Elsewhere: subsidiarity


Catholic Social Teaching, in service of social justice, has well developed principles. In the political world we also here the words “social justice” used, but often in service of highly distorted, political ends.

The principal of solidarity is commonly misused in support of ever-growing, unrestrained central government. Some people simply assume that more government programs, more government regulations, more government everything is the solution. It is not. Such thinking inevitably tramples human dignity, reducing people into minor cogs in the wheel. In my opinion, many people are about to learn first-hand of their increasing “cog-ness” as ObamaCare unfolds.

The balancing principal which keeps solidarity in check is subsidiarity. These are equal and complimentary principals, one without the other leads to disaster.

James Kalb recently wrote an excellent piece for The Catholic World Report on what subsidiarity is and how it is currently practiced (spoiler: it isn’t).

Subsidiarity is a basic principle of Catholic social teaching. Like other such principles, it is praised more than practiced, because it is at cross purposes with the outlook that now governs our public life.

It springs from concern for man in all his dimensions. Each of us participates in the human nature that is common to all. Each of us also has his own will and destiny, and knows who he is through a social identity that includes local and particular connections. So we are at once universal, individual, and socially situated, and become what we are through active participation in a complex of networks and institutions.

Concern with that aspect of human life puts Catholic social teaching at odds with the understandings of social life now dominant, which take equality and efficiency as their concern, and consequently want to reduce society to a sort of machine run from the top down for simple purposes. Such understandings make man less than he is, and end up treating him at bottom as an employee, voter, and consumer: someone who holds a position in a system of production and distribution designed and run by other people, periodically registers his assent to that system and how it is governed, and otherwise is free to amuse himself however he wants, as long as he doesn’t interfere with other people or the smooth operation of the system.

Dissent from that vision puts Catholic social teaching at cross purposes with every other political ideal now prominent. Catholic teaching wants man to be an effective participant in his world, so it wants the center of gravity of social life to be within his reach. For that reason it insists, in the face of the modern tendency toward the industrialization of social relations, on making the business of society as local as reasonably possible. It therefore asserts the principle of subsidiarity, which insists that lower-level groups such as families and local communities are not tools in the hands of higher-ups but have their own life and integrity that must be respected.

Subsidiarity rejects all forms of tyranny. It makes hierarchy more a matter of enabling those in the middle and bottom to carry on their lives than giving those at the top the power to plan out what is wanted and see to its achievement. It rejects the conception of social justice most common today, which emphasizes equality and universality and thus a comprehensive system of supervision and control. Instead, it stands for the Catholic and classical conception of social justice, a state of affairs in which each part of the social order receives its due so it can carry out its proper function.

More generally, it rejects present-day liberalism, the attempt to turn the social order into a technically rational contrivance for maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences. It opposes it not only in its leftist or progressive form, which emphasizes expertise and equality, and prefers to act through neutral bureaucracies and international authorities, but also in its rightist or conservative form, which emphasizes energy and efficiency, and prefers global markets and the exercise of national power. So it is ill at ease with both the politically-correct welfare state and such aspects of present-day capitalism as outsourcing, big box stores, the penetration of commercial relations into all aspects of life, and the bottom line as the final standard for business decisions.

It nonetheless accepts certain tendencies often identified as conservative or liberal. It generally favors family values, distributed powers, federalism, local control, and freedom of enterprise and association, all of which now count as conservative causes. It also favors causes that count as liberal, such as grassroots democracy, limitations on big business as well as big government, and certain kinds of unionism. It favors neighborliness and an active civil society, which everyone says he likes, and maintenance of borders and limits on globalization, which our major parties along with the whole of our ruling class now reject.

Read James’ whole piece: Subsidiarity.

See also my previous essays touching this subject: social justice / not social justice and hijacking CST.


  1. The bishops need to address this subject more often and in more depth so that Catholics and the world at large will understand what the Church means when she proclaims the importance of “social justice” – a phrase that has been perverted to serve some very questionable ends. James Kalb’s article should be required reading – very clear and helpful!

    Thank you, George!

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