How to Understand Catholic Social Teaching: Solidarity and Subsidiarity

I’ve gotten questions in the past about how the Vatican views the international financial crisis, as well as what Catholics should think about a variety of economic and social issues.  I think that in addressing any of these questions, there are exactly two tools that we need to have at our disposal: solidarity and subsidiarity.  Both of them are aspects of the second great commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves:

  • Solidarity is the notion that we’re connected with our neighbors: down the street, throughout the country, and around the world. We can’t, as Christians, just say “I’ll take care of myself, I don’t care about my poor next-door neighbor.” Likewise, we can’t, as Christians, just say, “I’ll take care of America, I don’t care about the poor Third World.” The presence of international borders doesn’t curb our need to love neighbor. If it did, then how do we explain the Good Samaritan, who wasn’t from Israel?
  • Subsidiarity is equally important. It’s the idea that problems should be solved at the smallest and most intimate level possible. For example, the federal government shouldn’t be solving problems states can solve, states shouldn’t be solving problems that communities can solve, and so on. This is another aspect of charity. Charity isn’t a faceless international bureaucracy doling out tax dollars. It’s a soul exhibiting the love of Christ. This also means that our moral obligations to tend for our family are higher than our moral obligation to care for our neighborhood, or community, or city, or state, or country, or planet. We have some degree of moral duty and responsibility towards each of these, but it’s best understood as concentric circles.

These are the two things that the Church teaches: solidarity and subsidiarity are very important.  At this point, we’re largely in the realm of prudence.  Church leaders may suggest a solution to economic or political issues, but in almost every case, Catholics are free to disagree.  So if you understand these two principles, you’re 90% of the way towards being able to formulate a Catholic response to any of the world’s problems.  And these two principles help balance one another out, as Pope Benedict XVI explained in Caritas in Veritate:

The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.
In that encyclical, he did a good job of laying out the role of both solidarity and subsidiarity.  Solidarity helps civilize the market, so we don’t have the brutal excess of the sweatshop and the plantation:

Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State. While in the past it was possible to argue that justice had to come first and gratuitousness could follow afterwards, as a complement, today it is clear that without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place. What is needed, therefore, is a market that permits the free operation, in conditions of equal opportunity, of enterprises in pursuit of different institutional ends. Alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and the various types of public enterprise, there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves. It is from their reciprocal encounter in the marketplace that one may expect hybrid forms of commercial behaviour to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy. Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself.

One risk we can fall into is what Charles Dickens called “telescopic charity” (I’m indebted to Fr. Paul Scalia for this term). It’s the idea that we’re going to meddle in the affairs of complete strangers, while refusing to love our family or those people we see every day. He mentioned seeing it a lot among high-schoolers: they want to stop all the injustice in the world on a grand scale, but refuse to stop perpetrating injustices.  That’s a cop out, and not the appropriate Christian solution.  It’s even more of a cop out when we think that we can accomplish this charity simply by writing a check, or worse, by having the government write a check for us.

So note what Benedict said above, about how solidarity can’t simply be delegated to the State.  That’s critically important.  Yes, we have an obligation to love our neighbors around the country and across the globe.  But no, that’s not an obligation that’s met through your tax dollars. The federal government cannot love for you.  The State certainly has some role to play, but the assumption that only the State has a role to play isn’t a Christian one.

Benedict’s vision of the economy is refreshing, and I wish more politicians here and abroad would take these words to heart.  A free market is a good, but a truly free market should make it possible for individuals and businesses to work for profit, or work for the good of others.  I think that tax-exempt charitable organizations are one helpful way in which the State facilitates charity without getting too much in the way (but even here, only if the tax-exemption doesn’t come with a lot of strings attached that destroy the independence of the charity).

About subsidiarity, which he called “an expression of inalienable human freedom,”  Pope Benedict has this to say:

Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state. It is able to take account both of the manifold articulation of plans — and therefore of the plurality of subjects — as well as the coordination of those plans.

