I attended an excellent seminar today on school governance and the principle of subsidiarity.

Put very simply, subsidiarity is the grassroots antithesis of centralisation. Wherever possible, higher authorities and larger collectives should not take over the tasks of smaller authorities and collectives, but rather help them (Latin: subsidio).

So, by way of example, it’s not the government’s business to to bring up children, but the family’s. The state should never use its power to replace parents, but instead use its power to assist parents.

The presenter at today’s conference, Dr Alessandro Colombo, is an expert in the theory and application of subsidiarity, particularly in the European Union. He suggested, quite convincingly, that the Catholic education system in Victoria is a remarkable model which exemplifies subsidiarity and deserves world attention.

There are many practices which contribute to this. Public education funds are distributed and managed not by the state, but by the Church. Another significant practice, which distinguishes Victorian Catholic schools not only from state schools, but also Catholic schools in other states, is the system of governance.

In the first place, Catholic principals are invested with a lot of authority, delegated to them by the canonical administrator. In contrast, the governance of public schools is highly centralised in the Education Department, and principals have little governing authority.

In the second place, parish schools in Victoria are governed by the parish priest or similar canonical administrator, who is typically close to the ground. But the administration of parish schools in New South Wales — and I don’t know how many other states — is conducted by the diocesan education office.

The NSW system is canonically irregular, but it does free priests from administrative duties, allowing them to spend more time on pastoral ministry. As a seminarian, I was all for it. Priests are called to be ministers and pastors, not business managers!

But now I’m not so sure. Firstly, the priestly office is three-fold: teaching, sanctifying and governing. I was too hasty in reducing administration to a distraction from priestly ministry. Secondly, the centralisation of school governance flies in the face of subsidiarity. In the scheme of Catholic social teaching, diocesan offices should help parishes to govern their schools, not take over the task themselves.

The key to effective priestly ministry, I have concluded, does not subsist in the surrender of administrative duties, but in efficient and intelligent collaboration with parishioners.

And, with impeccable timing, the Holy Father reminded me just this afternoon that my first duty is to foster union with God by prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, daily Mass and frequent confession: