Pope Benedict XVI takes up the question of how we should carry out charitable activities—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and consoling the suffering—in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). Twice he answers that social action and works of charity should be carried out according to “the principle of subsidiarity.” What does that mean?
Subsidiarity is one of the central principles of the social teaching of the Church. It means that decisions should be made at the lowest social level appropriate to the issue being decided. Recent dictionaries show that the word subsidiarity is most frequently used in discussions of the European Union and that it comes from Catholic social thought. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the first time the word was used in English was in the 1931 papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.
But dictionaries don’t tell the whole story. When Pope Pius XI issued that encyclical in 1931 to address contemporary social concerns, economies throughout the world were in depression. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, and communism was spreading. The communists claimed that the key to social action was to put the state in charge of everything and promised that total state control would provide jobs, food, clothing, and shelter for everyone. Secular critics of communism advocated an unregulated market. Proponents of unlimited economic freedom claimed that if individuals were allowed to pursue their material desires, the resulting economy would produce food, clothing, shelter, and the promise of endless growth.
The Vatican repeatedly condemned both of these social systems, beginning with Pope Leo’s bold 1891 encyclical on the condition of the working classes, Rerum Novarum. To mark the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pius XI issued an encyclical explaining the flaws and injustices in communism and materialistic individualism. Pius and his advisors called upon a young Jesuit priest named Fr. Oswald Nell-Bruening to draft the text of his encyclical. Nell-Bruening had recently completed his doctoral studies among a group of German Jesuits who taught that “subsidiarity” was part of a deep tradition that could be traced back through the Catholic social movement of nineteenth-century Germany to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, then to Roman law and Sacred Scripture. Nell-Bruening used the word subsidiarity to define a “fundamental principle of social philosophy, unshaken and unchangeable.”
Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on the reconstruction of the social order contains a blueprint for social reform—the classic formulation of the principle of subsidiarity:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own ability and effort and entrust it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time both a serious evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher society 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 (QA 79).
The key to understanding the principle of subsidiarity in its fullness is to remember that it is tripartite.
I’d Rather Do It Myself, Thanks
The first aspect of subsidiarity is that it is wrong for a social group to deny an individual the opportunity to make his own decisions and to carry out actions on his own. Subsidiarity is grounded in the nature of the human person. Every person is created in God’s image and endowed with the capacity to use reason and to make self-determining decisions ordered to the common good. Social associations are obliged to allow individuals space to exercise their freedom responsibly so that they can develop their potentialities and respond to their personal call from God.
This idea was presented in the language of the Latin scholastics: omne agens agendo perficitur, that is, every self-active being realizes itself in action. For example, a little boy learns to tie his shoes by doing it himself. If overprotective parents or meddling siblings constantly tie junior’s shoes, then he will never learn how to do it. In a similar way, the decision to pursue a religious vocation or to pursue the vocation of marriage is a personal decision, and it is wrong for a family or group of friends to make that decision for someone else. This is not to say that each of us is radically independent; we need social groups. In childhood, we have a special need for nurturing and loving families to provide guidance and support. People also benefit from many other small groups: friendships, neighbors, book clubs, athletic teams, musical groups, and countless others. The Church strongly encourages participation in social associations, which help us develop our God-given abilities.
Of course, there are limits on the kinds of choices that are morally appropriate, and social associations may place limits on individual freedom in order to defend the common good. When my daughter, who was in kindergarten, announced that she was going to marry the boy who sat in the next row, “and the wedding is tomorrow, on the playground,” my wife and I recognized that we needed to talk with her to help her understand the meaning of marriage. Sometimes, intervention is necessary to help guide others in the responsible use of freedom, but these limits should come from those closest to the situation, and they should be aimed at helping the person grow in the responsible use of freedom.
Small Social Groups Are Key
The second.aspect of subsidiarity states that it is wrong for higher and larger social associations to take over the activities of smaller and lower associations. Some groups are small and personal; others are larger and frequently more impersonal: the telephone company, the labor union, the American Medical Association, the Internal Revenue Service, the federal government. Human beings need larger groups, too. Some, like the phone company and the AARP, arise to meet particular social needs. The state, though, corresponds most directly to human nature. In fact, the Church teaches that the state—that is, the political body that aims at providing social order and peace on earth—is necessary for humanity to flourish.
