St. Joseph Catholic Church - Toledo, OH

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October 16, 2016 - Catholic Social Teaching - Subsidiarity

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Over the last 2 months I’ve reflected each weekend on one of the 7 Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching:

  1. Human Dignity
  2. Rights and Responsibilities
  3. Preferential Option for the Poor
  4. Call to Family, Community and Participation
  5. Solidarity
  6. Dignity of Work and rights of workers
  7. Care for Creation (I’m going to table until a later time)

Today, we turn our attention to another of what can be called a primary principle: Subsidiarity

In the Gospel for the Extraordinary Form (22nd Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 22:15-21); the Pharisees ask of Christ our Lord,

“Teacher, is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?”

Their hope was to entrap Him between two competing authorities - the Roman Empire and the Jewish Religious Authorities.  If He answers, ‘Yes it is lawful’, they will claim He is against the local laws and customs.  He is says it is unlawful, He has made himself an enemy of the Empire.

His instruction, and question: “Show me the coin. Whose image and inscription" and response “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, those things that are God’s", shows an understanding of proper authority and a just rendering to each of those proper authorities.


Subsidiarity as a principle establishes the proper ordering of authority.  It is defined in the Catechism as:

[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 co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CA, n. 48; cf. QA, nn. 184—186). God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence. The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, nn. 1883-1885.

One could say that subsidiarity and the proper establishment of power and governance are divinely revealed.  Consider the lament of Moses after having lead the people of Israel out of slavery.  While in the desert, the people would complain directly to Moses, and he complained to God: You have made this people so numerous, how can I govern them all?  So God directed Moses to establish wise individuals as leaders over groups of 1000s, 100s, 50s, and 10s.  Only the most important cases would flow upward.

This proper ordering can further be seen in the readings of the Ordinary Form for this the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time.  The first reading tells of when Israel was attacked by Amalek and Moses mustered the defense, by calling all the people, just just one tribe, to battle.  In the Gospel parable of the persistent widow, we hear about  the judge of a particular town.

As a [Catholic} principle, it was first formulated in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Pope Pius XI issued a major social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, which took issue with the centralization of political and economic power at the time. He envisioned the practice of subsidiarity as the way to restore civil society.

“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,” he wrote, “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.”


Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a ‘Welfare State’, while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centred localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (no. 351).

The Church’s social teaching, as related in the Compendium, maintains that all human beings have an equal dignity, and that government has a special responsibility for serving the needs of the poor and most vulnerable. But at the same time, the Church opposes “certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance” when they “lead to a loss of human energies” and “are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.”

Is there a golden mean between the helping hand of government and the heavy hand of government? Subsidiarity, rightly understood, is the Church’s answer.

But the principle, and the civil society it fosters, won’t flourish unless citizens participate in their communities. True subsidiarity depends on the willingness of people to become active participants in civil society, to engage with contemporary cultural and social issues, and to help order them according to God’s will. (From For Your Marriage)[1]


[1] Catholic Social Teaching: Subsidiarity by Tim Lanigan




Iustus germinabit sicut lilium: et florebit in aeternum ante Dominum.
-- Gospel Acclamation, Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19

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