Subsidiarity Calls Us to Live Like Catholics

Subsidiarity is integral to a social doctrine based on natural law rather than technology. That ought to be a feature rather than a bug, but in today’s world it means no one can make sense of it or apply it coherently.

The principle tells us that lower level associations such as families and local communities should carry on the greater part of the life of society, and higher level associations such as the state should facilitate their efforts. The point is to make social life more truly human, since face to face communities are more human than the stock market or the Code of Federal Regulations.

The approach is in line with social justice, understood in the Catholic manner as “conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” Lower level associations are due a setting that lets them pursue their vocation effectively, and subsidiarity calls on higher level associations to promote such a setting. It is also consistent with the Holy Father’s call in Evangelii Gaudium for “growth in justice [supported by] decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.” The call is for measures that promote the growth of productive and rewarding connections between the poor and the rest of society, rather than direct delivery of material benefits (which would be “a simple welfare mentality”).

While the approach makes a great deal of sense, it is not always obvious how to apply it. Actions don’t come with labels saying whether they constitute direct state intervention or support for the functioning of individuals and local groups. Nor do general principles make it clear what specific situations are urgent enough to justify the temporary direct intervention in social and economic life for the sake of the common good that Bl. John Paul II mentions in Centesimus Annus. So it seems that subsidiarity is less an enforceable rule that can be applied by anyone regardless of his views on other subjects than a guiding principle for building a good social order that has to be applied prudently, keeping in mind the proper balance of goals and a deep understanding of human nature and the workings of the system.

Unfortunately, that kind of complex, steady, and statesmanlike approach is hard to find in politics today. A basic problem is the difficulty of limiting the modern state and modern economic life. The state doesn’t want to be limited, because people who like to run things believe they know best. And technology has multiplied our ability to buy and sell whatever we need, and seems to hold out the prospect of absolute freedom through unlimited wealth.

For that reason money and the state pervade more and more aspects of social life today: fast food, day care, social welfare schemes, and electronic entertainment all substitute for family life, for example. The result is a political and social system based ever more totally on government bureaucracies and the market, with their relative power determined by relative institutional advantages and by shifting popular sentiment that both powers try to mold and manipulate with the aid of their allies and hangers-on.

The two working together are unlimited in their ambitions and demands, and they have no interest in subsidiarity. They believe they can do anything, and the growing exclusion of religious faith from public life means that the secular utilitarian ways of thinking that guide them function as a substitute religion. The result is that they feel called on to remake all human life in their own image, turning it into a system of maximum equal preference satisfaction consistent with the efficiency, coherence, and security of the social machine.

The only constituents ultimately taken seriously in that machine are the state and the individual. Church and family dissolve as independent institutions with their own principles of legitimacy. The freedom of the Church becomes freedom of worship, an aspect of the right of privacy, and marriage becomes a strictly private arrangement in the service of individual preferences, its public recognition a free decision of the state that must be carried out in a way that treats preferences equally. Hence “gay marriage.”

Such a system is at odds with subsidiarity, since the latter won’t exist unless non-state institutions have their own principles of legitimacy, and the system insists on extirpating such principles for the sake of its own coherence and dominance. Ordinary human beings don’t look at the world in the radically simplified terms the official outlook requires. It takes a great deal of training, and an innate or acquired lack of imagination, to do so. Untutored views bring in distinctions—man and woman, God and man, what is good and what is preferred—that motivate institutions other than the state, but have no official standing and therefore count as prejudiced and even bigoted. For that reason the people have to be propagandized, re-educated, and subjected to ever closer supervision to eradicate the effects of such views. If you want to join in mainstream public life you have to get with the program and help fight whatever could interfere with the perfection of the system.

That creates a problem for Catholics. In recent decades they have emphasized cooperating with others in a common effort to build a better world, and to do so they must join in efforts that are based on ways of thinking that are not specifically Catholic. It was once thought that the gap could be filled through dialogue, good will, natural law, the attractiveness of Christian answers to inevitable human questions, and the pervasiveness, at least in the West, of anonymous and cultural Christianity.

The expectation has not panned out. Obamacare is the most recent example. Giving the Federal government responsibility for the health of individuals means subjecting social life more and more to the official view of what constitutes well-being. The official view is that equal participation in the economy and in various personal indulgences is central to well-being, since those are the things that make life worth living. Women’s sexuality makes that kind of equality difficult, so the physical well-being with which healthcare is concerned is thought to include whatever is necessary to neuter women. Hence, among other things, the requirement that all institutions (with minimal exceptions) support abortion and contraception.

