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Center for Social Concerns


An Introduction to the Principles of Catholic Social Thought

One should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. For every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to the members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.
(Quadragesimo anno, para. 79)

Regulating the movement from marginalization to participation for the sake of the common good is the principle of subsidiarity. This principle warns about the tendency of the state and other large scale institutions to usurp authority to control persons, thereby destroying individual liberty and initiative. The notion of subsidiarity is that activities or functions ought to be accomplished by the most local of smallest grouping possible, rather than be assumed by the larger groups or collectivity. In Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI explicitly makes the principle of subsidiarity the guiding norm upon which the social order is to be restored. “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 the right order to assign to a greater or higher association what a lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

The main effect of this principle is to limit the role of the state and other large scale institutions while empowering local efforts. But those needs which cannot be effectively addressed at a local level should be referred to at the next highest level of organization. This principle was initially used to protect individuals and groups, but more recently it has been employed to define the relationship between particular nation-states and worldwide public authorities.

Student reflection:
Looking at the University’s model of independent monitoring of sweatshops, which integrates regional and local NGO’s, church officials, human rights activists, and labor leaders, Notre Dame has made a commendable effort to further the principle of subsidiarity. By employing local representatives to monitor working conditions, the task is being handled “at a lower level of organization by human persons who … are closer to the problem and closer to the ground” (Byron, Building Blocks, p.24). With membership in the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), Notre Dame will now be partaking in even more grassroots monitoring efforts. As opposed to the corporate involvement in our current monitoring system, the WRC system is comprised solely of NGO representatives. The mechanism for reporting unjust labor practices comes directly from the workers, removing the vertical level of organization that the University currently employs.--Andrea Mechenbier, Fulfilling the Mission: Is Notre Dame Living Up to It’s Mission Statement? THEO 273, Spring 2001.

Questions for discussion/reflection:
1. What do you learn about subsidiarity from the example described by Andrea Mechenbier?
2. Was giving states control of welfare reform a good decision by the federal government? Why or why not?
3. Give an example of subsidiarity being violated.


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