Subsidiarity as Transnationalism

Karen Rupprecht: Globalization and the Vatican’s “supranational authority” might just herald a more conservative world.

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Back in October, fans of subsidiarity, state sovereignty and localism received something of a shock when the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace published its note on the global financial disarray of recent years. Its call for a “supranational authority” with “global reach” caught the attention of writers from Rod Dreher to George Weigel to Sam Gregg. The shock was short-lived, however, as a brief Vatican brouhaha ensued in which the Secretary of State disowned the document, and the “Justice and Peace department,” as CNBC termed the Council, was required to pass future notes by the cardinal before publication

So perhaps the transnational fear-mongering is done for the moment. But on second thought, maybe not. For Catholics, it’s hard to ignore the fact that numerous popes have issued clarion calls for transnational authorities (cf. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris at 71-74, as well as Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, at 67, inter alia). But even beyond Catholic social teaching, what are we to make of transnationalism? By and large, conservatives tend to greet things transnational with a range of reactions spanning from a yawn to outright scorn. And this is not without reason. It is certainly tempting to dismiss any call for transnational justice as yet another naïve attempt at attaining a Kantian perpetual peace. On the scorn end of the spectrum, there is ample reason to be wary of, say, international courts’ attempts to pronounce ‘justice’ in domestic concerns as blatant violations of subsidiarity. (French philosopher Chantal Delsol has argued similarly.)

Getting terms straight

Upon closer examination, though, not only is some transnational authority inevitable, it may be desirable – even for subsidiarity advocates. To see why, we should first clear up a few matters. ‘Transnational’ often gets confused with ‘international,’ ‘supranational’ or even ‘global,’ each of which is conceptually distinct. ‘International,’ technically has to do with matters pertaining across nations, with the unit of study or action as the nation-state. The United Nations, NATO, and the British Commonwealth are international institutions. ‘Supranational,’ on the other hand, indicates a vertical relationship to national, meaning that a supranational institution claims some inherent authority over individual nation-states. The International Criminal Court does just this. ‘Global’ simply implies an effectively ubiquitous presence across the globe – English is thus said to be a global language. ‘Transnational,’ however, has to do with norms or structures that transcend the boundaries of nation-states, such that NGOs or communities or even individuals make up the primary actors. The Red Cross is an oft-touted example of a transnational organization.

Secondly, we have to ask what it is that is transnational, supranational, global, etc. ‘Government,’ ‘governance,’ ‘institutions,’ ‘authority,’ and ‘power’ are also, of course, conceptually distinct. “Transnational authority” can have a radically different meaning – and consequences – than “supranational government” and “international governance.” For example, Standard and Poor, in rating entire nations’ credit ratings, quite clearly exercises a form of authority over them by virtue of its reputation and expertise. But this is hardly a world government out to destroy state sovereignty (meriting scorn), nor is its authority something to be dismissed (with a yawn).

The Church as Transnational Authority

It is worthwhile to look at the concept of transnational authority more closely, for one of the most obvious and, dare I say, important, examples of a transnational authority is the global Church, especially (but not only) in the case of the Roman Catholic Church. As José Casanova, a leading scholar on religion and globalization, writes, “As a religious regime, Catholicism preceded and is likely to outlast the modern world system of nation-states.” Importantly, this does not exclude Protestantism from the picture, for insofar as the Christian Church is the Christian Church of the Apostles, it is rightly said to have preceded the state system as well.

In light of the tremendous moral and soteriological claims the Church makes, and not on the basis of her territorial jurisdiction, the question must be asked: Why should the locus of authority always be territorial? Is this in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, namely, that matters ought to be handled by the lowest competent authority? What if the lowest competent authority is global or transnational? The modern Westphalian nation-state rests its authority on the idea that it is sovereign over everything and everyone within its geographical boundaries. In the original version, this included the religion of the people (cuius regio, eius religio). And the nation-state has worked quite well throughout much of modern history – the advantages of clearly demarcated authority, legal jurisdiction and identifiable armed forces are inestimable.