There are of course other examples. At one time the Church was suspicious of state schools. Today most people would say that they give parents a way to carry out their responsibility for the education of their children, and help the children grow up as active members of society. In fact, though, state schools reject parental influence, are designed to turn children into useful and compliant subordinates, and indoctrinate them in an official ideology radically at odds with Catholicism. Further, the workings of the system make it difficult for parents to choose something different for their children’s education. It is evident, then, that the state school system as it now exists is a radical violation of subsidiarity.

So what to do? At bottom, the Church needs to recall her mission and stop trying to be a player in mainstream secular politics. Any mainstream program is going to be at odds with Catholic teaching, not only because of its specifics but because the political project of which it is part is profoundly anti-Catholic. Instead, she should use whatever political intelligence and influence she has in a wholly different direction, toward making a decisively Catholic way of life a practical possibility. That approach would truly support subsidiarity, which requires legitimate principled autonomy for non-state institutions, and it is the only practical way for the Church to do so today.

For that approach to have a chance it will be necessary to demonstrate the value of that kind of autonomy. And to do that we must live by the substantive values at stake. The freedom of the Church cannot be seen as a matter of arbitrary will but as a principle necessary to attain substantive goods. Like other aspects of Catholic social teaching, what subsidiarity requires most of all is that Catholics live as Catholics.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared February 5, 2014 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of Empress Josephine in Notre Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804” painted by Jacques-Louis David between 1805 and 1807. Behind Napoleon sits Pope Pius VII, forbidden from crowning the emperor, a departure from past custom.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • ForChristAlone

    This is excellent but the faithful will need an action plan to operationalize its goal. Now we know where we are going; a detailed map to chart its course is next.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    In his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI sought to strike the balance between solidarity and subsidiarity – “It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity. But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organizations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivization and the dangers of a planned economy which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man’s basic human rights.”

    He also stressed that “Organized programs designed to increase productivity should have but one aim: to serve human nature. They should reduce inequities, eliminate discrimination, free men from the bonds of servitude, and thus give them the capacity, in the sphere of temporal realities, to improve their lot, to further their moral growth and to develop their spiritual endowments.

    • TheAbaum

      It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired
      goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in
      fulfilling them

      Unfortunately, as soon as this mandate and the powers necessary to effect these things are granted, Augustine’s libido dominandi rears its ugly head and following words are tossed aside.

      Then again, juxtaposing these words against Barack Obama shows a need for some revision, amplification or clarification.

  • AcceptingReality

    Here’s how to apply the principle of subsidiarity an dlive it out in your life. Join the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Conference at your local parish. Vincentians are the living embodiment of the principle. They meet the poor face to face, in their homes, on a daily basis. Try it, you’ll like it!

  • Vinnie

    Wow! Where we are as a society in a nutshell.This is where faith-in-action, and persecution, comes into play.

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  • Arriero

    I very much like the photo that presides this article (wonderful choice), though I would have better choosen the one of Charlemagne.

    Without a really powerful Church almost everything is lost. And power is earthly power, too. So has always been since Theodosius times. We don’t deny it. We cannot deny it. We praise both the earthly and divine power that emanates from the Church.

    Calvinist revisionists and Church-haters have always hated and despised a powerful Church. This has been their main objective for the last, at least, 500 years; first with the Reformation – being protestants the direct sons of the first anti-Church ebionites – that subsequently disgustingly infiltrated its tentacles in the first mainly protestant liberalism (in clear opposition to the real liberalism of Catholic thinkers from the School of Salamanca and Oporto); secondly with the neo-maquineist anti-deist marxism in the spirit of Thomas Muntzer and De Leyden and thirdly through a new anti-government-per-se rethorics built by the same old pseudo-calvinists though, this time, with some – and already disturbing – adherence in some Catholic circles.


    At least, we have to allow this Pope to clean the Church. Thankfully this Pope comes from the Latin Tradition that never allowed protestantism to penetrate (that’s why you never will find this anti-Catholic anti-government-per-se rethorics in millenarian Catholic nations). Let’s follow the Counter-Reformation principles in another fight against the nihilist enemy. Let’s call a spade a spade and remove the hood of the anti-Catholics trying to infiltrate within the most powerful and admirable Institution in man’s history.

    PD- The author concludes saying: «At bottom, the Church needs to recall her mission and stop trying to be a player in mainstream secular politics.». This expression is right, but only because the author has been wise enough to define the politics he refers to as «secular». Of course, the Church has nothing to do with secularism (protestantism carried to its logical, by the way). Yet the Church HAS TO play a political role, again. The Church is in fact political, has always been political and, if she wants to be important and admirable, should remain that way. We cannot play with fire. Who wants a marginalized Church? Not me, not any real Catholic should want that. Beware with the anti-government-per-se rethorics. The first government is that which comes from God through the Church.

    • TheAbaum

      “Without a really powerful Church almost everything is lost.”

      You mean like mighty Rome sent those Martyrs to the lions?

