Subsidiarity is a principle in Catholic social doctrine which holds that higher authorities should not intervene in local affairs except when those at the local level “cannot or will not make its own provisions for the welfare of its members.”[i] Subsidiarity goes hand in hand with the principle of solidarity, the notion that we are called to work and live in unity and cooperation for the common good and our shared interests.[ii] Subsidiarity recognizes the obligation of the state to seek the prosperity of the community and its members, to promote peace, morality, family life, justice and public works, as well as business, agriculture, and the arts.[iii] However, this obligation requires that the responsibility for addressing these interests directly be handled by those closest to the issue. The primary responsibility of the state, according to the Catechism, is to guarantee security “so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly” (2431).
Pius XI, in Quadragesimo Anno 80, referred to “subsidiary function” or the notion that the state should restrict itself to those functions which it alone can provide and allow subordinate authorities to address lesser matters and concerns. John Paul II reiterated this notion when warning about the over extension of state authority by intervening and depriving society of its responsibility, resulting in “a Social Assistance State.” Rather, he stated,
[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. (CA 48)
The power of the state, then, is to be distributed rather than centralized to allow for local management. However, there are times when the state must assist, coordinate, or even intervene when the common good is threatened or when the authorities at lower levels are unable or unwilling to respond appropriately.[iv] In some cases, such interventions are a response to society’s failure to seek the common good. Such interventions should be short term, lest authority be assumed solely for its own sake.[v] Subsidiarity, then, protects the right and obligation of the local community to seek the common good as it deems appropriate.
i. Bendict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 343.
ii. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, (Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing, 2005), 85.
iii. Ashley, 343.
iv. Ibid., 348.
v. Ibid., 291.