In his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI introduced a critically important Catholic social teaching concept, one which has maintained currency in political debates today.  In his discussion of the social order, Pius XI explained the principle:

As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. 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.[1]

The principle, known as subsidiarity, recently has been invoked—quite wrongly—to support the an agenda of massive deregulation of markets, the removal of safety and environmental protections, the slashing of federal income supports for needy families, and the devolution of social assistance into capped block grants to states.

Pope Pius specifically applied subsidiarity to political authority, and thus it is understandable that most interpretations have focused on the political sector. Instead of striking a pose of simple and reflexive opposition to “big government,” however, Catholic social theory has stressed through subsidiarity that larger political entities should not absorb the effective functions of smaller ones. This was in part a reaction against the centralizing tendencies of socialism at the time. However, when smaller and more localized entities lack the capacity to cope adequately with a problem, then larger entities—the state, for instance—have a responsibility to act.

The principle, however, is not just political. Warning against the overbearing action of any large social actor—including large corporations—the principle “also demands that they render assistance, subsidium, when problems are too large to be handled by smaller, local actors.”[2]

The U.S. bishops later related subsidiarity to “institutional pluralism” providing space “for freedom, initiative and creativity on the part of many social agents.”[3] Subsidiarity insists that all parties contribute to the common good and do so in ways consistent with their capacities. Families, neighborhood groups, small businesses, professional associations, unions, and community organizations, as well as local, state, and national governments are all important to subsidiarity, as are international organizations established to meet international needs.

Misusing subsidiarity to advocate a blanket support for small government and unrestrained free markets, certain Catholic conservatives ignore the fact that Catholic social thought has consistently been critical of both excessive state power and unrestrained economic power.  Pius wrote that, “…the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.”[4]  In 2009, Pope Benedict further clarified:

The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.[5]

Ultimately, subsidiarity is rooted in human dignity, providing that we are most truly human in making decisions and solving problems as close to those affected by them as possible.

[1] Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstructing the Social Order), no. 79, emphasis supplied.

[2] Vincent J. Miller, “Saving Subsidiarity,” in America, July 30, 2012.

[3]. Economic Justice for All, no. 100.

[4] Quadragesimo Anno, no. 88.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009, no. 58, emphasis in original.