Christian Democracy: the Champion of Subsidiarity
JONATHAN VAN TONGEREN
Political Youth Network]
Subsidiarity is crucial to Christian Democracy,
but under constant pressure. If the EU is to live up
to the vision of its founders, Christian Democracy
has to reassert the principle of subsidiarity.
Keywords: subsidiarity, human dignity,
capital, labour, family, community, property
Christian Democracy first emerged in Europe by the end of the nineteenth century, after a period of industrialisation that came with urbanisation and had fundamentally changed society. It emerged mainly under the influence of the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and more specific the encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ (Of New Things) of Pope Leo XIII. In this encyclical Leo XIII determined the Church’s position regarding capital and labour.1 During the nineteenth century the Church had come to recognize that the prevailing capitalist system had some fundamental flaws. As the British author Gilbert K. Chesterton noted, the problem with capitalism is not that there are „too many capitalists, but too few capitalists”.2 In other words, because the capital is concentrated in the hands of few, many are not sure of their continued economic existence. In order to prevent socialist movements from attracting Christian labourers and even priests with its rhetoric of redistributing wealth, the Church had to come up with an alternative to both capitalism and socialism.3 Therefore an alternative, family and community centred system called distributism was developed by Hillaire Belloc, Gilbert K. Chesterton and others, on the basis of the papal encyclicals ‘Rerum Novarum’ and ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ and in some elements inspired by medieval ‘paleo-corporatism’ or the system of guilds. Distributism holds that the ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state socialism) or a few large businesses or wealthy private individuals (plutarchic capitalism). Distributism can thus be said to be a better version of capitalism, a capitalism for the many, in which everybody owns productive property and can thus ensure his livelihood. Because distributism was never sufficiently popularized it has never been tried as an alternative economic system,4 the encyclicals that had formed the basis for this system though were widely circulated in Catholic circles and did have their effect on European Catholic communities. This resulted in all kinds of Catholic organisations, such as cooperatives, mutualist organisations and labour unions aiming to improve the position of labourers by organising consultation between employers and employees. It also gave rise to the Christian Democratic movement, that positioned itself as an alternative to socialism and liberalism with an emphasis on notions that can be traced to Catholic social teaching. These are what pope John Paul II called ‘the threefold cornerstone of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity’.
The Christian notion of subsidiarity holds that a function which can be performed by a smaller unit should not be performed by a larger unit: „Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”5 This principle applies both in the economy as in society and politics. The principle of subsidiarity is closely related to the concept of human dignity. Because man is made in the image of God, every man has his own responsibility before God to live up to his dignity. This responsibility should not be usurped by a collective. Thus the notion that man was made in the image of God and has a mandate to subdue the earth and have dominion over it, leads to a defence of private property. For when productive property is privately owned this best ensures the ability of human individuals to strive for their dignity.6
The early beginnings of European unification
After the Second World War Christian Democracy returned, stronger than before, to the centre of the political stage in many European countries. Alcide de Gasperi (1888-1954) and his Democrazia Christiana (DC) prevented the communists from taking over Italy. In Germany the Catholic Centre Party was effectively replaced by a cross denominational Christian Democratic Union under Konrad Adenauer and in France the Republican Popular Movement (MRP) with such eminent figures as Robert Schuman was essential to the formation of many governments before the rise of Gaullism. In the 1950’s these leading Christian Democrats came together to conceive what would later become the European Union: the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC was intended to bind France and Germany together politically and economically in order to ensure that these countries would never go to war with each other again, adding to Immanuel Kant’s ‘democratic peace theory’ the aspect of economic intertwining.7 It goes without saying that this concept of a united Europe did not fall out of the sky, this is also indicated by the fact that the initiators of this unprecedented political project were Christian Democrats or to be more specific Roman Catholics. It is no wonder that exactly people such as Alcide de Gasperi could conceive such an idea as European unity and actually act upon it. For Alcide de Gasperi was born and raised in that part of Italy that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian ‘Habsburg’ Empire, which can be said to be the last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and had unified large parts of Europe and many different nations. De Gasperi had moreover been a member of the parliament of the Empire, representing his region of Trentino (Southern Tyrol). By no means do I mean to idealize the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it obviously had its flaws as any human construct has, but it is likely that people such as De Gasperi acquired their ideas for a unified Europe from the experience they had and the political constructs they already knew. Roman-Catholics such as Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi were heavily influenced by Catholic Social Doctrine and thus had a proper understanding of the notion of subsidiarity. From his