From Subsidiarity to Communion


I. Evolution of the Principle of Solidarity

Leaving aside more ancient references, which according to some could even go back to the philosophy of Aristotle, it seems possible to me to affirm that, in the modern cultural ancestors of the principle of subsidiarity, there are present some elements of the liberal thought which in the last century emphatically maintained the primacy of the person, giving a privileged position to his individual character.
It is not by chance that in the American historical situation, in which the radical absolutism and laissez-faire economics which had developed in the European countries had not yet upset the liberal idea itself, Abraham Lincoln († 1865) has left us a surprising text. In its pragmatic tenor it anticipates both the positive (the aid that the State must give to the individual) as well as the negative significance (the safeguarding of the prerogatives of the individual) of the principle of subsidiarity, which was only formulated conceptually a century later by the Catholic Magisterium.
The American president, with full respect for the pragmatic culture of the new world, wrote in fact at the middle of the last century that the legitimate object of government is that of accomplishing for the community all that which the people have need of and which they are not able to do at all, or not able to do so well, by themselves. However, the government should not interfere in all those matters which the people are able to accomplish well by themselves. 1
However, it is only in the cultural soil of Catholicism in the period following the First World War in Germany that the premises were placed for the first and decisive magisterial intervention of Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno of 1931.
This Catholic culture was confronted in the North by the totalitarian Marxist-Leninist experience and in the South with the corporatist fascist system. It found in the bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm E. Ketteler († 1877) and in Heinrich Pesch († 1926), founder of “solidarism” – whose interior connections with capitalist liberalism cannot be passed over – the first theoretician of subsidiarity. 2 The merit of formulating it in abstract terms as a principle belongs, however, to his follower, Gustav Gundlach († 1963). 3
Pius XI made this doctrine his own, not only using it for the first time in its conceptual form in a magisterial text, but also specified that it is a principle of natural law. As such, it is undeniable that the principle of solidarity constitutes the central nucleus of the teaching of Quadragesimo anno.
The application of this principle, which is proper to the social doctrine of the Church, to ecclesiology, has occurred only later and in two different cultural contexts. When the leading ecclesiological model was still that of the Church as a “perfect society,” whose structural parallelism with the natural law definition of a perfect society as applied to the State was evident, Pope Pius XII in his Allocutionof December 20, 1946, affirmed that the principle of subsidiarity, having a general character, could be applied also to the social body of the Church, without endangering the hierarchical structure. 4
The same Pope returned to the question eleven years later, on October 5, 1957, affirming that the principle of subsidiarity must determine the relationship between the ecclesial authority and the lay faithful, thus recognizing that it is a principle which binds the exercise of the ministerial power itself. In some particular occasions he has been followed in this by Paul VI and John Paul II.
The same principle was also held to be applicable with a specific reference to the canonical order by the Synod of Bishops of 1967, which adopted it as a directive principle for the preparation of the new code.
At this point in time the political and ecclesiological context was already changed with respect to that in which Pius XII had intervened.
It cannot be overlooked that the preparation of the new Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC) occurred, for a long time, in the shadow of the draft of a Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis (LEF), which, as is well-known, had received the strong influence of modern natural law civil constitutionalism.
These magisterial interventions have encouraged the prevailing doctrinal orientation to claim not only the legitimacy but also the necessity of having recourse to the principle of subsidiarity as a criterion for the restructuring of the Church.
Only after the abandonment of the LEF and with the spread of an ecclesiological conception more explicitly inspired by the principle of “communio ecclesialis,” the first doubts and the first negations of the applicability of the principle in ecclesiology emerged.
