The Principle of Assistance

“The permanent principles of the Church’s social doctrine constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching,” states the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. “These are the principles of: the dignity of the human person … which is the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine; the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity” (No. 160).

It is a safe bet that of these four principles, the least mentioned and understood by Catholics is subsidiarity. We hear a great deal — as we should, of course — about the dignity of the human person and the common good. And solidarity — the proper recognition of our interdependence and shared responsibility as members of society — is perhaps the most prominent and frequently mentioned of the four principles. 

A Social Creature 

In order to better understand and appreciate all of these principles, we must recognize that Catholic social teaching is rooted in a particular view of man as a social creature who was created for life-giving and loving relationships, both with other humans and especially with the Triune God. Man is essentially a communal being. “No one,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “can believe alone, just as no one can live alone” (No. 166). Man needs to live in society; it is an inherent part of his nature (see Nos. 1879-80). 

Thus the Church rejects radical individualism, which severs man from both responsibilities and community and leads ultimately to spiritual ruin. But the Church also rejects social and political movements that threaten to subsume man into an impersonal whole, as if each person were merely a cog in a machine. In sum, the Church’s understanding of the nature of man (created for communion with others and God) and purpose of society (to support man in fulfilling his temporal and eternal vocations) are foundational for appreciating the four principles. 

This is important to bear in mind in reading Quadragesimo Anno, the seminal text in Catholic social teaching regarding subsidiarity. The 1931 encyclical by Pope Pius XI was subtitled “On Reconstructing the Social Order” and was written to show how Catholic social thought was essentially different from forms of collectivism, totalitarianism and radical individualism. It was issued on the 40th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s famous social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, on capital and labor. The key passage, which is worth reading in full, outlines the proper relationship between individuals, local associations, social groups of varying sizes and the state: 

“As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help [subsidium] to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. 

“The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of ‘subsidiary function,’ the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State” (Nos. 79-80). 

“Help,” or “Assistance” 

“Subsidiarity” comes from the Latin word subsidium, meaning “help,” or “assistance.” This principle is often expressed in a negative form, emphasizing that it is meant to guard against larger or more centralized societies taking over tasks and duties proper to smaller, local societies. That is true, but it is also incomplete. The positive aspect of subsidiarity emphasizes that larger societies should take up those responsibilities and tasks that smaller societies and institutions cannot accomplish. Pope John Paul II, in his social encyclical Centesimus annus (released in 1991, on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum), warned of the “malfunctions and defects” of the “Social Assistance State” and said: 

“Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: 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” (No. 48). 

The principle of subsidiarity, while obviously having much to do with the political realm, goes much further and deeper than just politics. This is touched on in Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, which notes that men, because they are oriented toward God by their very nature, are not limited to “the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs”; they are made for more than politics and everyday living. Government should respect this fact, “since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious” (No. 3). Matters of eternity, in other words, are more important than temporal matters, and people are always more important than wealth, power and material possessions.  

A key aspect of subsidiarity is the respect that is to be given to the free and reasoned decisions of people. Subsidiarity recognizes and defends the proper responsibilities of each person in society; it insists that society and communities have a responsibility to assist each person in their pursuit of what is good and true by providing the conditions needed for such actions. “Man’s social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another,” states Gaudium et Spes, the council’s document that focuses on the Church in the modern world. “For the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person which for its part and by its very nature stands completely in need of social life” (No. 25). TCA 

The Coercive State and Subsidiarity (sidebar) 

The principle of subsidiarity highlights in many ways the tension in today’s world between a completely secular view of society and a Catholic understanding of man, his place in society, and the purpose of social associations and political institutions. In his essay titled “The Coherence of Catholic Social Doctrine” (Nova et Vetera, Fall 2009), Russell Hittinger notes: “On the modern view of the state, there are only two persons having propria: the artificial person of the state, and natural, individual persons. The ‘lowest’ level can only mean the individual, or, perhaps, partnerships. Subsidiarity, on the other hand, presupposes that there are plural authorities and agents having their ‘proper’ (not necessarily, lowest) duties and rights with regard to the common good — immediately, the common good of the particular society, but also the common good of the body politic.” 

This significant problem is addressed in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which explains that the “principle of subsidiarity protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfil their duties” (No. 187). When the principle of subsidiarity is denied or ignored — or limited by a form of perverted democratization or overt egalitarianism — “the spirit of freedom and initiative” is limited or even destroyed. Further, the principle “is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms.” When bureaucracies and centralized governments assume to know more and better about the everyday lives and choices of citizens, they hinder or ruin private initiative and responsibility. Thus there needs to be the following so that subsidiarity can be put into practice: “respect and effective promotion of the human person and the family; ever greater appreciation of associations and intermediate organizations in their fundamental choices and in those that cannot be delegated to or exercised by others; the encouragement of private initiative so that every social entity remains at the service of the common good, each with its own distinctive characteristics; the presence of pluralism in society and due representation of its vital components; safeguarding human rights and the rights of minorities; bringing about bureaucratic and administrative decentralization; striking a balance between the public and private spheres, with the resulting recognition of the social function of the private sphere; appropriate methods for making citizens more responsible in actively ‘being a part’ of the political and social reality of their country.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight ( He is the author of “Will Catholics Be ‘Left Behind’?” and co-author of “The Da Vinci Hoax.” He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.