What Are the Practical Values of Solidarity & Subsidiarity?




Solidarity and subsidiarity are key components of our Faith, having the potential to place the laity on the path to discovering our supernatural destiny.

Solidarity and Subsidiarity are both born in and expressions of human dignity and both are absolutely central to the implementation of Catholic social doctrine.

Catholic Social Teaching informs us that good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the principles of Catholic social teaching. As Pope St. John Paul II said:

 “The State must contribute to the achievement of these goals both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favourable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth”. (Centesimus Annus, 15)

Pope Benedict XVI

You can’t have one without the other!

The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, despite enjoying over a century of magisterial reflection on the nature of politics, economics and culture, have been presented or interpreted as independent of each other or even, at times, in conflict.

 However, “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa”. (Pope Benedict XVI, 58)


“[T]he former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 58)

Solidarity and subsidiarity both “flow” from Human Dignity. These two foundational principles of Catholic social teaching are both offspring of the prime principle, Human Dignity, which flows from the correct understanding of the human person.

Solidarity and subsidiarity are both born in and expressions of human dignity and both are absolutely central to the implementation of Catholic social doctrine. 

While the case for solidarity deriving from human dignity may, at first, appear to be easier to grasp than for subsidiarity – in fact, most times it is not. Pope Benedict tells us that, “undoubtedly the principle of subsidiarity [is] an expression of inalienable human freedom.

 “Solidarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person”. (Pope Benedict XVI, 57)

While “subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 57)

“The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa”. (Pope Benedict XVI, 58)


Pope Benedict XVI (and this is very deep insight) points out that “the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity…have the potential to place men and women on the path to discovering their supernatural destiny.” (Address to the 14th Pontifical Council on Social Sciences, May 2008)

“True solidarity” he tells us, “begins with an acknowledgment of the equal worth of the other” and “comes to fulfillment only when I willingly place my life at the service of others. Herein lays the “vertical” dimension of solidarity: I am moved to make myself less than the other so as to minister to his or her needs.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

“Similarly, subsidiarity…manifests a “vertical” dimension pointing towards the Creator of the social order. A society that honors the principle of subsidiarity liberates people…granting them the freedom to engage with one another in the spheres of commerce, politics and culture…they leave space for individual responsibility and initiative, but most importantly, they leave space for love”. (Pope Benedict XVI)

What amazing insights! Catholic social teaching offers not only a prescription for “living our lives together” in society but, simultaneously, points us to God.


Catholic Social Teaching identifies the most important human rights on which a democracy must be ordered (Centesimus Annus, 47):

1. The right to life (and  points out that an integral part of this is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception).

2. The right to live in a united family.

3. The right to live in a moral environment (conducive to the growth of a child’s personality).

4. The right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom (in seeking and knowing the truth).

5. The right to work (and from that work to support oneself and one’s dependents).

6. The right to freely establish a family (to have and rear children through the responsible exercise of one’s sexuality).

7. The right to religious freedom (understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person).


Catholic Social Teaching establishes the need to maintain vibrant and critical interaction between economics, culture, and politics, emphasizing that of these three, culture is the most important. We use Catholic Social Teaching to examine each of these components.


 The Church defines what is required “in order for the principle of subsidiarity to be put into practice…”

  • 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.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 187)
Three circles containing symbols of the three principles of catholic social teaching: human dignity, subsidiarity, and solidarity.

Three Key Principles

Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human DignitySolidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.

Human Dignity

This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image. 


Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.


Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)