3.2.2 Quadragesimo Anno on subsidiarity

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Unit 3 Contents


The principle of subsidiarity insists that there must be limits to the power of central state institutions.  Even if, during the modern period, the range of state activities has understandably and rightly grown – as Pius XI had already celebrated earlier in QA – there is a real danger in this.  This is that centralized states will take over things that really ought to done by smaller, more local, non-state bodies.  At the time of the writing of QA, not only had state socialism been imposed in the Soviet Union during the previous decade, but Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy had introduced state-run corporations to manage the economy.  The principle of subsidiarity articulates opposition to such central state control.

Here is how QA introduces it:

[I]t is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations.  Still… it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.  For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help (subsidium) to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (#79)

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance… (#80)

Now read the short part of QA within which this quotation comes.  In this reading, ##76-77 indicate the move that Pius XI is making beyond review of RN and on to new issues.  ##78-80 then set out what the text refers to as the principle of ‘subsidiary function’.


Reading (2pp)

Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, ##76-80

The link takes you to the start of the document, so scroll down to #76.



Why is the label ‘subsidiarity’ used for this principle?  As indicated above, the word subsidium is in the official Latin text of the encyclical, and this is translated simply as ‘help’.  Even though the basic idea here is quite simple, it can be hard to grasp.

Consider businesses, families, universities, theatres, sports clubs and local councils.  According to QA, central state institutions should take on tasks relating to the activities of such bodies only if doing so really is going to “furnish help” to them (to use the encyclical’s expression, #79).  The great risk is that, because central state bodies are powerful, they will tend to do more than that, and in effect take over some, or even all, of what those bodies are supposed to do themselves.  This won’t help them, but, rather, will prevent them being what they really are.  It will in this way weaken them.  In short, just because something’s not going well in schools or businesses or universities doesn’t mean that government should take over the function itself.



Does the explanation in the paragraph above correspond with your understanding from your reading of QA ##78-80?


Maybe your response to this reflection is, ‘yes, more or less’ or ‘yes, but’.

In fact my own response to that question is, ‘yes, but’.  This is because there is a significant ambiguity in QA about what the principle of subsidiarity implies.  Indeed this has led to some debate about it.  We need to understand this.



Can you see a possible ambiguity in what the principle of subsidiarity requires?

As a clue, consider this.  Here is the list of different kinds of body I gave in the paragraph above:

  • businesses
  • families
  • universities
  • theatres
  • sports clubs
  • local councils

Of these, how are ‘local councils’ different from all the rest?


One way of getting at the ambiguity here is to bring to mind the three normative questions about government that I referred to at the start of this unit and that were distinguished explicitly in Unit 1 (1.4.2).

One of these questions is, What is the proper role of government?  This is the focus of this unit.

Another of the questions is about the form of government: How should government do what it must do?  How should it be constituted?  You have the opportunity to look at this in Unit 4.

In one way, the principle of subsidiarity is about the latter question, ‘How?’  It appears clearly to require a decentralization of power away from the central state to more local tiers of government.  It is especially #80 in QA that has this implication.

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance… Thereby the [central] State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them… Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

If we interpret “subordinate groups” here as including local councils (and other tiers of government below the central state),  then subsidiarity requires that these bodies have power to deal with the things they really can deal with, rather than these being taken over at higher levels.  People involved in central government – which, in the UK, means Westminster and Whitehall – no doubt face a constant temptation to take over some of what is done at more local levels.  This is especially so when there are problems of, for instance, local authorities running poor schools.  But the principle of subsidiarity warns against such centralization of power, on the basis that it will in fact enfeeble the central state by giving it too much to do, thereby making it incapable of doing properly what it really should.

So subsidiarity requires government to be exercised at levels below the central state whenever it can be.  We can call this the devolutionary dimension of the principle of subsidiarity.  It means that CST favours devolution of political power to more local levels, to the extent that this is beneficial for society overall or, in other words, contributes to the common good.

This is to do with the ‘How?’ question because the issue of which particular tier of government is best for this or that task is essentially to do with how government should be run.

It is not about the ‘What?’ question because this is a matter of whether government at any level should be doing something at all – such as running businesses, theatres or schools.

We can see, then, that one dimension of the principle of subsidiarity is a presumption in favour of devolution of power to more local levels of government.

But there is another dimension too, and this is about the question: what should government do?  It is, therefore, the main focus in this unit.  The next screen outlines this, which can be called the pluralist dimension of the principle of subsidiarity.



End of 3.2.2

Go to 3.2.3 The ‘pluralist’ dimension of subsidiarity

Module B outline

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