Subsidiarity is a word and concept I did not know existed until recently. One of the first places the word first appeared for me was in a list of 10 Principles of Catholic Social Teaching. I am fairly certain this is not an official list, but it appears to be a summary of Catholic social teaching. I found the list interesting and well thought out.  The list got me thinking.  I am not certain of all the implications of the list, but I like it. 

The list starts with a foundational principle that every person has dignity and is invaluable, because they have been created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ.  So we must consider the common good, so that all may prosper.  We are all part of the human family and all in this together (solidarity).  We need to take care of the needy and the poor.  We also need to take care of the earth.  The government has a role to play to promote human dignity, protect human rights, and develop the common good.  This should be done at the most immediate, or the lowest local level possible (subsidiarity).  We all are entitled to participate in all aspects of the community.  No one should be excluded.  We all have human rights and responsibilities that need to be protected.  We all have a right to fair wages, good working conditions and dignified work.  The goal, the end result, of all of this should be a wholesome peace between us and God, and us and others.

It is hard for me to argue with the list, except possibly with subsidiarity and that may be me just having a hard time getting my head around how that works in real life. So I am going to explore more of this concept of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity has been described by Pope Pius XI with “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.

Pope John Paul II with regards to the principle of subsidiarity saysA community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”  

With these two descriptions, I take this to mean that the top down approach to society’s organizations, institutions, and governments is considered to be wrong.  I would say communism breaks the principle by setting up community life from the highest level, and I would say laissez-faire capitalism also breaks the principle by not actively supporting the lower community for the good of all. Subsidiarity seems to plot a course between individualism and collectivism. 

Also I see this principle as a bottom up approach to social work.  We need to involve those who are being affected by the ministry.  They need to have ownership as much as they are able. It should not be a top-down-one-size-fits-all program.

Subsidiarity also shows itself in the economic theory of Distributism, which states the belief that wealth should be widely owned instead of being concentrated in the hands of a few corporations and individuals.  Distributism is in favor of small family or locally owned businesses and is against large corporations controlling a market.  It is in favor of competition.

I am not certain how to put subsidiarity into practice in today’s world and how well it would work but I can see it working in some small ways.  I like a lot of what I learned about subsidiarity.  I am not certain I agree 100% with it but I do appreciate all the thought that has gone into it.  Catholic social teaching has been well thought out and I appreciate the effort over the centuries that have been put into it.  Again the key Biblical foundation principle is every person has dignity and is invaluable, because they have been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and redeemed by Jesus Christ (1 John 2:2).

2 thoughts on “Subsidiarity

  1. I tend to agree with you and enjoy how you wrote about it. I would enjoy talking to you about this, to develop some thoughts that expand the subject and maybe tickle some further understanding and things to think about.

  2. I like what you shared, Paul. I think that one of the good things about subsidiarity is that it puts the responsibility of helping, loving, and caring for others at our doorstep, so to speak, instead of giving us an “excuse” from serving and loving because a “higher institution” (i.e., government) is doing it for us. I’ve known people who have said to me that they don’t feel like they need to give anything to the church or to agencies that help others, or even give anything of themselves because the government is doing it. Subsidiarity is meant, I think, to keep putting the responsibility of loving our neighbors back in our laps.

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