These uncertainties were quickly echoed, almost twenty years after the intervention of Pius XII, by the extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985. Probably on account of the controversy that arose with regard to the competence of the Holy See to intervene in America on the problem of Liberation Theology, it urged a complete study of the question to resolve the dilemma of the applicability of the principle of subsidiarity in rigorously theological terms. 5
Actually, the problem is first of all a doctrinal and theoretical problem, which therefore is posed, as such, abstracting from its application in any particular context. Despite the interventions of Pius XII and the Synod of Bishops of 1967,6 the principle of subsidiarity was never used as an ecclesiological principle by the more solemn magisterium of the Second Vatican Council. The fact itself that it was formulated by social philosophy seems to exclude a priori that it could be used in the proper area of theology without conceptual restructuring.
In fact, in order to affirm its theological viability, it is insufficient to state that the Church is also a society, as affirmed by Lumen gentium, n. 8, although it is no longer defined as a perfect society as in pre-conciliar theology.
The supporters of its adoption in ecclesiology lean in an uncritical way on Wilhelm Bertrams, the well-known canon lawyer of the Gregorian University, a spiritual descendent of Pesch and Gundlach, who exercised great influence over certain options of Vatican II. In a work of 1957, published by the Periodica, and republished in summary form by various other journals, 7 Bertrams made the most articulate theological attempt to apply the principle of subsidiarity to the structure of the Church, starting precisely from the basic affirmation that the Church is a truly human society, although supernatural.
The way in which authors who follow Bertrams are uncritical lies in not keeping in mind the fact that the entire doctrine of this author, aimed at theologically legitimizing the existence of the canonical juridical order, does not methodologically transcend the fundamental principle used by the school of “Ius Publicum Ecclesiasticum” and all pre-conciliar ecclesiology, according to which the Church is a human society and therefore natural, although elevated to the supernatural level.8 The method of elevation to the supernatural is no longer acceptable in ecclesiology because it makes the evident error of “extrinsicism.” In the case of Bertrams, in fact, canon law, instead of appearing as being called for directly by the supernatural historical-salvific structure of the Church that is generated by Word and Sacrament, turns out to exist according to a necessity of a philosophical and sociological nature.
It is no longer possible to construct an ecclesiology in which the “societas naturalis” is taken as the point of reference to understand and penetrate the social essence of the mystery of the Church. The social nature of the Church is born from a human substrate inherent in the People of God, but it is a sociality that is proper and original to it, which finds its formal principle in the supernatural “communio” and not in the natural social relations existing between the members of the faithful.
Canon law is not the biological product of a natural sociality still present in the Church, but rather it is the product of a specific life in common, inherent in the sacramentality which binds the faithful between themselves, the fruit of grace and recognizable only by faith. In other words, it is not theologically viable to have recourse to the natural law principle of “ubi societas, ibi et ius” in order to justify the existence of the juridical order of the Church in theologically rigorous terms.
The values which determine the ecclesial society are not of a natural origin. Therefore, they do not derive from the four cardinal virtues, developed by Stoic thought. The foundation of ecclesial sociality lies in the theological and supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity. 9
The application of the principle of subsidiarity in ecclesiology cannot be theoretically legitimized by having recourse to the conceptual instruments proper to natural law theory, and still less, to criteria of a purely functional utility, even if recourse to these spurious and convenient solutions seems justified by the difficulty of dealing with the problem in rigorously theological terms.
Actually, the ultimate problem – keeping in mind the interventions of Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, which, if they should not be passed over in silence, should also not be overvalued – does not lie in the applicability or inapplicability in fact of the principle of subsidiarity, but in the search for rigorously theological reasons in support of these positions.
This work has not yet been completed. The predominant concern of the authors who have taken part in the debate so far seems to have been, first of all, that of taking a position a priori either for or against, without taking the trouble to critically evaluate their own arguments.

