Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching.
The principle of subsidiarity was developed by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning. His work influenced the social teaching of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno and holds that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. Functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person. Subsidiarity assumes that these human persons are by their nature social beings, and emphasizes the importance of small and intermediate-sized communities or institutions, like the family, the church, labor unions and other voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. “Positive subsidiarity”, which is the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care, etc., is another important aspect of the subsidiarity principle.
The principle of subsidiarity was first formally developed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other. The principle was further developed in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of 1931, and Economic Justice for All by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79)
Since its founding by Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Distributism, a third way economic philosophy based on Catholic Social teaching, upholds the importance of subsidiarity.
The Church’s belief in subsidiarity is found in the programs of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, where grassroots community organizing projects are supported to promote economic justice and end the cycle of poverty. These projects directly involve the people they serve in their leadership and decision-making. The principle is violated in this same context (the CCHD) when a bishop of a diocese orders his parishes to donate a week’s total collection proceeds to the campaign.