It is common in discussions among Protestants about rightly ordering social policy to make references to “a Protestant version of subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity is the concept that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex social institution that could be done by a smaller and simpler one. This idea has great implications for the welfare state for example, where centralization of control is disfavored when matters can be addressed more locally.
This concept suggests the values of federalism, where some things that can only be accomplished effectively nationally, such as military defense, ought to be done nationally. But regulations than can be done locally, such as setting education policy, are best done locally where government leaders are more responsive to local needs. Human beings flourish if activity is administered as close to the individual as practical wisdom suggests.
Subsidiarity addresses far more than just political subdivisions, however. It also applies between the state and other social entities. The government ought not to do those things that could be done by voluntary associations, and voluntary associations ought not to address matters that can be undertaken by the family. Within families, there is great flexibility in addressing social needs, but in a well-ordered family, even the family tends not to take on tasks that can be effectively and lovingly accomplished by the individual. The very word “subsidiarity” flips the common understanding of the modern state. The term refers to the fact that big central authorities are subsidiary to the small and local.
Subsidiarity is undeniably rooted in Catholic social thought. While it was developed before the 20th Century, it was most clearly articulated and incorporated into Catholic thought by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in 1931. The concept has enriched Christian political discussion, but was not well-known in Protestant circles before the 1980s, when Pope John Paul II addressed the issue. Protestants tended to be receptive to Catholic social teaching when this very popular Pope disseminated his views. Notably, however, the underlying idea of subsidiarity is assumed in Scripture, as it is implied, for example, in the treatment of widows in I Timothy 5.
Protestants have also contributed to a Christian understanding of social policy. Arising out of Calvinistic emphasis on God’s sovereignty, a view most closely associated with the early 20th Century Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, is that of “sphere sovereignty.” Under this teaching, since Jesus Christ is sovereign over every aspect of life, each aspect of human existence has a direct and equal obligation to God. Thus, each part of life has an appropriate “sphere” of duty, which is directly owed to God. This is applied most significantly to the role of the state. The state ought not to be addressing matters that God has left to the family, and ought not to be involved in overseeing matters that are the Church’s responsibility. This fits neatly with the American idea of separation of Church and state, a concept advanced by the US Supreme Court by the time of Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1 (1947).
Sphere sovereignty is undeniably Protestant, and even more narrowly Calvinistic, in origin. It is not an idea that is addressed in Catholic social teaching. What subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty have in common is that they are both perspectives on rightly ordering society to conform to God’s will. Beyond that, however, they both contribute to the conversation about social policy in different ways. They are not two ways of saying the same thing. And yet, they are not opposed to each other either. Visually, one could say that sphere sovereignty is horizontal in focus, aligning all social institutions on the same plane before God. Subsidiarity is vertical in focus, aligning institutions by size, and seeking to move control to the smallest unit as practical wisdom indicates.
Given this, it is possible to apply both concepts to matters of social concern: even within spheres of life, localism is favored. For example, punishment for violation of law falls within the sphere of the state, but within that sphere, it is better that the pronouncement of law, and its application of a penalty, is best if done as locally as possible.
It is understandable that subsidiarity would resonate with Roman Catholics, and sphere sovereignty would resonate with Protestants. Underlying subsidiarity is an appreciation of hierarchy, which aligns with Catholic Church authority. Sphere sovereignty, on the other hand, has an egalitarian component that tends to resonate with Protestants.
In recent years, there has been an increased suggestion in Christian public policy discourse to refer to sphere sovereignty as the Protestant form of subsidiarity. But it is not. If the use of the adjective “Catholic” here were only directed towards the origin of the concept, it would be accurate. But the implication is that both subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty address the same ideas, but whereas Catholics should look to subsidiarity because it is palatable and comprehensible to them, Protestants should look to sphere sovereignty for the same reasons in their context.
This approach is harmful to both Catholics and Protestants. The implication that each should look to their own social philosophers has cost us. Protestants have failed to deeply consider the value of subsidiarity because of a feeling that they should root for the home team on social policy by just concentrating on sphere sovereignty. Catholics have not much applied sphere sovereignty for similar reasons. Both parts of the Christian world have suffered for this.
The Protestant version of subsidiarity is. . . subsidiarity. There is nothing in this teaching that violates Protestant understanding of theology, and it should be incorporated into Protestant social discourse because of its tremendous contribution to Protestant social teaching. So also, sphere sovereignty is of value to Cathoics, and worthy of consideration in Catholic teaching.
Generally, we don’t attach denominational adjectives to doctrine or teaching that is common across the Christian Church. For example, we don’t speak of a Catholic doctrine of the Trinity and Protestant version, since the views of both are held in common. The addition of the denominational qualifier is apt when addressing matters that are truly distinct, such as attitudes towards the magisterium of the Church. In using these descriptors when addressing social policy, we imply that subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty ought to be viewed disjunctively, where there is no reason to do so. They are in harmony, and can be considered together to enrich understanding.
For this reason, when asked about what the Protestant version of subsidiarity is, Protestants can all truthfully say it is identical to the Catholic version of subsidiarity.