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18-23 luglio 2004


The Ethical Traditions of Europe and the USA:

Common Roots and Possibilities for Dialogue



Common Good, Sovereignty, and Subsidiarity



Robert A. Gahl

Pontificia Università della Santa Croce






1. The Current Crisis: Globalization, Federalisms, and the Transformation of Forms of Governance


On August 8, 1998, while teaching the history of medieval philosophy to a group of young Kenyans, I heard a strange thud in the distance and then a menacing boom, the classroom windows shook and rattled. I asked my students if they recognized the noise, but for these young residents of Nairobi that noise was as mysterious as it was for me. I continued my lecture but after about five minutes, ominous shreds of wet paper started falling out of the sky. I suspended class when we realized that the people running in the streets outside were fleeing the massive explosion that had just occurred about three kilometers away in the center of downtown. It took nearly a week to learn that the terrible car bomb that had brutally injured over a thousand Africans was orchestrated by al Qaeda who had simultaneously attacked the United States Embassy in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania. Whether or not we realized it then, a new world-wide conflict was well under way. The world suddenly seemed smaller and yet much more complex.


This conference has brought together philosophers, jurists, literary scholars, film critics, and political scientists to advance the trans-Atlantic conversation regarding the ethical foundations of our common tradition. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001 the post cold war geopolitical transformation, begun with the peaceful revolution of 1989, has accelerated and with this acceleration has come a heightened interest in and an intensified need for renewed understanding of the foundational principles of sovereign authority and the powers of governance. Ours is a critical moment of epoque change. The Islamicist war, terribly symbolized by the attack on the Twin Towers, opened the millennium by putting into question the very foundations of our political order, whether international, national, local, civil, or perhaps even religious. As in every crisis, ours offers great risks and, I hope, even greater opportunities.


After the brief, personal anecdote, I began by sketching a broad geopolitical picture because this paper has an ambitious scope. My aim is to propose a rethinking of the very foundations of political order. I will not speak of issues from the perspective of the left or the right or of partisan politics. Rather, as a priest and as a philosopher, I hope to offer a provocative reconsideration of the fundamental concepts of political order. [With deep admiration for the wisdom and erudition of my audience, I look forward to learn much from the discussion that will follow. Only sorry that Sam Gregg has had to get back to the U.S..] The depth of today's crisis calls for a correspondingly profound analysis. A return to the central concepts of the roots of our civilization in classical political thought is needed for a full understanding of our current situation and therefore to reconfigure the future in continuity with our common tradition.


Surely it was an exaggeration to say that everything changed with 9/11. Nonetheless, the global political transformation now underway is inevitably shaped by tragic events like those of August 8, September 11, and the more recent March 11 of Madrid. To ignore the far-reaching consequences of these sad dates would be to bury one's head in the sand. The current discussion regarding the ratification of the new draft of the Charter of the European Union and its implications with respect to the sovereignty of the member nations, the international criminal court, immigration, the Christian roots of Europe, the role of the United Nations in promoting justice and peace between and within member nations, the composition and the authority of the Security Council, are just some of the topics of current political dispute that cannot but be influenced by the new circumstances caused by the transformation of international politics now underway.


Francis Fukuyama with his The End of History and the Last Man and Samuel Huntington with his The Clash of Civilizations and the New World Order have famously proposed new and alternative geopolitical paradigms. While Fukuyama has recognized in an honest and courageous article that his proposal in The End of History was deeply flawed and is no longer viable, Huntington's analysis is limited to a description of some of the principal risks of the current crisis. Many political responses have been offered to particular aspects of international law and relations but the need remains for a comprehensive theoretical analysis rooted in the tradition of classical political theory. My aim here [this morning] is to begin such an attempt.


Not only in France, and not only in Europe, there has been a growth of anti-Americanism. This new anti-Americanism is quite different from the cold war reaction of the Communist left against American capitalism. This new anti-Americanism is a more complex reaction that includes anti-global sentiments (sometimes of the no-logo version often expressed here in Italy by its “anti-McDonald's” variant) and a reaction against the perceived hegemonic thrusts of the war against terrorism according to the terms once formulated by President George W. Bush with what Europeans see as his characteristic brashness: “you are either with us or against us”. Perhaps everything depends upon how you understand the first person plural in Bush's affirmation.


By examining its deeper roots, a philosophical consideration can place into proper perspective current anti-Americanism. About 25 years ago, in a lecture entitled “The American Idea,” the Anglo-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre described the anti-Americanism deep-seated within the American character as a paradoxical, unconscious, and ultimately philosophical contradiction—a “contradiction between a profound commitment to the principles of equal rights and liberty on the one hand and an equally profound commitment to individualistic practices which generate inequality and unfreedom on the other”[1].


