Subsidiarity: A Roman Catholic principle that says policy decisions should be made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. From German Subsidiarität; a paraphrase of the Latin used by Pope Pius XI in his Quadragesimo Anno of 1931. (See Etymology Online.) Subsidiarity was first documented in English in 1936.
In its entry on subsidiarity, CatholicCulture.org warns that “[w]hen the principle of subsidiarity is ignored, governments often overstep their bounds in managing matters best handled on a more local or individual level. Typically this decreases economy, efficiency, liberty and the personal character of the social order.”*
Subsidiarity made the news last week when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the chair of the House Budget Committee, told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his Catholic faith had shaped the Republican budget plan. From an April 10 story in Politico:
Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.
“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s comments not only focused attention on a previously obscure word, they also provoked debate among religious leaders and political scholars. Writing in the blog Catholic Moral Theology, Meghan Clark—an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University (New York)—argued that “subsidiarity does NOT mean smaller is better … Government in Catholic social teaching is not simply a necessary evil, government has a positive role in society – and here I would insert both federal and state governments as having their proper place.”
It’s not only Catholics who are taking up the banner of subsidiarity, reports Barbara Bradley Hagerty on NPR:
Peter Montgomery at People for the American Way says conservative evangelicals have been arguing for years that the Bible favors a free-market system. But since President Obama was elected, he says, they have shifted into high gear.
"They are finding biblical justification for opposition to progressive taxation, opposition to unions and collective bargaining, opposition to the minimum wage, opposition even to social welfare spending and Social Security," he says.
Subsidiarity has been in the political conversation since earlier this year, when it was used in connection with former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s policy statements. David Heim, the (Protestant) executive editor of Christian Century, raised a point of clarification about subsidiarity:
Most users of the term tend to forget one crucial element of the subsidiarity principle: larger organizations are always obligated to step in to coordinate or supplement the activities of smaller organizations when such action is necessary to protect human rights and serve the common good.
* Elsewhere, CatholicCulture.org defines abortion as “the greatest single scourge of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, claiming far more innocent lives than any other threat, including war, poverty, starvation and natural disasters.”