Pages Navigation Menu

Subsidiarity is a Two-Sided Coin

As a Catholic moral theologian, I must confess that the principle of subsidiarity is perhaps one of the most crucial and most misunderstood in Catholic social teaching. According to the principle of subsidiarity, decisions should be made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. Subsidiarity is crucial because it has applications in just about every aspect of moral life. In medical ethics, subsidiarity helps guide decision-making. In social ethics, subsidiarity helps us prudentially judge not only decision-making but allocation of resources. Subsidiarity is an effort at balancing the many necessary levels of society – and at its best, the principle of subsidiarity navigates the allocation of resources by higher levels of society to support engagement and decision making by the lower levels. Despite how often it is stated – subsidiarity does NOT mean smaller is better.

In Quadregesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI is concerned with the common good of society and in particular with both the growing power of the state and an increasing individualism.  (paragraph 78) To understand subsidiarity, we must remember that Pius is concerned that we will end up with a social order in which there are individuals and the state – with no intermediary communities, institutions or levels. The richness and diversity of human society is what Pius seeks to promote and protect. Thus he writes:

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. (79)

This is perhaps the best quoted passage on subsidiarity in all of Catholic social teaching and it comes directly after Pius frames the discussion in terms of the common good of society (which includes the state, individuals, and many levels of intermediary organizations).

To further clarify subsidiarity, Pope John XXIII once again returns to the two-sides of subsidiarity and frames it within the context of scientific advancement and cooperation in society in Mater et Magistra

54. The present advance in scientific knowledge and productive technology clearly puts it within the power of the public authority to a much greater degree than ever before to reduce imbalances which may exist between different branches of the economy or between different regions within the same country or even between the different peoples of the world. It also puts into the hands of public authority a greater means for limiting fluctuations in the economy and for providing effective measures to prevent the recurrence of mass unemployment. Hence the insistent demands on those in authority—since they are responsible for the common good—to increase the degree and scope of their activities in the economic sphere, and to devise ways and means and set the necessary machinery in motion for the attainment of this end.

The principle of subsidiarity is about the well-ordered society directed towards the common good and this requires the state, individuals, institutions, civil organizations and churches all work together in civil society (paragraph 56: “Both sides must work together in harmony, and their respective efforts must be proportioned to the needs of the common good in the prevailing circumstances and conditions of human life.”). Government in Catholic social teaching is not simply a necessary evil, government has a positive role in society – and here I would insert both federal and state governments as having their proper place. For this reason, in Pacem in Terris  he states

It is also demanded by the common good that civil authorities should make earnest efforts to bring about a situation in which individual citizens can easily exercise their rights and fulfill their duties as well. For experience has taught us that, unless these authorities take suitable action with regard to economic, political and cultural matters, inequalities between the citizens tend to become more and more widespread, especially in the modern world, and as a result human rights are rendered totally ineffective and the fulfillment of duties is compromised.  (63)

The fundamental goal here is the common good.  Thus, Catholic social teaching’s principle of subsidiarity actually includes within it a strong sense of the responsibility of the government for creating the conditions of human flourishing. This is why Pope Benedict XVI linked subsidiarity with solidarity and emphasized in Caritas in Veritate that

“Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.”

Participation at all levels is crucial for both subsidiarity and solidarity. A distinctive element of Catholic social is that the community and the government have a responsibility to actively promote the necessary conditions to support those families. (Something I have written about elsewhere regarding Caregiving and Catholic Social Thought). It is not enough to intervene in drastic conditions of abuse; the government has a responsibility to create the necessary conditions for human flourishing.

It is a mistake to approach the principle of subsidiarity within the context of the perennial American debate concerning the size and scope of government. A glance at recent comments to the USCCB facebook page concerning the Press Releases on the 2012 Farm Bill and 2012 Budget will demonstrate the mixing of subsidiarity with partisan American politics. The “American debate” is one going back to our founding concerning states rights verses the federal government. Politically, this frames much of our discussions and partisan identities concerning Republicans (States-Rights) and Democrats (Strong Federal Government). That is its own philosophical debate and has little to do with CST’s principle of subsidiarity.

