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Principle of subsidiarity

Thursday, 13th March 2008

The principle of subsidiarity: holds that a central authority (such as government) should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.  This assumes that matters ought to be first handled by the smallest (or, the lowest) competent authority and that only when those initiatives exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently, should the central authority attempt to undertake them.



  • Subsidiarity refers to the way in which a larger organization or community must help or support a smaller organization or community.
  • Subsidiarity is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person.

  • Subsidiarity assumes that these human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, and voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole.


[…] no function should be assigned to a higher or more remote institution (the bureaucracy of a distant central government, for example) that can be effectively carried out by a smaller and more immediate social unit (families, churches, and the like).

    Woods, T. E. (2005). The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy. Maryland: Lexington Books.




        The word subsidiarity means “to help” or “to support.” It is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching.


        Subsidiarity. (2008, March 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from



        The fundamental principle of subsidiarity was first recognized in the encyclical Rerum novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other.


        № 13. “[T]he family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature.


        № 14. “The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop. Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; […] The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.” (Leo XIII, 1891)


        Leo XIII, Rerum novarum (Of New Things), 1891. Retrieved from


        In 1931, the principle of subsidiarity was definitively pronounced by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Quadragesimo anno. It simply states that a higher entity in the social order may not do for the lower order what it is capable of doing for itself. This principle is not relegated only to the social order. It must be recognized as the principle which guides all entities in the spiritual order. 

        № 79. “[T]hat most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: 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.


        № 80. The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.


        Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno (The Fourtieth Year), 1931. Retrieved from 


        The principle of subsidiarity is currently recognized as a universal principle, as stated in John Paul II’s 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

        № 1883. “Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. 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.”


        № 1884. “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.”


        John Paul II, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997. Retrieved from


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