According to MacIntyre's trenchant observation, the American is constantly in self-contradiction. The American proudly defends the universal and non-discriminatory application of the principles of equality while considering himself a unique individual, with a unique role within a specific community (family, church, company, club, etc.). But this strong sense of belonging to a specific community inevitably implies a contradiction, if not a conflict, with universal equality when applied to a pluralist society. Whenever one's own belonging to a particular community depends upon strong values, especially if those are moral or religious, it is inevitable that there be disagreements with other communities of value with respect to the determination of social equality. Since, communities are formed upon conceptions of the good, political membership in one, rather than another, entails a difference in one's view of the political good, at least in terms of the hierarchy of goods, if not also in terms of a direct disagreement regarding the goods to be promoted. The recent French law, approved after the recommendation made by the Stasi Commission and its solemn defense by Jacques Chirac, regarding religious symbols in schools and other public places, is an explicit attempt to overcome the conflict between the particular values of individual communities and a pluralist state by suffocating rival particular identities.[2]


The recent French example, and we could find many more in just about any one of the European nations, demonstrates that today it is not only the American who is in contradiction with himself. Notwithstanding a few local and usually nationalistic movements in defense of their own culture, language, and values, like America, Europe is now also a melting pot that aims to absorb cultural differences into a homogeneous mixture. America is more a swirling amalgam that dynamically absorbs many profound diversities than a grand mosaic composed of distinct tiles distributed according to a vast artistic design , as often proposed by a deeply rooted American myth [that would prefer to liken our country to the spectacular decorations of Palermo's Capella Palatina or the Cathedral of Monreale]. Like the American, the contemporary European identity—with its Scots, Silesians, Sicilians, Ticenesi, Lombards, Catalans, Basques, Bavarians, and Bohemians—also entails an inevitable tension, if not outright contradiction. The more the European lives according to his own culture the less he has in common with the other Europeans. Even if his individual identity is rooted in a particular tradition (language, culture, religion, ethnicity, etc.) he nonetheless aspires to equal justice without consideration of his own nationality or regional origins. According to MacIntyre's essay, the attempt to reconcile diverse and particular moral visions with universal liberal principles is helplessly utopian. MacIntyre's analysis of American and European self-contradiction leads to the conclusion that free persons everywhere aspire, with the same ardor with which they love their own people and country, to the paradoxical American ideal of equality and cultural pluralism[3].


This similarity between Europeans and Americans may seem to be a sign of hope, but unfortunately, the similarity also entails a more noxious form of anti-Americanism [, surely more present on the continent than in Sicily, and much more virulent in sectors of the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere in the Middle East]. This more noxious form of anti-Americanism is ripened by resentment and blames America for all of the defects of Western modernity. MacIntyre observes that : “When it appears, it is always a sign of a failure to recognize that in the democracies of the West you cannot reject America because in the end, if you are honest, America is you.” And he continues to remark that just as in the United States everyone has two nationalities, the American and that from which his “ancestors originally sprang, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or in North America itself,” so too, “free persons anywhere also have two nations, whether they like it or not—their own and the United States.”[4]


If the unachievable attempt to unite the aspiration for universal justice and the membership in particular communities is a specific characteristic of the American, then perhaps it is easier to understand one of the deeper causes of the frequent overlapping of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. The overlap between the two prejudices is not just due to the political posture of the Bush administration with respect to the Holy Land. The overlap is deeper and due to the same sort of philosophical contradiction, in the American and in the Jew, whether a citizen or not of the USA. Many Jews experience a similar internal paradox, perhaps even more intensely than the average American, insofar as they often desire to conserve their own particular identity, and even, especially in the case of Jews of deeper religious belief, consider their identity as entirely unique and exceptional, while seeking to promote liberal universal justice not just for its own sake but also as a vaccine against the evils of historical anti-Semitism.


The problem of the conflict between the particular and the universal, so characteristic of the American ideal and now practically universal, is closely related to the deepest root of today's international crisis.[5] The problem of membership or belonging, of authority, and of sovereignty is at the heart of today's crisis. Which is my fatherland or country? Are you Sicilian, Italian, European, Christian, Catholic, or all of these things at once? [Perhaps, in my case the response is even more difficult than for many of you who continue to live in the same country where you were born, where you grew up, and where your grandparents, or parents reside.]


The current crisis is so deep because the very pillars of our Western political order include a paradoxical, bi-directional, vertical tension. This tension includes, at once, an expansion of supranational and local political authorities. These two contrasting forces pull at once in an upwards direction, towards greater globalization, and in a downwards direction, towards an ever greater federalism, regionalism and local autonomy. The modern nation state is stretched thin to the point of disappearance[, despite the efforts of the President of the French Republic]. In order to begin the search for a solution to this problem of conflicting, bidirectional, political dynamism, the best place to begin, at least for an Aristotelian and for a Thomist, is the end pursued by the various levels of authority, that is, the common good.



