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Subsidiarity and Small Towns: Why They Matter

Doolin, Ireland (Wikipedia)

When I visited Ireland in my freshman year of college with my rugby team, we went to a town on the west coast called Doolin. It was enchanting. The small cottages, shops, and taverns hugged the cobblestone streets that shimmered from a recent rain. We went into one of the taverns and heard a man singing Irish ballads l never heard before but never forgot about afterward. It was as if the town had always been there. In my ignorance, I had just stumbled upon it while never knowing any place like it ever existed. It told a story older than my home country. There was no need for anyone to tell that story. It was just there and it told itself.

That town was the essence of subsidiarity. No big company or government built it, but it represented everything its countrymen lived and loved. It didn't need any modern amenities because it existed before the modern world came up with amenities and survived just fine without them for centuries. It had everything it needed, and that included nothing modern society said it needed. There may have been wifi in the town, but I wouldn't have known. The outside world subsided long before hitting the streets of Doolin.

There are many towns like it throughout the world--towns where subsidiarity survives--and the people living there are just fine, actually.

According to the Catechism:

The principle of subsidiarity is a teaching according to which 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 (CCC, 1919).

Subsidiarity means every task is the responsibility of the community most closely impacted by the task, and that community should only reach out when its own resources don't suffice for completing the task. The principle is not stating that tasks ought to be allocated that way, or that tasks should be bestowed upon communities in that way; any more than an apple should hit the ground when it falls from the tree. Subsidiarity is not something that needs to be made so. It's just the way it is. It's the natural order of things.

But when corrupt human institutions get in the way of the natural order, subsidiarity subsides. Then is when we need to talk about how things should be, because then the natural order is interrupted. Then big businesses and big governments should step aside and take a laissez-faire approach to the affairs of local communities. It's sad though, because neither the Democratic nor the Republican base truly supports subsidiarity. They may claim to in order to get more votes, but their platforms mostly support policies that favor more government and big business involvement in our everyday lives. Very few major politicians actually support small businesses and smaller government. During the damn panic, big businesses and big governments worked together while small businesses struggled to make it. Big businesses could afford to shut down stores and services. Small businesses can't. Big businesses and big governments can afford to live in a make-believe world. Small communities and small businesses that have to survive in the real world cannot.

And yet, smaller is still better. Smaller is bigger because it's more tangible and more real. The smaller things in life are heavy and substantial, gritty and cumbersome. The bigger something gets the faker it becomes. I love going to Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It always surprises me when I go there to see how well-organized their small self-sufficient society is. I'm not familiar with any other Amish region, but in south-central Pennsylvania there's a sprinkling of beautiful little towns that hearken back to simpler times. That whole vintage America mindset stretches up to the Lehigh Valley as well in towns like Stroudsburg and Quakertown; beautiful quaint villages dotting the countryside. When I go out there, I get the sense that people still understand what it takes to make a community. In this day and age, maybe those towns aren't completely self-sufficient, but they lend to the vision of a better, more practical, more natural, more American America.

Photo from PxHere

Somehow, we need to build an authentic Catholic community, similar to what Catholics are building in Veritatis Splendor, Texas, which seems to be inspired by not only Pope John Paul II's encyclical of the same name but also by Rod Dreher's Benedict Option. On the community's website it states:

Veritatis Splendor includes a grand oratory and seven institutes of truth professing authenticity to liberal education, law, liberty, human rights, life, media and culture. Directors of the Institutes live and work in the community and, by virtue of the offices they hold, become missionaries in the world to transmit these values in a way that promotes truth, goodness, and beauty and, in so doing, restores Christ in civilization.

Veritatis Splendor is still in it's planning stage, but there's another town that proves such a plan can become reality in today's world. Ave Maria, Florida, founded by former Domino's owner Tom Monaghan, is a planned town that also attempts to capture this vision of a Catholic town, and seems to be doing quite well at it. The town, with an oratory at its center, has over 30,000 residents and sold a record number of homes in January 2021.

Politicians and media outlets want to claim they're all about conservatism, liberalism, the free market, and then they don't have much to point to as a tangible example of what they're actually talking about. What does their ideology actually look like? I'm not talking about someone who lives it out well in their lives or a media outlet that represents it well. What does it look like when an entire society builds its communities based on the principles of a certain ideology, principles like subsidiarity? Does it even work? Or are ideologies just based on ideals that never bear good fruit when we try to embody them?

Rambling Spirit may just be a website, but it presents a paradox: It is all about making roots. It is like what Gandalf said of Aragorn: "Not all who wander are lost." Rambling Spirit is anchored in a desire to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty. Before we go on that journey, we have to build a strong foundation. Then, from that foundation, we go off on our adventures. That is, after all, how the explorers did it during the Age of Discovery. They wouldn't have had the resources to go off and explore the world if they were not departing from powerful kingdoms that provided for them. They had a base.

We, today's Catholics, need a base. It could have its own farms, community center, homes, stores, schools and library, while being centered around a church. What do we need to do to make this happen? Do we need to reach out to religious orders and venture capitalists? We need more Catholic towns. We need to start with something. Perhaps this website can be that something. The mission of this website could be to promote this kind of community. Everything I write can augment that vision.

If my vision of a Catholic town ever happened, storytellers, journalists, and reporters would come and capture their angle of the town, the angle they want to show and nothing more. For many people, that would suffice. They would hear about the town through some magazine, news channel or a short story; say "that's interesting", and think only what the narrator wanted them to think about the town. But that's the beauty of a town. Its story does not have to end on the page or the screen. It actually exists. It can be its own narrator and tell its own story, cumbersome grit and all.

Subsidiarity is a self-sufficient community run by faithful Catholics who can show what it means to be faithful Catholics not only through their own lives, but also through the actual town they live in; a city on a hill. Let's show them how it's done. We can have our own news outlets, our own pillar of truth to the world. Then people wouldn't have to pick and choose what pile of truth to rummage through to find the bits and pieces they want to find. We could tell our own story through the impetus of the town, a living story that can't be denied.


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