3.2.4 Reasons for the principle of subsidiarity

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Unit 3 Contents




Given your study of the principle of subsidiarity so far, why do you think CST includes it?   What reasons can you give in favour of it?

Some reasons have been given in what you have read, especially in the extract from the Compendium on the last screen.

What about reasons against it?  What objections might some people make against the principle of subsidiarity?


I’d like to distinguish three lines of argument in favour of subsidiarity.

(i)  The principle of subsidiarity protects the human person.

This is probably the most obvious reason for subsidiarity, and the reading from the Compendium brought it out quite clearly.  The principle “protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority” (#187).

It is important to appreciate that this protection is not of the person only as a choice-making individual.  Certainly, CST does insist that all have a set of fundamental ‘freedom rights’, as we saw in Unit 1 (1.3.5).  However, granted differences in human abilities and vocations, the possibility of integral human development requires a wide range of associations and institutions in which people can participate.  These give settings for human fulfilment.

In this way subsidiarity protects the person as a participant in such bodies, by insisting on the proper integrity of these and their independence of the state.  “It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities” (#185).

In short, subsidiarity protects the person by safeguarding “the realm of civil society” (#185, italics original).

(ii)  Subsidiarity is a prerequisite of the common good

As we saw in Unit 2, the common good is irreducibly common, in the sense that it can exist at all only as it exists together for all participants.  But it should not be seen as though it is the good of an undifferentiated crowd of people, of identical individuals.  Rather, it is differentiated into the distinct activities of manifold associations and institutions.  In this way, a society whose common good is relatively well developed is institution-rich.

But for such diversity actually to form the common good, each distinct social body has to be able to be properly itself.  It’s no good if what these do is taken over by a centralizing power.  In other words, a family, a business and a theatre can’t be all they are supposed to be, and therefore can’t play their part in generating the common good, if government, or a huge multi-national corporation for that matter, tries to direct all their activities.

In short, failure to respect the pluralist dimension of subsidiarity would mean that (some) associations and institutions would be prevented from making their distinct contributions to the common good.  This depends on the multiple and various common activities happening with their own integrity and freedom.  Attempts to take them over by state agencies would in fact subvert them – they could no longer be what they are in the way the common good requires.

(iii)  The principle of subsidiarity arises from the ‘natural law’

To sum up those first two points, the pluralist dimension of subsidiarity is a corollary of CST’s vision of the human person and the common good.

The third point casts those two in a new light, rather than adding to them something completely different.  It brings in a concept that Module A, Unit 6 gives you the chance to study quite extensively.  This is ‘natural law’.  Precisely because it can be studied there, this module gives it much less attention.

Nevertheless it is important to appreciate this third point because it is, in a way, really basic in how CST sees the role of government.  It is brought out especially well in a short reading by Joshua Hochschild that you are asked to do in a moment (one that is also set in Module A, Unit 6).

Hochschild explains the way in which subsidiarity is a matter of what he calls ‘vocational responsibilities’.  When we hear reference to ‘vocation’, which means ‘calling’, we probably think first in terms of individual people.  Most obviously in Catholic Christianity, ‘vocation’ is used to refer to the calling that some people have to be priests, even though it can apply just as much to a sense of calling to other occupations.  We have already seen that the Catholic Church recognizes the ‘political vocation’ (1.2.5, 3.1.1).

Hochschild uses that term to speak about different kinds of group and association.  If we understand properly what businesses, families, universities, theatres and schools are, we will be able to see that each kind of body has its own, distinctive ‘vocational responsibility’.  For example, that of a business is to supply goods or services to people which actually are good and of service to them, not primarily to maximize profit.1. The ‘dual vocation’ of a family is to raise children and to practise a wider service in the community.2. And so on.

In the institution-rich civil society that subsidiarity safeguards, each kind of group and association has, by its very nature, a proper “mission, vocation or gift of service” (p. 121), to the end of the common good.  In this way, Hochschild helpfully brings out that we can see this in terms of natural law.  These vocational responsibilities are neither what individuals arbitrarily choose, nor what the state prescribes.  They are intrinsic to the nature of the institution or group.

It is therefore for the state, indeed for all of us, to understand and respect those ‘vocations’, not to override or undermine them.  Only if that is done can they really be what they are by nature supposed to be.  Hochschild refers to this in terms of “the plurality of gifts within a community”.3. The good of each person and the common good depend on this.

As you do the short reading from Hochschild, focus especially on p. 121.  Notice also that he brings out how the principle of subsidiarity makes CST’s vision different from those of both liberalism and socialism.


Reading (3pp)

Virtual Module Reader, J. Hochschild, ‘Natural Law’, in McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching,  pp. 119-122


If you have studied Module A, you will be familiar with the book edited by McCarthy from which this comes and might well own it.


To sum up, subsidiarity insists that, between individuals and the state, there needs to be a thick fabric of diverse intermediate bodies.  The justification for this fabric is that it gives the social and cultural possibilities needed for human fulfilment.  It is both permanent and constantly developing as new forms of shared activity arise.



Bring to mind the various kinds of civil society body mentioned on this screen: families, businesses, schools, theatres, sports clubs and universities.  Of which do you have direct experience?

If you had to express the essential purpose(s), the ‘vocational responsibility’, which each of these has, what would you say?

In other words, what are the reasons for which families, schools, and businesses (for example) exist?  This might not be an easy question to answer because often we just take for granted that these bodies do exist and don’t think much about why.

Can you express what you see as misleading or false ways of describing the ‘vocational responsibility’ of such bodies?  For example, do schools exist to sell products in markets?



End of 3.2.4

Go to 3.2.5 Suspensions of subsidiarity

Module B outline

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  1. See Module A, Unit 5 

  2. This formulation follows Julie Hanlon Rubio, ‘The Dual Vocation of Christian Parents’, Theological Studies 63 (December 2002), 786-812.  Rubio’s later book, Family Ethics: Practices for Christian Families (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010), is introduced in Module A, Unit 6: see 6.4.2

  3. Hochschild quotes this very helpful expression from Russell Hittinger, ‘Social Roles and Ruling Virtues in Catholic Social Doctrine’, Annales Theologici 16 (2002), 295-318.