Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Subsidiarity: What It Really Means

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 10, 2012

Earlier this week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement saying that Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which had just passed the House Budget Committee, failed to meet a “basic moral test”. The failure consisted in cuts to three specific programs, which the USCCB asserted undermined the needs of the poor to a degree that was morally unacceptable. There was no discussion of whether the only way to attend to the needs of “the least of these” was through government programs.

Last month, on the eve of Ryan’s presentation at Georgetown University, a group of faculty issued a pre-emptive strike, arguing that in citing the principle of subsidiarity as a means to justify such cuts in federal programs, Ryan was really misunderstanding and even abusing the principle. In a letter to Ryan, they wrote:

Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help—‘subsidium’—when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger.

This paragraph is theoretically accurate as far as it goes, though it is telling in what it leaves out. But nowhere in the letter was there any consideration of whether, in fact, the issues in question could or could not be handled more locally. Nor did the letter consider in any way whether the issues in question might be addressed by non-governmental means, or whether the federal government itself actually addresses these issues effectively in the first place. The critique was riddled with logically impermissible assumptions.

The Basis of Subsidiarity

Now, the USCCB statement was not really a statement by the USCCB as a whole, but by the chairman of the relevant committee. And the Georgetown letter was not a statement by the entire faculty, but simply by those who wished to sign. Of course, one cannot fault either bishops or university professors for reminding us to be especially mindful of the poor in times of retrenchment, when they may well otherwise fall between the cracks. We should always welcome such reminders. But in both cases—and in almost every other recent case in which representatives of what we might call the Catholic establishment have commented on government programs designed to alleviate poverty—the underlying assumption is the same: The only effective way to address the problems of the needy is through intervention at the highest level of government. Hence any cutback in federal programs by definition constitutes a moral failure.

Moreover, in such statements, when the principle of subsidiarity is alluded to at all, the stress is on high-level intervention as if it is frequently needed rather than on requiring the avoidance, minimization and, yes, dismantling of high level intervention whenever possible. Apparently, therefore, it is time to review what the principle of subsidiarity really means.

The principle of subsidiarity is not rooted primarily in the concept of “finding the right level” for each task. Rather, it is rooted in the concept that “the right level for each task is the lowest possible level”. In other words, a proper implementation of subsidiarity includes not only reflection on how to use different levels of social organization, but also the foundational perception that social health in fact depends on the lowest possible levels being used. One additional point to keep in mind is that subsidiarity does not apply only to government entities but to all the interrelated social organizations and intermediate institutions which constitute a healthy society, from the family on up.

The principle of subsidiarity is derived from the nature of human dignity, which demands, first, the maximum participation of people in solutions to their own problems and, second, the maximization of human initiative as naturally expressed through all kinds of associations and organizations contributing to the common good. The principle of subsidiarity recognizes that subsuming this human participation and human initiative in increasingly higher levels of government actually violates the dignity of the human person and inescapably undermines the common good. Therefore, the involvement of higher levels of government is to be deliberately minimized, restricted to serious problems irremediable by other means, and brought to a halt when the necessity of higher level involvement no longer exists—either because the need has disappeared or because a way to meet it at a lower level has been found.

Finally, the principle of subsidiarity offers its “subsidium” (as referenced in the academic letter) not to the people as a whole with respect to what they have to gain, but to lower levels of organization with respect to their ability to perform their duties. The word “subsidium” means “help or support”. In the principle of subsidiarity, it refers to the assistance provided by a higher organization to a lower organization so that the lower organization can more effectively fulfill its responsibilities.

Note that there is nothing in the principle of subsidiarity to justify the displacement of lower levels of organization through the concentration of power and control in higher levels. Indeed, the whole point is that such concentration of power is contrary to the dignity of the human person and the realization of the common good.

Now the pugnacious reader may respond by saying, “But this is simply your own assertion. Is it not likely that those you referred to earlier know better than you? How can we resolve that question without doing our own full-blown study of all the encyclicals and other writings from which the principles of Catholic social doctrine have been derived?”

The simplest answer is to consult the summary the Church herself has provided to us, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published for precisely this purpose by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004. This is the equivalent of the Catechism for social doctrine. Below, in its entirety, is the key section on “The Principle of Subsidiarity” (Chapter IV, Part IV). It is a long quote for an essay of this type, but—trust me—it is an exceedingly short course in thinking properly about subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity (from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church)


  1. Subsidiarity is among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church's social doctrine and has been present since the first great social encyclical[395]. It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities; in short, for that aggregate of economic, social, cultural, sports-oriented, recreational, professional and political expressions to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth[396]. 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”[397]. 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[398].
  2. The necessity of defending and promoting the original expressions of social life is emphasized by the Church in the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, in which the principle of subsidiarity is indicated as a most important principle of “social philosophy”. “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”[399].

    On the basis of this principle, 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. Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted.
  3. 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 fulfill their duties. This principle is imperative because every person, family and intermediate group has something original to offer to the community. Experience shows that the denial of subsidiarity, or its limitation in the name of an alleged democratization or equality of all members of society, limits and sometimes even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative.

    The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms. “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State 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”[400]. An absent or insufficient recognition of private initiative—in economic matters also—and the failure to recognize its public function, contribute to the undermining of the principle of subsidiarity, as monopolies do as well.

