4.1.1 CST’s emphasis on participation

Unit 4 Contents



The characteristic implication of subsidiarity is participation, which is expressed… in… activities by means of which the citizen… contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs. (Compendium, #189, italics original)

This quotation comes from the chapter in the Compendium entitled ‘Principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine’.  ‘Participation’ is presented as one of the headings in this chapter, along with other main principles of CST, including the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity.

This gives participation greater prominence in CST than it had had in any earlier document.

That statement says that participation is an “implication of subsidiarity”.  This formulation is helpful: the principle of subsidiarity implies that social participation is highly important.  In fact, even though the chapter does list participation alongside other CST principles, it is ambiguous on whether participation itself should be called a principle.1



Having studied subsidiarity in Unit 3, can you see why participation is an “implication of subsidiarity”?


Immediately after that statement, the Compendium calls participation a duty: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good” (#189, italics original).

So participation is both an implication of subsidiarity and a duty which all must fulfil.

As you will recall, CST affirms the basic importance of diverse kinds of social bodies that together make up civil society – educational, business, arts and religious bodies, among others.  This explains the principle of subsidiarity: the state must not absorb such bodies into itself, because they need to be themselves so that they can make their distinctive contributions to human fulfilment and the common good.

But for such bodies actually to exist, people have to be involved in them.  If everyone is a couch potato or generally apathetic, such associations simply won’t exist because they are, of course, formed by people.  This is why subsidiarity implies that social participation is vital.  To the extent that there is only limited active participation in social life, there will be only private individuals and the state facing each other, without the fabric of civil society.

In a moment you’ll be asked to reflect on your own participation in society.   But first, it might be helpful to give two clarifications:

(i)  The quotation at the top is certainly not referring only to participation in political life.  (In saying this, I mean politics in the standard sense given in Unit 1: activities to do with governing the whole community, such as campaigning through parties or pressure groups, and holding elected office.)

Rather, participation is meant very widely; that sentence refers to “cultural, economic, political and social life”.

(ii)  In that quotation, participation includes working life.  It does not mean only voluntary activities that we might do outside our everyday work.  That section of the Compendium states plainly that what it is referring to includes “the world of work and economic activity” (#189).

Indeed, for many if not most people, their work – whether it is in the private, public, ‘third’ or domestic sector – might well be the most important way in which they participate in social life and contribute to the common good.



In what ways have you, and also your family, friends and work colleagues, participated in activities that contribute to “cultural, economic, political and social life”?

Are there ways in which you aspire to participate in such activities in future?  Are there particular forms of participation for which you sense you might have some of the necessary abilities or gifts?

We saw earlier in the module that Catholic teaching affirms clearly ‘the political vocation’ – that, for some people, participation specifically in politics is what God intends for them (1.2.5).  Might this possibly be true of you?

To answer the first question, you might like to talk with family members, friends or colleagues.  Indeed you might wish to do so also in relation to the second and third: it’s always very worthwhile discussing with people you trust whether you should get involved in x, y or z, and have the necessary abilities.

Spend 15 minutes (if not more) carefully considering these questions and make some notes.

As the reflections these questions will prompt are of course personal, no ‘Response’ to this exercise is given here.



In line with the theme of Module B overall – namely, citizenship, politics and government; see 1.2.5 – we shall focus on participation in political life.  In Unit 4 we study democracy, a form of government which opens up possibilities for that.

Later in the module, in both Unit 5 and Unit 8, we shall give attention to what CST has to say about the practicalities of such participation, about how actually to go about taking action for justice.

Parts of Module A give attention to other forms of social participation – notably, in working life (Unit 4), specifically in business (Unit 5), and in family life (Unit 6).


The learning outcomes for Unit 4 are in 4.1.3.


End of 4.1.1

Go to 4.1.2 Political participation – made possible by democracy

Module B outline

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  1. At the start of this chapter of the Compendium, #160 presents the “permanent principles” of CST as only four: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.  However under the chapter heading, ‘Principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine’, there are subheadings for the latter three of those (human dignity having been addressed in the previous chapter) and also ‘The Universal Destination of Goods’ and ‘Participation’.  The Compendium implies, therefore, that both of these could also be called principles.  While there is ambiguity here, this is not a major problem given the meaning of the word ‘principle’ (see the start of page 1.3.1); this precludes prescription that a certain number of principles make up the complete set.