You are on page 1of 5

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest

or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if
possible, rather than by a central authority.[1] The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity
as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks
which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic
social teaching.

Catholic social teaching
The origins of subsidiarity as a concept of Catholic social thought lie with Wilhelm Emmanuel
von Ketteler, who served as Bishop of Mainz in the mid- to late 19th Century.[2] It most well-
known, however, from its subsequent incorporation into Pope Pius XI’s encyclical
Quadragesimo anno. This encyclical’s formulation of subsidiarity is the touchstone from which
further interpretations tend to depart: "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what
they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it
is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a
greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social
activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never
destroy and absorb them."[3] As with many social encyclicals in the modern period, this one
occurs in the historical context of the intensifying struggle between communist and capitalist
ideologies, exactly forty years – hence the title – after the Vatican’s first public stance on the
issue in Rerum novarum. Promulgated in 1931, Quadragesimo anno is a response to German
National Socialism and Soviet communism, on the one hand, and to Western European and
American capitalist individualism on the other. It broke the surface of Catholic social teaching in
this context, and it is helpful to keep this in mind.

Gregory Beabout suggests that subsidiarity draws upon a far older concept as well: the Roman
military term subsidium. He writes that “the role of the ‘subsidium’ (literally, to sit behind) is to
lend help and support in case of need.”[4] Employing Beabout’s etymology, subsidiarity indicates
that the higher social unit ought to “sit behind” the lower ones to lend help and support in case of
need. Another etymological interpretation states that subsidiarity literally means “to ‘seat’ (‘sid’)
a service down (‘sub’) as close to the need for that service as is feasible.”[5] Either interpretation
indicates a hermeneutic of subsidiarity in which the higher social body’s rights and
responsibilities for action are predicated upon their assistance to and empowerment of the lower.

Francis McHugh states that in addition to the “vertical” dimension of subsidiarity, there is also a
“horizontal” dimension which “calls for a diversity of semi-autonomous social, economic, and
cultural spheres.”[6] Quadragesimo anno presents these “spheres” as occupying the space
between the poles of individual and State: "...things have come to such a pass through the evil of
what we have termed “individualism” that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of
that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there
remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for,
with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the
wrecked associations once bore. the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite
tasks and duties."[7] These associations or “lesser societies” are encouraged because they are the
vehicle by which society functions most effectively and corresponds most closely with human
dignity.[8] Examples of these associations today would include the family, unions, nonprofit
organizations, religious congregations, and corporations of all sizes.

Subsidiarity charts a course between the Scylla of individualism and Charybdis of collectivism
by locating the responsibilities and privileges of social life in the smallest unit of organization at
which they will function. Larger social bodies, be they the state or otherwise, are permitted and
required to intervene only when smaller ones cannot carry out the tasks themselves. Even in this
case, the intervention must be temporary and for the purpose of empowering the smaller social
body to be able to carry out such functions on its own.[9]

The principle of subsidiarity was developed by German theologian and aristocrat Oswald von
Nell-Breuning.[10] His work influenced the social teaching of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo
anno and holds that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the
capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. Functions of government,
business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is
carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the
one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of
the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and
the international order, should be in the service of the human person. Subsidiarity assumes that
these human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small
and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, labor unions and
other voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link
the individual to society as a whole. "Positive subsidiarity", which is the ethical imperative for
communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the
full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care, etc., is
another important aspect of the subsidiarity principle.

The principle of subsidiarity was first formally developed in the encyclical Rerum novarum of
1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between laissez-faire
capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the
individual to the state, on the other. The principle was further developed in Pope Pius XI's
encyclical Quadragesimo anno of 1931, and Economic Justice for All by the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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. (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, 79)

Since its founding by Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Distributism, a third way
economic philosophy based on Catholic Social teaching, upholds the importance of subsidiarity.

The Church's belief in subsidiarity is found in the programs of the Catholic Campaign for Human
Development, where grassroots community organizing projects are supported to promote
economic justice and end the cycle of poverty. These projects directly involve the people they
serve in their leadership and decision-making.[11]

The Principle of Subsidiarity
by David A. Bosnich

One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity.
This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which
can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which
can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited
government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and
bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.

This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical
Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of
subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “leads to a
loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more
by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are
accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

In spite of this clear warning, the United States Catholic Bishops remain staunch defenders of a
statist approach to social problems. They have publicly criticized recent congressional efforts to
reform the welfare system by decentralizing it and removing its perverse incentives. Their
opposition to the Clinton Administration’s health care plan was based solely upon its inclusion of
abortion funding. They had no fundamental objection to a takeover of the health care industry by
the federal government.

