What is Subsidiarity?
Subsidiarity refers to the appropriate balancing of responsibilities and functions among the parts of a social order. It has its origin in the Catholic understanding of community, which perceives a community not as so many individuals connected by contracts, but as a corporate whole—a moral and cultural body that, like any body, is comprised of limbs and parts the differences of which contribute to the good of the whole. The ethic that pertains to the unity of the body is called solidarity. The ethic that pertains to the role of the parts is subsidiarity. And the good of the whole by which solidarity and subsidiarity are measured is called the common good.
In the complete sense, this understanding is referred to as the Mystical Body of Christ. Romans 12:4-5 puts it this way. “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.” But, Catholic teachings encourage us to promote such an understanding in all human associations. Hence, the Church argues that subsidiarity (like solidarity and common good) is an ethic to apply even to political governance.
The root of the word subsidiarity is the Latin subsiduum, which is also the same root for our English word subsidy. Subsiduum was used, among other things, in reference to the morally weighted giving from those who had to those who had not, much like we still understand the old French term noblesse oblige. Its context is a traditional understanding of society, arranged hierarchically, wherein the various classes each had obligations to the other.
So, from its original root, subsidiarity invokes that hallmark idea of traditional Catholic teaching: the preferential option for the poor. Moreover, it shares with its root a context in the social order as a body-like whole, in which everyone has moral obligations vis-à-vis others in light of the common good. From subsiduum also comes the Latin subsidiarius, which refers to a person to whom a subsidy should be given. In Roman-based systems of law, courts’ concern with compensation to a subsidiarius was to avoid either overcompensating or under compensating. Overcompensating, it was reasoned, undermined the ability of those in our care to take responsibility for their own duties to the community and society. It sapped initiative. Under compensating, just the reverse, would not provide enough subsidy to those depending on us for them to fulfill their potential for themselves and the social order.
Subsidiarius, thus, hints at the moral issue at the heart of any correct understanding of subsidiarity, especially in application to questions about the proper role of government in executing public policies. Subsidiarity requires that policies be performed by the most appropriate level of the social order to achieve results without too much overage or too much underage in the application of power or resources. Overage creates unwanted dependency. Underage fails to fully satisfy needs relative to the common good.
The modern history of subsidiarity in the 19th and early 20th centuries extends the etymological understanding. Current usage comes from German Catholic social thinking in the 19th century. Reform figures such as the renowned Bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, developed an understanding of subsidiarity as part of a Catholic “third way” in political economy between dehumanizing extremes of socialism and capitalism. Amidst the social upheavals accompanying Europe’s industrial revolution, von Ketteler argued against the secular ideologies’ valorization of simply the market or simply the state to address social ills. Much influenced by such thinking, Leo XIII in the Church’s most monumental statement of Catholic social teachings, Rerum novarum (1891), elaborated von Kettler’s third way balance of government and private initiative. Policies should be pursued at the level or mix most effective for the common good. Without explicit mention of subsidiarity, the great pontiff captured its essence in the encyclical when he offered his vision of the social order as a harmonious balance of its parts—Church, government, private enterprise, labor, management, and so on—each in its appropriate capacity and with its appropriate authority—i.e., each in accordance with what comes to be called the principle of subsidiarity.
One danger, plainly, is that the modern state can overwhelm subsidiarity’s harmonious balance by seizing powers inappropriate to it. Facing such seizing of power by Mussolini’s dictatorship, Pius XI warned in Quadragesimo anno (1931):
Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help [subsiduum] to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them. The state should leave to other bodies the care and expediting of matters of lesser moment.... The more faithfully the principle of subsidiarity is followed and a hierarchical order prevails among the various organizations, the more excellent will be the authority and efficiency of society. (no. 80)
But the principle of subsidiarity would also be affronted by imbalances of overage tilted toward too-powerful private entities, such as powerful corporations or unions. It would still more be affronted by imbalances of underage, as when government does not shoulder its appropriate responsibility to those who require assistance unmet by private sources. Indeed, John XXIII in Mater et magistra (1961), speaks directly of subsidiarity’s requirement that government be judged by its responsibility to provide for needy citizens, demanding an “intervention of public authorities that encourages, stimulates, regulates, supplements and complements is based on the principle of subsidiarity as set forth by Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno.” (no. 19)
Having particularly in mind the totalitarianism of then collapsing Soviet communism, John Paul II in Centesimus annus (1991) sharpened the application of subsidiarity as a criticism of overextended state power, noting the danger the totalitarian state poses in subsuming to itself the proper roles of family, Church, community, business, and labor. While government is obliged to promote the common good, the document argues, it must bear in mind that it is not responsible for all social goods. (no. 11) That said, the document nevertheless goes on to demand that government is morally obliged to take on the responsibility of care for the needy when private enterprise, voluntary associations, Church, or similar entities cannot meet such needs. (no. 48)
Likewise, Benedict XVI in his recent encyclical, Caritas in veritate (2009) emphasizes the duty of governments to provide for the social welfare of citizens when non-governmental means do not rise to the level of needs. (no 35) But, even more interestingly, this newest encyclical suggests that subsidiarity alone is insufficient to achieve the harmonious balance in the social order that Catholic social teaching demands. Subsidiarity, His Holiness claims, must be balanced by practices of solidarity—a term which he links closely with the obligations of government. He writes in explanation:
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. (no. 58)
In truth, nothing in Catholic social teachings, including the ethic of subsidiarity, requires that America’s moral responsibility to the care for the unborn, the poor, or other vulnerable populations be addressed at one or another level, whether by national government, state governments, private enterprise, voluntary associations, or anything else. The Church has been quite happy with governmental arrangements that have leaned toward a larger national government role than has been the historical case in the United States—and even Vatican City’s own approach is quite similar to what one finds in Italy or other European countries. This is not at all to say that an approach that emphasizes more responsibility for such matters at the level of local government or private charities is inappropriate. Rather, it is to say that the interpretation of subsidiarity (like solidarity and the common good) may vary prudentially as long as needs are being met relative to the common good that avoids moral dangers of over and under support.
Aside: Lew Daly, a Senior Fellow at Demos and author of God’s Economy, commented on a first draft of this posting to point out correctly that the Church’s thinking about subsidiarity emerged not only in response to the ideologies of the 19th century (from above) but also emerged from the real practices of Church institutions in the Industrial Revolution struggling to care for human needs (from below).
Correction: Fr. Joseph Komonchak (whom all revere not only for his Latin but his keen grasp of these matters) wrote to correct my etymology. Following other mistaken usage in the secondary literature, I traced the root of subsidiarity to the Latin subsiduum. In fact the better root for capturing the sense of help or "subsidy" is subsidium. Fr. Komonchak also reminded me of the original usage of subsidiarius in classical Latin refers to a military unit held “in reserve.” Only later is the term used in law to reference a person’s subsidized “ward,” as I use it here. I’m honored—really honored—to be corrected by such an extraordinary scholar. Mea culpa, Fr. Joe!