2. Metaphysics of the Common Good


Although rejected by most versions of liberal political theory [often because of the fear of authoritarianism as Samuel Gregg explained yesterday], the common good is a central concept in classical political philosophy. Already in ancient Greece, the polis was understood as ordered towards the fostering of the common good. The Roman Stoic philosophers further developed the concept of the common good and St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas advanced it even further by uniting the classical understanding to the Christian theology of salvation. Cicero defined the notion of “populo” as “a multitude united by consent to law and a communion of utility.”[6] St. Augustine consciously proposed a much deeper understanding of a people and therefore of the common good. According to Cicero's definition, a community owes its unity to law (ius) and utility. According to Cicero's definition, the personal compliance with law, whether simply on account of one's personal circumstances or directly chosen for oneself, was merely for the sake of utility.


Let us consider a tennis court as an illustrative example of a Ciceronian common good [even though Cicero never saw a tennis racket]. A tennis court could be owned and operated in common, by a neighborhood, by a sports club, or by the government. Every tennis court has some rules, whether written or unwritten, regulating its use and maintenance. The group of people who somehow share in ownership of the tennis court satisfy the Ciceronian definition of a people. They have a common law and a common utility, despite the fact that they may be entirely indifferent to one another or even nurture hatred towards the other members of their association or neighborhood. Indeed, since the more the other members of the community use the court and line up to reserve it, the less I can play, it may very well be my hope that my neighbor break his leg, so that the court will be free for me and my friends.


St. Augustine realized that Cicero's definition of a people is inadequate for the Christian. Due to his deep understanding of Christian charity and the influence that it ought to have on society, St. Augustine realized that Cicero's definition is insufficient for establishing a true political society. In Book 19 of the De Civitate Dei, Augustine defined a people as “an association united by rational concord regarding those things they love.”[7] For Augustine, a true community requires affective unity with respect to their common love. The common good of a community constitutes a new dimension of the love among the members of a community. For Augustine, the unity required to speak of a people presupposes the creation of a common good, that is, a triangular relationship established between persons and the good that they love in common. The common good formed between two persons can be represented with a triangle because two angles of the triangle represent the two persons who jointly desire a good which constitutes the third angle. The three angles of a triangle represent the two friends and the good that they hold in common, the basis of their friendship. In every community, the individual persons are united by the good that they desire in common.[8] For Augustine, an authentic community requires more than its members desiring some good in common. They must also care about one another.[9] What is more, Augustine's demanding notion of a true community requires that the members love one another as they love themselves.[10] Love for one another requires that they cooperate, not just to promote some good, but also cooperate to promote their own reciprocal, human good.


To illustrate the Augustinian concept of the common good, let us take a look at another example: a birthday party.[11] A birthday party often includes the participation of friends and family, decoration, music, food, drink, and, of course, a birthday cake. In the example of the tennis court from the perspective of a Ciceronian community, the more the others use the court, the less I play. If they do not show up, then I get on court, and so long as they do not come to play, I can stay on for as long as I want. But with the birthday party, the more the merrier. If one of my friends is sick in bed, maybe my piece of cake will be a little bigger, but, if it is a truly Augustinian birthday, then we will sorely miss him. The common good founded on love, and not just utility, is greater when it is shared by the persons whom I love, because my friend's benefit is my benefit. In a sense, I can have my cake without even eating it. The principal difference between Cicero's and Augustine's view of the common good is that for Augustine, the common good forms part of the persons themselves. The common good is not just an instrument. From the Augustinian viewpoint, once the triangle of the common good is created by the concert of our mutual love, my friend's good is my good, and vice versa. A true community of benevolence is established because together we love the same things. The phenomenology of community in this strong sense, that is, one based on an Augustinian love for the common good, arises from a concern for goods that are more than material. Such a community is based upon the spiritual sharing of goods whose commonality is intrinsic to them as goods. They are goods precisely because they are shared, not just because they are instrumental. [While I acknowledge that the political good may be instrumental and suggested yesterday by Sam Gregg while drawing from Maritain and Finnis, once the common good is seen within the broader, even metaphysical context of human perfection, hierarchy, and order, then the political common good is seen as good insofar as it is a participation in the final end. Because the common good is more than instrumental, it is also for itself,] The more I enjoy or participate in the common good, the more my friends can too.


