Seeing Subsidiarity

As I prepared to travel to Burkina Faso, a little known francophone country in West Africa, I had many little fears. I was nervous about the language barrier, security, getting ill, and what I might encounter. I was also nervous about being a Westerner, specifically being American. I’ve been stewed in the myth of American exceptionalism my whole life, and now I was traveling to a poor mostly-Muslim country as a delegate for Catholic Relief Services. Was I going to be part of the big bad Western world imposing my culture on a group of people I can’t even communicate with? I was nervous that the Gospel, as I knew it, was from a Western perspective; and that what I knew of the faith, of social justice, and of the Church might not translate. And I must admit, I did find myself overwhelmed and stumbled into a few challenges my Western mind had trouble understanding. Yet in the middle of this I discovered that the Church’s wisdom, with a little nuance, translates very well indeed.

While being with members of Catholic Relief Services in Burkina Faso I was struck by how intentionally they lived out the principle of subsidiarity. Surely oversimplified, the principle of subsidiarity should be understood as decision-making occurring at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. If you ever find yourself studying subsidiarity you will stumble upon this quote from Pius XI’s Encyclical Quadragesmio Anno: "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.” A balance is to be found in between individualism and the growing power of the state (or corporations or NGOs for that matter). An important part of Catholic Social Teaching is that the government and the community have a responsibility to promote the common good. 

One of the programs that shows this principle at work is the SILC program. SILC stands for Savings and Internal Lending Communities. It’s a little bit like microfinance, but it’s also not. Instead of starting with loans, it starts with savings. CRS helps facilitate this program and gives the leadership to the people that are personally invested. The idea is that no matter how poor you might be you can gather with 20 or 30 other people and save a little money together each week, and then you can access loans out of your own community. So only a member of a particular SILC can borrow from that SILC. So where does subsidiarity come in? First of all the leadership of these groups belongs completely to the members, but many of the people who need this kind of service are vulnerable in many ways, including access to education. CRS gives training to local people they call “Personal Service Providers.” They teach local people how this system works and how to teach it to others. In doing this they not only give part time work to a person in need of a job, they also empower the most vulnerable and give them access to funds they would never be able to get through traditional banks, because of distance, culture, or poverty. And so the community can help itself, and these “subordinate organizations” can do their own work, save their own money, and promote the common good of their own villages. For example in the village we visited they set aside a social fund and with the money they collected they were able to purchase kitchen supplies for the local school, so that the children could stay in school for the day and have a meal while there. This little program helps give dignity to some of the most marginalized people in our world. In fact CRS has had over 1 million participants in this program worldwide. And they have helped these one million people save and lend over $7 million USD. That’s some loaves and fishes kind of work.


It can be challenging in a society such as ours to consider the values of Catholic Social Teaching and how they are to be integrated into our daily lives. This being the case, the work of CRS can also be a school where we learn how to live out CST, and I thank God that I was given this opportunity, the opportunity to see subsidiarity.