In CST, subsidiarity is a two-sided coin – the state has the responsibility to respect and promote the many levels of society. This means that the higher orders have the right and responsibility to intervene when necessary (And why it is not a violation of subsidiarity for CST to call for greater global governance as John XXIII and Benedict XVI have in both 1963 and 2012). That said – government programs must be evaluated for their effectiveness and necessity. This is why I previously wrote about why the new poverty measures including the supplemental measure were so important – they provide us with necessary data to evaluate the effectiveness of programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

We should not automatically be suspicious of SNAP because it is a government program – we should ask does it allocate necessary resources to effectively support lower levels of society (in this case struggling families)? This means that far from being an argument against federal government programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Catholic social teaching’s principle of subsidiarity supports a robust SNAP program which allocates necessary resources to support communities and families. Instead of subsuming the lower levels, a program like SNAP actually supports and bolsters those lower communities. The question, from the perspective of subsidiarity, is does this – or any government program – protect and promote our multi-layered civil society? Does it protect and promote human flourishing and the common good? Because the goal is not smaller government, the goal is the common good.



  1. Thanks for your post Meghan. I entirely agree. I always liked, and was wondering if you would agree with, Todd Whitmore’s analysis of subsidiarity (in “CST: Starting with the Common Good, in Living Catholic Social Thought, ed. Kathleen Weigert). In it he says subsidiarity is concerned with:

    1) State interventions in other spheres of life

    2) Excessive intervention of any sphere in another, e.g. economics into politics through PACs

    3) “Excessive intervention of large and remote institutions within a particular sphere,” e.g. a large chain store pushing out small businesses.

    Would you agree with #s 2 and 3?

  2. Meghan,

    This post is quite good, and makes me recall several past conversations we have shared on this very topic. I resonate especially with this statement: “It is a mistake to approach the principle of subsidiarity within the context of the perennial American debate concerning the size and scope of government.”

    It seems to me that, because the big-government vs. small-government debate (if you can call it that) in American politics is ideologically driven, it will inevitably distort and oversimplify the nuances of CST’s principle of subsidiarity. The American political debate generally fails to distinguish between different cases and issues, and therefore ignores the extent to which the application of the principle necessarily depends upon having full cognizance of circumstances, which is to say, having done an adequate social analysis of the specific issue at hand. The temptation is to choose your ideological conclusion first, and then to proffer a proof-text argument drawing loosely from the principle to match the conclusion. It’s a really disappointing level of moral discourse. I’m glad that you wrote this, in the hope that your words would call American Catholics out on their intellectual laziness.

  3. I would like to offer a dissenting, but respectful, opinion.  Neither this post nor any other that I have seen about the Ryan budget and subsidiarity gets to the real issue.  When the real issue is identified, a Catholic could reasonably conclude that the budget that Rep. Ryan has proposed is more in line with Catholic social teaching than any feasible alternative.

    The basic critique of the Ryan plan goes like this.  Ryan improperly invokes subsidiarity because the principle does not necessarily demand less federal intervention in any particular case. As the post puts it, subsidiarity calls for intervention by authorities that are neither too high or too low, but are just right.  Ryan’s view (as summarized in these critiques) is therefore inconsistent with CST and should be opposed.

    The main flaw of this critique is that it does not grapple with the real issue. By focusing on the definition of subsidiarity, the critiques repeat a truism. Just like Goldilocks, we can all agree that government should be just right.  The disagreement, however, is whether government should act at all in a given area and, if so, which one.  Only when the correct issue is identified can a proper assessment of particular proposal be offered.

    But even then, subsidiarity provides little practical guidance.  How are we to identify when a lower level “can’t” achieve a particular goal.  This is especially problematic because “can’t” quickly dissolves into “I think it would be advantageous if X level of government performed this or that task.” Once we reach that point, however, it is impossible to deny Rep. Ryan his view of the demands of subsidiarity.  

  4. WHall306,

    Thank you for your comment. First, I would like to point out that this post on Subsidiarity is just that – a post on the principle of subsidiarity and was written weeks before Paul Ryan released his budget….his budget just increased its circulation greatly. This is not a post responding to the Ryan Budget.

    As to “feasibility” I understand your concern – however, I would suggest that most of the posts that do respond to the Ryan budget are in fact challenging the “feasibilty” argument Ryan makes to support his plan. For one, I do not grant his economic analysis — so I do agree with you that judgment of what is going on here is key.

