Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How Teaching is Tied to Subsidiarity

Over on Nancy Brown's blogg there was a mention of a new magazine called Mater et Magistra, which is about home-schooling, but is named for Pope John XXIII's 1961 encyclical. It was the first of the modern papal writings of "Catholic Social Teaching" (CST) to use the term "subsidiary" - which adjective was promoted to the noun "subsidiarity" in his 1963 Pacem in Terris.

Now one might say very much about this connection from teaching in general to the grand concept of subsidiarity... you want to know what subsidiarity is? Here are the two standard definitions:
Negative Form: It is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.
[Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno 5]
Positive Form: A community of a higher order ... should support a community of a lower order 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.
[John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 48]
If you know even the tiniest bit of Latin, you may wonder what these were 40 years and 100 years after... you can get the answer 1891 but what happened then?

The answer is the great Leo XIII issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum, which contains subsidiarity in a prototype form. One of the many startling dicta he wrote there was this: "To desire, therefore, that the civil power should enter arbitrarily into the privacy of homes is a great and pernicious error." (section 21)

As you can see, this quickly leads into some very important ideas on the right order of society and related matters: the family, the government, social justice - but also unrelated things like software development, technology, industry, athletic teams, clubs and organizations, and even the sacrament of Holy Orders! It would need a whole blogg just to begin the discussion...

But what does subsidiarity have to do with teaching?

To give you the best possible start, I shall simply quote a very powerful excerpt from an interesting book I was reading:
I can get at facts in more than one way. If I want to know the volume of a cylinder I can, if I know how, work the problem out either by mathematics or by experiment; or I can ask a competent person to tell me what is volume is. In the last case I proceed on the lines of authority, and, in doing so, I convince myself first of all by an act of reason that [the authority I consult] is a reliable one. This is only doing what every man of business does time and again in the conduct of his affairs.
[Bertram C. A. Windle, The Catholic Church and Its Reactions With Science, 52]
Indeed, not only does Windle bring in teaching (that is the acquisition of knowledge) but he ties it to good business sense too - a very important thing to remember in considering subsidiarity, as we shall see another time.

Now here is a child. He most likely does not know how to test, to prove, to "work out volumes" or anything else - he may not yet know how to read! But he has had several years of experience in establishing that his parents (always his first teachers) and his other teachers outside the home (whether in formal school or elsewhere) are reliable authorities. And so he knows where he can go when he needs help, even if he would not put it that way. He has questions and wants answers.

But how is that subsidiarity?

Very simple. He - yes even a very young child - can tell when he cannot do something for himself - and he therefore immediately appeals to his superior (most often, his parents!) for assistance: to learn, to know, to understand...

Yes: anyone who teaches takes up a certain mantle of authority (if in only a very narrow field of specialization) but the teacher is thereby obliged to render assistance, as our Lord told us: "the Son of Man is not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a redemption for many." [Mt 20:28]

Stay tuned... there's more - MUCH more - to come.


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