Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Although now one of the core terms in Catholic social thought, to expect for the term subsidiarity any substantive content or any specific rule for its application would be a case of misplaced concreteness. The term captures the aspiration that polities and administrations have responsibilities for "distributive justice" in ways that promote "social" or "participatory" justice.

Subsidiarity is used when critiquing statist solutions to the distribution of social goods because they absorb the "mediating" institutions and groups that ensure the human scale required for pluralism and local initiative. In turn, unregulated market solutions to the distribution of social goods are criticized for their monopolistic outcomes and tendency to convert market control into political monopoly. In practice, Catholic teaching employs the term pragmatically to critique whatever tendency distortive of the common good—collectivist statism or economistic laissez faire—predominates in a particular political-economic period. In the present era, the principle of subsidiarity is most often used to critique the failure of polities in market-driven economies sufficiently to help regional or local losers and the tendencies of Western liberal democracies, not always intentionally, to extract subordination as the price paid for their foreign aid.

Subsidiarity has clear affinities with all those social science conceptions that self-consciously consider themselves "communitarian." Its core meaning involves the moral duty for centralized authorities to intervene in nonhegemonic ways that preserve and even enhance the pluralisms of civil society and the culture of individual initiative. This core meaning is analogously applied along the continuum of micro-macro organizational life, from family to geopolitics. Since its first explicit appearance in Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), subsidiarity has been employed in most of the significant social justice documents produced by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the remainder of the twentieth century.

With the term, Pius XI crystallized the cluster of moral judgments emerging in Catholic social thought dialectically seeking to conjoin the individual liberty prized by liberal capitalism with the concern for social justice animating Marxist communism:

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 or 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.

Some recent critical applications of the term subsidiarity can be found in the American bishops' proposals for economic reform in their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All and in the March 16, 1995, critique by the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference of the "Contract with America" Republican 1995 welfare reforms, which, although couched in a "subsidiaritylike" language of block grants, violate the principle of subsidiarity because they dissolve federal responsibility for ensuring a minimum level of economic rights and offer no increased likelihood of making the poor participants in and contributors to the social order.

In addition to being an appreciative explication of the principle and its historical context, Bellah (1991) shows the affinities between subsidiarity and cognate terms in social science, such as the more familiar terms populism and federalism , and some of the more academic ones, such as the Habermasian project of discourse ethics aimed at preserving life-worlds found in social orders from the colonization inherent in social systems .

James R. Kelly


M. E. Allsopp, "Principle of Subsidiarity," in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought , ed. J. A. Dwyer (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1994): 927-929

R. N. Bellah, "The Importance of Catholic Social Teaching for Envisioning the Good Society," New Oxford Review (Nov. 1991): 8-16

F. H. Mueller, "The Principle of Subsidiarity in the Christian Tradition," American Catholic Sociological Review 4(1943): 144-157.

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