    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.
  4. Various circumstances may make it advisable that the State step in to supply certain functions[401]. One may think, for example, of situations in which it is necessary for the State itself to stimulate the economy because it is impossible for civil society to support initiatives on its own. One may also envision the reality of serious social imbalance or injustice where only the intervention of the public authority can create conditions of greater equality, justice and peace. 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. In any case, the common good correctly understood, the demands of which will never in any way be contrary to the defense and promotion of the primacy of the person and the way this is expressed in society, must remain the criteria for making decisions concerning the application of the principle of subsidiarity.

End quote.

Final Thoughts

Let me conclude this presentation by raising two pointed questions. First, after reading about what the principle of subsidiarity means in Catholic social teaching, can anyone honestly say that the current attitude of Western governments generally toward social organization shows any sign of understanding or accepting this fundamental social principle? If the answer is “no”, this tells us something is very seriously missing from our understanding of both the dignity of man and the nature of the common good.

Second, how often have we heard a bishop or a mainstream Catholic university faculty, in the course of political, social and economic commentary, offer any prescription or recommendation which suggests that they pay anything more than lip service, if even that, to the principle of subsidiarity? In my own survey of such comments, critiques and proposals over a period of more than forty years, I would say that these opinion leaders have until recently spoken almost entirely in terms of the principle of solidarity (also misunderstood, by the way, as something that can be enforced by government), while the principle of subsidiarity has been completely ignored. And now that the latter principle is being so forcefully raised in competing circles, it seems that some in the Catholic establishment are starting to attempt a redefinition to escape its consequences.

In fact, what I am very loosely calling the “Catholic establishment” in most of the Western world has viewed Catholic social teaching through cultural blinders, resulting in a bizarre articulation of it that sounds suspiciously like a baptized version of our culturally regnant secular progressive Statism. But now it seems that this Catholic establishment may fail to surmount that most basic of all worldly obstacles: lack of funds. This circumstance may shake things up, bringing to the fore, by brute necessity, a clearer vision of what the Church really teaches.

This is an opportunity. If certain elements of State involvement recede or collapse, and if as a result the “least among us” lose assistance that is both significant and positive, then we have our work cut out for us—the work of revitalizing all the voluntary associations and intermediary institutions which alone can truly promote the common good. Of course there are many more reasons for such a revival than the needs of the poor. But in any case, if this opportunity should arise, Catholic institutions—once their leaders snap out of their cultural stupor—should excel at pursuing it. In fact, according to the principle of subsidiarity, this is what we should have been doing all along.

A vision of the social order in which Big Brother provides for all is a lie. The more it is implemented, the worse things get. This is what the principle of subsidiarity is designed to teach. This is what the principle of subsidiarity is designed to avoid.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 12, 2012 12:23 PM ET USA

    The principle of subsidiarity is exemplified by Our Lord in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is truly difficult to help personally a neighbor in distress. Many of our bishops are simply, as historically has ever been the case, playing footsie with the current government; and using the USCCB as a cover. Is it really so difficult for bishops to speak on their own as do Abp. Chaput, and Bp. Bruskewitz, and others? They speak; they are heard. The pamphlets of the USCCB are merely litter.

  • Posted by: owlreal - May. 11, 2012 10:30 PM ET USA

    While I agree with much of what you are saying, I am concerned that you are very close to utilitarianism in practice and an endorsement of a partisan position as opposed to an endorsement of an actual catholic position.

  • Posted by: - May. 11, 2012 7:01 PM ET USA

    While a large number of Georgetown University academics haughtily protested Paul Ryan's appearance at Georgetown, amazingly only ONE could be found to protest Kathleen Sebelius’ invitation. For decades many bishops ignored Humanae Vitae, governing as if the Church was a big charity. Liberals hide behind social justice doctrines to prove their Catholicity, making conservatives play defense. The truth? These elitists are not interested in subsidiarity any more than they are in Humanae Vitae.

  • Posted by: - May. 11, 2012 8:57 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus, for such a concise and cogent explanation of the nature of the relationship between the state and civil society. This line of reasoning is all but ignored by both the secular statists AND the free market ideologues. In the zero-sum struggle between them where one must win and the other lose, all truth, all logic, all appeals to the limits and substance of human nature are drowned out by demagoguery. Hilaire Belloc predicted all in The Servile State written in 1912!

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 11, 2012 8:39 AM ET USA

    The question remains, WHY do our bishops think they have a right to "govern" the government and not "govern" the Church. They do not follow their own teachings inside the Church. The principles are fine, but principles not applied in one's own life disqualifies a man from teaching and admonishing others.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 10, 2012 5:42 PM ET USA

    I would be very heartened if one of the Catholics being touted for the vice-presidential nod would promote a program to help the poor through these times by helping churches, municipalities and citizens develop ways of meeting needs in their own communities. This is a legitimate function of the federal government.

  • Posted by: - May. 10, 2012 5:10 PM ET USA

    To play devil's advocate, is Rep. Ryan offering local alternatives and/or ways for the Federal Government to support local philanthropy or is he simply cutting programs without a practical short term alternative for people being served now? While we can all agree that we need to move a lot of these programs to lower levels this is a process and simply cutting the funds leaves a lot of people suddenly without support at a very inopportune time considering we're in the midst of an economic mess.