An Explanation of the Principle of Subsidiarity

The principle of subsidiarity is explained in the Encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno:

“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.”

This principle is weighty and unchangeable, therefore it is of the eternal moral law, and not a mere judgment of the prudential order pertaining solely to certain circumstances.

Subsidiarity begins with the right of the individual to make decisions and take actions, which are proper to that individual’s life, within the limits of the eternal moral law. Each individual has the gifts from God of life, reason, and free will, therefore he has the right to form his own opinions and make his own decisions, especially in matters concerning his own life. But this truth in no way justifies any sin.

This principle then extends naturally to different groups in society. Man is a social animal. We live in a community with other human persons, each and all of us made in the image of God. And every rightly ordered community has different groupings and levels into which it is organized: the family, the extended family, schools, sports teams and leagues, private organizations, recreational organizations, religious organizations, businesses, business associations, all the different types of governmental organizations, as well as neighborhoods, towns, cities, states or provinces, nations, groups of nations, and finally the whole human race.

The principle of subsidiarity requires decisions and actions to be taken by the more local or the lower level of society, when the decision affects only that smaller group, or if the action needed can be effective at that level. But if such a decision or action substantially affects the larger community, they have a right to participate in the decision. Or if the action needed can only be effective when enacted by the larger community, then the very same principle requires the higher level or larger social unit to intervene. People have a right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and persons who are largely unaffected do not have such a right. People have a duty to act to help their neighbor, when the neighbor cannot help himself, and the larger social group has a duty to act when the lower level or smaller group does not suffice to solve a problem or address a need.

For example, suppose a number of towns have a local water shortage, so each town makes ordinances dealing with that shortage, such as limiting the watering of lawns, or raising the price of water from the town water system. It would be wrong for the federal government to intervene in such a matter, unless much of the nation were affected or unless a solution required the money and resources of the larger social unit (the nation).

In another example, each school has a right to make the decisions that affect its society. Every group of human persons is a type of society, broadly defined, so a school is a society, just as the family is a society. It would be unjust if the federal government or a private organization designated by the government were to intervene to make decisions and take actions which the individual school or school district could make and enact on their own. Decisions which affect only the local school or district should be made at that social level. Actions which the local society is able to take on its own, to do the good work of that society, should not be thwarted or controlled at some higher level of the larger society.

The government of a nation needs power. Each government as the right and duty to care for the common good, and this requires authority and the ability to exercise that authority. However, government leaders are all fallen sinners, so they have a tendency, as individuals and in various groups (political parties, government departments, etc.) to seek ever more power, and ever more control, with little regard for subsidiarity.

This tendency to accumulate power for its own sake, not for the common good, is seen in the area of taxation. Every government in modern society needs money to exercise its authority. So each government obtains that money in some way, and in modern times taxation is one of the primary means to that end. Taxation is not in and of itself evil. But since money is needed by government to exercise power, and fallen sinners tend to seek excessive power over others, every government tends to increase its taxation, beyond what is needed for the common good. In the realm of money, the principle of subsidiarity still applies. Money should be spent by the individual, or by the smaller group of society, unless it is fitting and necessary for the larger group to raise and spend that money. Subsidiarity therefore implies that taxation should be limited, and that local government should raise and spend the taxes it needs, rather than having the federal government raise and allocate all of the money.

The principle of subsidiarity is always subject to the eternal moral law. So if a decision or action is sinful, especially gravely so, an appeal to subsidiarity never justifies that sin.

For example, the grave sin of abortion is widespread in the United States at the present time, and it is legal at the federal level, due to Supreme Court decisions and laws passed by Congress. States and local communities are forbidden from passing laws making abortion illegal in their region, except that some limited restrictions have been passed by some States. One political position is that laws on abortion should be left to the States to decide, as it was prior to Roe v. Wade. However, at the present time, it is clear that most States would permit abortion with little or no restriction, and so that political idea is not a solution. We cannot appeal to subsidiarity to say that abortion should be decided by the States, because abortion is gravely immoral, and so no government body, at any level, has any true authority to permit direct abortion.

The term human rights is greatly misused in sinful secular society. They claim as a right all manner of grave sins. Nowadays, true rights, such as the right to worship God and the right to act according to a well-informed conscience, are restricted, ridiculed, and denied to an increasing extent by modern culture.

But as concerns true human rights, properly understood, the principle of subsidiarity absolutely defends and supports each individual’s rights and duties under the eternal moral law. No appeal to the necessity of government or some larger social body can ever justify depriving any individual of any fundamental right.

In summary, the principle of subsidiarity flows from the rights and responsibilities of individual human persons, and their just interactions in different social groups. The principle balances the right to make decisions and take actions, as individuals and small groups, versus the responsibility to meet needs and solve problems which require decision or action by the larger group.

The Church

The same principle of subsidiarity is certainly applicable to the Roman Catholic Church. The Church has many levels of organization, including: the individual believer, the family, the parish, prayer groups, bible study groups, religious classes and schools, the diocese, groups of dioceses, the believers and their leaders in any region or nation or group of nations, the whole Church on earth, and the whole Church including everyone in a state of grace in this life as well as in Purgatory and Heaven.

The Church is centralized. We all worship one God, and the Church is the one body of the one God-made-man Jesus Christ. Centralization is essential to any monotheistic religion. One God, one Faith, one Church. The organization of the Church is such that we are led by many Bishops, the successors to the first Apostles, but we are also led by the one Pope, the Bishop of Rome, who leads the other Bishops and the whole Church. The one Pope has authority over every individual believer directly, and not solely through the Bishops.

The Church is also decentralized. We worship in individual parishes and dioceses. Many decisions are made at the local level of the parish or the diocese. It would be unjust, for example, for the Pope to impose on the whole Church worldwide, one exact form of the Mass, never to be deviated from for any reason. It would also be unjust for the Pope to impose on all believers one exact set of prayers to say daily, or one exact way to live out the Faith. The individual believers have a right to act according to their own conscience, and to spread the faith according to their own judgment. The local parishes and dioceses have a right to do the same.

But certainly these examples of decentralization are still subject to the necessary centralization that we all believe the same Faith. The individual believer or the parish cannot depart from the definitive teachings of the Magisterium, on the basis of a claim of subsidiarity or decentralization.

Pope Francis recently spoke in favor of greater decentralization in the Church. But obviously, as the one Pope who teaches the whole Church, he is not proposing complete decentralization. Only a greater emphasis on this application of the principle of subsidiarity.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to An Explanation of the Principle of Subsidiarity

  1. Francisco says:

    In 2008, Cardinal Arzine (with Pope’s Benedict XVI authorization) declared that the word “Yahweh” is not to be used in the liturgy. At the beginning, some of the songs at my parish were sang with the change of the word “Yahweh” with “Lord” (or similar term). But recently, I’m hearing those songs with the word “Yahweh” again. Is this disobedience? or this decision falls under the principle of subsidiarity for each particular parish?

    • Ron Conte says:

      It’s not a teaching of the eternal moral law, so perhaps the word can be used, in some cases, without sin. The Holy See has the role to give direction to the parishes of the world, on liturgical form. But they do have some ground to stand on, due to subsidiarity. I would say it is a judgment of the prudential order, but that judgment should include a presumption in favor of the decisions of the Holy See.

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