3.2.3 The ‘pluralist’ dimension of subsidiarity

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Unit 3 Contents


At the beginning of the brief exposition of subsidiarity in QA that you have just read, Pius XI lamented what he saw as an effect of ‘individualism’.   He claimed that “through the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’”, there had taken place – he means over a long period (probably since the eighteenth century Enlightenment) – “the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds…” (#78).

The reference here to associations “of various kinds”, in the context of the paragraph as a whole, makes clear that he did not see subsidiarity as only a matter of devolution of power to more local levels of government.  Rather, the paragraph suggests that his main concern was to put across the importance of a range of social bodies that are distinct from state administration at any level and that individualism had undermined.  These had been a highly important for a “structure of social governance”, as he put it, which has been “lost” (#78).

What he was thinking about is the range of social bodies that make up what is generally called ‘civil society’.  This term refers to all the various associations, enterprises and institutions that have come to exist in any society without government setting them up, between individuals and the state.  These are not created by the state, yet many of them endure through generations, so neither are they the result only of individuals’ choices.

All the kinds of body listed in the Reflection on the last screen except ‘local councils’ are, in this sense, part of civil society – namely, businesses, families, universities, theatres and sports bodies.1. So are workers’ unions and industry associations, among others.

Pius XI claimed that, in place of the “rich social life” which a wide range of such associations had formed, “there remain virtually only individuals and the State”.  Against this background, “the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties” (#78).

While we may see hyperbole in Pius XI’s language, his analysis here reflected a long-held critique of one of the main effects of the emergence of individualistic liberal thinking in the period since the French Revolution.  Such thinking tends to see all social and political issues in terms of a contrast between the rights of individuals and the powers of the state.  The French Revolutionaries, as you know, stood for the ‘rights of man’ against the hierarchical ancient regime. Moreover, they were deeply influenced by a tradition of political thought that had emerged over the 150 years before the Revolution which did analyse political life in terms of how individuals and the state are related.  (The main figures in this tradition were Thomas Hobbes, who was mentioned in the historical outline in Unit 2 [2.4.1], John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)

Against this background, one recent writer refers to the programme of the more radical French Revolutionaries as “homogenizing”. This word means ‘making everyone just the same’, so that they are not distinguished by specific social groups or roles.2.  There is no doubt that, partly because of the French Revolution’s ‘long tail’ (see 2.4.2), individualistic ways of thinking became widespread, even pervasive, in Western social and political culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Pius’s critique is that such individualism doesn’t allow for real recognition of the integrity and independence of social bodies that are between individuals and the state.  It cannot see these except as constructed by the free choices of individuals – who are equally free to deconstruct them. For example, it can’t see businesses as having an inherent social purpose, but it views them as not more than means by which individuals act freely out of self-interest.  Nor can it see marriage as other than what any two people freely commit to do together, until either withdraws their commitment.  Such individualism cannot give grounds for recognizing any social bodies as having inherent ends, that is, purposes to be discerned rather than decided by individuals’ choices.

In QA, Pius XI was rejecting a vision of society as ultimately consisting only of individuals and the state.  His stance was both anti-individualistic and also anti-statist.  ‘Statism’ refers to a position in which there is an assumption that collective action has to be state action.  Individualism and statism have tended to go hand-in-hand. This is paradoxical, as most defenders of individualism would see themselves as fundamentally committed to protecting individuals from abuse by state power – and individualistic philosophies have contributed hugely to achieving such protections.  But the problem is that, if a society is only the state on one side and what individuals’ choices construct on the other, the state has to do anything that isn’t done by individuals.  In principle, there can be no independent, intermediate forms of common action.  As the word implies, ‘statism’ favours a large role for the state – it basically sees state action as the solution to all social problems.



What does the last paragraph remind you of, from what we have looked at earlier in this module?


In Unit 1, we gave attention to the main principles articulated in CST (1.3).  After doing so, there was a screen headed “CST’s vision: neither ‘collectivist’ nor ‘individualist’”.  It was Quadragesimo Anno which, as much as an anything, articulated the way CST is neither of those things.  ‘Statism’ is one form of ‘collectivism’, in practice the main form (and ‘collectivism’ is often used as a synonym for ‘statism’).  That screen was basically making the same point as we are focusing on here.  You might want to look at it again now: 1.3.10.

While the principle of subsidiarity stands against both ‘individualism’ and ‘statism’, it stands for a position known as ‘pluralism’.  This word has more than one meaning, but it has been used for a long time in the sense relevant here: to refer to a vision of society as made up many and various – that is, plural – independent associations and institutions.3.  Jacques Maritain, a hugely influential figure in Catholic social thought in the twentieth century (whom I shall introduce more fully in Unit 4), spoke about subsidiarity as ‘the pluralist principle’.  He explained this as follows:

[E]verything in the body politic which can be brought about by particular organs or societies inferior in degree to the State and born of the free initiative of the people [i.e. not created by the State] should be brought about by those organs or societies.4

Although Maritain referred to the ‘pluralist principle’, I suggest that it is more helpful to speak about the ‘pluralist dimension of subsidiarity’ (hence the title of this screen.)  This is because subsidiarity does have a ‘devolutionary dimension’ also, as we saw (3.2.2).