So for example, you’ve got a friend who loses his job.  If the State takes care of him, he’s treated impersonally, and he’s at the risk of being treated as a helpless victim.  In contrast, if you and your other friends (or perhaps your local parish) help take care of him, it’s personal and loving.  Plus, you’re treating him as a friend with inherent dignity, not simply a victim.  Maybe your generosity will encourage him to help contribute in some way in return (either to you or others), something he’s unlikely to have done in response to the welfare state.  That is, the more personal approach is the one more likely to cultivate respect and charity.

Benedict then remarks on the role that subsidiary plays in globalization, while emphasizing the role for international authority as well:

Hence the principle of subsidiarity is particularly well-suited to managing globalization and directing it towards authentic human development. In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice.
So the pope is endorsing some degree of international authority for regulating globalization, while emphasizing that we don’t want a tyrannical world government.  We want as local a solution as is possible: it just happens that for certain things in international relations, the most local solution possible is international.

So what does this authority look like?  We’ve seen it manifested in multilateral treaties in the past.  For example, the 1912 International Opium Convention was an agreement in which 13 major nations agreed to outlaw opium.  It helped regulate an international problem (the drug trade) in a way that wouldn’t have been as effective done more locally (as China discovered, when it tried to unilaterally outlaw opium).  So when we read this, it’s easy to conjure up visions of a UN world-government, but that’s not what’s being talked about.

Finally, there is a healthy debate over whether the role played by the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the rest are helpful.  Should they exist?  Should they be reformed?  If they continue to exist, what should their institutional goals be, and what means should they use to achieve these goals?  These, and all of the related questions, are prudential.  Once you understand the importance of subsidiarity and solidarity, and are motivated by a true love of neighbor, it’s largely up to you to decide how you think these things should best be handled.

Just couldn’t resist adding this picture of Pope Benedict speaking to the UN.
Update: Fr. C.J. McCloskey, the former director of the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., wrote an article in May addressing some of these same issues.


  1. Fr. Scalia’s brother (Which one? The professor. Which one? Lol, it’s a successful family…) attends my parish. 🙂

    My politics are: 1/3 William F. Buckley, 1/3 Ron Paul, and 1/3 distributist.

  2. Daniel –

    We are almost twins! I’m a big follower of Tom Woods (who loves Ron Paul) and wrote a great book on Catholicism and economics. I could no longer square my politics with my protestant upbringing. I despise relativism and protestanism eventually leads to theological relativism since there is no standard but mans own relative interpretation of scripture.

  3. Any good articles on who exactly are the “poor”? I know it when I see it isn’t a good standard. But in the US, we define poor as not having a cell phone, cable TV, X-box, two packs of cigs per week, etc. Is a person still “poor” if he/she refuses to improve their economic value to the market? It’s easy to throw around the term poor, much harder to define it in real terms.

  4. I’m glad the Church teaches subsidiarity, but I disagree with the conclusion that solidairty can/should be something of international government body. No. solidarity is best advanced by the only truly universal body: the Catholic Church. But if we fall into the error of religious indifferentism, we punt on the Church since we don’t want to “exclude” non-Catholics, and fill that void by pretending international governments can do it.

  5. Sorry for the late comment, but I’m catching up on older posts.

    One thought that struck me while reading is the interplay between solidarity and subsidiarity is distinct not just in Catholic social theory but in her spirituality as well.

    We don’t swing to the extreme of our Protestant brothers and sisters, who are primarily concerned with their “personal salvation” or “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Instead, us Catholics are tethered to things like the Mass, Confession, and the Communion of Saints, all of which depend deeply on solidarity.

    As for subsidiarity, Catholicism still requires, even in the midst of her communal faith, that we come to Christ as indviduals. Confirmation, reception of the Eucharist, and spiritual formation all require individual consent.

    I think out of all the Christian traditions, Catholicism strikes the most appropriate balance between these two concepts.

  6. Brandon,

    That’s very astute. Yesterday at Mass, during the closing hymn, I realized that I sing better in a group then by myself, because I have a better sense of what key I’m supposed to be in (I have to be honest: I’m terrible either way).

