Nolite confidere in principibus.
The voice of the Psalmist speaks to us down through the ages: “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.” We can be forgiven if we find those words more relevant than usual in this particular election year. But it would be a mistake to think that the challenge we face today is merely one of personalities, the result of voters in the primaries picking two intensely dislikable candidates for the highest office in the land.
Our problems run much deeper, and they will not be solved by selecting different presidential candidates, or even simply by refocusing our political efforts from the national level to the state and local ones. While those are both worthwhile strategies, they are essentially palliative. They may relieve our symptoms, but they cannot cure the underlying disease, the roots of which run much deeper and much further back in history than we tend to think.
While modern politics, especially at the national level here in the United States, has proved to be a very efficient vehicle for the destruction of society and community, of culture and morality, even the best and most well-meaning of modern politicians have shown little ability to use the political process to shore up the most important institutions, to foster community, to uphold the moral order whose truth is testified to us by natural law and revelation. Is there something in the very structure of modern democratic politics that makes it an efficient engine for destruction, but hardly useful for preserving what is good and true and beautiful, much less for building an humane society and economy, and a Christian culture?
The father of all modern democratic political theorists, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was the father of something else, which is often overlooked in discussions of his legacy: nationalism, and the modern unitary nation-state. The architects and leaders of the French Revolution were deeply inspired by Rousseau, and it is no contradiction that they adopted as their motto the democratic invocation of liberté, egalité, fraternité, while restricting the freedom of the Church, reducing Christian clergy to noncitizen status, and watering the soil of the Vendeé with the blood of martyrs. For the liberty that they longed for was the freedom of an abstract national or general will to be expressed without the restraints of custom and tradition, including the most important of all traditions, Christianity; the equality they desired was not the natural equality of organic (and thus naturally small) communities, but the artificial equality of all Frenchmen as participants in the general or national will; and the fraternity they hoped to foster was not the natural brotherhood of families and neighbors and parishes, but the abstract brotherhood of all those who see the nation, and not their own families and the Church and the land on which they live, as their father and mother.
To foster democracy on the national level—that is, to extend democracy to a breadth unseen before in all of human history—the revolutionary leaders had to wipe out everything that stood between the nation and each man or woman, including the Church, the family, organic communities, and cultural diversity between different regions of the country. In other words, they had to strip everyone of everything that makes each of us a person, so that they could create individuals who would have no choice but to relate to one another only through the political life of the nation-state.
The history of the past 225 years has been the playing out of the French Revolution, again and again, in country after country, around the globe. Sometimes the attempts to give birth to the General Will have been similarly bloody—in Soviet Russia, in Nazi Germany, in communist China and Cambodia—but throughout much of Western Europe and here in the United States, they have often been more subtle, like cooking the proverbial frog in a pot. What no one ever stops to think about that proverb, though, is that there must come an inflection point: If that poor frog is not already cooked by the time the bubbles start to rise from the bottom of the pot, he’s bound to take notice. Because once those bubbles start to rise, they increase in size and number and frequency and intensity. Even from inside the pot, you cannot mistake a rolling boil for still water.
For decades, the heat has been climbing in this melting pot that we call the United States. We have now reached a rolling boil. The attacks on the traditional social order have escalated to the point where they can no longer be ignored. They have been launched not just against the family and the Church and the natural differences between the sexes but more recently even against the very concepts of man and woman. And the frustration that so many Americans today feel—both those who support one of the two major presidential candidates and those who are repelled by both of them—stems from the awareness that the waters around us are roiling and boiling. We have to do something! is the common refrain; and for many, perhaps even most, Americans, that means the President (or at least the political elite in Washington, D.C.) should do something. After all, problems that are nationwide must call for national solutions, right? And yet . . .
Nolite confidere in principibus. “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.”
The headlong rush toward mass democracy, toward Rousseauian nationalism, has obscured for many a truth that can still be seen clearly by those who have studied history, and especially modern history: There are no political solutions to cultural problems. A wrecking ball is an extremely efficient tool to use in destroying a magnificent Gothic cathedral. But just as it would seem absurd to suggest that the same wrecking ball might have a role to play in rebuilding a new church out of the rubble of that cathedral, contemporary politics—especially at the national level—presents far greater potential for harm than for good. The modern inversion of social life, the placing of politics before culture and morality, could work for a little while—a few hundred years in the broad sweep of human history—so long as a healthy culture continued to pass down what was worthwhile in a way that kept tradition alive for the rising generation. The new order could draw upon a rich cultural and moral patrimony even as it attacked that same patrimony—at first subtly, and now openly. But now that modern politics has undermined its own foundations, the entire structure is in danger of collapse. Remodeling a house whose foundations have been eaten away by termites is a fool’s errand; renewing the foundation itself must be the first step in rebuilding an humane society and economy.
Renewing the foundation requires a return to the principle of subsidiarity, and specifically to the original understanding of the term. Subsidiarity is often reduced to a sort of Catholic version of political federalism—dividing up responsibilities at different levels of government. But strictly speaking, subsidiarity is something much greater. Subsidiarity is concerned with the proper limits of authority—all authority, not simply political authority. In fact, while political authority is in many ways the most encompassing of all human authority in the modern age, it has traditionally been regarded as the most limited, because it is derivative. The source of all authority, of course, is God, Who is Himself the highest authority; but on the human level, authority flows outward from the family, not downward from government. And the authority of what we often refer to as “higher levels” of government is circumscribed by the authority of those governmental institutions that are closer to those whom they govern, institutions that have arisen organically from the community, which is the natural extension of the family.
