Vox Clamantis: Subsidiarity – Magisterium

As papal encyclicals often include a Catholic anthropology when speaking about Catholic Social Teaching, it is helpful to provide a brief sketch of Catholic anthropology to facilitate an understanding of the importance of subsidiarity in the papal Magisterium. Rooted in the nature of man, prior to any act of the intellect, will, or movement of the passions, is the desire for love, or caritas. Genuine caritas involves “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”1 The paradox of caritas reveals the true nature of man; giving himself completely, he discovers his true self and is made whole. Caritas incorporates, purifies and transforms self-seeking, searching eros with sacrificial, selfless agape.2 While kenosis is necessary for the believer, it must be concordant with reception: “he (man) cannot always give, he must also receive.”3 This interplay of giving and receiving, reciprocal in nature, is constitutional to the nature of man. Although Benedict XVI is speaking of human nature in spiritual terms, this reciprocity of charity is manifested in the Church’s social teaching. Before continuing, several pieces must be added: the ability to give and receive love requires freedom of the intellect and will: love is freely offered, never commanded or forced. Freedom is necessary for each person to pursue their fulfillment in varied ways: for example, through “the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups.”4 From a social perspective, these “intermediate groups,” while the result of individuals seeking their fulfillment through creativity, contribute to the common good. On a larger scale, differences among individuals are reflected in differences between cultures. “Intermediate groups” and culture are not trivial for the individual: “It is in interrelationships on many levels that a person lives, and that society becomes more ‘personalized.’”5

Subsidiarity can be defined as “a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies.”6 Additionally: “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.”7 Subsidiarity is “negative” insofar as it prohibits a higher level to act when a lower level is capable of acting: for example, the State cannot solve every problem in society,8 and individuals and organizations closest “to the ground” are often the most capable of discerning needs and appropriate responses.9 When higher levels of authority act in support of a lower level and accomplish what the lower level cannot, this is the “positive” aspect of subsidiarity.10

Subsidiarity and solidarity are not two opposing forces; they are different parts of the same path toward the common good. For example, in a family, man and woman are able to pursue true solidarity.11 Subsidiarity demands the state respect the freedom of individuals to marry whom they desire. In so doing, the common good is strengthened. Freedom and responsibility are proximate ends of subsidiarity: “it (subsidiarity) is always designed to achieve their (individuals unable to accomplish something on their own) emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility.”12 Beginning with the anthropology previously mentioned, subsidiarity protects the dignity and freedom of each person to create, give and receive. Writing about the former European nations emerging from the Soviet bloc, John Paul II called on the West to aid these nations. Left alone, they could not meet the demands to rebuild their countries; to become “primary agents of their own development… they must also be given a reasonable opportunity to accomplish this goal.”13

Applied to aiding the poor, subsidiarity enables organizations providing aid to form and implement plans in response to varied situations.14 Subsidiarity also allows them to provide for additional needs that cannot be satisfied with material goods: “[they] can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.”15 Accounting for the evil tendencies of human nature, subsidiarity provides a right ordering of society. Power should not be concentrated in the hands of a few but spread among differing bodies to protect the freedom of individuals and the health of the society.16 In economics, although the state may not enter some places, it must enact and enforce laws to keep economy free and ensure justice and equality between parties.17 By subsidiarity, the State indirectly creates favorable conditions for free economic activity; by solidarity: the State defends the weakest by restraining the autonomy of supervisors, for example.18 While theology reveals additional elements of subsidiarity, it is a “a guiding criterion for fraternal cooperation between believers and non-believers”19 for it is “neither a theological nor really a philosophical principle, but a piece of congealed historical wisdom.”20


1. Deus Caritas Est, 6.
2. Ibid, 7.2.
3. Ibid.
4. Centesimus Annus (CA), 13.2.
5. Ibid, 49.
6. Caritas in Veritate (CV) 57.
7. CA, 48.4.

8. CV, 57; CA, 11.2-3.
9. CV, 57, 47.2.
10. This articulation of subsidiarity is articulated in: Thomas C. Kohler, “In Praise of Little Platoons: Quadragesimo Anno (1931),” in Building the Free Society, eds. George Weigel and Robert Royal (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 35.

11. CA, 49.2.
12. CV, 57.
13. CA, 28.1.
14. CV, 57.
15. CA, 48.5.
16. CA, 44.1.
17. CA, 15.1.
18. CA, 15.5.
19. CV, 57.
20. Kohler, 35.