You Meet Subsidiarity in the Oddest Places

This past October 3 marked “National Hair Day” and, to quote columnist Jonah Goldberg, who among us was immune to the excitement? There’s a National This Day and National That Week for every conceivable cause. Somebody out there loves to create these days and most of us love to ignore them. I suspect politicians are behind most of the “creating” part. After all, it beats working. Why go to all the fuss and bother of appointing somebody to the Supreme Court when you can fill up the empty hours celebrating some meaningless “achievement” like Being Blonde or Owning a Poodle?

So we rightly satirize this because, well, it’s just so silly. But at the same time, I think it’s worth asking what we are satirizing. Is it the fact that we are celebrating “achievements” that require no effort on our part to achieve? I don’t think so. For we all celebrate one holiday that involves even less achievement than Having Hair.

It’s called our “our birthday”.

Think about it. The person who really achieved something on your birthday was not you, but your Mom. Your own conception and gestation were entirely passive events on your part. Not just your hair, but every cell in your body was a pure gift donated to you by God with the cooperation of your parents. And when the day for the Blessed Event arrived, it was your Mother and a team of helpers (whether midwives or doctors and nurses) who did the heavy lifting. Yet nobody gives Mom cake and ice cream on our birthday. In some mysterious way, Christian civilization has enshrined a different tradition: all the celebration is directed at the person who has received the grace of existence through absolutely no merit of his own.

I think that’s a healthy instinct. It reminds us that we are not Self-Made People: that we are fundamentally dependent, not only on God, but on the kindness of other creatures who, not infrequently, go through hell just so that we can enjoy the ability to breathe and blink.

The oddness of things like National Hair Days comes, not from the fact that they celebrate non-achievements, but that, in our secular culture, they divorce such non-achievements (previously known as “gifts of grace”) from the God who graciously gives them. We are to be “thankful” on “National Hair Day” for the gift of Hair. But we can’t give thanks to the Giver of Hair. So we end up talking about a real achievement, but not giving credit to the One who achieved it.

This leads to the other weirdness about things like National Hair Day. Namely, they wrench into the public and political realm something that is rightly private and personal. It’s altogether right and proper for a lover to tell his Beloved that she has beautiful hair. It’s fitting for a mother to dote on her child’s curls and for a father to enjoy the adorable cowlick on his son’s head. But to have some fathead Senator barge into the living room with cameras so he can bloviate about the Importance of Hair and Celebrate the Diversity of Hair and blather about the Many Contributions Hair Has Made to American Civilization is beyond stupid.

This is one of the many places that Catholic teaching unexpectedly illuminates a corner of ordinary life. For what we are actually looking at is another illustration of subsidiarity. This three dollar word means, negatively, “The one closest to the problem should deal with it wherever possible” and, positively, “Higher-Ups have no business sticking their big noses into things unless Lower-Downs are not competent to do so.”

We Lower-Downs are the competent, God-ordained people for doing stuff like praising our Beloved’s hair and our child’s curls. Coming from us, and without the interference of National Hair Day organizers, the praise of my Beloved’s hair and my child’s curls reflects directly off my Belove and my children and glorifies their Maker. Likewise, through that praise, a little of the love of God is mediated to them, as it should be when a husband loves his wife and children. Love moves in a kind of dance and a little of the Trinitarian life proceeds in our happy home, as it should.

But should Higher-ups from some National Hair Day committee butt in, all that is thrown off. The praise of my wife’s hair that should flow freely is legislated (that is, false and forced), Officials take the credit for Celebrating Hair instead of giving God the credit for creating hair, and the whole thing becomes a particularly idiotic exercise in unctuousness.

Happily, such silly National Whatsit Days are still ignored by normal people. And the good thing about that is that it shows most people take seriously Catholic teaching on subsidiarity, even if they don’t, for the life of them, know what it is.

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