Today's political crisis is all the more dramatic because our society lacks the philosophical concepts needed for a solid foundation for governance and political authority in general. At least since Hobbes, if not since Macchiavelli, Western society has rejected the possibility of basing governance upon the pursuit of Ciceronian utility, let alone an Augustinian common good. Liberalism continues to be the dominant paradigm of political philosophy. We find liberalism on the right and liberalism on the left. Liberalism that privileges freedom from state intervention and liberalism that privileges state intervention in order to promote equality and in order to defend free expression of rival value systems. All the forms of liberalism that are somehow heirs of John Stuart Mill exclude, on the basis of principle, the very possibility of the state pursuing something like the Augustinian good. In the place of the common good, liberalism pursues justice, equality, and fair and efficient processes for negotiating between competing interests. The justice prized by liberalism has little in common with the classical understanding of justice, founded upon a thick concept of the common good and a specific anthropology of human perfection. In contrast, the liberal political theorist envisions justice as exclusively founded upon the right to liberty and personal inviolability to be protected and promoted through due process.


In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls captures, and based upon the brief biographies written recently on the occasion of his death, even seemed to personify in his own life, the liberal paradigm of justice. Rawls based justice upon his thin theory of goods and proposed that the best way to judge the hard cases of distribution between competing interests is to place oneself in the original position, that is, from behind the veil of ignorance, without any particular adhesion to persons or things or places or ideals. For Rawls, justice may be best adjudicated from the position of pure neutrality enjoyed by Adam Smith's impartial spectator. Any personal love, any view regarding human happiness, would contaminate political judgment. For this reason, in accord with his A Theory of Justice, those religious adherents who hold that there is a unique response to the disputed questions within a pluralist society should be excluded from the public square when it comes time to fairly adjudicate between conflicting parties. Any firmly held moral or religious convictions, any fidelity to any particular community, would be an obstruction of justice. So, for instance, anyone who holds that homosexual, or heterosexual, behavior is intrinsically disordered ought not to have any say in the determination of whether to offer public recognition to same-sex unions or marriages.[12] Personal commitment to objective truth would constitute conflict with justice.


Perhaps today's crisis is an opportunity to consider a new paradigm of the state based upon the common good. According to classical and Christian political philosophy, to govern is nothing other than to direct oneself and the others towards the due end[13]. For St. Thomas Aquinas, the common good of the civitas cannot be separated from the individual's good because the human being can only reach his end within the perfect political community. The need for community is not just for the sake of some limited utility but is necessary to reach human fulfillment in accord with one's rational nature.[14] Indeed, [like Ralph McInerny's example of the mother tongue, that he mentioned on Tuesday morning] Aquinas offered as an example of our need to live in community the learning of a language. The ability to speak a language is proper to human nature and yet to learn to speak and to understand a language requires living within a community.[15]


In Dependent Rational Animals, in response to the pretense of human autonomy in much of modern philosophy, MacIntyre proposes the need to develop the virtues of acknowledged dependence.[16] A solitary quest for the human good could never be successful, neither for attaining the good nor for determining in what the good consists. The human can effectively pursue the good only with and through others. The dependence of the human animal includes both material and spiritual needs. We cannot pursue the truth alone but only in the company of others and in dependence on teachers and tradition. For this reason, Aquinas repeats Aristotle's wise and encouraging counsel: “that which we can do through our friends we can do somehow by ourselves.”[17] In fact, I would suggest that it is only through the communitarian enactment of a story of the genre of divine comedy that the human can find the fullness of the truth regarding his good.[18]


Augustine’s De Civitate Dei describes political association as a communal pilgrimage. Augustine compares God’s people, that is, the Church, to a heavenly City which, while wayfaring on earth, “invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band. She takes no issue with that diversity of customs, laws, and traditions whereby human peace is sought and maintained. Instead of nullifying or tearing down, she preserves and appropriates whatever in the diversities of divers races is aimed at one and the same objective of human peace. . . . Thus, the heavenly city, so long as it is wayfaring on earth . . . fosters and actively pursues along with other human beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.”[19]


According to the Augustinian account, each person understands himself within his own autobiography, a thesis carefully developed in The Confessions. But this autobiography cannot be written alone.[20] Self-knowledge is attained through our relationships with others, with our own family, with friends, co-workers, and of course with God. The family, church, local communities, and the state draft their own narratives that take into account the multiple, variegated, and ordered allegiances of their members.


The Thomistic understanding of common good can be incorporated into the Augustinian narrative of pilgrimage. Aquinas proposes the personal narrative of the quest for the good, the last end, as compatible, even inspired by The Confessions, and a communitarian narrative with various plots according to one's place in society and in the Church, like that of The City of God. These various plots correspond to the various peoples who together seek the common good of a single but variegated political community.[21] According to the Augustinian and Thomistic views, the unity of society is provided by the common quest for a transcendent good, suggestively described by Charles Taylor with his concept of a hypergood necessary for the unity of life of a single human being or for the whole of society.[22] Such a paradigm would permit the common quest for practical truth by persons who disagree about important aspects of the human good in society so long as they agree to honestly pursue together the true human good. With an imaginative application of the classical concept of the common good and with political cooperation, perhaps the liberal paradigm that so often degrades into oppressive state intervention could be replaced with the dialectic quest for the common good that entrusts an important role to the intermediate communities.


