Friday, August 13, 2010

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: Subsidiarity

The principle of subsidiarity says that "all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help ("subsidium") — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place" (section 186). Or, in the more straightforward words of the ever-trusty Wikipedia, "matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority."

The "intermediate social entities" are those organizations that grow naturally out of the social, economic, and political interactions of people:
This is the realm of civil society, understood as the sum of the relationships between individuals and intermediate social groupings, which are the first relationships to arise and which come about thanks to "the creative subjectivity of the citizen". This network of relationships strengthens the social fabric and constitutes the basis of a true community of persons, making possible the recognition of higher forms of social activity. (section 185)
Subsidiarity has both positive and negative senses. In the positive sense, larger entities should offer whatever assistance is necessary for smaller entities to flourish. In the negative sense, larger entities must not do anything that would prevent the smaller entities from flourishing. "The principle of subsidiarity protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfil their duties" (section 187).

A denial of the principle of subsidiarity "limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative", which is why it is "opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms" (section 187).
In order for the principle of subsidiarity to be put into practice there is a corresponding need for: respect and effective promotion of the human person and the family; ever greater appreciation of associations and intermediate organizations in their fundamental choices and in those that cannot be delegated to or exercised by others; the encouragement of private initiative so that every social entity remains at the service of the common good, each with its own distinctive characteristics; the presence of pluralism in society and due representation of its vital components; safeguarding human rights and the rights of minorities; bringing about bureaucratic and administrative decentralization; striking a balance between the public and private spheres, with the resulting recognition of the social function of the private sphere; appropriate methods for making citizens more responsible in actively "being a part" of the political and social reality of their country. (section 187)
Various circumstances may require that the State step into what would otherwise be the functions of the smaller entities, e.g., to stimulate the economy or to address issues of injustice. "In light of the principle of subsidiarity, however, this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary, since justification for such intervention is found only in the exceptional nature of the situation" (section 188).

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
Wikipedia entry on subsidiarity


  1. I've gotten a little taste of recent commentary suggesting David Cameron's premiership in the UK represents a sort of new wave of Christian Democrat policy, rooted in subsidiarity & related industrial-era socioeconomic thought. Here's a short piece from Canadian group Cardus, and here a good discussion (audio) from the Economist about Cameron & reemergent British influence. You might find interesting.

  2. Oh yeah, check this out sometime too: Catholic social teaching gone bad! (Fr. Seraphim is no born broadcast presenter himself, unfortunately. But he's a historian & knows something about peeling back the layers to show you a personality in its time — in this case, a notorious priest who was born to broadcast.)

  3. I've heard some of that talk about Cameron, especially among younger conservatives who think American conservatives should learn from him. I don't follow British politics closely so I can't say whether it is true. John Halton (you may be familiar with him) certainly doesn't buy it. He thinks Cameron is merely governing according to the interests of the wealthy. Then, again, John has strong socialist sympathies. I've also discovered that Catholic social teaching, as you'd probably expect, can be taken in completely opposite ways. Some adherents think it demands socialism; others think it demands libertarianism. As yet I don't know if the teaching is truly that vague or whether one or the other group is grossly misinterpreting it.

  4. Fascinatingly, Coughlin understood, no doubt correctly, it as a rejection of both familiar modern turns, advocated passionately for a distinctively Christian third way, ... and still went wrong. A fine cautionary tale.

  5. This principle, subsidiarity, seems much clearer and less open to misuse than some of the others. Most of what I've heard under this label has been good.

  6. Somehow, Rick, that doesn't surprise me. ;)


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.