II. Doubts concerning the Philosophical Definition and the Sociological Applicability
of the Principle of Solidarity

In the last decades an increasing practical and theological uncertainty has emerged, on the one hand, concerning the nature of the philosophical principle of subsidiarity as such, and on the other hand, concerning its practical effectiveness for resolving the specific structural problems of post-industrial society.
In the wake of Quadragesimo anno, Catholic doctrine has not hesitated to affirm that subsidiarity is a principle of natural law, being rooted both in the freedom and in the dignity of the human person as well as in the primary need – in addition to the capacity itself – of being integrated into a broader social context. From this one arrives at the conclusion that subsidiarity is a structural principle, universally applicable, for the building up of any society, even that of the Church.
If we admit – even if this need not necessarily be conceded – that these elements can be considered to have been definitively accepted, the question remains more open, however, of knowing whether Pius XI, by the qualification of “gravissimum principium” used in Quadragesimo anno, intended to attribute to the principle of subsidiarity the character of being the supreme principle or only a very important principle.
Actually, there is no doubt that the principle of the “bonum commune,” by its very nature, is the supreme principle, in that it coincides with the very goal which social and political power must serve. Moreover, it is also necessary to recognize that there are other principles alongside that of subsidiarity to which one must also attribute an equal priority, such as solidarity. 10
Furthermore, it is necessary to agree that it is very difficult to conceptually distinguish solidarity from subsidiarity, especially when subsidiarity is manifested in its positive aspect, that of the aid given by the State to individuals or intermediate bodies. In the absence of a true definition of the principle of subsidiarity which goes beyond that of being a description, the theoretical uncertainty cannot help but increase.
A further element of doctrinal uncertainty concerns how the terms of reference of subsidiarity should be conceived. Should one take as a point of reference societies that are closest to the person (such as the family), or societies measured according to their organizational importance?
In distributing competencies in virtue of the principle of subsidiarity, should one begin with tasks that the society must perform, or with the importance of the society with respect to size?
If we move from the specific field of the philosophical definition to enter into an examination of the question in sociological terms, then one would almost have to conclude that the application of the principle has already become obsolete.
It is sufficient in this regard to read the article of Franz-Xaver Kaufmann to realize the precariousness with which the application of the principle of subsidiarity is involved today, at least in post-industrial societies. 11 Therefore, it would be an error of method to lose sight of the fact that the principle of solidarity has been formulated to give a response to the type of society which has developed with industrialization in the West.
The author in question, in fact, states that the principle of subsidiarity presupposes, at least in its historic formulation, a society that is hierarchically organized. Thus he arrives at the conclusion that in modern societies, organized transversally and in which the centers of real power are multiplied, the application of the principle can be replaced by the use of many other criteria, such as that of coordination or of previous accord between the parties, which would have greater chances of being effective.
In other words, if subsidiarity as historically formulated in opposition to individualistic and collectivist ideologies, can today be substituted with greater efficacy by the principle of complementarity, one would have to ask oneself if its formulation as a principle of natural law, although remaining valid as such (beyond the question of its utility in the years preceding the Second World War), is not already backwards with respect to the real development of post-modern society.
In fact, in a post-industrial society, no longer hierarchical but characterized by specialized segmentary and interdependent structures, the hierarchy of the social components does not result from the very nature of things, but from purely organizational or bureaucratic choices, dictated by the criterion of greater technocratic efficiency.
In this situation, subsidiarity risks being reduced to a problem of the distribution of competencies. In practice, it could be substituted by the purely functional and not ontological procedural principle, predominant in sociology and very ancient, of the “praesumptio iuris tantum,” which admits contrary proof and distributes the burden of proof.
Certainly, if the principle of subsidiarity is of natural law, it has an absolute validity in itself, on the condition, however, that the social and institutional presuppositions exist which are required for its application.

III. Misunderstandings in Ecclesiological Application

If from the civil context, one passes to examine the situation in the ecclesiological context, analogous considerations can be made. The way in which the principle of subsidiarity has been used conceptually by theologians reveals, in fact, a variability and flexibility at least as great as that of the philosophers and sociologists. In fact, in a certain sense it is still more disconcerting, in comparison with the care with which its applicability in a theological context is affirmed or denied.
The notion of subsidiarity is frequently used by theologians and canon lawyers as a synonym for decentralization, for the division of competencies, for autonomy, for collegiality, and for the defense of the constitutional rights of the faithful. In any case, it is always used with a precautionary measure of analogy, of which, however, no one bothers to determine the exact nature. 12 In effect, to take only one example, it is one thing to use an analogy “proportionalitatis” and another to use an analogy “attributionis.”
The theological literature also reveals in a fairly evident way the predominance of its negative function, which is that of posing a limitation of the hierarchical power, at the expense of its positive function of providing aid for the inferior levels.
Furthermore, the principle of subsidiarity is used, without posing excessive doctrinal scruples, both to regulate relations between those ecclesial levels that belong to divine law, such as the relations existing between the Pope and the bishops or between the clergy and the laity, as well as between levels that are of a purely positive nature, such as conferences of bishops or even parishes, in relation to their respective superior or inferior levels.
In general, the principle of subsidiarity is used in theology as a notion which enables one to deal with structural problems of the Church, avoiding recourse to the principle of communio, which, in its turn, is not a notion noted for excessive clarity or conceptual precision in the thought of many theologians.
Putting order into this situation of conceptual fluidity, both from the civil and ecclesial perspectives, would seem today to be a very arduous task. I think that Joseph A. Komonchak of the Catholic University of America, who has written perhaps the most profound and complete theoretical article on this subject, is correct when he concludes that the problem of the applicability of subsidiarity in ecclesiology is not yet mature. 13
Denouncing these shortcomings, both on the order of the philosophical clarification of the very notion of subsidiarity, as well as with regard to its applicability in the ecclesial context, does not mean that one is able to resolve the difficulties. In fact, it is not my intention to wall myself in with this conceptual problem, which would require a detailed study ex professo, as the 1985 Synod of Bishops has opportunely called for. I will limit myself to making only some basic observations of an ecclesiological and methodological nature.
The first observation concerns the diversity of the nature of the constitutional structure of the State and of the Church.
In classical Catholic thought and in the Magisterium, the State is held to be a reality of natural law inscribed in creation by God, 14 deriving ontologically from the double dimension of the nature of man: individual and social.
The intermediate social formations are not sufficient to satisfy the demands inherent in human sociality, both because they could fail to achieve the goal, and because freedom of association would not be able to guarantee for many a real enjoyment of the benefits bestowed by the State.
This does not mean that the State is constituted independently of the will of man, as if it were concretely necessitated and produced by natural law. Since it is a moral entity, its concrete realization in a given historical situation presupposes a human decision: some form of social pact. The significance of the social pact is not to constitute the State, as Hobbes and Rousseau thought, but only to develop the implications of the indispensable exigency of natural law, rooted in man.
The subsidiary character of the State, and therefore the principle of subsidiarity, derives from this intervention of the human will.
The principle of subsidiarity is thus a structural principle for the very existence of the State, in the sense that it determines its concrete existence. In addition to conditioning the nature of the relationship between the State and the individual, it profoundly conditions the constitution of the State itself and of its concrete historical model.
In this perspective it appears clear that the constitution of the Church is essentially different.
From the sociological and phenomenological point of view, the ecclesiastical authority with its bureaucratic structures of the exercise of the sacra potestas can be interpreted using the same criteria used for the State, but in reality the underlying elements are of a different nature.
The first evident difference lies in the fact that the ecclesial authority, since it is of a sacramental origin, is rooted in the essence itself of the nature of the Church and preexists with regard to the explicative will of individuals. It follows that subsidiarity is not structural for the Church and is applicable only in a supplementary way, with regard to those determinations of the relationship between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood which are subject to the historical competence of man. However, this is true only when other criteria of a strictly theological origin are lacking.
This same consideration evidently is valid also for that which concerns the relationship between the universal and the particular Church. The affirmation of some authors, according to which the universal Church is subsidiary with respect to the particular Church, is theologically untenable, unless it is made clear that the principle of subsidiarity could only be applied with regard to the historical modalities according to which this relationship is structured.