A pluralist vision of diverse kinds of institution and association is also one of a revived ‘civil society’.  The principle of subsidiarity insists that the state must not take over civil society.  The role of government is only to “furnish help” to such social bodies (QA, #79), so that they can be what they should be.  This help depends entirely on recognizing both the fundamental independence of such bodies from the state and their distinctive purposes.

The pluralist dimension of subsidiarity comes through quite clearly in the Compendium’s discussion of the principle.


Reading (3pp)

Compendium, ##185-187 (Chap 4, sec IV, up to #187)


There is a lot in this reading, even though it is not long.  The first two paragraphs in #187 express CST’s opposition, respectively, to individualism and statism.  The latter quotes Pope John Paul II’s critique of the “Social Assistance State”.  What this means has been subject to debate, which we shall examine later in the module (in Unit 5).

Looking from the vantage point of the 2010s, 80 years after QA, Pius XI’s lament for a lost “rich social life” and “structure of social governance” can seem implausible.  The list above of different kinds of civil society body that now exist can easily be extended: charities of many kinds, housing associations, schools, hospitals, churches, gurdwaras, mosques, orchestras, youth groups.  It appears that, at least now, there is a thick fabric of vibrant civil society institutions in many countries, one enhanced by increased diversity of various kinds.  In another way, however, this appearance can be deceptive.  This is for at least two reasons.

First, the revival of economic liberalism since around 1980 has generated huge momentum behind a shift to seeing all forms of social activity in terms of what individuals sell and buy in markets. For example, across the Western world and beyond, universities are increasingly seen as though they are businesses that sell courses to students, who buy them because they will increase the students’ future potential for earning money.  This vision of universities is a million miles from that which was sustained, more or less, from their thirteenth-century beginnings to the twentieth century, in which their purpose was to educate people to be more fully human and to join professions in which they contribute to the common good.  The general point is that seeing the world in the terms of economic liberalism deconstructs social bodies so that they appear as collections of self-serving individuals.

Second, a new form of political liberalism has become increasingly prominent in recent decades (alongside the revival of economic liberalism) that sees society explicitly in terms only of individuals’ free choices, on one hand, and a state that is supposed to be entirely neutral in relation to those choices, on the other.  This version of liberalism is associated especially with an American political philosopher called John Rawls.  We shall look further at this ‘neutralist’ liberalism later in the module, so you don’t need to try to understand this fully now.  The point to note here is that, in line with the legacy of the French Revolution, this ‘neutralist’ liberalism does see all forms of association and social body – whether familial, religious or artistic, etc. – as not more than what individuals’ choices construct.  While such bodies are many and various, they do not, in this perspective, have any independent or public existence in relation to the state.  They form, therefore, the appearance but not the reality of a ‘thick fabric’ of civil society.

It can be argued that, for these two reasons at least, Pius XI’s analysis of “the overthrow and near extinction” of civil society bodies, and that “there remain virtually only individuals and the State”, still has resonance.



To what extent to you recognize what each of these two points is referring to, from you own experience, or that of your family and friends?


In articulating the principle of subsidiarity, Pius XI was seeking primarily to resist the ‘homogenizing’ tendency to reduce society to just individuals and the state, and to safeguard various forms of community and institution that are between them.  As this indicates, Pius’s main concern in QA was with the ‘pluralist’ dimension of the principle of subsidiarity, and less with the ‘devolutionary’ dimension.

On this and the previous screen, the focus has been on explaining the meaning of subsidiarity.  Even if we have a good grasp of this, the question remains of why CST insists on this principle.  Just understanding it is not a good reason for actually embracing it.  On the next screen, we turn to the reasons for subsidiarity.



End of 3.2.3

Go to 3.2.4 Reasons for the principle of subsidiarity

Module B outline

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  1. Some discussions of civil society see private businesses as not part of it, but as forming a different sector, ‘the market’.  This gives too much away: in CST’s perspective, businesses should be seen as an inherent part of civil society, working by the principle of the universal destination of goods and so contributing, through the goods or services they supply, to the common good.  See Module A, Unit 5

  2. Emile Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 3.  He uses the phrase ‘homogenizing Jacobinism’; the Jacobins were the most radical group in the French Revolution, resorting to extreme violence in seeking to impose their individualistic vision. 

  3. Pluralism in this sense is sometimes called ‘associational’, partly in order to distinguish it from ‘religious pluralism’, which relates to the diversity of religious faiths in a society. 

  4. J. Maritain, Man and the State, trans. Richard O’Sullivan (London: Hollis & Carter, 1954), p. 61, italics original 

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