But groups that are “higher and larger” tend to be more powerful than groups that are “lower and smaller.” Given the reality of human sinfulness in a fallen world, there is a strong tendency for those in power to destroy the ability of local groups to make their own decisions. In the modern world, this happens in both communist collectivism and materialistic individualism.
In communism, the state aggressively tries to destroy the family, businesses, and the Church. Even today, China has a one-child-per-family policy. Rather than encouraging families to make responsible decisions about welcoming the gift of new life, the totalitarian state aggressively takes that responsibility from the family. It also takes from businesses their ability to make their own decisions and tries to take from the Church the ability to appoint bishops according to the norms of the Church.
In materialistic individualism, the state is more subtle in the way it destroys small groups such as the family. Insisting that each individual is free to act without regard for social groups, the state defends individual rights to the extreme. For example, the 1992 Supreme Court majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey stated: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If rigorously applied, this individualistic way of thinking would destroy every social group between the individual and the federal government. All that would be left is the individual (free to do whatever he wants) and the federal government (claiming to guarantee every individual right).
The principle of subsidiarity presupposes a rich array of social associations between the individual and the state. These intermediary associations include the family, friendships, neighborhoods, voluntary associations of various types (cultural groups, social groups, athletic groups, youth groups, senior groups, worker associations, professional associations), religious groups, businesses, and economic corporations. The Church envisions a graduated order of various social groups, each with its own ability to govern itself and grow as a group, making decisions at the smallest social level appropriate to the issue being decided.
Participation in small social groups is an important way to develop our God-given talents. We learn how to pursue a common good, how to make decisions with others, how to act with concern for the well being of others, how to cooperate, how to be attentive to the various needs that inevitably impact members of the group, and how to be educated in virtue. Small groups and their members are strengthened and shaped as persons through the decisions they make together, without the interference of higher and larger groups. Sadly, there has been a significant decline in participation in social groups in America over the last twenty-five years.
Let All the Kids Play, Coach!
The third aspect of subsidiarity is that, when necessary, higher and larger social associations should provide help and support for smaller and lower associations without destroying or absorbing them. Just as there are times when it is appropriate for the family to intervene in the decisions of a family member, so, too, there are times when it is appropriate for a higher and larger group to intervene in the activities of a smaller and lower group.
Imagine a fifth-grade girls’ soccer team in which the coach and several parents are so completely driven to win that several players never get in the game. In that case, it might be appropriate for the authorities who run the league to intervene, perhaps suggesting a team policy that allows each player a greater chance to participate. Several things are worth noting in this example. First, the goal of the intervention isn’t to destroy the team and its members but to strengthen them. After all, it is a recreational team, and presumably part of its goal is to introduce young players to the sport and to give members the opportunity to learn how to play together. Second, the authorities of the local league handle the difficulty. There is no need to make a national case out of it, nor is there a need to bring in legal authorities. (In contrast, our culture of materialistic individualism tends to turn every dispute into a lawsuit rather than moving in a graduated way to the next higher level of social authority.)
The idea of graduated order should be kept in mind when smaller and lower groups need help and support. Intervention should come first from the next “higher and larger” social group. For example, if there is a problem in a family, perhaps alcoholism, it is best addressed by moving in a graduated manner to higher and larger associations for help and support. This may include help from the extended family and friends, from the pastor, then from secondary associations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and later from higher associations. Intervention from government authorities may ultimately be necessary, but a more graduated approach helps to restore the integrity of the family and its members rather than destroy it.
Imitate God’s Approach: Freedom
What should we do? Love God and neighbor. Proclaim the gospel. Celebrate the sacraments. Do works of charity. But how should we do those things? The principle of subsidiarity helps guide our social action. After God created human beings, he gave them the freedom to make their own responsible decisions about how to care for the fish, birds, animals, and everything on the earth. Throughout Scripture, God lovingly reveals his commandments to his people and provides help and guidance when they stray without destroying their own freedom and initiative. In the same way, we can see to it that those closest to a decision and most impacted by it are involved in the decision-making process with higher and larger groups intervening only when necessary and in a manner that restores integrity to the smaller groups and individual persons involved—always with a view to the common good.