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Catholic Culture News

The Principle of Subsidiarity and the “Welfare State”

by Don Fier


The principle of subsidiarity is a key element of Catholic social doctrine, and one that is particularly timely today.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, December 2010

An abundance of government social programs has long been believed by many American Catholics to be an integral element of Catholic social teaching. Fundamental to this social philosophy, which is often referred to as the Welfare State or the Social Assistance State, is that the burden of responsibility for securing many of the basic social welfare obligations incumbent upon any society falls upon the state or government. In an important 1991 encyclical on social doctrine entitled Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II directed sharp criticism at the Welfare State, particularly at many governmental excesses and abuses that developed alongside it. He noted that the Welfare State produced many negative outcomes as the result of "an inadequate understanding of tasks proper to the state."1' Key among these harmful effects was a reduced sense of social solidarity—an undermining of the societal responsibility which citizens should have for one another. Pope John Paul II demonstrates that the failings of the Social Assistance State are the result of the disrespect of a key moral tenet of Catholic social doctrine, namely, the principle of subsidiarity.

The term "subsidiarity," derived from the Latin subsidium, means "support, help or assistance." In effect, subsidium refers to a second line of defense, a back-up that would come as aid. In basic terms, then, the principle of subsidiarity holds that the state should undertake only those tasks which are beyond the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. While providing aid to the needy when it is available by no other means, governmental agencies and those in positions of civil authority should not intervene unnecessarily, always respecting the basic rights of the members of society. Furthermore, those in higher authority should recognize the rights of those in subordinate organizations or positions. In other words, before a higher level entity becomes involved, the lowest societal unit that can perform a function efficiently and adequately with benefit to the welfare of the whole should have that responsibility. As taught in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the principle of subsidiarity holds that all societies of a superior order should adopt an attitude of help (subsidium) with respect to lower-order societies, and never destroy or absorb them.2

The basic moral principle of subsidiarity has been present as an unvarying and distinctive article of the Catholic Church's social doctrine ever since the 1891 promulgation of the first great social encyclical, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. His primary concern in the late nineteenth century was to defend the right of private property and to protect society against the twin evils of socialism on the one hand, and unrestricted or laissez-faire capitalism—the product of modern liberalism—on the other. He supported limited authority of the state to participate actively in welfare, labor and economic programs, and did not explicitly discuss subsidiarity in Rerum Novarum. However, the guiding light for the encyclical was its view of human dignity, which is a key foundational element for the principle of subsidiarity. Perhaps this is most evident in light of Pope Benedict XVI's teaching in Caritas in Veritate that "subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others."3 Pope Leo XIII emphatically stressed the need to "respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character"4 and opposed the reduction "of every citizen to being a 'cog' in the state machine."5 Such a practice would be akin to treating laborers as a mere commodity, thus demeaning the dignity of the human person and in contradiction to subsidiarity.

In Pope Pius XI's social encyclical forty years later, aptly entitled Quadragesimo Anno (1931), the principle of subsidiarity was formally articulated. In his teaching on the subsidiary function, the Holy Father expressed his understanding of the principle in the context of historical changes that had been made manifest within the very fabric of society. During the nineteenth century, radical changes had taken place across several spheres—economic, political, scientific, technological and social—as the consequence of a period of rapid industrialization. New forms of property and labor, namely, capital and "labor for wages," had appeared. Liberal political theories prevailed which sought the deliberate avoidance of intervention and the promotion of economic freedom as their final end. Many private associations and organizations which had provided for a rich and highly developed social life and support structure were now prohibited by law in the interest of total economic freedom. A transformation took place in society by which it was divided "into two classes separated by a wide chasm."6 The two classes consisted of the wealthy few and the impoverished masses.

