The principle of subsidiarity—-which the budget plans and vice-presidential run of Paul Ryan put in the spotlight  this year—-is easily misunderstood. It is sometimes characterized simply as the idea that problems should be solved at the lowest possible level, by (say) the family or the neighborhood rather than the federal government.

The proper application of subsidiarity may recommend a move towards localism at times, but as Villanova law professor Patrick Brennan  writes in a new paper , subsidiarity from a Catholic perspective consists of more than that. From the abstract:

Subsidiarity is the fixed and immovable ontological principle according to which the common good is to be achieved through a plurality of social forms. Subsidiarity is derivative of social justice, a recognition that societies other than the state constitute unities of order, possessing genuine authority, which which are to be respected and, when necessary, aided.

Brennan elaborates on this theme as he explains Pope Pius XI’s words in  Quadragesimo Anno :
Negatively, it is a principle of non-absorption of lower societies by higher societies, above all by the state. This is the aspect of subsidiarity that is commonly invoked today, but it represents only half the story. Positively, subsidiarity is also the principle that when aid is given to a particular society, including by the state, it be for the purpose of encouraging and strengthening that society.  . . .

It bears emphasis that the libertarian misinterpretation of subsidiarity, which reduces the principle to little more than its non-absorption aspect, is falsified by the popes’ repeated insistence that the state has a right, and sometimes a duty, to intervene.


Elsewhere he adds, “The more the work of a particular state can be accomplished through the competencies and authorities of the many and varied societies that are nested within that state . . . the richer that particular state’s socio-political order.” Rather than associating subsidiarity with federalism, then, we might more accurately understand it as pluralism.

Brennan also provides a valuable overview of how Catholic social teaching developed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the face of increasing government centralization. You can download the entire twenty-page paper  here .

Perhaps the primary difficulty with implementing this broader (and more accurate) view of subsidiarity lies in negotiating how the government and private institutions can cooperate for the sake of the common good.  Can private institutions maintain their particular commitments when taking a more public role? For example, now that most poor people receive numerous forms of public aid—-which is in many ways a positive development—-how do private groups help them without becoming mere extensions of the government bureaucracy?

To state one aspect of the problem more pointedly, to what extent does cooperating with the government entail accepting the government’s priorities?  Recent developments  here and in the U.K. suggest that the extent is large. (I’d cite the HHS contraceptive mandate as further proof, but the mandate applies even to religious groups that take no government money at all.)

Even setting aside the divergent moral views of government and religious institutions, can an expanding government truly support and work with private groups or will it simply crowd them out ? If conservatives eventually succeed in rolling back the welfare state, would families, religious congregations, and charities be able to pick up the slack?

I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions, but I suppose trying to strengthen our own families, communities, and religious institutions is never a bad place to start.

h/t Jordan Ballor

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