It’s a rare occasion that theological concepts make the main-stream media, so whenever they do, one shouldn’t waste the opportunity to talk about them. Recently, the Catholic social doctrine principle of Subsidiarity came up, albeit not in the most reverent light. In a WikiLeaks email exchange from 2011, it is lamented that some Catholics try to sound sophisticated by using terms like ‘Thomistic thought’ and ‘subsidiarity’ “…because no one knows what the hell they’re talking about.” That might well be true sometimes, as Catholics are, like anyone else, subject to temptations of arrogance and boorish verbosity. In any case, it makes for an occasion to review this essential concept of the Church’s social doctrine.
While pastors like Pope Leo XIII and Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler in the late 1800s, as well as the writers Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton in the early 20th Century, developed the concept of Subsidiarity, its fullest expression was offered in 1931 by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On 40 years after Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII). In numbers 79-80 Pius XI claimed that:
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.
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.
The principle of Subsidiarity simply means that when people and communities are able to take care of their own affairs (keeping in mind the good of other communities) they should be given the opportunities to exercise these responsibilities. Local organizations and governing bodies are, as a rule, more connected to the real needs of any given community, and will most likely (so the theory goes) make more informed, accurate, and beneficial solutions for that social body. Of course, this doesn’t give local governments free reign over everything; history is full of examples of localities suffering from xenophobia, prejudice, and other community-sanctioned abuses of justice. Nonetheless, and trusting in a community’s efforts to secure the common good, a healthy deference to local decision making is a goal worth promoting and protecting. As the popular environmental saying goes, “Think globally; act locally!” How Catholic.