Pope Pius XI took note of "the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds."7 He was referring to the traditional European society of the Middle Ages when private associations—religious, charitable, educational and industrial—abounded and provided for the needs of society at the most immediate levels. As such, civil authority was freed up to address higher-level responsibilities. The result, then, of the abolition of private associations was that "there remain[ed] virtually only individuals and the state."8 The state was inundated with tasks and duties which it was not well suited to handle. It was in this historical context that Pope Pius XI understood the subsidiarity function to mean that "it is a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do."9

Pope Pius XI, in other words, was advocating a broad distribution of authority and responsibility throughout society. This is in perfect harmony with a beautiful doctrine in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on divine governance, which aptly applies also to the proper governance of social life: "[God] entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature."10 Pope Pius XI went on to say that the state should focus on those activities which it alone can effectively do—directing, watching, protecting, urging and restraining—as necessity dictates.11 It should not meddle in affairs more efficiently and effectively handled by intermediate organizations and individuals. While legitimate and necessary governmental intervention for the common good is defended by Pope Pius XI, he firmly teaches that it should be limited so as to maintain a proper balance in tension between the state and the creativity, initiative, freedom, and legitimate autonomy of the local social units and individuals.

In the view of Pope John Paul II, it was disrespect for the principle of subsidiarity that led to the excesses and abuses that he criticized in the contemporary Welfare State. One would be hard-pressed to argue that there has not been an inordinate and unwarranted increase in the number of governmental agencies over the past few decades which involve themselves in almost all aspects of society. On the one hand, this direct intervention of the state has deprived members of society of their sense of responsibility and has led to a loss of initiative and human energies.12 Pope John XXIII earlier noted that where personal initiative is lacking, political tyranny ensues and there is economic stagnation in both the material and the spiritual orders.13 Excessive state intervention has also been accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.14 On the other hand, and perhaps even more striking, is the reality that these agencies are impersonal by their very nature. They tend to be "dominated by bureaucratic ways of thinking rather than by concern for serving their clients"15 and are in conflict with an important social concept, namely "preferential love for the poor."16 This constitutes Pope John Paul II's primary concern with regard to the inadequacy of the Social Assistance State to satisfy the most fundamental aspect of the principle of subsidiarity.

This foundational element of the subsidiary function is respect for the dignity of the human person, which was earlier described as being the guiding light of Rerum Novarum. Man, created "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27) and consisting of body and soul, has obviously both material and spiritual needs. Furthermore, man is a social being and, as such, "society is essential to the fulfillment of the human vocation.."17 Pope John XXIII taught that human society must be considered primarily in relation to the spiritual,18 which Pope John Paul II affirmed by saying that the material dimension of man must be subordinated to his interior and spiritual ones.19 In other words, neither man nor society can be fulfilled by material goods alone—man's final end consists in union with God. This gets to the very crux of Pope John Paul II's concern: agencies of the state are inadequate to provide a response that is not simply material and are thus unable to address "the deeper human need."

This "deeper human need" can only be met by the service of love. Whenever the popes have written or spoken about the "preferential love of the poor" and solidarity, the virtue by which men recognize each other as brothers based on their common humanity, it has invariably been in the context of the supernatural virtue of charity. Here it is important to note that when the change in the fabric of society that was mentioned earlier was taking place, there was a parallel decline in morality.20 It is not possible for charity to flourish in an immoral society. From what has been said it is evident that the denial of the right for individuals, families and communities to do what they do best leads to a loss of human initiative and a decline in moral values. As described by Pope Benedict XVI, when the government begins absorbing everything into itself within the auspices of a Social Assistance State in disrespect of the principle of subsidiarity, it ultimately becomes "a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing...every person needs: namely, loving personal concern."21

It is important to note, however, that this in no way diminishes the importance of the state's role to fulfill tasks that are proper to it. Pope John Paul II lists several principal duties and services which the government should provide: (1) sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property; (2) stable currency; (3) efficient public services; (4) prevention of monopolies that obstruct free enterprise; and (5) the exercise of a substitute function as exceptional circumstances touching the common good dictate.22 He also notes that state assistance may prudently be deemed necessary for oversight and direction of the exercise of human rights in the economic sector, where the government assists the work of private individuals and associations on an "intervention-but-not interference” basis. Great care must be taken in this sphere so as not to trample upon the dignity and rights of individuals, families and communities. It is precisely in work in the realm of "social assistance" where governmental intervention has disrespected the principle of subsidiarity in the Welfare State.

