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.