3.3.1 Recognizing civil society bodies

Back to 3.2.6

Unit 3 Contents


We have seen that a main emphasis in the way the principle of subsidiarity was presented in QA is on what government ought not to do, on the limits to its role.  It must not take over what is best done freely in civil society (except in emergency; 3.2.5).

We need now to look at what government should actually do to the end of distributive justice.  This is the topic of the third part of this unit.

In other words, if a major part of government’s role is to ensure there is distributive justice (see 3.1.4), what does this require in practice?  What will a political society in which there is distributive justice look like?

In fact the concept of subsidiarity itself implies a positive role for the state, namely, subsidium.  It is “to furnish help (subsidium) to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (QA, #79, italics added).  What does that mean – what is the ‘help’ that it is, specifically, government’s role to provide?

By looking across the whole body of CST, we find a threefold answer to this question, that is, three elements that together make up the role of the state.  We shall study these on this and the next two screens.  In the order in which we shall examine them, they relate to:

  • civil society bodies
  • particular persons
  • the common good overall.

The state’s positive role in relation to civil society bodies



In the light of your study of subsidiarity on the last few screens, how do you think the positive role of government in relation to groups and institutions in civil society could be described?


In trying to answer this question, here is a really important preliminary point.  Just as human persons don’t exist because the state has made them, civil society bodies do not either – businesses, families, charities, orchestras, and so on.  These are not created by the state.  They exist because people come together freely to form them.

At least this is true in principle, and generally true in practice, even if, in some times and places, such bodies might properly be set up at the initiative of the state.  Here is an example of an exception to that general rule, which will help us to understand the point.  The first business in a developing country in an important industrial field, let’s say steel-making, might be established by the state, which acts because poverty and insecurity mean no-one else is in a position to invest (and to risk) the necessary capital.  In such a case, CST would see this as the state exercising a temporary, substitute function (3.2.5).  The state’s proper concern for the common good in the long term might well lead it to do this.

But this is clearly an exception: generally businesses are established freely, like other civil society associations. This point is expressed in some CST documents by saying that society is “prior to” the state.1. This should not be understood literally, as though the fabric of civil society actually pre-existed government in a temporal sense.  It means, rather, that when the state deals with them it must recognize that it is encountering associations and groups that are already there.

In a very special way, the Church has to be understood like this. It was formed under the authority of Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords – of greater authority than any human ruler.  Governments have a responsibility, therefore, to deal with the Church in a way that recognizes its essential independence of them.  In Catholic thought, this idea is referred to as the principle of ‘the freedom of the Church’.  This principle, and debate about it, has a long history, going back to the medieval period and beyond, when it was referred to in Latin as the principle of libertas ecclesiae.

You might recall from Unit 2 (2.2.8) that, back in the fifth century, Pope Gelasius insisted to the Roman Emperor that, “There are two powers… by which this world is chiefly ruled”, namely the Church’s authority and “the royal power”.  In this immensely influential statement, Gelasius was pointing out, not just the distinctness of the Church, but its freedom to be the Church.

You might recall also (2.3.3) that Pope Gregory VII stood his ground on this principle during the Investiture Controversy, a long conflict with secular rulers in the eleventh century.  It is especially because of this controversy that libertas ecclesiae came to be seen as of great importance.

I said above that it is “in a very special way” that the Church has to be seen by government as “already there”.  The reason for this is that, ultimately, it is the Church’s freedom that gives the basis for the proper freedom and independence of other civil society bodies. This is precisely because the Church professes an authority higher than any state authority.  In a parallel way, the existence of such bodies does not depend on political authority. Rather, people are simply doing what, under God, they properly should do in human societies – as they marry and form families, educate their children, make art, and run businesses.  These civil society activities are good and right, quite apart from the state’s authority.

