The Principle of Subsidiarity

August 19, 2013

A society with authority and vital flux is one of an immensely rich social life. Every family, social group, profession, region, and State tends to gather together under natural leaderships to address the needs so proper to our social nature. Each unit produces by custom and good sense that which it is capable of producing. It makes use of all its riches, beauties, and resources. It is only in this context that we can observe the proper practice of the principle of subsidiarity.

The Wedding of Don João Fernando Salazar e Bragança and Doña Pilar – Portugal

By this principle, a social unit should have recourse to a higher unit or authority only in those matters it is unable to handle. The higher societies are subsidiary to the lesser and exist to serve them. “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.”(1)

The US Coast Guard brings a hurricane Katrina victim to safety. One of the many Military operations that took place after Hurricane Katrina August 30, 2005.

The State should thus leave to the family those tasks that are proper to it. The community should seek help from the State in those matters such as defense that are beyond its capacities. National, state, or local professional organizations should take care of the matters proper to each.

A US Oklahoma Army National Guard with the 63rd Civil Support Team, conducts search and rescue operations May 21, 2013, in Moore, Oklahoma after a tornado ripped through the area.

Many, both on the Left and Right, have simplified the principle of subsidiarity to mean that all functions must be reduced almost exclusively to the lowest possible level. They do not consider the role of vital flux and authority and would artificially impose upon all an almost village economy or government. Such a “subsidiarity” without governing layers of intermediary associations is a sterile one where there are but two main players: the primitive social unit and the all-powerful State.


(1) John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, no. 48.


John Horvat II, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need To Go (York, Penn.: York Press, 2013), 176.




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