If the political paradigm most apt for the common quest for practical truth were such a narrative model, then one must ask what genre of narrative will be the most apt for attaining the human end. There are two main alternatives: the tragic and the comic [you might ask where I situate noir, classic noir, decadent noir, blanc noir, and so on, but I would need much more time, and greater expertise, to go into detail regarding literary genres and political narratives].


In the Poetics, Aristotle defined tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; in embellished language, ... and effecting through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions”.[23] Aristotle continues: “tragedy is an imitation of an action that is whole [holos] and complete in itself [teleios] and of a certain magnitude [megethos].”[24](). . . . “Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life. . . . So that it is the action in it, i.e. its plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy; and the end is everywhere the chief thing.” In addition to the features which Aristotle explicitly mentions as essential to tragedy: seriousness, completeness, and magnitude, we can speak of another essential feature of tragedy, required in order to “effect through pity and fear the catharsis” of emotions. This defining trait of tragedy is the impossibility for the hero to do that which is best, either because of moral dilemma, because of external conditioning such as supernatural intervention, or because of non-chosen and insurmountable personal weakness.


Growth in the virtues requires instruction, counsel, and the imitation of exemplars of virtue. The experience of one's own incapacity, not only to act as one would like, but also to act as one ought, is universal and tragic. Nothing could be more tragic than the fact that every member of a species is conscious of the fact that not a single one of them is able to obtain that which they all desire above all else. But when one lives with virtue and integrity for a transcendent good, a good that is above and beyond the contingent concerns of daily life, the tragic experience can be overcome.[25] To live in a community committed to the pursuit of such a hypergood offers a solution to the intrinsic unintelligibility of the tragic genre. The quest for a transcendent end, extrinsic to oneself and to the political community, requires the ecstatic quest for the good.

For those who turn to their end with an act of faith capable of strengthening their personal quest for the transcendent good, the tragic is transformed into the comic. Something marvellous and unexpected breaks into the scene resolving all the difficulties, all of the motives of tragic catharsis, by means of a reversal of the story towards the end that was always desired. This is the divine comedy that ought to inform all moral experience, including the political.


I began this study of the common good by considering that the common good is always an end pursued by a community. Now, I will address the relationship and the hierarchy between the many and diverse common goods present in a pluralist society. First of all, we ought to consider the relationship between the common good of society and the good of the individual. Aquinas follows Aristotle (The Nicomachean Ethics) when he holds that a common good is always superior to the good of the individual, not because the community substitutes or suppresses the individual but because the common good always also includes the good of the individuals that constitute the community. The common good is therefore more extensive than the good of an individual. With a similar argument, Aquinas shows that the common good of a larger community has precedence over a similar common good of a smaller community. In fact, his doctrine of the common good forms part of his wider doctrine regarding the causes in general. According to St. Thomas: “ unaquaeque causa tanto prior est et potior quanto ad plura se extendit” (any cause whatsoever is more primary and more powerful in the degree to which it extends to a greater number).[26] The common good informs political society because it indicates the direction towards which everyone should tend in order to obtain their happiness. If the good of more persons is superior to that of fewer, it could seem, as Enrico Berti proposed in an international Thomistic conference just less than a year ago, that the supranational political bodies should always have preference and priority over the national ones, and the national ones preference and priority over the local ones, etc.[27] Berti's proposal for a strong international organism of governance with authority and precedence over the national and local governments seems plausible when considered from the perspective of final causality. Nonetheless, his proposal appears deficient in its ability to take into account the common good within the perspective of efficient causality.[28] Moreover, as Stephen Brock has suggested, even from the perspective of final causality, Berti's proposal fails to take into account a crucial Thomistic consideration, the closer causes are to the action and to their effect the more noble they are. Indeed, founded upon this consideration from the Thomistic metaphysics of causality, the principle of subsidiarity, originally proposed by the Magisterium was rapidly accepted by many political philosophers as an effective and deep explanation of how to distribute governing authorities throughout the various levels of society.



3. Subsidiary and Sovereignty: not Devolution or Decentramento


The principle of subsidiarity can illuminate the consideration of the promotion of the common good, the final cause of every community, from the perspective of its efficient causes. The principle of subsidiarity offers criteria for analyzing the differentiated roles of those responsible for fostering the common good of various levels of community. Indeed, the principle of subsidiarity is necessary for a full study of sovereignty because the principle of subsidiarity determines who is sovereign over which communities and in view of which common goods. Subsidiarity is crucial for determining who has the right and the duty to exercise authority over a community for the sake of promoting its common good. If one were to address the topic of political authority exclusively from the perspective of the common good as final cause and foundation for political structure, as Berti recently did in his proposal of a strong international sovereign authority, one runs the risk of absorbing all sovereignties, even the most natural and basic, within the “highest” earthly sovereign, the one most distant from the people.