One scholar of CST, John Coleman, SJ, connects the freedom of the church and civil society in the following way:

The freedoms of civil society, as they arose in the West at least, derive ultimately from a Christian provenance, rooted in an assertion of the liberty of the church (libertas ecclesiae). Ernst Troeltsch [a leading nineteenth century writer on church and society] argued as much when he contended that the early church, in demanding to be conceived of as a separate sphere whose authority was derivative from God… and not from the state, made its contribution to social theory [by] anchor[ing] a novum in history: “free spaces” in society that did not derive their legitimacy directly from the state.2

Coleman uses the Latin word novum to refer to something that is genuinely new in human history.

During the past 200 years, the significance of the principle of libertas ecclesiae has, if anything, been recognized with increasing clarity.  This is for a number of reasons, including that there have been many states – representing political positions at both ends of the left/right spectrum – which have at different times tried to limit the Church’s freedom to speak and to act.  Prominent examples have been the Nazi state in Germany in the 1930s, and the Communist states in both Europe and Asia after 1945.  Some are now arguing that the ‘neutralist’ version of political liberalism, which I introduced briefly earlier in this unit (3.2.3), has the same effect – by seeking to exclude all religion-based contributions to public life.3

The Compendium calls for recognition of the Church’s freedom in a short section entitled ‘The Catholic Church and the Political Community’.  After saying that the latter should “guarantee the Church the space needed to carry out her mission” (#424), the second paragraph of #426 sets out in an emphatic way several different kinds of freedom that together make up the freedom of the Church overall.


Reading (2pp)

Compendium, ##424-427 (Chap 8, part VI)


All this lies in the background to the state’s positive role of “furnishing help” to civil society bodies.  As you’ll be able to see, such help isn’t a matter of propping these up as though they can’t stand on their own feet, or of promoting them through PR campaigns.

Rather, the basic way in which the state properly deals with such associations and common enterprises is by recognition.  This point is really important.  Those who make legal provisions in relation to such bodies have to recognize them for what they are. The point of such legal recognition is that it enables the state then to do them justice, by protecting them from being undermined or destroyed.  It enables the state to stop businesses, hospitals or schools, for example, being turned into something that they are not – or indeed being absorbed by the state.

We can now sum up more fully what the principle of subsidiarity entails in relation to civil society bodies.  Negatively, it insists that government must not take them over, because they are essentially independent of it.  Positively, it requires government to assist them (subsidium) by recognition and thereby to protect or safeguard them.

In a moment we shall look at examples of what this means in practice.  But even without doing this, we should be able to see that this point is hugely important for how politicians actually go about their work.  It is extremely easy for people who govern, and have in their hands the power to legislate, to presume that civil society bodies are creatures of the state and may be re-made by legislative will.  But this presumption can lead to abuse of state power, in other words, authoritarian rule. The consequences of this are distortion, if not destruction, of civil society bodies.  (You will recall that, in QA, Pope Pius XI lamented widespread loss of such bodies; see 3.2.3.)

This certainly does not mean that, in any particular time and place, the existing law relating to civil society bodies might not need reform – it might well do.  But when it does, this is because existing legal provisions reflect mis-recognition of them. Precisely because the fundamental task of those who govern is to recognize such bodies, getting this right may require changing the law.

In an encyclical published shortly before Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI addressed this issue in relation to education.  This had been and still is an topic of great controversy; at that time Pius XI was in part responding to those who favoured the state taking over education and removing parents’ rights to send children to a religious school.   In line with earlier (and continuing) Catholic teaching, he said that the responsibility for educating children lies with the institution of the family, “instituted directly by God for… the  generation and formation of offspring”, and in a different way with the Church, which has authority to “nurture” and “educate” people in the “life of grace”.  The state’s responsibility in relation to education is “protect and foster” the prior rights of family and church.4. Among other things this involves (in the words of one commentator) “providing necessary material assistance and… protecting basic justice”.5.  This encyclical is especially interesting in setting out what subsidiarity means in one area of policy – two years before the general principle was articulated in QA.

