Subsidiarity

Solve Problems Where They Arise

Closely Linked to Solidarity

There are Tasks
Proper to the State

Empowers Individuals

Necessary for a Stable Social Order

Demands a Full Exercise of Sovereignty

A Cornerstone Principle of Catholic Social Teaching

The State should undertake only those tasks which are beyond the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently.

Decisions in society need to made at the lowest competent level.
Problems are best solved at the level where they arise – if possible.
Any activity that can be efficaciously performed by a more decentralized entity – should be.

Guards Against Tyranny

“It 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, 79)

“No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty.” (Pope Francis, 3.2)

Read More

It is by recognizing ​subsidiarity that the state is, itself, justified: i.e., “will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them”. Subsidiarity, properly understood, both justifies and sets limits on the activities of the state. (Pope Pius XI, 80)

“Individuals and groups have the right to go their own way, even though they may sometimes make mistakes. In full respect for that freedom, civil society is called to help each person and social organization to take up its specific role and thus contribute to the common good.” (Pope Francis)

Warnings

The Church has consistently cautioned against neglecting subsidiarity.

  • Subsidiarity “insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention…inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the state and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 11)
  • “No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty.” (Pope Francis)
  • “Experience has shown that where personal initiative is lacking, political tyranny ensues.” (Pope St. John XXIII, 57)

What Must I Do?

While one may end up supporting, say, national solutions to social issues – one must never start there.

“We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 57)

Pope Benedict XVI goes on to say that Subsidiarity should not be viewed simply as a limit on the state as this principle “is always designed to achieve…emancipation because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility…

Read More

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 lies at the heart of a stable social order by fostering the personal responsibility that naturally accompanies individual liberty – ensuring that personal interest is not placed in opposition to societal interests – and by seeking to bring individual desires and the demands of the common good into fruitful harmony.

FAQs

Q: Can you explain subsidiarity further?

A: “Subsidiary is among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church’s social doctrine and has been present since the first great social encyclical [Rerum Novarum]” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 185)

Basically: decisions in society need to be taken at the lowest competent level. Problems are best solved at the level where they arise or, if this is not possible, at the lowest competent level. Any activity that can be performed by a more decentralized entity – should be.

Q: What is the “definition” of subsidiarity?

A: “It 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, 79)

Q: Why is subsidiarity important?

A: The principle of subsidiarity lies at the heart of a stable social order by fostering the personal responsibility that naturally accompanies individual liberty – ensuring that personal interest is not placed in opposition to societal interests – and by seeking to bring individual desires and the demands of the common good into fruitful harmony.

Subsidiarity is a prescriptive principle in that it informs us how decision-making should be delegated among social groups – in order to allow for authentic freedom and human dignity.

Subsidiarity “is always designed to achieve…emancipation because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity”. (Pope Benedict XVI, 57)

Q: Why must the state respect subsidiarity?

A: Subsidiarity  “Insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention…inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the state and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 11)

While at the international level Pope Benedict XVI points out that: “[i]n order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity.” (Caritas in Veritate, 57)

Q: What happens when ‘subsidiarity’ is not observed or seriously abrogated?

A: A lot! “Experience has shown that where personal initiative is lacking, political tyranny ensues.” (Pope St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 57)

“Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1883) and Pope Saint John Paul II warned that the state should avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of state intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedoms. (Centesimus Annus, 48) 

If responsibilities are not handled at the proper level our freedom is in danger: “Undoubtedly the principle of subsidiarity [is] an expression of inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person” which “respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 57)

Pope Francis, perhaps more strongly than his predecessors, notes that “No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty.” (Address to the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, 3.2)

Q: Why must decisions be handled at the lowest level?

A: Subsidiarity ensures society is organized towards its proper ends. “Not only is it wrong from the ethical point of view to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom, but in practice it is impossible to do so. Where society is so organized as to reduce arbitrarily or even suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised, the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and goes into decline.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 25)

Pope St. John Paul II pointed out subsidiarity is critical because it “insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention…inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the state and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them”. (Centesimus Annus, 11)

“We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 28)

Q: Is the Church limiting the state’s ability to effect needed changes and numerous goods?

A: Not at all! Subsidiarity “is always designed to achieve…emancipation because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 57)

A: Subsidiarity ensures society is organized towards its proper ends. “Not only is it wrong from the ethical point of view to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom, but in practice it is impossible to do so. Where society is so organized as to reduce arbitrarily or even suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised, the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and goes into decline.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 25)

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: “The State must contribute to the achievement of these goals both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarityby creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth. Directly and according to the principle of solidarityby defending the weakest” (Pope St. John Paul II, 15)

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. This is “the basis not only of the unity of the human family but also of our inviolable human dignity” (Pope Benedict XVI) and it is in this beginning that human rights are grounded.

Solidarity

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. “We cannot believe in God the Father without seeing a brother or sister in every person, and we cannot follow Jesus without giving our lives for those for whom he died on the cross.” (Pope Francis)

Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity identifies how decisions in society need to be taken at the lowest competent level. “It 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, 79)

Centesimus Annus Pro Pontificate, Inc (CAPP-USA) is the United States affiliate of Fondazione Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice at the Vatican.

capp-usa@capp-usa.org

Phone: (888) 473-3331
Address: 295 Madison Avenue, 12th Floor, New York, NY, 10017