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The third pillar of our Church’s Social Teaching is the concept of Subsidiarity

Many Catholics probably have not heard of subsidiarity and some that have misunderstood it. Worse, some that think they understand it misuse it to fit their political agenda.

The Catechism defines subsidiarity as the principle that “a 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.” (CCC 1883) The definition is actually a good one. It is succinct and complete as much as one sentence definitions can be. But what does this mean?

All of the church’s social doctrine flows from the recognition that every human person has a life and dignity that society must respect, protect, and foster. Being social creatures, that is done through community, starting with the family. From the family outward, we develop groups, associations, relationships and institutions that make it possible to achieve social growth and to function as a civil society.

Eventually, larger or “higher” orders develop, usually in the form of governmental jurisdictions, but sometimes powerful businesses and economic structures can develop. The principle of subsidiarity tells us that these higher orders should not interfere with what the “lower” order can achieve. Depriving these more local orders of their ability to function and make decisions can be a grave injustice.

Subsidiarity, however, is not mere local control. In fact, the word comes from the Latin “subsidium,” meaning to provide aid. So, the principle of subsidiarity is really about the duty of the higher order to provide assistance to the lower order when appropriate. One example is when the lower order cannot provide a necessary function, such as defense, or has failed to protect the rights of persons and the common good, such as civil rights.

Subsidiarity also teaches us about how orders can function. Higher orders, for example, often have the power of the purse. Governments, therefore, can help fund addiction treatment while people and faith-based organizations can provide the actual treatment. The state government can fund education while parents and schools provide the actual education.

Subsidiarity, therefore, is not “make local and leave alone.” It is “presume local and assist when needed through appropriate means.”

Subsidiarity shows up in a variety of public policy questions. It is an example of how Catholic social doctrine touches upon issues besides those normally identified as “Catholic issues,” like abortion and religious freedom.

This week, let’s pray for each other that our eyes and hearts may be open so that we can do our part on the local level to promote justice for all and work for the common good.

Based on the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, written in 1892 and explained in the documents of the Diocese of Bismark in 2019