The problem in reality must be grasped at a deeper level, since the essential relationship between the universal and particular Church is predetermined, so as to be removed from every power at the disposition of man. Furthermore, this relationship is also structured around the notion of communion, so that the universal Church is not only immanent in the particular Church, but also in the sense that the universal Church herself (which exists only in the place in which and in the measure in which she is realized in the particular Churches) is not a monolithic reality, but a reality constituted, in her turn, of all the other particular Churches (LG 23, 1).
It is not easy to understand this central element in the constitution of the Church. In reality, to the degree in which a proper and diverse material existence is attributed to the universal and particular Church, the difficulties in understanding the mystery are augmented and a dynamics of diversity between the two Churches is generated, thus establishing a relationship of reciprocal competition, which is not only historical but also structural.
The universal and the particular Church must be approached and understood only as two formally distinct dimensions of the one Church of Christ. Christ did not establish first either the universal or the particular Church, but one sole Church, which inherently contains both a particular and a universal dimension. 15
From the perfect realization and compenetration of the particular and the universal dimension “in essentialibus,” the “communio plena” is born, that is, the essential characteristic of the Catholic Church. The particular Churches which do not realize all of the elements proper to the Church of Christ in a complete way, either on the sacramental level or on the level of the Word and of doctrine, do not fully realize the Church of Christ in themselves.
Therefore, they do not realize in themselves the “communio,” that is, the compenetration of the two dimensions that is “plena.” Since they are not perfect realizations of the Church of Christ, they do not live in the full communion with the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ “subsistit” (LG 8).
A second essential difference between the civil and the ecclesial constitutional structure is given by the relationship between the citizens and, respectively, the faithful and the authority. It could be helpful to specify, first of all, that the constitution of the Church is not entirely composed, as is the State, of the relationship between the individual (with the intermediate bodies) and the institution.
Charism – which is not conferred only on the lay faithful, but to all of the faithful indistinctly, including ordained ministers – is also an essential element of the Church. It belongs therefore to the constitution of the Church as much as to the institutional element, even if charism, not being conferred by the Holy Spirit except to those who are baptized or to ministers, presupposes the institutional dimension.
If by the notion of institution one intends to define those stable elements of a society in which the organization of the public power with relation to the citizen is fixed, then it is necessary to conclude that the ecclesial model is not founded on the relationship between the individual (or person) and the institution.
In the Church, the institutional element is not expressed through the juridical institution of office in which the power with which the holder of the office is invested is delegated by the society in one form or another. The episcopal office is not entrusted to bishops either from the faithful, or from the other bishops, or consequently from the Church as such. Power is always conferred in the Church directly by Christ, through the sacramental mediation of the Church.
The Church is not, in fact, a reality that can be hypostatized as if she were an anonymous institutional entity, superimposed over the individuals, even if as a simple organ of service as in the modern State.
Indeed, since the Church in her institutional aspect is not born as a derivation from the natural exigency of sociality, inherent in the human person as such, but from the sacramental element (in which the Word is included), one must conclude that the entire “societas ecclesialis” is born from the sacramental element.
The sacramental element (including the Word) is the institutional element par excellence, because it guarantees the existence and the continuity of the Church herself. It follows that the Church, as institution, is realized not according to one pole, as in the State, but according to two different poles, both generated by the sacramental element: the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood.
The relationship between these two poles of the institutional dimension – which, by their intrinsic nature, are not posed as limitations of one another – remains always and exclusively a relation between persons. The ecclesial relation is always defined in terms of a relation between person and person, and not, as in the State, between person and institution.
The competitive dialectic between person and institution is transformed into a dialectic of communion between person and person, both because the common priesthood conferred by Baptism remains immanent to the ministerial priesthood, and because both the ministerial and the common priesthood are generated by a participation, although qualitatively distinct, of the one priesthood of Christ.
This cuts away all competition at the root. In and of itself, there is no structural dialectical tension between the common and the ministerial priesthood and vice versa.
The principle of subsidiarity is thus not structural, because it does not genetically regulate the existence of the relationship between the constitutional elements of the Church. In lack of other theological criteria, it can be utilized at most as a supplementary instrument to correct the relationship when it is not lived according to its proper theological dynamics.