    I have elsewhere written directly to his budget as have many others. The question of whether or not his budget does in fact meet the standards of subsidiarity is CRUCIAL to determining its morality on the one hand (not just in contrast to other budgets, moral discernment and prudential judgement is not simply a matter of the “best of these or least worst options.” Secondly, Paul Ryan himself publicly CLAIMED that his budget was a good example of subsidiarity – therefore it is imperative for it to be examined as such.

    As your last point – i recommend taking a look at my post on SNAP. Subsidiarity does help us determine how and when a government should act – and while it is complicated, it is not so problematic that it cannot be done or “provides little practical guidance.” Again, I would refer you to my recent post on SNAP and subsidiarity for a clear and laid out example of how this is practically done.

    And, no matter how he tries – Rep Ryan’s understanding of subsidiarity is inaccurate to catholic social teaching. We can disagree about how to apply it in a particular case – I grant that – but he has to get the basic concept correct before we are in that realm. Whether Rep Ryan wants it to or not – subsidiarity simply does not mean the government that governs least governs best.


  1. Paul Ryan: my Catholic faith helped shape budget plan « The Deacon's Bench - [...] views on subsidiarity.And for more on the topic, there’s an interesting take at the Catholic Moral Theology website.…
  2. Missing the Point on Poverty | Catholic Moral Theology Missing the Point on Poverty | - [...] disagree with Ryan’s use of Catholic social teaching and examined the question of subsidiarity here last month). This week’s…
  3. Analysis: Paul Ryan’s not-very-Catholic Catholic budget | Catholic Labor Network - [...] decisions should be made, Clark wrote at the Catholic Moral Theology blog, “at the lowest level possible and the…
  4. Jesus Shrugged — why Christianity and Ayn Rand don’t mix « The Weekly Sift - [...] Ryan misuses is called “subsidiarity” (first enunciated in Rerum Novarum). As theologian Meghan Clark explains it: According to the…
  5. Track & Field Tiebreaker: Feelings vs. Reality | Catholic Moral Theology Track & Field Tiebreaker: Feelings vs. Reality | - [...] judgment, those of us who have criticized his budget have began with the simple fact – subsidiarity does not…
  6. Will the Real Social Assistance State Please Stand Up? | Catholic Moral Theology Will the Real Social Assistance State Please Stand Up? | - [...] our readers know, I frequently write concerning the real meaning of subsidiarity and emphatically in support of Bishop Blaire’s…
  7. How Not to Discuss Catholic Social Teaching with the Bishops | Catholic Moral Theology How Not to Discuss Catholic Social Teaching with the Bishops | - [...] the collective, common good of the people. (Meghan Clark has carefully discussed that point further in this post on [...]
  8. Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Poverty and Helping People to Flourish | Don Clemmer - [...] that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. are requirements for entering the kingdom.) Subsidiarity is the principle that…
  9. 2012: In the US, The Year of Catholic Moral Theology? | Catholic Moral Theology 2012: In the US, The Year of Catholic Moral Theology? | - [...] to local communities that would know the poor they serve, the best.  Meg Clark’s post on subsidiarity (written, I…
  10. What I Learned from Talking Economics with Libertarians | Catholic Moral Theology What I Learned from Talking Economics with Libertarians | - [...] possible and the highest level necessary,” according to fellow Meghan Clark’s helpful post on our blog, and my libertarian…
  11. Douthat on Francis and American Conservative Catholics | Catholic Moral Theology - […] #2 really requires a better discussion of subsidiarity, which I have undertaken previously, as has Meg Clark. In short,…
  12. Highlights in Moral Theology: Our Year-End Top 20 | Catholic Moral Theology - […] Subsidiarity is a Two-Sided Coin […]
  13. Does Paul Griffiths have to be Right for Paul Ryan to be Wrong? | Catholic Moral Theology - […] the principle of subsidiarity as understood by Catholic social thought.  But as Meghan Clark has brilliantly shown, this kind…
  14. Texas Centrist | Weakened Local Control in Texas - […] very instructive is subsidiarity.  If you’re interested in reading more about subsidiarity, here is a good primer.  On the…
  15. The Catholic Labor Network | Analysis: Paul Ryan’s not-very-Catholic Catholic budget - […] decisions should be made, Clark wrote at the Catholic Moral Theology blog, “at the lowest level possible and the…

Leave a Comment