Despite the fact that many political philosophers rapidly accepted the principle of subsidiarity proposed by the Church's teaching authority and today many scholars and politicians from the most diverse backgrounds promote the principle, unfortunately it is often misunderstood and misapplied on account of its being transplanted into the foreign soil of rival and fundamentally irreconcilable political theories. To recover the original and authentic principle of subsidiarity, let us return to the sources of the concept. The classic reference point for the first full explanation of the concept is Centesimus Annus n. 48, where John Paul II wrote that: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”[29] If one reads the text too quickly and with the prejudices of modern political theory, it is easy to think that the Pope intends the principle as just merely a means for maximizing the efficiency of governance, as though the principle of subsidiarity were the conclusion of a utilitarian calculus. According to this unfortunately frequent, but deeply and even dangerously mistaken interpretation, the society of higher order ought to attribute or delegate authority to the lower so that the lower can intervene with greater efficiency. But this reading subverts the true meaning of subsidiarity to the point of rendering it banal. The papal principle of subsidiarity is quite different from Tony Blair's devolution or the decentramento frequently advanced by politicians today in Italy. Genuine subsidiarity is based on much deeper philosophical roots and implies a much thicker anthropology. For real subsidiarity, the higher level of social organization is higher because it includes a greater number of persons, not necessarily because it enjoys any authority over the lower authority. Subsidiarity is not an attempt to rectify the totalitarian premise that all authority proceeds from the state by then remedying the original totalitarian premise with devolution. Rather, in accord with real subsidiarity, the authority of the lowest, or most local levels may very well be proper and ordinary authority, not delegated. That is, recognized and acknowledged, not attributed. The proper authority of communities is especially evident in the cases of natural communities like the family. Mothers and fathers have authority that they ought to exercise over their children and in the government of their family because their authority is invested in their office as mothers and fathers, not because some higher human authority has delegated authority to them.



4. The Hierarchical Order of Authorities: a Response to Globalization and the Crisis of the Modern Nation State


The principle of subsidiarity offers criteria for sovereignty that can be used to configure a post-liberal political paradigm. The classical concept of the common good and the principle of subsidiarity can open a way for a political theory that permits each level of society and every community, whether large or small, to govern themselves with their own authority for the sake of promoting their proper good as a participation in the universal common good. To specify that the state can and ought to promote the good, and not just guarantee the procedures needed for fair play among rivals, permits a more robust understanding of the state but not necessarily a stronger state. The ordered distribution of authorities guaranteed by subsidiarity would preclude all forms of statist totalitarianisms. Moreover, genuine subsidiarity allows for a recovery of natural hierarchies, in the family, in recreation, in religion, and in the workplace.[30]


Last year in Rome, on the occasion of the centenary of the death of Leo XIII, Russell Hittinger made an almost shockingly post-liberal proposal: the more authorities the more individual freedom.[31] Hittinger's proposal is especially fascinating when seen within the context of his broader research on the concept of munus.[32]  With the recognition of more levels of authority, including the natural ones, the sovereignty that nearly every human being enjoys becomes more evident. Every human being ought to strive for, in the first place, self-dominion, and nearly all are obliged to exercise dominion over at least a few others. Even children have responsibility to exercise a certain, but clearly limited, dominion over their younger brothers and sisters, classmates, and playmates. The Latin word munus is difficult to translate into any of the modern languages because its semantic field was once so rich. It included the concepts of office, gift, service, charge, duty, and right. [sacrifice?] The word munus embraced all of these concepts in just five letters. The recovery of the regal or kingly character of the human being, suggested by the Christocentric anthropology of John Paul II, would help overcome the liberal impetus for autonomy and permit the promotion of the intermediate communities of civil society that can coordinate the quest for the common good while conserving particular identities.[33] If such a proposal can offer a viable solution for integrating the various authorities, state, region, religious, local, family, etc., within a nation perhaps it can also work in order to order the authorities and the goods among nations.

[1] “The American Idea,” in American and Ireland, 1776-1976. The American Identity and the Irish Connection. The Proceedings of the United States Bicentennial Conference of Cumann Merriman, Ennis, August 1976, ed. David Noel Doyle and Owen Dudley Edwards. (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1976) 57-68, quotation from pp. 58-59.


[2] See Jacques Chirac, Discourse of the President of the Republic regarding “The respect for the principle of laicité in the Republic,” presso il Palazzo dell'Elysée, 17 dicembre, 2003.


[3] See The American Idea," 66-69.


[4] “The American Idea,” 68.


