The principle of subsidiarity, one of the basic tenets of Catholic social doctrine, promotes governance at its smallest level based on the natural law tenet that “[God] entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. … The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1884)
Subsidiarity and Law
Accordingly, the laws of each community should have as their focus and purpose the good of the person and his free exercise of his talents for himself and his family unit for its good and the good of the larger community. “Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.” (CCC § 2209) Specifically, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of the lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with the view to the common good.” (St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus § 48.4)
The concept of subsidiarity is at the heart of the natural law documented most famously by St. Thomas Aquinas, and followed, on a more secular level, by the writers of our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. It recognizes that each human intrinsically has equal worth, has been created with unique attributes and abilities, and has the right to use those for his welfare and the common good.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Declaration of Independence)
From the concept of subsidiarity flows the right to keep the fruits of one’s labor, the right to private ownership of property, and the right to create larger forms of government to provide services which an individual, family, or smaller community cannot provide on its own.
Subsidiarity and the “Divine Right of Kings”
Subsidiarity, more than any other concept, destroys the medieval “divine right of kings” from which rights were seen to flow down from an authoritative figure on high. We, the people, from conception to natural death, are the owner of our inalienable rights, and only by our consent can those rights flow up by being assigned to governing bodies. Most importantly, those assigned rights are only to be used for the benefit of the governed, and not for the enrichment of the government itself. That use perverts the source and purpose of those rights.
All political figures, no matter what faith they profess, would do well to understand and follow the doctrine of subsidiarity (and read St. Thomas Aquinas) if they truly wish to follow our Constitution and serve the people of our nation.