      I’m beginning to think that if you were a contemporary of Christ, you’d have been among those who rejected Him because he did not eradicate Rome and establish a new political order.

      You are obsessed by politics, but so is your master, well both of them.

      • Arriero

        – «[…] You mean like when mighty Rome sent those Martyrs to the lions?»

        Let me correct this to make it sound better: «You mean like when mighty ANTI-CATHOLIC SECULARIST, NIHILIST AND DECADENT Rome sent those Martyrs to the lions?».

        Of course, the answer is: no. I was not referring to that. Neither was Mr. Kalb referring to that because he was wise enough to talk about «secular» (ergo anti-Catholic) politics – the adjective was crucial -. The Church has no need to play with fire.

        I only want to unveil the profoundly anti-Catholic spirit behind the anti-government-per-se rethorics. If you accept the historical development of the Church (called TRADITION), you cannot disagree with me.

        Only Luther and Calvin really disagree with me. And Soros, who is an usurer. Within a real Catholic Republic he would have never been allowed to do what he has done. In other times, he would have been burned at the stakes.

        Your understanding of the concept «government» or «politics» is incredibly narrow. There’s life beyond the democrat/republican dichotomy. I’m talking about the Church history and you’re talking about simple american politics. No serious Catholic man or woman from any millenarian Catholic nation thinks in this Soros when discussing the important fact that is how the power become the greatest Institutional power in history.

        It’s worth recalling that: ROME DOES NOY PAY TRAITORS:

        PD- Pope Benedict XVI, in one of his latest speeches, put financial deregulation at the same level than terrorism.

        PDD- Father Juan de Mariana’s notion of human freedom, regulation, government and the relation man-God is totally opposed with the views from the mainly anglo-saxon protestant-liberals.

        PDDD- Unlike you, I clearly expose my views, do you? I don’t deny or despise that the Church crowned Charlemagne or that the Spaniards were the greatest evangelizers in world history. And don’t bring here this troll nonsense-speech from this disgusting pseudo-calvinist anti-Catholic golden calf lovers and nihilist bunker that is ZeroHedge.

        • TheAbaum

          Yeah, I was thinking of you with your profoundly anti-Catholic state idolatry.

          • Arriero

            1) The modern State is a liberal-Catholic Counter-Reformation invention which allowed us to pass from absolutism to liberalism.

            2) Protestantism marginalized this first and admirable Catholic liberalism, infiltrating its tentacles and re-shaping the way liberalism was understood by Counter-Reformation intellectuals.

            3) The concept of «natural law» has only sense from a Catholic perspective ( ). The concept of «freedom» has only sense from a Catholic perspective ( ). The first republicanism was born in Catholic nations ( ). The first declarations of rights and duties were born in Catholic nations ( ).

            4) The US was founded by masons, puritans, protestants, slave-owners and aristocrats. The problem with American Catholics has always been the same: that they’ve been a minority; in fact, a very ill-considered minority. This has led them to pursue impossible pacts with others, to find new political aspirations and intellectual shields to counteract the majority (;jsessionid=5F70F00FEC03DF4F0F303DFBD00B0864.journals?fromPage=online&aid=5288976 ).

            5) During the last 200 years the Church has lost too much power. This has given free rein to «social eugenesics». This is quite clear to observe in the US and in north-european countries, all of which deeply embedded by secularism now, an protestantism before.

            6) The US is without any doubt, the biggest, most powerful an almighty state in Earth. I dare to say that the US state is yet more powerful even than the Chinese one, and even more than any other state.

            7) There’s is a lot of cynism in the anti-government-per-se rethorics, much more coming from a Catholic, who is supposed to believe in the hierarchical and dogmatic Catholic Church. Why don’t you go to a veterans parade and yell to the soldiers for being public servants that have heroically served the american people while protecting the US state?

            8) The problem is not government in itself, the problem is the governor.

            • TheAbaum

              Your capacity to talk to much, talk about things you know nothing about, and say nothing is astounding.

              You are still a troll, a state idolater trying to infect faithful Catholics with a belief in a utopia that cannot exist and can not exist.

              Augustine understood the will to dominate, he defined it as “libido dominandi” and Thomas More coined “utopia”.

              You tried this in the desert, Satan.

  • fides

    Read Fr. Schall, SJ re term “social” justice. Until you get the definitive words correct the concept will remain murky — hence a bit of equivocation in the term “social justice” but greatly minimized when “justice” is used — it denotes an individual reference and accountability to that old concept of virtue — which applies to each of us …. as long as you continue to throw out this word “social” in front of justice you will diffuse your ability to lead people. You know that the only justice in a courtroom is what each person brings in his heart — our job on a social level is to bring that out of them through discussion, persuasion, evidence and appeal to virtue —-

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