Just as there have long been sharp disputes about education, other areas to which the principle of subsidiarity applies are highly controversial.  Does a business exist essentially to maximize profit, or to provide goods and services to people?  Liberal capitalism answers: to maximize profit.  CST answers: to provide goods and services, as well as to enable worthwhile work – and making profit is a necessary means to those ends, but only a means.6Liberal capitalism and CST are bound to disagree, then, on how law should recognize and provide for businesses.  CST will insist that only a true recognition can enable the law to ensure justice for customers, workers and, indeed, capital owners.  It will see liberal capitalism as favouring legal provisions that reflect mis-recognition and are bound to contribute to injustice.  (These contrasting perspectives of business are explored in Module A, Unit 5.)

Perhaps even more controversial in our day is a difference between two understandings of marriage.  There is, first, the Christian view (one long shared with many others) in which the word marriage means a certain kind of female-male sexual relationship which a woman and man enter freely, making a commitment for life to love each other, to sexual fidelity, and to openness to the gift of bearing the children to which, during a part of life, their relationship might lead.  There is, second, a ‘voluntarist’ view (as it may be called), in which marriage means a relationship formed by any two people, irrespective of gender and of form of sexual expression, in which each commits freely to love the other.  (The meaning of ‘voluntarism’ is introduced in a part of Module A which looks at some different understandings of human wellbeing; see 6.2.1.)

The Catholic Church has opposed moves to legislate for same-sex marriage because those two kinds of relationship are not the same and its teaching is that ‘marriage’ is the first. Therefore it sees such moves as reflecting a mis-recognition of this civil society body.7. (The Catholic Church’s stance on this does not entail that it should not support legal recognition of relationships of the second kind, in order to protect partners from possible injustices.  In practice, however, the Church as an institution has not supported such legal protections for non-marital relationships, which some would argue weakens its advocacy of marriage.)

To summarize: the first element we have identified in CST’s positive vision of the subsidiary role of government is recognition and thereby protection of civil society bodies.  It is in this way that government does justice to them, and assists them to make their proper contribution to the common good.

The examples of education, business and marriage show that what this means in practice is highly contested in our society. On the next screen we add to this picture by looking at a second element in CST’s understanding of government’s role. The focus shifts from groups in civil society to individual people.



End of 3.3.1

Go to 3.3.2 Upholding human rights

Module B outline

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  1. See Centesimus Annus, #11, referring back to Rerum Novarum, #13; cf. Quadragesimo Anno, #49. 

  2. John A. Coleman, SJ, ‘A Limited State and a Vibrant Society: Christianity and Civil Society’, in Coleman (ed.), Christian Political Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2008 ), 22-53, at 23. 

  3. An influential articulation of such a critique of neutralist liberalism, by a philosopher and not on behalf of a particular religious position, is Seyla Benhabib, ‘Models of Public Space: Hannah Arendt, the Liberal Tradition, and Jurgen Habermas’, in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT Press, 1991), 73-98, as cited in Coleman, ibid., 34-35. 

  4. Pope Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri (1929), as quoted in Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, ‘Subsidiarity and Political Rule in Theological Perspective’, in Joan Lockwood O’Donovan and Oliver O’Donovan, Bonds of Perfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present (Eerdmans, 2004, 225-245), at 232. 

  5. Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, ibid., 232 

  6. “[T]he purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society” (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, #35).  Cf. “When practised morally, economic activity is… service mutually rendered by the production of goods and services that are useful for the growth of each person…” (Compendium, #333). 

  7. See for example, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, ‘Briefing to Members of Parliament on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill’, Tuesday 29th January 2013, at http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/Home/Featured/Marriage-Same-Sex-Couples-Act-2013/Marriage-Bill-Briefing/Briefing-Overview (accessed 8 January 2014).  One part of this argues cogently for why opposition to same-sex marriage is not discriminatory against gay people, as has come to be widely believed.