The principle of subsidiarity is broadly concerned with the limits of the right and duty of the public authority to intervene in social and economic affairs. The term was first used and explicitly defined by pius xi in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno: "It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them" (79). This doctrine, though not by name, was taught in the earlier encyclicals of leo xiii, Immortale Dei and Rerum novarum, and is contained in the writings of Thomas Aquinas about the nature of law and the state. Subsequently, pius xii and john xxiii quoted with strong approval pius xi's enunciation of the principle.
Right to Intervene. That the principle of subsidiarity contains a positive statement of the right and duty of the public authorities to intervene was recognized by John XXIII in Mater et Magistra: "This intervention of public authorities that encourages, stimulates, regulates, supplements, and complements, is based on the principle of subsidiarity as set forth by Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno " (53). John XXIII then continued to quote the passage from the encyclical given above. There can be no doubt, however, that he had in mind also the paragraph that immediately follows in Quadragesimo anno for the idea and the wording are almost identical: "The state should leave to these smaller groups the settlement of business of minor importance. It will thus carry out with greater freedom, power, and success the tasks belonging to it, because it alone can effectively accomplish these, directing, watching, stimulating and restraining, as circumstances suggest or necessity demands. Let those in power, therefore, be convinced that the more faithfully this principle be followed, and a graded hierarchical order exist between the various subsidiary organizations, the more excellent will be both the authority and the efficiency of the social organization as a whole and the happier and more prosperous the condition of the state" (80).
However, because the emphasis in the original formulation of the principle of subsidiarity is negative, some wish to interpret it in the spirit of 19th-century liberalism. According to this view, the state is an evil, though perhaps a necessary evil, and its intervention in social and economic affairs must be limited to cases where subordinate bodies are unable or unwilling to perform their own proper function. Thus, a role proper to the state alone is not recognized and its activity theoretically could be reduced to nothing.
Nature of State and Society. To arrive at a proper understanding of the principle of subsidiarity, one must look to the nature of the state and society. Man is a social person, who achieves his perfection only in society. The state exists to help the persons who live within the society. This is the meaning of the Latin word, subsidium, aid, help. Normally, this aid is indirect by the care of the complex of conditions that enable the subordinate societies and the individuals to care for their own needs. This complex of conditions is what has been traditionally called the "common good."
In the words of Mater et Magistra, the common good "embraces the sum total of those conditions of social living whereby men are enabled more fully and more readily, to achieve their own perfection" (65). Pacem in terris explains more explicitly and concretely what is involved in the total of these conditions: "It is agreed that in our time the common good is chiefly guaranteed when personal rights and duties are maintained. The chief concern of civil authorities must therefore be to insure that these rights are acknowledged, respected, co-ordinated with other rights, defended and promoted, so that in this way each one may more easily carry out his duties" (60).
While accepting the duty of the state to intervene to further, protect, and promote personal rights some have such a narrow concept of what these personal rights include that they ascribe a very limited role to the state. How widespread in reality is the proper role of the state is made clear in Pacem in terris: "It is therefore necessary that the administration give wholehearted and careful attention to the social as well as to the economic progress of citizens, and to the development, in keeping with the development of the productive system, of such essential services as the building of roads, transportation, communications, water supply, housing, public health, education, facilitation of the practice of religion, and recreational facilities. It is necessary also that governments make efforts to see that insurance systems are made available to the citizens, so that, in case of misfortune or increased family responsibilities, no person will be without the necessary means to maintain a decent standard of living. The government should make similarly effective efforts to see that those who are able to work can find employment in keeping with their aptitudes, and that each worker receives a wage in keeping with the laws of justice and equity. It should be equally the concern of civil authorities to insure that workers be allowed their proper responsibility in the work undertaken in industrial organization, and to facilitate the establishment of intermediate groups which will make social life richer and more effective. Finally, it should be possible for all the citizens to share as far as they are able in their country's cultural advantages" (64).
