-important word “certain,” not “all.” The Church is as keenly aware as the most ardent libertarian that, “by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the social-assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” It really gets that.

But it also gets something else: Sometimes the people and institutions closest to the problem can’t handle the problem. Suppose the library board is locked in chaos because the head of the library suspects the treasurer is having an affair with her husband. She vengefully refuses to fix the pothole because she is scheming to make the treasurer look incompetent. The pothole gets bigger. Patrons are having severe tire damage. Nothing gets done. Then what?

Then you go up the ladder of authority by “going over the heads” of the squabbling library board. That still doesn’t mean you phone the White House, of course. But maybe you go to the city council and ask them to make the library get it in gear and fix the pothole (and replace the incompetents running the library). The point remains the same: Stay as close to the local and the small as you can to get the job done. Only go up the ladder of authority when you really need to. Small is beautiful. Keep it simple; keep it local. Keep as much of the work and love to be done in the hands of real people, with faces and hearts, and only call on an increasingly faceless upper-echelon bureaucracy when you absolutely have to.

Again, this doesn’t mean there’s no place for the state and even the huge state of a world power such as the United States, or a super-state, in Catholic political thought. Recall that the Church was born in a world that was controlled by a super-state called the Roman Empire. And even when that empire was ruled by a demented maniac called Nero, who butchered Christians and slaughtered apostles, the apostle he slaughtered, St. Paul, said:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:1-7).

Paul thought the common good and civil peace so important that, like Jesus, he urges believers to pay their taxes and pay their respects to the state — even when the state is run by a psychopath like Nero.

This does not, of course, mean that we are obliged to endure tyranny when we can change the state. Its rights are not absolute. But it does mean that theories that tell us that the state has, effectively, no role in the common good are bunk. The purpose of the higher authority and power is to protect the lower powers, and all exist in order to serve the greatest good: the dignity of each and every human person.

This explains how the Church organizes herself, too. There is not only the universal Church. There is also the particular Church: that is, each diocese in the world. This is normatively ruled, not by the pope, but by the local bishop. The pope doesn’t micromanage the new paint job your parish needs. Indeed, even the local bishop doesn’t do that, unless the parish budget is such a mess that your priest can’t get it together and get the job done. Normally, the bishop would only step in if the local parish was bankrupting itself on the paint job. And, normally, the pope only steps into a diocese if the bishop is letting things go to utter rack and ruin. Again, problems are handled by those close to the problem, and problems only get bumped upstairs when those at lower levels of authority can’t deal with them.

That said, the Church does, in fact, say that the nation-state and even some kind of super-state can well have real roles to play:

“Various circumstances may make it advisable that the state step in to supply certain functions. One may think, for example, of situations in which it is necessary for the state itself to stimulate the economy because it is impossible for civil society to support initiatives on its own. One may also envision the reality of serious social imbalance or injustice where only the intervention of the public authority can create conditions of greater equality, justice and peace. In light of the principle of subsidiarity, however, this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, since justification for such intervention is found only in the exceptional nature of the situation” (Compendium, 188).

The instinct, then, is always toward giving as much responsibility and power to the smallest rather than the mighty. Indeed, the mighty have power, in such a vision, precisely for the sake of little. For the entire purpose of the greater power is not to acquire more power, but to ensure that the little and weak are able to participate to the extent they are able in the good of the earth, the work of human beings and, ultimately, in the life of the Blessed Trinity.

That’s really what subsidiarity is all about: participation. Therefore, the Church tends to favor systems that are democratic. This is nothing new, by the way. The oldest democratic institution on the face of the earth is the Dominican order, which makes its decisions with the full participation of all its members. It was medieval Catholic Europe that invented both the Magna Carta (written by a Catholic cardinal) and the English Parliamentary system, not to mention the guilds in which common folk increasingly ordered their own affairs. The Church’s habit is not to micromanage, but to leave people to figure out how to organize their own lives according to their best light, in the assumption that the Holy Spirit really will provide us with the wits and resources to do it ourselves.

