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Subsidiarity
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2019


The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls it “among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church's social doctrine” and the “most important” principle of social philosophy. The church has taught it since the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1892. Violation of the principle is a “grave evil and disturbance of right order.”

Nevertheless, most Catholics probably have not heard of it and the few that have often misunderstand it. Worse, some that think they understand it misuse it to fit their political agenda. (Not surprisingly, many spell-check programs do not recognize the word.)

It is subsidiarity. The Catechism defines subsidiarity as the principle that "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (CCC 1883) The definition is actually a good one. It is succinct and complete as much as one sentence definitions can be, but let us take a closer look.

All of the church’s social doctrine flows from the recognition that every human person has a life and dignity that society must respect, protect, and foster. Being social creatures, that is done through community, starting with the family. From the family outward we develop groups, associations, relationships, and institutions that make it possible achieve social growth and to function as a civil society.

Eventually, larger or “higher” orders develop, usually in the form of governmental jurisdictions, but sometimes powerful businesses and economic structures can develop. The principle of subsidiarity tells us that these higher orders should not interfere with what the “lower” order can achieve. Depriving these more local orders of their ability to function and make decisions can be a grave injustice.

Subsidiarity, however, is not mere local control. In fact, the word comes from the Latin “subsidium,” meaning to provide aid. So the principle of subsidiarity is really about the duty of the higher order to provide assistance to the lower order when appropriate. One example is when the lower order cannot provide a necessary function, such as defense, or has failed to protect the rights of persons and the common good, such as civil rights.

Subsidiarity also teaches us about how orders can function. Higher orders, for example, often have the power of the purse. Governments, therefore, can help fund addiction treatment while people and faith-based organizations can provide the actual treatment. The state government can fund education while parents and schools provide the actual education.

Subsidiarity, therefore, is not “make local and leave alone.” It is “presume local and assist when needed through appropriate means.”

North Dakota politicians talk often about local control. When measured against true subsidiarity, the state’s success is actually mixed.

For example, the public school system in North Dakota is very decentralized. The state finances a great part of education and sets some basic requirements for schools and teachers. Many decisions, such as subject content are left to the local districts.

The respect for the lower order, however, stops at the district level. Nonpublic schools and home education are still highly regulated by the state and they receive no state funding, making North Dakota one of the most restrictive environments in the country for a parent to choose the education setting most appropriate for their children.

A perennial issue in North Dakota is whether, and to what extent, local communities should have any input on the placement and operation of a confined animal feeding operation. To a large extent, the state has opted for the “higher order” on that question, but recent opposition to proposed feeding operations indicates that some would like to restore some authority to the local communities.

How the state addresses the behavioral health crisis will raise issues of subsidiarity. People are best served in local communities with the help of families and churches. Funding, however, will have to come from the state and the state has a legitimate role in coordinating services, ensuring professional care, and providing treatment for those who cannot be served through the local and private sectors.

Several bills this legislative session raise subsidiarity questions. A bill recently introduced would prohibit political subdivisions from enacting their own minimum wage laws. Another bill would give more flexibility to parents who provide home education. Yet another bill would allow “home-rule” school districts that would allow more local control for the districts but possibly remove important state protections for nonpublic schools and home educators.

Subsidiarity shows up in a variety of public policy questions. It is an example of how Catholic social doctrine touches upon issues besides those normally identified as “Catholic issues,” like abortion and religious freedom. We should brush up on the subject. And don’t forget to teach the word to your spell-check program.