Subsidiarity Over Social Justice

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

We’re hearing a lot about “social justice” lately. If only we heard half as much about “subsidiarity.” When it comes to truly helping the needy, few words are so instructive. Unfortunately, very few Catholics have even heard of this core Catholic social-economic teaching.

When it comes to assisting the needy, subsidiarity encourages localism. Think about it: Localities, whether public or private, from counties to churches, are closer to the problem; they offer a more efficient, human touch than a distant bureaucracy. Most importantly, as the Catechism states (1885): “The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention.”

In addition to the Catechism, I strongly recommend Catholics visit the website of the Acton Institute to learn about subsidiarity.

I’m convinced, from study after study, and years of observing public policy, from the New Deal to the Great Society, that addressing poverty in the narrow federal, collectivist way preached by modern progressives—in the language of “social justice”—is counter-productive, fostering rather than lessening dependency.

In fact, the long experience of economies shows that those titled toward collectivism—to a single central government—become so unproductive and lacking in prosperity that they can’t produce the very wealth that progressives want to redistribute in the first place. That’s the self-defeating danger that social-justice engineers face as they shift private charity to a federal collective.

That’s not the policy of the Catholic Church. It’s incumbent among Catholics to learn more about this blessed concept of subsidiarity. Ask your priest about it, or your Religious Ed director. If they haven’t heard about it, look it up together.

Go to the Catechism, open the index, and look under “sub.” You won’t regret it.

Dr. Paul Kengor


Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Joe DeVet

    Everything’s good about this posting except the title. It seems to posit a false dichotomy, as if subsidiarity is opposed to social justice. In fact, as the article itself points out, subsidiarity is, or should be, integral to the social justice teachings of the Church.

    How often it is left out of the writings and speakings on social justice by Catholic leaders, however. It was encouraging to see a few bishops, during the discussion on health-care “reform”, bring up the principle of subsidiarity and apply it to that issue. The bishops I know of who did so were from the great interior of our nation. Unfortunately, the USCCB, which fosters a collectivist approach to health care and many other things, meets on a coast, in DC, within the Beltway, where it is said, sound travels faster than light!

  • admaximamdeigloriam

    Very true, Joe.

    Another thing which subsidiarity allows is charity to reign over employment for services. Consider if health care for the poor were taken care of by Catholic doctors and nurses giving of themselves in love for their fellow creation. What grace would flow into their lives and the Church. Likewise, how would the faith and holiness of Catholics increase were we to give sufficiently to take care of the poor rather than an inefficient federal bureaucracy. Not only would we have more money left over or reach more poor by eliminating the middle man, we would be doing a corporal work of mercy, rather than merely being forced to participate in welfare.

    We would, in fact, be evangelizing. There is no room for evangelizing within the collectivist approach. That’s why we see little, if any, real results come from the USCCB.

    For the Church to bring conversion to society, it must rediscover and abide by subsidiarity. It cannot achieve its ends by violating one of the principles which uphold the very end for which they are working.

  • Pingback: Audio: Subsidiarity Over Social Justice « Acton Institute PowerBlog()

  • Greg Fazzari

    As the government chose to give a chunk of money to a Catholic Charity recently, a strange thought hit me: Wow…why couldn’t we just give it directly ourselves? Who convinced us that the only way we can solve societal problems is to give all our money to the government…and let them choose the means and ends?

    Can’t we help the unemployed…ourselves? The downtrodden? All of us are ready and willing to help others…but funneling everything through the government is a mistake. I’d rather funnel it through the Church…if any institution.

  • Pingback: Subsidiarity: The Guiding Principle - Crashing from the Middle Class()

  • max123

    Over the past several years I have been convinced that the Churches stance on Social Justice is wrongheaded. It turns out I was both right and wrong. The Church has the correct view (subsidiarity) , it is the American Bishops who have gone off the deep end along with any number of renegade nuns. Perhaps Pope Francis need to conduct a slap down!