ONE of the distinctive things about Catholic Christianity is that we have something to say about virtually every moral or political issue in the world. Back at the end of 1996 in their teaching document The Common Good our bishops in this country memorably wrote, ‘Nothing is beyond the scope of faith’: what that means is there is no moral territory where God and religious faith fail to make claims. Christianity is about the whole of life.

Therefore we need to say something in response to the recent events in Catalonia. The bishops there and in the rest of Spain have realised this and offered to be agents of mediation (some say Pope Francis has as well). We need to start by saying that the situation is complicated and that most of us don’t know enough about Catalan or even Spanish history to be able to make a complete judgment; in particular, we can’t really understand fully some of what is going on without taking into account the Spanish Civil war only eighty years ago. Similarly we need to bear in mind that Catalonia is the most prosperous part of Spain: this means (a) that some Catalan nationalists simply don’t want to give money to poorer parts of Spain and (b) Spain doesn’t want to lose this source of national revenue. We also need to bear in mind real divisions in Catalan society, and also the need to eschew and condemn violence and aggression.

Not long before the Spanish Civil war, in 1931, Pope Pius XI (shown here), the only pope in history (I think) to have been a librarian, wrote an important encyclical letter on Catholic social teaching with the pithy title Quadragesimo Anno (‘In the fortieth year’ – the letter marked the anniversary of an earlier letter in 1891). In the letter the pope warns against the growth in the power of the State, particularly in Fascist Italy and the Soviet Union: this undermined families and smaller units in society. The letter establishes as a basic principle of Catholic moral teaching (drawn from earlier theologians) the idea we call subsidiarity. This principle asserts that decisions should always be taken at the level closest to the people concerned, the ‘lowest’ if you like; higher authorities should only exercise this power if it is really necessary. So local government and devolution, for example, are inherently good things. We see this in the Catholic Church – many converts are surprised to find out that the Church is much more decentralised than they imagined, and more so than other churches (particularly in the area of finance).

The idea has also been important in the development of common European institutions in the last seventy years. The Maastricht treaty of 1992 shows its influence and wanted to enhance the autonomy and influence of smaller regions within European nation states, not something which has really happened since then, although over the years most European countries have gradually become less centralised than they were (certainly Britain, Spain, France and Italy).

However in Catholic moral teaching subsidiarity cannot be considered on its own. We see it as balanced by what we call solidarity – real commitment to others, particularly those who are poor. So if we restore more power to smaller regions – whether they are historic nations like Scotland or Catalonia, or simply towns or villages like Beckenham – those regions have to have a concern for others; this is why we would object to what is sometimes called ‘localism’. The two need to go together. Solidarity, of course, is one of the basic principles behind groupings in the world such as the European Union, which is why they are supported in principle by the Catholic Church. While decisions should be taken nearest to where people live, we all need to have a concern for the wider community.

The odd thing is that back in the 90s some politicians thought that the reference to subsidiarity in the Maastricht treaty was about giving power back not to small units near the people, but to nation states; and indeed the leaders of the nation states have ensured that devolving power to smaller regions has been very limited. But if you look at Europe and try and balance subsidiarity with solidarity, you can see that ultimately the unit in the middle – nation states such as Spain, Britain, Germany and so on – may well eventually wither away, and that this would make sense. A genuine sense of identity is often very immediate, together with a much wider perspective; often the nation state is rather artificial, a construct not formed by democracy or self-determination, but by the power of a few or by war.

I am not saying that this obliges Catholics to support Catalan (or indeed Scots) independence. But it is clear that subsidiarity and solidarity, as basic principles of Catholic moral teaching, offer the only way forward over and against selfishness, pride and aggression; and I think this is what Pius XI would have said.