IV. The Value of the Principle of Natural Law in Ecclesiology

This final consideration enables us to treat another fundamental question: that of the value of natural law in ecclesiology, in the variety and multiplicity of its specific institutions.
It is necessary to specify, first of all, that it is not a matter of excluding the contribution of philosophy from theology, and metaphysics in particular, which Catholic thought has never totally renounced, even during the nominalist experience of Franciscan inspiration in the late Middle Ages.
Without metaphysics no other solution would remain except that of applying the “analogia fidei,” as Karl Barth has tried to do, whose presupposition is the dogmatic thesis of “natura totaliter deleta.” However, the analogia fidei excludes the analogia entis. Applied rigorously, without surreptitious compromises, it implies grave consequences for the conception of salvation and of the Church, unacceptable for the Catholic faith.
To save metaphysics as a rational point of reference, which enables theology not to remove itself from the historical experience of man, does not, however, imply the possibility of transporting the principles and institutions of natural law into a theological context, using them instead of principles and institutions of a theological nature.
The example in the contemporary theological discussion which reveals with particular eloquence the necessity of clarifying the issue of the relation between natural and divine law is the question of the applicability of natural law to the human person in the canonical order. 16
An examination of the two catalogues in the Code of the rights of the faithful as such and of the laity, enables us to ascertain that about one third of these rights are of a natural law origin. Examples include the right to freedom in the choice of a state of life (can. 219), that of protection of one’s reputation and personal intimacy (can. 220), the four procedural rights of can. 221, derived perhaps more from the modern democratic juridical consciousness than from natural law, and the duty to realize social justice (can. 222 § 2). 17
We have to ask ourselves: What value is to be accorded in the Church to the natural rights of the person?
The paradigm of the relation between the natural rights of man and the rights of the Christian appears in a clear way in the right to freedom of conscience. It is not applicable as a fundamental right of the Christian in the Church. However, it constitutes the natural presupposition without which the Church could not even be constituted. Already Gratian, cited as the source of can. 1351 of the Code of 1917, attests to this ancient consciousness of the Church.
The Christian does not enjoy freedom of conscience in the sense that the ecclesial community cannot ask of him, as a condition for his belonging to it, a confessionally binding behavior. He only enjoys the right that the Church not exercise any form of constriction over him, using means which by their nature are extraneous to the profound nature of her proper juridical order.
Freedom of conscience has been repeatedly indicated by the Magisterium as a fundamental right of man, in which all other natural and constitutional rights converge. In this sense it constitutes the parameter of the relationship between nature and the supernatural, between reason and faith.
Are the natural rights of man also valid for the Christian in the Church? The response is both yes and no at the same time. Yes, because natural rights are a limit and a prior condition for the ecclesial communio to be experienced and realized. No, in that they are the expression of values which are not supernatural, and therefore they are not able in themselves to generate the “communio ecclesiae et ecclesiarum” as such.
Yes, because the Church, in a given historical moment, can hold it necessary to have recourse to natural rights to provoke a deeper reflection on the nature of the rights of the Christian. No, because their function can only be considered as provisional and as posing a question, in the expectation that Christians totally regain in faith, hope and charity, the values and criteria which should determine the specificity of their ecclesial experience. 18

