Subsidiarity

Another principle of Catholic Social Teaching, closely connected with human dignity, is that of personal freedom.  Made as we are in the image of God, we have been endowed by our Creator with a capacity for self-determination.  By freely following the judgments of reason, we are intended to assume a measure of responsibility for our moral and spiritual progress.  The Church has encouraged democratic styles of government; Vatican II taught that political systems in which the citizens participate freely in the choice of their leaders are most consonant with human dignity.

As a corollary of freedom, the principle of subsidiarity forbids higher governmental agencies from performing tasks that can be adequately handled by lower agencies or by private initiatives.  The state must not be allowed to suffocate the freedom of individuals, families and intermediate voluntary associations to do what lies within their competence.  The role of the state with regard to education, culture and the economy is a strictly subsidiary one.  It sets the rules by which local initiatives can be coordinated for the sake of the common good, and intervenes only to fulfill needs that other agencies cannot supply.  Catholic social teaching tends to be critical of the welfare state, in which personal initiative is crushed and inefficiency and corruption too often abound. (Avery Dulles, S.J, The New World of Faith, 136-137)

The principle of subsidiarity defends the freedom of initiative of every member of society – and of the intermediate institutions that make up society – from excessive intervention by the state or other larger institutions.  The Church vigorously defends the unique roles of families, community associations, and other intermediate institutions and insists their roles cannot be ignored or absorbed by the state or other large institutions.  However, when the common good or the rights of individuals are harmed or threatened, society – including government institutions – has a responsibility to act to protect human dignity and rights. (USCCB, “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching”, 25)

Subsidiarity therefore does not mean that government should do nothing.  Rather, it does mean that government should protect and empower families, and encourage and allow parents to make informed decisions for themselves and their children.  It also means that communities should be allowed and encouraged to solve community problems, and provided assistance as needed to take responsibility for improving their communities.