What Is Subsidiarity?

Our blogger Vince Miller has pledged to take up this question in his next blog post, but meanwhile here is a reflection from Stephen Schneck at Catholic U:

The root of the word subsidiarity is the Latin subsiduum, which is also the same root for our English word subsidy. Subsiduum was used, among other things, in reference to the morally weighted giving from those who had to those who had not, much like we still understand the old French term noblesse oblige. Its context is a traditional understanding of society, arranged hierarchically, wherein the various classes each had obligations to the other.....


Subsidiarius, thus, hints at the moral issue at the heart of any correct understanding of subsidiarity, especially in application to questions about the proper role of government in executing public policies. Subsidiarity requires that policies be performed by the most appropriate level of the social order to achieve results without too much overage or too much underage in the application of power or resources. Overage creates unwanted dependency. Underage fails to fully satisfy needs relative to the common good.....

In truth, nothing in Catholic social teachings, including the ethic of subsidiarity, requires that America’s moral responsibility to the care for the unborn, the poor, or other vulnerable populations be addressed at one or another level, whether by national government, state governments, private enterprise, voluntary associations, or anything else. The Church has been quite happy with governmental arrangements that have leaned toward a larger national government role than has been the historical case in the United States—and even Vatican City’s own approach is quite similar to what one finds in Italy or other European countries. This is not at all to say that an approach that emphasizes more responsibility for such matters at the level of local government or private charities is inappropriate. Rather, it is to say that the interpretation of subsidiarity (like solidarity and the common good) may vary prudentially as long as needs are being met relative to the common good that avoids moral dangers of over and under support.

Tim Reidy


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
7 years 9 months ago
I believe we have an obligation personally to help others and that we as individuals must find their own way on how to do this.  Some do it by donating time and effort to help others.  Some do it by donating money to help others.  Some seem to think the solution is to compel others to do it in a particular way.  

It seems that a large part of our society and that includes a large part of Catholic society wants to enforce certain methods to do this.  Now this might be an excellent way to do things if in fact it had good results.  But the overwhelming evidence is that it does not.  So what are good intentions by a lot have negative outcomes way too often.  So I ask the continual question, is something socially just if it ends up hurting a large segment of the society, mainly those who the so called socially just action was meant to help, namely the poor.
7 years 9 months ago
Two additional comments.

First, please read the whole article, not just what has been excerpted above.  It is very good.  Read the comment afterwards.

Second, a lot of Catholic social teaching was formed during the 19th century when many negative effects of the Industrial Revolution were manifesting themselves.  It seems a lot of social teaching has it roots in the past and not in what has happened since and therefore uses a false analysis of the world and human nature as the basis for its recommendations.
7 years 9 months ago
It is one thing for individuals, associations, governments to have moral obligations; it is another to force those obligations.  We individually voluntarily give a portion of our income to charity and we give to the Church, which in turn gives a portion of its total income from individuals to charity.  While the Church suggests how much should be given by individuals or provides other incentives (spiritual or otherwise) for giving, it does not force giving.  I don't think that forced redistribution of wealth by government through mandatory tax payments are what subsidiarity contemplates.  

For those who did not read the full article, the first comment to it was eye opening:

"...you ignored the actual formal definition of subsidiarity provided by Pius XI, one which has been cited in almost every social encyclical since: 

'Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in 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." (Quadragesimo Anno, #79).' " 


The latest from america

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor in chief of "Women Church World" a monthly magazine distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, poses in her house in Rome. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, File)
"We are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of distrust and progressive de-legitimization," founder Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in the editorial, which went to the printers last week but hasn't been published.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shakes hands with Alabama State Sen. Henry Sanders at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on March 19. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., responded to a question about his religious views by talking about his own faith and what he sees as a distortion of Christianity among U.S. conservatives.
Since retiring from my job, my husband has found me irritating. We had a talk (after fighting), and he is right: I am mothering him. Smothering him. “I have a mother,” he said. “I want a wife, a partner, a best friend.”
Valerie SchultzMarch 25, 2019
Jesus asks us to be generous with the poor. It’s one of the foundations of his public ministry: caring for the poor himself and asking his disciples to do so.
James Martin, S.J.March 25, 2019