life as a journalist and politician in Austro-Hungary and Italy De Gasperi will have had an even more profound understanding of the importance of subsidiarity. As a journalist and later as an Italian member of the Imperial Parliament (Reichstag) he defended the (cultural) rights of the Italian minority in Trentino and during the 1930’s and 1940’s he experienced the extreme centralisation of the fascist system.8 Something similar can be said for Adenauer who had clashed with the National-Socialists already before the war in his position as mayor of Cologne. After the Second World War in his role as Federal Chancellor (prime minister) of West-Germany, he often emphasized the importance of what he called federalism, as opposed to the extreme centralisation of power of Nazi Germany. This federalism did not only apply to the German system of states and districts and communities with their own competences, but it was also a vision of a federal society, a commonwealth of all kinds of organic communities and organisations: „The concept of federalism is often to narrowly defined. People understand it to be the relation between – I am talking of Germany in this case – the states and the federation. No! This is much to narrowly thought. The federalist idea is much broader. It consists therein that everything that a smaller organ can do, must be done by the smaller organ. The federalist idea is diametrically opposed to centralism.”9
Robert Schuman (1888-1963) was from Lorraine and was thus born a German citizen and only became French when Lorraine was returned to France in 1918. Robert Schuman in a 1949 speech also referred to the attempts of the Roman Catholic Church since the Middle Ages to establish and maintain some form of political unity in Christendom.10 So both De Gasperi and Schuman had from their own experience some understanding of supranational political entities, be they the German or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the latter being the more interesting for our discussion. And both they and Adenauer understood the importance of subsidiarity from their familiarity with Catholic Social Doctrine and from their political experience.
The European Union and subsidiarity today
We have sufficiently demonstrated that subsidiarity was of central importance to the founding fathers of the predecessor of the European Union, Adenauer thought it to be of crucial importance for the vitality of democracy.11 It is hence no wonder that the term subsidiarity is also found in official EU documents and treaties. Although the principle can said to be there implicitly in the Treaty of Rome and the Single Act, it was not officially introduced as such into the treaties of the European Communities until the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. After some meetings the Council finally arrived at a protocol that was attached to the Treaty of the EC by the Treaty of Amsterdam. Whereas this protocol lays down some technical rules for the application of the subsidiarity principle, it seems that in political practice, the subsidiarity principle is at odds with two aspects of the current functioning of the EU and it is phrased to ambiguously. Basically, Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the European Community states that the EU does not take action (except in the areas which fall within its exclusive competence) unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level. 12 Anyone will understand that it can be subject to debate whether a certain issue can be resolved more effectively at a certain level than at another and what does or does not constitute an effective solution. This brings me to the two aspects of the EU’s current functioning that are at odds with the principle of subsidiarity. The first is an ideological aspect. As the preamble to the Treaty on European Union states, there is a resolve „to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.”13 This phrasing is obviously a compromise between those wanting more integration and those stressing the importance of subsidiarity. It is a strange compromise as it basically says that we should have more centralization in order to have more subsidiarity, this makes the entire statement nonsensical. The second aspect is the fact that the European Parliament has attained more powers since the Treaty of Lisbon. From national political experience we already know that parliamentarians have a tendency to address any issue that comes along and the easiest way for the European Parliament to address an issue is to come up with a solution itself, rather than waiting for national or regional legislatures to tackle the issue. Because the limitations to the EU’s competence have become broader over the years and are only vaguely defined, it has a tendency of centralizing power by means of issuing regulations regarding all kinds of issues. This is what I would like to call the inducing effect of parliamentarianism at European level.14
European Christian Democracy: Centralization or Subsidiarity?
In recent years and decades Christian Democracy, along with mainstream social and liberal democracy, has been the driving force behind the European integration, that is de facto a form of centralization. To some extent this is in line with the ambitions of the founders of the first European Community, but these founders had always envisioned a European Union that would leave ample competences to subsidiary levels of government. If European Christian Democracy is not to lose its birthright, which is as I have discussed closely related to the concept of subsidiarity, it has to face the question of the ‘finalité’, the ultimate goal of European integration, or what is rather centralization of power. When boundaries to EU competences will not be defined more clearly and the competences of the subsidiary levels of government will not be defended more assertively, the centralization of power in the hands of EU institutions has no natural end. In the end it is subsidiarity that makes Europe what it is, a unity in diversity. It is the correct application of the principle of subsidiarity that safeguards our diversity. But who will safeguard subsidiarity?