[5] “The American Idea” 66: "For at its best the American Idea does not involve a rejection of the past in the name of the future or rather in the name of an ahistorical present. America rather is an attempt at one specific way of connecting the past to the future and a way that was new in human history; it was and is an attempt to found a historical tradition that would move continuously from a particular past to a universal future, a tradition that in becoming genuinely universal could find a place within itself for all other particularities so that the Irishman or the Jew or the Japanese in becoming an American did not cease thereby to be something of an Irishman or a Jew or a Japanese. In assuming the burden of this task America took into itself a genuinely Utopian quality, the quality of an attempt to transcend the limits of secular possibility. America's failures are intimately connected with this grasping after impossibility; but so are its successes." 67-68: “America’s worst danger is to forget how conflict [p. change] and contradiction are central to its historical identity; but Americans ought also to remember that this is so because their is the representative historical identity of the modern world, because it is in America that Europe undertook what it could not achieve at home.”


[6] “Populum esse definivit coetum multitudinis, iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatum.” Quoted by Augustine, De civ. Dei, XIX. 21.

[7] Augustine, De civ. Dei, XIX.24: “Populus est coetus multitudinis rationalis, rerum quos diligit concordi ratione sociatus.”

[8] Per una descrizione molto suggestiva della metafisica del bene comune, cfr. la sezione «L'attualizzazione del principio personalistico come realizzazione del bene comune», in G. Chalmeta, Etica applicata: l'ordine ideale della vita umana, Le Monnier , Firenze1997, 76–78.


[9] De civitate Dei, XIX.21.


[10] Cfr. De civitate Dei, XIX.23.


[11] My analysis of the Augustinian common good and especially my use of the birthday party example owes much to William Frank's brilliant essay: xxx.


[12] In Political Liberalism , (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) Rawls responds to the criticism that his theory of justice, despite its purported neutrality, does naively ignore certain worldviews. Rawls explicitly acknowledges the existence of a plurality of "comprehensive doctrines" and proposes a description for their peaceful cooperation in public affairs. Nevertheless, the problem of an illusory neutrality is accentuated when Rawls excludes from the public square all those who promote comprehensive doctrines which claim to hold uniquely correct answers to disputed questions of, for instance, morality. There is nothing “neutral” about such an exclusion. It is based on the prejudice hidden by the pretense at neutrality of Rawls’s political liberalism. For a penetrating critique of Political Liberalism's hidden fallacy of exclusion, see Robert P. George, "Pluralismo morale, ragione pubblica e legge naturale," in Etica e Politica nella Società del Duemila, ed. Robert A. Gahl, Jr., (Rome: Armando, 1998), pp. 79-91.

[13] De Regno, I, cap. 14: «Est tamen praeconsiderandum, quod gubernare est, id quod gubernatur convenienter ad debitum finem perducere».


[14] Vedi, per es., De Regno, I, cap. 1: «Homo autem institutus est nullo horum sibi a natura praeparato, sed loco omnium data est ei ratio, per quam sibi haec omnia officio manuum posset praeparare, ad quae omnia praeparanda unus homo non sufficit. Nam unus homo per se sufficienter vitam transigere non posset. Est igitur homini naturale, quod in societate multorum vivat».


[15] Vedi, per es., De Regno, I, cap. 1: «Hoc etiam evidentissime declaratur per hoc, quod est proprium hominis locutione uti, per quam unus homo aliis suum conceptum totaliter potest exprimere [...] Magis igitur homo est communicativus alteri quam quodcumque aliud animal, quod gregale videtur, ut grus, formica, et apis. Hoc ergo considerans Salomon in Ecclesiaste IV, 9, ait: ‘Melius est esse duos quam unum. Habent enim emolumentum mutuae societatis’». Gaudium et Spes, n. 24 fornisce una ragione ancora più profonda e biblico-teologica della necessità della comunità per la perfezione umana: «Immo Dominus Iesus, quando Patrem orat ut ‘omnes unum sint [...], sicut et nos unum sumus’ (Io. 17, 21–22), prospectus praebens humanae rationi impervios, aliquam similitudinem innuit inter unionem personarum divinarum et unionem filiorum Dei in veritate et caritate. Haec similitudo manifestat hominem, qui in terris sola creatura est quam Deus propter seipsam voluerit, plene seipsum invenire non posse nisi per sincerum sui ipsius donum».


[16] Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Moral Virtues (DRA), Chicago, Open Court, 1999 (trad. Animali razionali dipendenti, Milano, Vita e Pensiero, 2001.


[17] La citazione è dalla riformulazione tommasiana del detto aristotelico: Summa theologiae, I-II, q.5, a.5, ad 1: “. Sed dedit ei liberum arbitrium, quo possit converti ad Deum, qui eum faceret beatum. Quae enim per amicos possumus, per nos aliqualiter possumus, ut dicitur in III Ethic.”. Il passo originale si trova in Aristotle, Etica Nicomachea, (III, 3, 1112 b27).


