Last week the Acton Institute and Coram Deo program cohosted a seminar for an international audience on the topic “Loving Our Neighbors for the Common Good: Subsidiarity, Responsibility, and Change.” Participants came from North America, Africa, and Europe and ranged from student to CEO, academic to entrepreneur, and especially fortunately (for me), included a number of participants studying or trained in theology, including those in religious vocations.
I learned a great deal from the readings, speakers, and interactions with participants. As is often my experience with quality conferences, though, I think many of us left with more and/or deeper questions than we came with. Issues of subsidiarity and the common good will always be challenging—both in theory and practice.
Accordingly, I’ve compiled a reading list including some of the books recommended at the conference. For fellow participants, I hope having these links and some teaser quotes encourages you to join me in reflecting on these themes in the coming weeks, and I invite you to share other ideas in the comments below. For everyone, what are your big questions or favorite resources about subsidiarity, Christian love and responsibility, or the common good and human flourishing?
Readings Associated with Major Themes
- Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas: Legal scholar Adam McLeod assigned readings by Aquinas and encouraged us to familiarize ourselves further with the content of the natural law. Also useful for our seminar’s purposes, the Summa sets a high bar and provides an applicable definition of love.
- “…to love a thing is to will it good…”
- Want a simpler start? A theologian and good friend of mine, recommended to me A Shorter Summa.
- Making Capitalism Work for Everyone, multiple authors: Another of the speakers, Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull spoke about the historical role of voluntary societies in caring for neighbors. In an edited volume published by The Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics, Turnbull argues that markets can serve the common good.
- “At the heart of the moral case for enterprise and capitalism is, first, the necessity of wealth creation for the economic and moral well-being of society. The most effective mechanism for achieving the economic growth necessary for the common good is the market economy.” (from Chapter 3 “Recovering Moral Purpose in Capitalism”)
- Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards: Subsidiarity was a favorite term of the week. Author Jay Richards, in making just one particular application of subsidiarity, models well how we can reference the Catholic Social teaching it derives from.
- “This is the problem with welfare dispensed by the federal government: it runs roughshod over this intricate web of overlapping responsibilities and assumes knowledge where none exists. When the federal government jumps in and ignores this intricate web, it violates the principle of subsidiarity. … Here’s how Pope Pius XI explained the principle: ‘Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to a group what private initiative and effort can accomplish, so too it is an injustice for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower associations. This is a fundamental principle. In its very nature the true aim of all social activity should be to help members of a social body, and never to destroy or absorb them. When the state takes over a task that is better handled by someone closer to the problem, it transgresses its proper boundaries and creates more problems than it set out to solve.‘” (from Chapter 2 “What Would Jesus Do?”)
- Note: Richards’ book also addresses other topics that can arise in these sorts of discussions among faithful Christians, as they did for us last week, including the human cost of communism, the communal living arrangement of the early church, the relationship between capitalism and greed, and wealth creation—as contrasted with redistribution.
- Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop: Trey Dimsdale outlined a Christian anthropology of the human person and referenced this text (by a Hope College alum, I’d add) on the importance of Christian thought to granting an existential dignity to each unique, unrepeatable human person. The whole book is worth a careful reading, but I’ve selected this quote from Siedentop to emphasize that not all change is intentional; in fact, many of the greatest innovations of human history are, many scholars would say, “of human action but not by human design.” Similarly,
- “A fundamental change in moral belief shaped the world we live in. But this is not to say that those who introduced or promoted that change foresaw or desired its eventual social consequences. My story is, in part, about the unintended consequences of that change of belief. Tracing those consequences is an important part of the story of Western liberalism.” (from the prologue “What is the West About?”)
More About Natural Law
- Moral Absolutes by John Finnis (McLeod promised it’s a much easier start than Finnis’ texts intended for advanced analytical philosophers),
- The Line Through the Heart by J. Budziszewski (which McLeod recommended after the conference), and
- The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. Lest we think natural law can only be argued from Christian perspective or for Christians, Lewis employs a different approach.
- “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements.” (from Chapter 2 “The Way”)
Some of My Favorite Books
Finally, these are some books that shaped the thoughts I contributed to the discussion.
- I highly recommend A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell who outlines and unpacks two major “pre-analytic” “visions” that explain many socio-political differences. Here he emphasizes that the main distinction is not a moral one:
- “Neither the left-right dichotomy nor the dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions turns on the relative importance of the individual’s benefit and the common good. All make the common good paramount, though they differ completely as to how it is to be achieved. (emphasis added) In short, it is not a moral “value premise” which divides them but their different empirical assumptions as to human nature and social cause and effect.” (from Chapter 5 “Varieties and Dynamics of Visions”)
- One could read this last sentence as a ringing endorsement for Dimsdale’s selection of Christian anthropology for the opening conference lecture, as everything else about human relationships should build on the human person, made in the Image of God and who is created good but also fallen. These three authors are great at building on Christian anthropology, too: Pahman, Hernandez, and Novak.
- One of my all-time favorite books, which can’t help but find its way into many of my thoughts, regardless of the conference, is the wide-ranging but incredibly coherent The Fatal Conceit by F. A. Hayek. Even, or especially, with the principles of subsidiarity and the common good firmly in mind, we need a healthy skepticism of the promise of human reason.
- “…the chief source of the fatal conceit of modern intellectual rationalism… promises to lead us back to a paradise wherein our natural instincts rather than learnt restraints upon them will enable us ‘to subdue the world’, as we are instructed in the book of Genesis.” (from Chapter 4, “The Revolt of Instinct and Reason”)
- For an overview and more entry-level introduction to Nobel Laureate Hayek, I can’t recommend enough The Essential Hayek by Donald Boudreaux (available for free).
- Finally, along with subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, which Acton co-founder Father Robert Sirico mentioned in some of his remarks, is helpful in clarifying responsibility. When I began a project bridging Hayek’s writing on local knowledge with Catholic Social teaching’s subsidiarity and neo-Calvinism’s sphere sovereignty, I found the book Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction by Richard Mouw very helpful. While subsidiarity illuminates in what cases a higher or larger domain can provide assistance to the lower, sphere sovereignty reflects the horizontal allocation of authority from God to a diversity of institutions (for example, the Church, business, families, the State, etc.) within the created order. Mouw introduces the concept in a chapter entitled “The Spheres:”
- “‘Sphere sovereignty’ is the English term used for Dutch phrase (soevereiniteit in eigen kring). The Dutch here is a little difficult to translate literally, but it has the sense of each sphere having its own unique or separate character. Each cultural sphere has its own place in God’s plan for the creation, and each is directly under the divine rule.”
- For a shorter read that contrasts subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty, I’ve found this article by Kent Van Til useful.
But wait, there is more…
After publishing this blog, I asked some friends to submit their favorite sources on these themes.
I received the following recommendations from Dr. David Deavel, Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (MN) and editor of LOGOS:
- Free Markets with Sustainability and Subsidiarity
- The Good That Business Does (which comes from a “New Natural Law” perspective)
- Respect in Action: Applying Subsidiarity in Business (link to a free pdf of the book)