Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Saturday 16 January |
Saint of the Day: Bl. Giuseppe Antonio Tovini
home iconChurch
line break icon

What is the principle of subsidiarity?

Anna Krestyn - published on 02/06/13

Subsidiarity is a foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching

The principle of subsidiarity, a core principle of Catholic social teaching, states that human affairs should be handled by the lowest and least centralized level of authority possible.

“The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which 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” (CCC 1883).

Another way of saying it is that social institutions should be as small as possible but as big as necessary in order to protect the common good. For instance, national defense is an example of a duty of the federal government, for it is not something that could be feasibly handled at a lower level. A federal welfare state, on the other hand, which attempts to provide for all human needs at a macrocosmic level, is an example of a violation of the principle of subsidiarity:

Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: 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 (Centesimus Annus, 48).

As Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Bishop Robert Finn remind us in their joint pastoral letter, the principle of subsidiarity is vital to maintaining "the transcendent dignity of the human person,” as it protects the right of those in need to be agents of their own care. Disrespect for this principle leads to a distancing between authoritative entities and the people they serve, thereby creating the potential for an abuse of power and societal dysfunction. Bl. John Paul II explains:

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the social assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need (Centesimus Annus, 48).

The application of the principle of subsidiarity in practice is a matter of prudential judgment which depends on the concrete particulars of each situation. It is possible for people of good will to disagree about whether or not a given action is consonant with this principle, and Catholics have the duty to work to discern the truth of each situation according to the teaching of the Church.

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in eight languages: English, French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
DAD, HOW DO I?
Cerith Gardiner
Meet the dad who's teaching basic skills on Y...
FORGIVING COUPLE
Bret Thoman, OFS
An exorcist teaches 4 steps to forgive
Philip Kosloski
What is the Holy Cloak of St. Joseph?
LUXOR FILM FESTIVAL
Zoe Romanowsky
20-year-old filmmaker wins award for powerful...
Kathleen N. Hattrup
Why God loves ordinary stuff: Pope Francis' r...
POPE FRANCIS; Ash Wednesday
Kathleen N. Hattrup
Vatican: Imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday...
D'CRUZ FAMILY
Cerith Gardiner
Meet the family of 12 siblings with a very sp...
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.