When we speak about the structure of government in the United States, we usually represent it as a hierarchy that starts with the federal government—or, to name it more accurately, the national government—on top, with state government in the middle, and local government at the very bottom. But politically speaking, the principle of subsidiarity sees authority from the opposite direction—local government has the strongest claim, and the authority of state government is circumscribed by that; state government should not usurp the legitimate authority of local government. The authority of national government is restricted even further; it has no legitimate claim over the areas of authority that belong to either state or local government. The national government does not delegate authority to the state, which in turn delegates it to the local government; rather, every level of government beyond the local is necessary only insofar as it fulfills functions that are desirable for the common good but which can only be provided by organic communities coming together voluntarily into a larger political association. All of this is summed up precisely in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The “People of the United States” referenced in the Preamble is not an undifferentiated mass like the French revolutionaries’ understanding of the people of France, but the people of each state coming together as states—as preexisting entities—to create a new level of government to do things that all of the states found desirable but that none of the states could do for itself (and that the first federal government established under the Articles of Confederation had failed to do). The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, so neglected today, makes this perfectly clear: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So: Authority flows outward, from the most organic levels of government to the more artificial. But now we need to take one further step back, and recall that even the most organic levels of government—all the things, for instance, that we lump under the label of “local government”—receive their authority not by some sort of divine right but from a social institution that preexists all political institutions: the family.
It is no mere coincidence that, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the discussion of society at large, and of the political community, is placed in the section on the Fourth Commandment. And the structure of the discussion moves from family to society to the political community, establishing a clear priority of institutions. All human institutions flow from the simple injunction to “Honor your father and your mother.” As the Catechism notes,
The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.
It is a sign of the destruction wrought by modern politics that it seems necessary to note that the Catechism is very specific about what constitutes a family (and, by omission, what does not): “A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family.” Because the family is the foundation on which everything else rests, the widespread confusion that has been deliberately created over the terms marriage and family is an attack not only on those institutions but on all of human society and political life.
By now it should have become clear why subsidiarity is not a mere political principle but an all-encompassing social and cultural principle that, far from empowering government, always points back to the source of government’s authority, and therefore acts as a limit on its authority, especially as that authority becomes further removed from the actual people affected by government.
To take a concrete example: The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, without reservation, that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children.” That responsibility rests on their God-given authority within the family. Parents can exercise that authority by delegating it to others, coming together to create communal educational institutions; but those institutions, even if they are run by local governments, cannot legitimately override the authority of the parents. In other words, the principle of subsidiarity means that government cannot step in simply because of a perceived inability or unwillingness of the parents to exercise their authority as government sees fit. To put it in the words of the Catechism, “Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.” That principle applies by analogy to the state usurping the authority of local governments, or the national government usurping the authority of states and localities.
Once we start to see authority as something that extends beyond politics and that in fact circumscribes political life, we can begin to see how subsidiarity is not simply another political system but an alternative vision to the entire modern understanding of political life. Subsidiarity builds upon our understanding of human nature and authority that we derive from natural law and revelation. It points to a culture that will lead to a proper understanding of political life, but which is also prior to politics—prior both in the sense of existing before politics and in the sense of being more important thanpolitics.
And this culture is more important than politics precisely because it is animated not by the human will but by divine truth. To put it another way, drawing upon the work of Joseph Pieper, that culture is at the heart of what we mean by tradition. Like marriage and the family, tradition has suffered sustained assaults, to the point where the very word has become synonymous for most people with some set of dry-as-dust, abstract principles that are blindly handed on from one generation to the next, for no particular reason other than that they have always been believed and must therefore always be followed.
But that is not what tradition means, as Pieper shows. Rather, it is the handing down of all that is essential, the unchanging truth to which we need to conform ourselves in order to live as man was meant to live. Pieper contrasts this living tradition with what he calls “dogmatic conservatism,” which corresponds more with the current caricature of tradition. Rather than being a collection of things that are revered simply for being old, tradition is the living reality of universal truth revealed through the circumstances of the day, changing as necessary in the accidents, in the “historical forms,” in order to preserve what is essential. In other words, tradition is a living reality that animates society from within, as opposed to ideology, the normal mode of modern politics, which is a static blueprint imposed on society from above—and which does great damage to the extent that it diverges from reality.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church draws into stark relief this distinction between a culture built on sacred tradition that preexists political life and the ideological mode of politics that dominates the modern world:
Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct. Most societies have formed their institutions in the recognition of a certain preeminence of man over things. Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer.
The Catechism then turns to John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus annus:
Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows.
When Centesimus annus was released in 1991, in the final days of the Cold War, it was easy to read such lines as an epitaph for communism, or more broadly for all of the destructive totalitarianisms of the 20th century. Twenty-five years later, John Paul appears as a prophet, his words speaking to us of the increasingly explicit totalitarianism that was implicitly there in our own national political life at the very moment when we were celebrating the triumph of freedom and democracy over tyranny and communism.
Nolite confidere in principibus. “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.” As another presidential election draws to a close, we need to remind ourselves that, whichever candidate wins, there are concrete ways in which we can refocus our efforts from the national level, where we can make little or no difference, to the local level, where we can restore the foundations and begin to rebuild—to use another phrase from John Paul II—the “culture of life.” In doing so, we should act not out of mere frustration with national politics but out of a recognition of the limitations of all human endeavors that, in the words of John Paul, “seek their criteria and goal in themselves or . . . borrow them from some ideology.” There is no future in the merely human; as the Psalmist reminds us, “His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return into his earth: in that day all their thoughts shall perish.” In returning to subsidiarity, in elevating the family and the local community, in recognizing that the ultimate source of authority is not government but God Himself, we can begin to undo the social and cultural damage that modern politics has wrought, and start restoring our corner of the vineyard.
First published in the November 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.