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Lance Richey | author
Jun 02, 2014
Filed under Ethics
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Cultivating the virtues of subsidiarity

LANCE BYRON RICHEY writes that it’s easy to criticize power-hungry politicians, but if we want leaders who support limited government, they must come from our own ranks. Cultivating leaders demands cultivating virtues. This means modeling humility and patience in our own careers, sharing responsibilities, and seeking out employees who do likewise . . .

Lance Richey

Lance Richey

ObamaCare. The Patriot Act. Common Core. Increasingly in America, power and policy have been centralized in the hands of the federal government at the expense not only of state and local authorities, but of individual freedom as well.

As a result — from insurance to illegal immigration to light bulbs — decisions affecting every aspect of our lives are being made by an ever-shrinking circle of politicians and bureaucrats. The concentration of too much power in too few hands poses serious threats to our economic and political freedoms. Worst of all, we as a people risk losing those Christian virtues necessary for a free and democratic society when we ignore the principle of subsidiarity.

This principle, first stated in Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching. In 1931, when fascist and communist dictatorships across Europe were threatening the freedom of individuals and the Church (sound familiar?), this encyclical forcefully rejected the belief that the government alone can or should organize our lives.

Against those who would identify the interests of the State with those of society as a whole, the Church insists that the common good is not only distinct from, but often incompatible with, the growth of centralized government power. A free and healthy society requires a strong network of voluntary associations — churches, social clubs, youth sports leagues, chambers of commerce, etc. — to respond to the community’s needs precisely because they are closest to them.

Pius acknowledged that government is a necessary part of any well-ordered society. However, he insisted, it’s only one part, and should therefore limit its role to doing “those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them.” We may legitimately disagree about what the government “alone” is capable of doing: Is a single-payer system the only way to provide health insurance for all? Who should decide the nutritional content of school lunches? Nevertheless, the principle of subsidiarity tells us that, when passing laws and setting policies to address a problem, we should always err on the side of those who are closest to and most affected by it.

But this principle extends beyond the voting booth, and into every boardroom where Catholic business leaders daily make decisions which shape not only their corporate cultures but also their own personalities, and those of the people who serve under them. Too often, the vices we decry in government are the ones which beset our own businesses. Therefore, before complaining too loudly about the corruption in Washington, we should examine our own org charts (and consciences). Do we, as individuals and companies, possess the two great virtues of subsidiarity: humility and patience?

Humility, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “tempers and restrains the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately.” Humility enables us to recognize both personal and organizational limits, set realistic goals, and empower others who possess the necessary expertise to accomplish those tasks. Humility is not the same as fear or timidity. But a humble leader doesn’t confuse I can’t with we can’t — or I wish for I can.

Subsidiarity also demands and cultivates the virtue of patience, since sharing planning and delegating authority demand collaboration rather than mere obedience. Tyrants may dictate, but leaders (and especially Catholic leaders) must inspire, motivate and guide. Of course, eventually decisions must be made and action taken, but it’s what happens before that moment which most determines corporate success. Any business executive will tell you collaborative leadership requires almost superhuman patience. But having such patience when building a team around a common vision can call forth superhuman efforts by your employees, who will view themselves not as mere workers but as co-workers towards a shared goal.

It’s easy to criticize power-hungry politicians, but if we really want leaders who understand and support limited government, they must come from our own ranks. Cultivating leaders demands we also cultivate virtues. This means modeling humility and patience in our own careers, sharing responsibilities and recognition with others, and seeking out employees who do likewise. Long before the era of consultants and management gurus, Pius XI clearly saw what makes any organization (public or private) prosper. The principle of subsidiarity can help us decide whether we are growing a new generation of leaders with the virtues of humility and patience, or just adding more fertilizer to the existing crop.

DR. LANCE BYRON RICHEY is an associate professor of theology and director of the John Duns Scotus Honors Program at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.

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