Why the troubling contradiction between Papal teaching and the policy recommendations of the
U.S. Bishops? Part of the problem may rest with the reliance the Bishops have placed upon
commentators such as Monsignor George Higgins. In the spring of 1994 Monsignor Higgins
gave a lengthy talk on the principle of subsidiarity to the Albert Cardinal Meyer Lecture series.
Higgins stated that the “principle of subsidiarity is concerned with the relationship of the state to
other societies, not with the nature of the state itself.” This view is wrongheaded. Subsidiarity
applies to all human institutions, including the state. When the federal government usurps the
rights and responsibilities of state and local governments, a flagrant violation of the principle of
subsidiarity has occurred. If upper echelon bureaucrats in a Cabinet department operate in a top-
down manner and deny any flexibility to their subordinates, the effectiveness of this department
will be diminished. Higgins’s interpretation of subsidiarity exempts the internal operation of the
various levels and branches of government from any critical scrutiny.

The ultimate purpose of Higgins is to defend the welfare statist philosophy which he and his
allies in organized labor have advocated for decades. This leads to serious distortions in his
analysis of the principle of subsidiarity, especially in his treatment of Alexis de Tocqueville.
Higgins cites de Tocqueville’s praise for voluntary associations as part of a larger discussion in
which he endorses an enhanced role for government in fighting poverty. But Higgins ignores
other aspects of Tocqueville’s work which would devastate his thesis. As Russell Kirk observed,
Tocqueville strongly opposed the centralizing impulse which afflicts modern democracies. In
accord with subsidiarity, true democracy is a product of local institutions and self-reliance.
Consolidation is the weapon of tyranny, but the friend of liberty is particularism. “Among the
public men of democracies, there are hardly any but men of great disinterestedness or extreme
mediocrity who seek to oppose the centralization of government; the former are scarce, the latter

Monsignor Higgins, by contrast, fails to even mention the relationship between federal, state, and
local governments. Any extended discussion of the principle of subsidiarity which neglects to
consider the respective roles of the state and federal governments in the American system is
radically flawed. As our founding fathers made clear in The Federalist Papers, the U.S.
Constitution was designed to leave many issues of great importance in the hands of the states.
The federal government was to do only those things which the individual states could not
effectively do for themselves. The subsidiarity principle was at work in the foundation of our
nation. But from the New Deal era onwards, there has been a steady growth in federal power at
the expense of the states. This has sparked a renewed interest in the Tenth Amendment, which
reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states.

But there is another area of Alexis de Tocqueville’s thought which runs directly counter to
Monsignor Higgins’s argument. Higgins is defending the Welfare State, the prospect of which
Tocqueville dreaded. Tocqueville described the system which he foresaw in terms which are
chillingly similar to modern society. He predicted that modern democratic government would
degenerate into a huge, paternalistic state which would guide the individual in all of his affairs
and insure that all of his needs were met. “For their happiness such a government willingly
labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their
pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of
property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of
thinking and all the trouble of living?”

Tocqueville strongly opposed this system because it kept the citizens in perpetual childhood.
Pope John Paul II criticized the Welfare State in Centesimus Annus for the same reason.
However, Monsignor Higgins does not even address the Pope’s critique. He makes one passing
reference to it before directing the attention of his hearers elsewhere. Higgins cites Gregory
Baum’s argument that the principle of subsidiarity has been complemented by the principle of
socialization, first elaborated by Pope John XXIII. Baum defines subsidiarity as “de-
centralization” and socialization as “centralization”. In other words, in this view, Catholicism
teaches the principle of de-centralization and the principle of centralization simultaneously!

The absurdity of this argument is clearly revealed by taking a closer look at the meaning of
socialization. In reviewing John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, Father Robert Sirico
observes that the Pontiff’s desire was to strengthen mediating institutions in order to protect the
primacy of the human person. Far from advancing any form of collectivism, Pope John wanted
to “multiply social relationships” so that the individual would be free to pursue the common
good. Socialization does not mean centralization. Rather, it refers to the voluntary associations
which Alexis de Tocqueville praised as being a vital part of American freedom in the 1830s.
The principle of subsidiarity is both thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly American. The U.S.
Catholic Bishops should be leading defenders of it. That they are not is due to intellectual
currents which go beyond the partisanship of scholars such as Monsignor Higgins. The Bishops
have not learned the key lessons of the 1980s: the success of free market economics and the
failure of collectivism. The top-down, centralized planning of the Soviet system could not
succeed because it contradicted the subsidiarity principle. When producers and consumers are
not allowed to bargain freely, prices cease to reflect meaningful information and become
arbitrary dictates of the bureaucracy. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote,
“Without the basis for calculation which Capitalism places at the disposal of Socialism, in the
shape of market prices, socialist enterprises would never be carried on, even within single
branches of production or individual countries.”

If the Bishops understood this point, they would not be advocating government price controls on
goods ranging from health care to cable television. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops
needs to take a closer look at the principle of subsidiarity and to apply it more consistently. In the
realm of economics, this would entail respect for the mechanisms of the free market and
opposition to state intervention exemplified by the failed Clinton health plan. The Bishops must
understand that taking away the power of decision from producers and consumers and entrusting
it to government bureaucrats violates the subsidiarity principle. Concerning political teaching,
the Bishops should support efforts to restrict the Welfare State and to return to the states rights
and responsibilities taken from them since the 1930s. If they do, the U.S. Bishops will find
themselves more in accord with the Papal teaching of Centesimus Annus, the Catholic natural
law tradition, and the convictions of most American Catholics.