Therefore, the Church speaks with hostility of totalitarian regimes: “where the fundamental right to participate in public life is denied at its origin, since it is considered a threat to the state itself. In some countries where this right is only formally proclaimed, while in reality it cannot be concretely exercised; while, in still other countries the burgeoning bureaucracy de facto denies citizens the possibility of taking active part in social and political life” (Compendium, 191).

In the end, the Church, in the overwhelming number of cases, wants people to have the freedom to work out their own affairs and exercise maximum creativity and love personally, rather than leave it to some bureaucracy or corporation to do it for us — yet to be cognizant of the fact that those who are weak, poor or wounded will need the help and protection of both the private sector and the state at times.

To this rule, there is one major exception, illustrated by a friend of mine from New York City. My friend had a chum. One day, as they were leaving work, my friend overheard his chum talking to his roommate on the phone. As he hung up, he said to his roomie, “And don’t forget to feed the burglar.”

Intrigued, my friend asked what he meant. The chum explained that he and his roommate had come home and surprised a burglar in their apartment. Reasoning that the city of New York wouldn’t punish him to their satisfaction, they decided to hold court in their apartment and mete out a punishment they felt was appropriate. So they found him guilty of burglary and sentenced him to 30 days in their closet. They figured, “Who will believe him once we let him out?” So there he stayed, with a mattress, a bucket, some books and three squares a day for a month, at which point they let him go. According to the chum, the robber was an impressive trophy for women they brought back to the apartment and always gamely waved “hi” when they opened the closet and showed him off.

An intensely New York story, to be sure. But here’s the thing: The technical term for what the roommates did is “kidnapping,” and they would have rightly gone to prison for years, had they been caught. The reason for that is simple: Subsidiarity tends to hold true with one huge exception — the use of force and violence. In that case, the Church’s teaching tends to kick things as far up the ladder of subsidiarity as it can. Roommates don’t get to lock up burglars. Only the state gets to do that. Similarly, only the state is permitted to go around arresting, cuffing and (if necessary) beating or even killing people. Hatfields and McCoys are not allowed to inflict death penalties on each other. Lynch mobs are not enterprising individuals with pluck and self-starting initiative: They are criminals taking the law into their own hands, and they should themselves be punished by the state.

Moreover, the bigger the act of violence, the more difficult the Church makes it, even for the state to commit. If Kobe, Japan, police are corrupt and beat up poor people, the mayor of Seattle — Kobe’s sister city — doesn’t have the right to launch missiles in reprisal. If Korean trade policies injure Seattle’s business, the state of Washington cannot assemble an invading armada and attack Korea. The authority to inflict the violence of war gets kicked even higher up the ladder to the federal government.

And if the Church had its way, war would get kicked up the ladder even further. We saw this, for instance, in the ramp-up to the war in Iraq, when Rome consistently urged the nation-state called the United States to concede to the United Nations the authority on whether or not to declare war. The U.S., for its part, wobbled on this, simultaneously invoking U.N. Resolution 1441 (and, therefore, the U.N. as a competent authority) in making the case for war, yet denying the U.N.’s authority when it said, “Don’t attack Iraq.”

The point is simply this: Precisely because the infliction of violence tends to wreak havoc on the dignity of the human person, the common good and solidarity, the Church’s habit is to make the infliction of violence as hard as possible by taking away from individuals the right to inflict it, except in very rare cases of justifiable self-defense, etc. The purpose of subsidiarity is to make us saints who “take things into our own hands” as much as possible in the work of loving God and neighbor, not in the work of joining a vigilante mob. It is ordered toward helping us use our powers to love our neighbors to the fullest extent of our abilities — and therefore to grow in solidarity with all the other sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

Of which, more next time.

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.

Previous parts of the series can be found here: Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.