Still, we should keep in mind that it is, in fact, an innovation of modernity rather than an inevitable outgrowth of natural law. Furthermore, for Christians, and for anyone who believes in something higher than Caesar, it is a good thing to have limitations to state sovereignty. For to hold that state sovereignty is the end of authority is to ultimately adhere to a form of moral relativism, one which the trials at Nuremberg rejected in concluding that following state orders is no excuse for gross inhumanity. Human beings have always sought, rightly, a good that both transcends political authority, and it is for this reason that transnational authority is rightly an inevitable part of our political landscape. (As a side note, this principle of a higher authority than the state also helps to explain why battles over the use of shari’a are more than matters of Muslims versus non-Muslims.)

Of course, there is a second reason for the prominence of transnational authority and even governance today, namely, the effects of globalization. Information is readily transmitted instantly across state boundaries, and the market subsumes most of the globe. Unmanned planes directed from across the globe ‘fight’ wars, genocide all but requires intervention, and protestors against their Arab ruler make camera-visible signs entirely in English for the world to see – and to “do something.” State sovereignty over such conceptual ‘territories’ is ambiguous at best; it rarely seems competent to arbitrate justice in such globalized matters. But what kind of authority would be competent?

I suggest that sometimes, it might just take a transnational form of authority to speak competently in such matters. As Casanova writes, “Ongoing processes of globalization offer a transnational religious regime…which never felt fully at home in a system of sovereign territorial nation-states, unique opportunities…to assume a proactive in shaping some aspects of the new system.” The form that this would take remains to be seen. But even should the global Church (“transnational religious regime”) successfully exercise a high degree of transnational moral authority in molding our world order (and I fully grant that this doesn’t always look too likely), this would not be the mere exchange of one scary global power for another. In Caritas in Veritate, just after the seemingly alarming point that “there is urgent need of a true world political authority,” Pope Benedict XVI writes that “such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth” (emphasis original).


If this is the case – i.e., if transnational political authority is to commit itself to ‘authentic integral human development’ as defined by the precepts of the Christian faith, and if such authority respects the very principles of subsidiarity and solidarity that stand at the core of much Christian and conservative tradition – then perhaps a looming transnational age would be, a bit paradoxically, a return to an earlier, more conservative transnational world.

Karen Rupprecht is a doctoral student in political theory at Georgetown University.


  • Zachary
    January 17, 2012


    Do you see any room for transnational institutions of a non-religious nature? Your argument is unique, but I think you grossly overstate the need for transnational organizations. Casanova only writes of “transnational religious regimes.”

    We’ve seen international organizations (i.e. the United Nations) fail time and time again; how can we have a non-religious and non-international organization be a more effective arbiter of justice in global affairs?


  • Avatar
    January 17, 2012


    Thanks for your comment, Zach. I don’t particularly intend to call for transnational organizations, though I would leave room for them. I focused on transnational authority, rather – and the Church in her role as such, instead of her organizational aspects, especially since that would necessarily limit the discussion to, effectively, either the Catholic or Anglican church, though possibly Orthodoxy as well. Part of my point, albeit a secondary aspect, is that when we hear ‘authority’, we often translate it into ‘organization’ or ‘government’, and those would indeed have different implications for state sovereignty, democracy, and subsidiarity.

    Again, though, I’ll go out on a limb and say that even the latter forms of transnationalism might be in line with subsidiarity. To your original question, yes, I would think that there is room for transnational, well, certainly ‘authority,’ and likely even authority vested in institutions (as you asked), within the context of subsidiarity. By that I mean that at times, the lowest competent authority might very well have to transcend national boundaries. But we have to be careful about assuming that all authority is political authority. With the Church as with Standard & Poor, this isn’t the case.

  • Bryan Wandel
    January 20, 2012

    Bryan Wandel


    My question is similar to your response to the first – what, then, is authority? Aren’t we talking about (at least) two different kinds of authority?

    In liberal modern times, religious authority is optional/volitional. It is possible to subscribe to none. Conversely, political authority is not optional. Even if you transfer citizenship, which is difficult, you cannot give up all political authority. Unless you like living on a boat.