[18] Cfr. Il mio Comunità, ethos e verità, in Verità e libertà, a cura di L. Melina e J. Larrú, Roma, PUL, 2001, 89-108.


[19] De civitate Dei, l. XIX, cap. 17. De civ. Dei, XIX.17, trans. by Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., and Daniel J. Honan, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 24. “So, too, the earthly city which does not live by faith seeks only an earthly peace, and limits the goal of its peace, of its harmony of authority and obedience among its citizens, to the voluntary collective attainment of objectives necessary to mortal existence. The heavenly City, meanwhile—or, rather, that part that is on pilgrimage in mortal life and lives by faith—must use this earthly peace until such time as our mortality which needs such peace has passed away. As a consequence, so long as her life in the earthly city is that of a captive and an alien . . . she has no hesitation about keeping in step with the civil law which governs matters pertaining to our existence here below. For, as mortal life is the same for all, there ought to be common cause between the two cities in what concerns our purely human living.”


[20] Per un'applicazione molto lucida alla politica del concetto tayloriano di iperbene, cfr. Antonio Da Re, Il bene e il giusto: una panoramica delle attuali proposte etico-politiche, in Etica e politica nella società del 2000 a cura di Robert A. Gahl, Jr., Roma, Armando Editore, 1998, 45-64. Per una interpretazione del concetto di narrazione autobiografica morale nelle Confessioni, vedi il mio «Etica narrativa e conoscenza di Dio», L. Romera (a cura di), Dio e il senso dell'esistenza umana, vol. 17, Armando Editore, Roma 1999, 189-202.


[21] Il concetto di narrazione è tutt’altro che estraneo al pensiero dell’Aquinate. Anzi, secondo Tommaso, la narrazione è uno strumento necessario per il teologo. Cfr., per esempio, In 1 Sent., prol., a. 5, corpus. Per studi del concetto di narrazione in san Tommaso, cfr. Rogers, Eugene F., Jr. «The Narrative of Natural Law in Aquinas's Commentary on Romans 1», Theological Studies, 59 (1998), 254-276; Pamela Hall, Narrative and Natural Law: An Interpretation of Thomistic Ethics, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1994; e Thomas Hibbs, Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1995.


[22] Cfr. C. Taylor, Sources of the Self, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989 (ed .it.: Radici dell'io: la costruzione dell'identità moderna, Feltrinelli 1993).


[23] Poetics, 49b24-28.


[24] Poetics, 50b23-25.


[25] C. Taylor, op. cit., 63.


[26] (cfr. Enrico Berti, “Il concetto di 'bene comune' d'avanti alla sfide del Terzo Millennio,” Congresso Tomistico Internazionale, Roma, 21-25 settembre, 2003).


[27] cfr. Berti, “Il concetto di 'bene comune' davanti alla sfide del Terzo Millennio,” Congresso Tomistico Internazionale, Roma, 21-25 settembre, 2003.


[28] Devo questa considerazione ai commenti brillanti di Maia Lukac de Stier, sua collega argentina, e alla risposta di Stephen Brock alla conferenza di Berti.


[29] La citazione continua: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.” E ancora per più riferimento: «una società di ordine superiore non deve interferire nella vita interna di una società di ordine inferiore, privandola delle sue competenze, ma deve piuttosto sostenerla in caso di necessità e aiutarla a coordinare la sua azione con quella delle altre componenti sociali, in vista del bene comune» (CCC 1884 e CA 48). (CCC 1894: “Secondo il principio di sussidiarietà, né lo Stato né alcuna società più grande devono sostituirsi all'iniziativa e alla responsabilità delle persone e dei corpi intermedi.” 1885: “Il principio di sussidiarietà si oppone a tutte le forme di collettivismo. Esso precisa i limiti dell'intervento dello Stato. Mira ad armonizzare i rapporti tra gli individui e le società. Tende ad instaurare un autentico ordine internazionale.”


[30] Riguardante proposte recenti sul recupero delle gerarchie naturali, cfr. Francis Fukuyama, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999, e, in particolare, il capitolo “Human Nature and Social Order.”


[31] Riferimento a Hittinger, The Higher Law Legacy of Leo XIII, Congresso su Leone XIII (XX).


[32] Cfr., per esempio, Social Roles and Ruling Virtues in Catholic Social Doctrine in Annales Theologici, 2002 (XX).


[33] Sul carattere regale della persona umana, si vedano le riflessioni di Hittinger (Social Roles and Ruling Virtues in Catholic Social Doctrine in Annales Theologici, 2002, XX) sull'insegnamento di Giovanni Paolo II in Familiaris Consortio riguardante le parole “cui servire regnare est.”



VII European Seminar of Philosophical Studies



Collegio Universitario ARCES



Grand Rapids, Michigan



Università degli Studi di Palermo