All these tasks are included in the complex of conditions necessary to enable the individual to achieve his own social and economic welfare. These then would be the primary and direct concern of the public authority in helping the individual members of society to attain their full development. Moreover, there can be circumstances when lower social bodies may be deficient or even nonexistent, so that the state must be directly concerned with the welfare of the individual. Here, according to Quadragesimo anno, the public authorities must remember they are to aid the lesser society or the individual, but not to destroy them by permanently taking over their function.
Related Questions. The principle of subsidiarity also has applicability to various related questions of social philosophy. For example, a planned economy determining prices, wages, production and investment quotas, and the like, violates the principle of subsidiarity, for the public authority would thus be making decisions that should be the concern of individuals or private enterprise. On the other hand, economic planning, determining monetary and fiscal policy, antitrust regulations, and the like, which affect the general economic environment, is consistent with subsidiarity.
Nationalization, as a principle, violates the principle of subsidiarity, because it claims for the state the right to manage economic enterprises and denies this right to individuals. However, applied ad hoc to special circumstances in which a particular private enterprise is detrimental to the common good nationalization can be in keeping with the subsidiarity principle.
In the context of American government, the principle of subsidiarity is often recognized as being effected through the historically developed system of federalism, that is, the sharing of responsibilities on the federal, state, and local levels of counties and municipalities. Not to be neglected is the working of civil society, that ensemble of numerous private and voluntary associations, as the locus of the achievement of the majority of social functions, from economic production and distribution to the cultural and religious life of a people. To recognize the ordinary functioning of civil society as the "center of gravity" of social relations is implicitly to acknowledge the natural right of free association and the wisdom of broad institutional pluralism. It is only when social tasks (such as the protection of rights and care for the common good) are not adequately fulfilled on the local and voluntary levels that resort to government intervention is rightly made. The U.S. Bishops' 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, calls all Americans to respect the principle of subsidiarity in assigning social and economic tasks to various appropriate levels and bodies within our society (see esp. nos. 99–101, 124, 303–311, 323–325). john paul ii reiterated the importance of this guiding norm in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus, particularly in treating the scope and reach of centralized state bureaucracy (nos. 44-48). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1885) also notes that "the principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationship between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order."
This latter observation indicates a trend in more recent Catholic social teaching whereby the principle of subsidiarity has increasingly been applied not only to the various levels of national politics, but now also to the relationship between individual nation-states and global authorities. Various references to subsidiarity (both implicit and at times explicitly using the term) in the social teaching documents of Popes paul vi and John Paul II emphasize the interplay of the rightful autonomy of states and the simultaneous limits to that autonomy in the interest of correcting global imbalances and resolving conflicts. Building upon John XXIII's observation that "nations are reciprocally subjects of rights and duties" in the worldwide community (Pacem in terris, no. 80), recent popes have urged the development of an appropriate sharing of global authority through international agencies and bodies (such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and various organizations that treat economic, social and environmental concerns) oriented to advancing the global common good. When Paul VI in 1967 observed that "the social question has now become worldwide" (Populorum progressio, no. 3), he ushered in a renewed papal perspective on a broader interpretation of subsidiarity. John Paul II's frequent treatment of the theme of global solidarity implies the need for global institutions to regulate social relationships that now cross national borders, and this increasingly globalized order calls for a renewed application of the principle of subsidiarity. Catholic reflection on the new division of labor in addressing worldwide problems relates particularly to the task of economic development, as John Paul II notes in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (see nos. 21 and 26) when he calls upon international institutions to foster authentic development in those countries requiring assistance in the task of effecting economic progress.
Bibliography: j. y. calvez and j. perrin, The Church and Social Justice, tr. j. r. kirwan (Chicago 1961). o. von nellbreuning, Reorganization of Social Economy, tr. b. w. dempsey (Milwaukee 1936) ch. 9–10. j. messner, "Freedom as a Principle of Social Order," The Modern Schoolman 28 (St. Louis 1951) 97–110.
[r. e. mulcahy/