    The S&P, if it is an authority, is an authority of expertise. It has influence, and therefore even a kind of power. Is “influence” where you are going with this, though? In a technical discussion of types of authority, I wonder if our two (at least) senses of the term “Authority” warrant grouping together.

  • Avatar
    January 28, 2012



    Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. It seems that there are two issues to parse out here: the optional/non-optional nature of authority, and the authority-via-expertise/authority-via-coercion question.

    On optional authority: I agree that this is a very important distinction, although I would submit that the right to exit (i.e., change one’s citizenship) is crucial for the maintenance of a liberal political framework. In other words, in our modern, liberal world, we rest (quite wrongly, I think) on the assumption that people in fact only submit to the overarching authorities they choose. This does not mean that they choose every edict that covers them, but that the overarching government – whether religious, political or otherwise – is founded on some form of social contract and ultimately, they may leave.

    I find the whole matter questionable in its theoretical foundations, at least in its purported scope, but I do think it undergirds modern liberal theory and, when pushed, practice. I’m no expert in liberalism, though, so I’m open to correction on this.

    So, in this case, if we are to continue with modern liberalism – and in many cases, without wanting to contradict myself just above, I think it is hugely beneficial to do so – any transnational authority would need to be, ultimately, optional. Yes. And again, the trans- versus supra- prefixes matter a great deal here; I’m far more concerned about the U.N. claiming supranational authority than I am about something that transcends, rather than supersedes, nation-state boundaries.

    If we are to conceive of transnational authority as something that is not ultimately optional, whether de facto or de jure, I submit that the basis for its claim to any authority at all simply must be made on solid (very solid) grounds of the principle of subsidiarity. That is, this organization or authority must be decidedly the lowest possible authority competent to handle the matter at hand. But “decidedly” is important; I suspect that justifying nearly any sort of binding, non-optional authority on these grounds will be quite difficult.

    So in answer to your question, yes, we are at least effectively talking about different forms of authority, though at the most fundamental and theoretical level, the lines are blurred.

    Next, to the expertise versus coercion question: Because I imagine “transnational” to indicate ‘transcending political boundaries’, such an authority would almost necessarily take the form of a form of some form of expertise, which could then be adopted by political units (i.e., the nation-state) through political (i.e., coercive) means. In fact, this is how most international law works anyway.

    One might object that this kind of ‘authority’ amounts to nothing at all. (This is how, as I understand it, many practicing lawyers view international law.) My point is that in fact it does mean something, but it is something between coercive state law and a mere norm that is simply ‘out there’ somewhere. By opting to submit themselves to the expertise-based authority of, say, the Vatican, or Human Rights Watch, or S&P, people actually construct a form of authority that states, in some sense, must eventually heed – albeit, to widely varying degrees, and this depends on a large number of more concrete factors. (A petrol-economy country is likely to ignore the credence its citizens and other nations give to, say, the transnational authority its citizens and other people ascribe to the Vatican because it is less accountable to its citizens by virtue of not having to tax them for income, and less accountable to the rest of the international community by virtue of being materially powerful/rich.) Still, I think we saw this principle of constructed authority illustrated just recently when Médicins sans Frontières withdrew from Libya (notably itself a petrol-rich country, though obviously mitigated these days) over torture issues. No, MSF did not directly coerce the state to end torture policies, and no one elected them to hold transnational authority. But neither is this merely the ideal of torture-as-wrong floating around in international space. MSF holds real, though optional, authority, and the international community takes note when they withdraw. Actual political – and coerced – measures may follow.

    Apologies for the lengthy response; your comments were very helpful, though, and I think perhaps some sort of in-depth exploration of the different types of authority would be in order here. Probably Jouvenel would be a good starting point. I’ll still stick to my guns in holding that transnational authority in some cases is both consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and a good thing, even for conservatives. The devil is in the details there – in which cases? How do you determine if it is in line with subsidiarity, and who decides? But I suspect that these are questions which will only increase in importance in years to come.