V. From Subsidiarity to the “Communio”

The same considerations should be applied to the principle of subsidiarity, in so far as it is a principle of natural law.
In the same way as for the natural rights of the person, the principle of subsidiarity is not structurally adequate to grasp the profound exigencies of the principle of communion, which regulates the relationship between the common and the ministerial priesthood, between the faithful and the ordained ministers, and therefore, between the inferior and superior ecclesial levels.
It is legitimately applicable only when the faith has not yet arrived at a knowledge of the truth and of the intrinsic values of the mystery of the Church, in all its implications for ecclesial social life. This is also true when the concrete lack of faith in Christians or in pastors requires recourse to criteria which can be more easily understood and grasped by all.
The principle of subsidiarity can become the concrete instrument to regulate, in a provisional way, questions pertaining to the unity of the Church, in the absence of other criteria capable of positively promoting it with theological precision.
The principle of subsidiarity is not therefore constitutive of the constitutional structure of the Church and therefore must be applied, if necessary, with great caution. It can be applied only taking into consideration the fact that the “bonum commune” of which it is the instrument, is not the natural “bonum commune” of a human society of natural law, but the supernatural common good of the Church. Now the “bonum commune” of the Church is the “communio.”
It is not easy to define “communio.” One thing, however, is certain. It emphasizes the reciprocal immanence and the indissolubility of values and of the constitutive elements of the Christian experience, not their reciprocal autonomy. The immanence of the universal Church in the particular Church and vice versa is the clearest example, which thus is paradigmatic.
It is true that in the course of history, the Church has always had recourse to categories deriving from the cultures which she has encountered. However, it has not been demonstrated that this recourse has always or necessarily contributed to a greater intellectual penetration of the essence of the Church and to a more authentic experience of the salvific truth of which she is the bearer in history.
Subsidiarity certainly has a provocative force in addition to a possible functional utility. However, for the purposes of resolving the structural problems of the contemporary Church, it could turn out to be an instrument that has already been surpassed as such. In a moment in which ecclesiology has undergone a development without parallel in the history of theological reflection, it could be an act of abdication to cling to a principle of natural law, such as that of subsidiarity.
In effect, some of the applications that some have tried to make of the principle, fully reveal their precarious basis. A few examples will be sufficient.
To apply the principle of subsidiarity in order to maintain a greater autonomy of parishes today goes, without doubt, against the emerging understanding of the sacramental reality of the diocesan presbyterium, as has been manifested in the Synod of Bishops of 1990, which emphasized both the priority of the unity of the clergy around the bishop and of their reciprocal immanence and indissolubility, as well as the need for a common diocesan pastoral action.
To apply the same principle in support of a strengthening of the conferences of bishops, ignores the fact that, in reality, the true problem today is that of saving the identity and the responsibility of the individual bishops.
To invoke the principle of subsidiarity to deny to the Holy See the right to intervene in a theological dispute agitating an entire continent, such as that of Liberation theology in Latin America, in addition to overlooking the fact that the principle of subsidiarity as such requires that an aid be given from the superior to the inferior entity, also ignores the other fact that theological questions have a universal import, since they involve the entire Church and not only a part of it. This is all the more evident on account of the international resonance that doctrinal questions acquire today with the modern instruments of communication.
Natural law is not the primary source either of theological anthropology, nor of knowledge of the institutional structure of the mystery of the Church. Therefore, it can be used only in a supplementary way. Today more than ever, the interest of humanity is not that of knowing whether or not the Church is a perfect society, comparable to the politically more advanced State, but of knowing the essence of her mystery.
In theology, one can fly at a low or a high altitude. Everyone must know how to choose between these options and to draw the appropriate consequences for their theological commitment.

* A paper given both in the XXIII Congress of the ‘Associazione San Benedetto,’ “De unitate in diversitate,” Hauterive (Switzerland), September 19-22, 1991; as well as for the inauguration of the academic year of the Department of Canon Law of the Roman Atheneum of the Holy Cross, on January 17, 1992. First published: “Dalla sussidiarietà alla comunione,” in StILT Communio 127 (1993) 90-105.