To illustrate an apparent breakdown of the Social Assistance State as the result of disrespect for the subsidiarity function, consider an example of the adoption process in this country. A young married couple, residing in an eastern state, wished to start a family but was unable to conceive. After Church-approved fertility methods to conceive proved unsuccessful, they pursued their dream through an adoption agency. They were soon introduced to a pregnant unwed college girl by another married couple who was set to adopt the young lady's unborn child. However, this couple finally conceives and therefore decides not to proceed with their original adoption plans. Providentially, in less than a month, the first-mentioned couple was able to bring a beautiful newborn infant directly home from the hospital. Although they were model parents, it took over ten months to finalize the official adoption process, and their savings were depleted. Copious state regulations served to prolong and add exorbitant cost to the adoption process: retaining three attorneys—one to represent the birth mother, a second to represent the adoptive parents, and a third to represent the baby; there were lengthy waiting periods, several home visits, and the mandatory purchase of sizable life insurance policies for both father and mother.

Instead of the state's providing assistance in an act of solidarity to the adoption agency to find stable and loving parents for children, the tables are reversed. The agency is not truly in control of the process, but is an agent of the state—the rightful relationship has been reversed. The excessive bureaucratic red tape and significant financial barrier will make it exceedingly more difficult than it should be for them to adopt more children. In stark contrast, how ironic it is that in many places a teenage girl can procure a state-funded abortion at almost a moment's notice, without parental notification. Yet the infinitely more humane and morally acceptable alternative of adoption must comply with state-imposed regulations and costs that make it prohibitive for many prospective loving and deserving couples.

Health care reform is another contemporary social issue where the principle of subsidiarity has seemingly been disregarded. As two Midwestern bishops have pointed out, "change for change's sake, change [in the health care system] which expands the reach of government beyond its competence, would do more harm than good."23 They warned that "the neglect of subsidiarity can lead to an excessive centralization of human services, which in turn leads to excessive costs and loss of personal responsibility and quality of care."24 The Catholic Medical Association (CMA) observed that the legislation being considered in late 2009, which ultimately became law, represented a "government-controlled approach [that] is flawed in principle and ineffective, if not dangerous, in practice."25 The CMA continued, "Experience indicates that medical decisions are best made within the context of the individual patient-physician relationship rather than within some remote, impersonal and bureaucratic agency..."26

In conclusion, Pope John Paul II's criticism of the Welfare State in Centesimus Annus is a most fitting and proper application of a fundamental and central aspect of Catholic social doctrine, the principle of subsidiarity. However admirable the intention may be, the government cannot serve as a substitute for genuine and loving personal concern, the very thing most necessary to those in need. As history shows, the formation of excess social agencies and regulatory bodies, which constitutes an incorrect understanding of the tasks proper to the state, leads to a loss of human initiative, economic stagnation, and disrespect for the dignity of the human person. Intervention by the government should be "neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society's real needs."27 As stated by Pope Benedict XVI: "We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything, but a state which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need."28 Truly, as the Holy Father taught in Caritas in Veritate, "subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing Welfare State."29


1 Centesimus Annus, §48.

2 Cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, § 186.

3 Caritas in Veritate, §57.

4 Rerum Novarum, §20.

5 Centesimus Annus, §15.

6 Rerum Novarum, §47.

7 Quadragesimo Anno, §78.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., §79.

10 Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1884.

11 Cf. Quadragesimo Anno, §80.

12 Cf. Centesimus Annus, §48.

13 Cf. Mater et Magistra, §57.

14 Cf. Centesimus Annus, §48.

15 Ibid.

16 Centesimus Annus, §11, §57; CCC, §2448; Christifideles Laici, §42; Ecclesia in America, §18.

17 CCC, § 1885.

18 Cf. Pacem in Terris, §36.

19 Cf. Centesimus Annus, §36.

20 Ibid., §5.

21 Deus Caritas est, §28.

22 Cf. Centesimus Annus, §48.

23 Archbishop Joseph F Naumann and Bishop Robert W. Finn, "Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform," August 22, 2009.

24 Ibid.

25 Catholic Medical Association, "Open Letter to Catholics and Catholic Organizations," September 23, 2009.

26 Ibid.

27 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §351.

28 Deus Caritas est, §28.

29 Caritas in Veritate, §57.

Don Fier and his wife Mary are the parents of seven children and reside in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where they are parishioners at St. Agnes Church. A former engineer and executive in the semiconductor industry, he received his master's degree in theological studies from Ave Maria University's Institute for Pastoral Theology in 2009. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for two Catholic apostolates in his archdiocese and is very active in volunteer work for both.

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