Since subsidiarity is first and foremost a Christian democratic notion, it should be Christian democracy that challenges the inducing effect of European politics and champions the rights and competences of subsidiary levels of government, be they national, regional or local. Because mainstream Christian Democracy is so much interwoven with the system of the European Union, it is slow to spot this major challenge and slow to effectively respond to it, if she is able to do so at all. But all is not lost, some Christian Democratic parties have already shown to understand the importance of this challenge. The Christian Union party of the Netherlands and the Christian Democratic Party (PCD) of France both opposed the treaty that would have established the so called European Constitution, exactly because of their concern for subsidiarity. For the sake of diversity we should hope and strive for other Christian Democratic parties to follow their example.
LEO XIII, Rerum Novarum. On capital an labor, http://www.vatican.va/.
BLOND, Philip, Red Tory. How Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it, London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 2010.
BRATT, D, James ed., Abraham Kuyper. A Centennial Reader, Grand Rapids: MI William B. Eerdmans, 1998.
CHESTERTON, K.G, What’s Wrong with the World, San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, reprinted 1994, Dod Mead and Co., 1910.
CHESTERTON, K.G, The Uses of Diversity , 1921.
Christian Democratic Union on 1 March 1952, Bulletin Nr. 26/52, 251.
Council of Europe, „Consolidated versions of the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”,
HABERMAS, Jürgen „Comment on the Paper by Dieter Grimm: Does Europe Need a Constitution?”, European Law Journal, 1995.
KANT, Immanuel, Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf , Königsberg, 1796.
PIUS XI, Quadragesimo Anno,
POPPINGA, Anneliese ed., Seid wach für die kommende Jahre. Grundsätze - Erfahrungen – Einsichten , Bergisch Gladbach: Gustav Lübbe Verlag GmbH, 1997.
SCHUMAN, Robert , „The Coming Century of Supranational Communities” Schuman or Monnet?Tthe real Architect of Europe,
SPENGLER, Oswald, Jahre der Entscheidung. Deutschland und die weltgeschichtliche Entwicklung , München: C.H. Beck, 1933.
Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum. On capital an labor
, accessed on March 14, 2011. In the case of Protestant parties such as the Dutch Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands the ‘social question’ was also a major reason for its emergence, along with the more specific emancipation of the Reformed labouring class. See for example: Abraham Kuyper, „Maranatha”, in James D. Bratt ed., Abraham Kuyper. A Centennial Reader
(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998)pp. 210-11.
G.K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity
Oswald Spengler, Jahre der Entscheidung. Deutschland und die weltgeschichtliche Entwicklung
(München: C.H. Beck, 1933), pp. 90-92.
There are some small exceptions such as the Mondrágon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque Country that effectuated some distributist ideas, an initiative of Father José María Arizmendiarrieta and some initiatives on the British Isles. Since the proponents of the concept of distributism in its most developed form were British, it has had its biggest influence in the United Kingdom. This explains both for Margaret Thatcher’s concept of a ‘capitalism for the many’ which promoted home ownership and participation of employees in companies but failed to offer an integrated vision and had a rather neo-liberal orientation when it comes to the privatisation of public services, as for David Cameron’s concept of the ‘Big Society’. See also: Philip Blond, Red Tory. How Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it
(London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 2010).
G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World
(San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, reprinted 1994 (Dod Mead and Co., 1910)).
Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf
After having been jailed for a year and a half in 1927 the Vatican negotiated his release and he lived in seclusion in the Vatican for 14 years until the collapse of fascism in 1943.
In Heidelberg at a gathering of the Christian Democratic Union on 1 March 1952, Bulletin Nr. 26/52, p. 251.
Anneliese Poppinga ed., Seid wach für die kommende Jahre
. Grundsätze - Erfahrungen – Einsichten
(Bergisch Gladbach: Gustav Lübbe Verlag GmbH, 1997), pp. 95-107.
Jürgen Habermas, „Comment on the Paper by Dieter Grimm: Does Europe Need a Constitution?”, European Law Journal
, (1995) pp. 303-307.
JONATHAN VAN TONGEREN – A studiat Relaţii Internaţionale şi Limbi şi Culturi Slave, la Universitatea Groningen. În intervalul 2006-2009 a fost membru în cadrul Consiliului Director al ramurii de tineret din cadrul partidului Uniunea Creştină, precum şi membru al consiliului consultativ din cadrul aceleiaşi formaţiuni. Între 2006 şi 2010 a fost secretar general al European Christian Political Youth Network (ECPYN), iar de atunci a rămas activ, în rol de consilier politic. Actualmente este editor al portalului Christians and Politics şi continuă să semneze editoriale şi articole pentru diferite siteuri web şi reviste.