Many have heard of “social justice” — and many have heard it terribly misused by the secular left and dissenting Catholics — but how many have ever heard of “subsidiarity”?
I heard it for the first time when I was in my 40s. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity has been added to my list of “Why didn’t anyone ever teach me this?”
It is crucial, so I will start with the basics.
The definition of “subsidiarity” according to Wikipedia:
Subsidiarity is an organizing principle [which holds] that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.
The definition of “subsidiarity” according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
[T]he principle that central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.
In other words, if something can be done by a smaller and more simple organization (as opposed to a larger and more complex one) then it should be. The family is the simplest, most “local” organization in the social order, followed by such organizations as the neighborhood, city, state, nation, and the like. The more complicated, centralized, and further removed an entity or authority, the less effective and personal are its interventions into areas better suited to smaller, local authorities.
Subsidiarity holds that decisions and policies should be made at the lowest level possible, and intervention by higher and bigger social organizations should only be undertaken when those lower levels truly need and desire a supporting (not usurping!) action.
The really cool thing about this is that subsidiarity is a Catholic principle, sprung from Catholic social teaching.
Pope Pius XI wrote of it here:
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. (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931)
Sixty years later, Blessed John Paul II warned of the dangers that come from violating the principle of subsidiarity, namely, the modern welfare state:
[E]xcesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: 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.
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. (Centesimus annus, 1991)
The role of the family must not be usurped by communities and cities, the role of cities must not be usurped by states, and the role of states must not be usurped by the federal government. Worst of all is when the federal government overtakes a role proper to the family, and thus does more harm than good.
On a personal note: It is frustrating when well-meaning Catholic proponents of social justice claim that a vote against more and bigger federal social programs is somehow “un-Catholic.” Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, as the Catholic principles of social justice must never be divorced from the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.
But the misunderstanding is not really their fault, as they probably have never even heard of subsidiarity.
Let us work to correct that unfortunate lapse in Catholic knowledge and teaching.
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