1  Cited in O. von Nell-Breuning, in the article “Subsidiaritätsprinzip,” in: StLex 19626, VII, p. 828.

2  Cf. Joseph A. Komonchak, “Subsidiarity in the Church: The state of the question,” The Jurist 48 (1988), 298-349; A. Rauscher, “Subsidiaritätsprinzip,” in: StLex 1989, pp. 386-390.

3  Cf. O. von Nell-Breuning, loc. cit., p. 826.

4  Concerning the contributions of the Popes, the most complete article is that of Jean Beyer, “Principe de subsidiarité ou ‘juste autonomie’ dans l’Église,” NRT 108 (1986), 801-822.

5  Cf. Il futuro della forza del Concilio. Sinodo straordinario dei Vescovi 1985, Documenti e commento di W. Kasper (Brescia 1986), p. 36.

6  The Synod established ten principles for the new codification. The application of the principle of subsidiarity is called for in propositions IV and V. Cf. Communicationes (1969), pp. 77-85.

7  Cf. Quaestiones fundamentales iuris canonici (Rome 1969), pp. 545-582.

8  Cf. E. Corecco, “Diritto canonico,” in Dizionario Enciclopedico di teologia morale (Rome 1973³), p. 239.

9  Cf. R. Sobanski, “Ökumenismus und Verwirklichung der Grundrechte der Getauften,” in: I diritti fondamentali del cristiano nella Chiesa e nella società, Atti del IV Congresso Internazionale di Diritto Canonico, Fribourg (Switzerland) 6-11 October 1980, pp. 713-737.

10  Cf. R. Herzog, “Subsidiaritätsprinzip,” in: EvStLex II (1987²), pp. 3564-3571.

11  “The principle of subsidiarity viewed by the sociology of organisations,” The Jurist 48 (1988), pp. 275-291.

12  Cf. for example, P. Huizing, “Subsidiarität,” Concilium (1986), 486-490.

13  Cf. “Subsidiarity in the Church,” loc. cit., p. 342.

14  Cf. H. Peters, “Staat,” in: StLex (19626) VII, pp. 528-532.

15  Cf. the Discourse held at Lugano on June 12, 1984, in: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II (Vatican City, VII, 1, 1984), pp. 1676-1683.

16  For a summary, cf. E. Corecco, “Il catalogo dei doveri-diritti del fedele nel CIC,” in I Diritti fondamentali della persona umana e la libertà religiosa. Atti del V Colloquio giuridico (8-10 March 1984) (Vatican City 1985), pp. 101-125.

17  It should be specified that these duties and rights cannot be accorded the qualification of fundamental rights proper to the written and unwritten human rights contained in modern democratic civil constitutions. In fact, it is not possible to determine the structure of the constitution of the Church taking the rights of the faithful as a point of reference, because in this case it would lead to a democratic structure, as has occurred in the civil sphere. The passage from monarchy to democracy has obviously occurred precisely as a consequence of the introduction of fundamental rights of the citizen into civil constitutions, in addition to the separation of powers and the State based on the principle of law. This transformation of the State occurred at the moment in which the doctrine of the preexistence of the person with respect to the State and the notion of autonomy was applied, concretely and with all its consequences, even at the juridical and constitutional level. The notion of “fundamental” implies a change of the telos itself of the State, entrusting to it the historically new primary task of guaranteeing the rights of the citizens, with the corresponding space of individual autonomy. The positive and negative aspects of the principle of subsidiarity fit organically precisely in the dynamism of these requirements.

18  Cf. E. Corecco, “Considerazioni sul problema dei diritti fondamentali del cristiano nella Chiesa e nella società,” in: Atti del IV Congresso Internazionale di Diritto Canonico, Fribourg (Switzerland) 6-11 October 1980, (Milan 1981), pp. 1219-1234.