The Principle of Subsidiarity: Governance in Catholic Social Teaching

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The principle of subsidiarity is one of the core tenets of Catholic social teaching. It offers a blueprint for how societies can organize themselves in a way that respects the dignity of every human being. What does this principle really mean, and how does it apply to governance? Let’s dive in to understand better.

What is Subsidiarity?

Subsidiarity isn’t just a fancy word that’s hard to spell; it’s a simple yet profound idea. In essence, it states that social and economic issues should be dealt with at the most local level that is capable of addressing the problem. Or to put it more simply, let people closest to a problem take care of it whenever they can.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates on this principle by saying, “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 coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CCC 1883).

Biblical Foundations

This idea doesn’t just appear out of nowhere; it’s deeply rooted in Christian Scripture. For example, in the New Testament, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). This underscores the idea that every part of the community is valuable and has a role to play. By allowing decisions to be made at the most local level possible, subsidiarity ensures that everyone’s voice can be heard.

Why Subsidiarity Matters

You might be asking, “That’s all well and good, but why does it matter?” Subsidiarity is vital for several reasons:

Protects Human Dignity

First, it protects human dignity. The Catechism tells us that “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature” (CCC 1879). Subsidiarity honors this social nature of human beings by allowing them the freedom to manage their affairs in a way that best serves their needs.

Promotes Participation

Second, subsidiarity promotes participation. It encourages people to be actively involved in their local communities. This engagement empowers individuals and helps to foster a sense of responsibility for the welfare of others.

Encourages Efficiency

Finally, it’s usually more efficient to handle problems locally. People who live and work in a community generally have a better understanding of its needs and challenges than a distant bureaucracy.

Subsidiarity in Practice: Examples

Family as the Basic Unit

The family serves as the most basic example of subsidiarity. According to the Catechism, “The family is the original cell of social life” (CCC 2207). Within the family, parents are primarily responsible for the education and well-being of their children. Higher levels of governance, like the state, should only interfere when absolutely necessary to protect the common good.

Local Government

Subsidiarity is also evident in how local governments function. Issues like local education, waste management, and community policing are usually best dealt with by those closest to the situation, such as local councils or municipalities.

Limits and Complements: The Role of Higher Authorities

The principle of subsidiarity is not an excuse for a lack of governance or regulation by higher authorities. The Catechism reminds us that the role of higher authorities is to “support [lower communities] in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CCC 1883).


Subsidiarity works hand-in-hand with another Catholic social teaching principle: solidarity. Solidarity is the recognition that we are all part of one human family, regardless of our differences. It encourages us to look out for one another, especially the most vulnerable among us.

Common Good

Both subsidiarity and solidarity serve the ultimate goal of the common good. “The common good consists of three essential elements: respect for and promotion of the fundamental rights of the person; prosperity, or the development of the spiritual and temporal goods of society; the peace and security of the group and of its members” (CCC 1925).


The principle of subsidiarity is not just an academic theory; it is a practical guide for building societies that respect human dignity, encourage participation, and are efficient in meeting the needs of their people. Grounded in both the Bible and the Catechism, subsidiarity is a universal teaching of the Church that has stood the test of time.

By letting decisions be made as close to the ground as possible while ensuring higher levels of governance are there to assist and coordinate, we create communities that are more human, just, and in accordance with God’s plan for us. Through subsidiarity, we honor the Biblical teaching that each of us, from the eye to the hand to the feet, has a unique and indispensable role to play in the Body of Christ.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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