    This got me thinking about St. John Chrysostom’s description of the Apostle Peter as “the coryphaeus of the choir of apostles” – basically, the choir director. I really think the image of Christianity as a choir, with Christ (or perhaps the Gospel) as the music, captures something beautiful.

    To work well, everyone in a choir has to pull their own weight, and they have to be in harmony with one another well. A choir of divas all trying to be soloists* wouldn’t work. But at the same time, a choir full of people like me (hoping that the choir will drown out my distinctive “contributions”) wouldn’t work, either.

    So a good choir involves both a good personal relationship with the music, and a communal relationship with the music.**



    *Make all the sola / solo jokes you can think of here.

    ** A good start is to ensure that you’re in communion with the choir director.

  7. “I sing better in a group then by myself, because I have a better sense of what key I’m supposed to be in.”

    Bingo! A ringing affirmation of our need for Saints, both to emulate and to stand with in solidarity.

  8. I like to call it “Harvard charity”. And its not only worse for them, telescopic charity is worse for you too. As screwtape says “The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”

  9. Your comment on the UN photo made me laugh… I’m a first-timer here (and I hope it’s obvious that saying this means I plan to visit more!) and would you believe it’s because I thought the same thing?

    I was actually looking for the largest size it came in on the Web… It’s not very big… Which is ironic for me to say because I just met the photo on a piece about the Regensburg address. (For your interest:

    Anyway, I look forward to some shameless popery!

  10. I found your article interesting, but I have to disagree with you on some of the things you said about subsidiarity. I just think you are – like many other Americans – looking at this from a very “American” point of view. I’m German, and often, when I read what American Catholics write about politics (in general, I like American Catholicism, though), I get the impression that what counts as standard “social market economy” policies in Europe would be labeled dangerously socialist “welfare state” policies in the US.
    You write: “So for example, you’ve got a friend who loses his job. If the State takes care of him, he’s treated impersonally, and he’s at the risk of being treated as a helpless victim. In contrast, if you and your other friends (or perhaps your local parish) help take care of him, it’s personal and loving. Plus, you’re treating him as a friend with inherent dignity, not simply a victim. Maybe your generosity will encourage him to help contribute in some way in return (either to you or others), something he’s unlikely to have done in response to the welfare state. That is, the more personal approach is the one more likely to cultivate respect and charity.”
    I disagree. The principle of subsidiarity says that things should be handled at the lowest level possible; but if they can’t be handled at a lower level, for the sake of justice a higher authority (state, federal government, world authority, whatever) has to step in, that’s the point of the principle. So, for example, parents have the right and duty to care for their children, but if they gravely mistreat them, the state has to step in and, if no other solution can be found, take them out of the parents’ home. This is a matter of justice, not charity. In a similar way, if a community wants law and order in the streets and wants to be able to defend itself against aggressors from outside, it’s necessary for it to have a police and an army that have to be organised and controlled by towns or states or federal governments, depending on the situation. It just doesn’t make sense to want to defend a nation against terrorists or an attacking state with independently organised militias in every smalltown and no nationwide army – here the higher level is needed. And if the state should care for security from crime and war, why not for security from poverty?
    Look, in the above example, if someone loses his job and there is no state welfare whatsoever (I know this isn’t the case even in the US, but let’s just assume it for the sake of the argument), and, due to economic crisis, he is unable to find another job, he has to ask his friends or his parish for money for months or maybe years. And what if he, as he has always been rather poor, only has other friends who are also poor and can’t give much? Maybe they’re unemployed themselves. Or maybe he’s just socially isolated for some reasons. Maybe the whole town is suffering because a big company there just shut down, so the parishes have to care for a lot of unemployed people, and don’t have much to give away to start with, and the few rich people in town aren’t devout Christians and don’t really care about their neighbor anyway. And every month, the children have to be cared for, the rent paid, and maybe someone from the family gets sick sometimes. This whole situation means constant worries about whether some nice person will give you enough to get you by for the next few weeks; and also constantly having to ask someone to help you out, which doesn’t sound like it’s really good for friendships.
    I don’t know what the system is exactly like in the US, but I’ll just compare that example with the system I know from my country. Everyone who works has social insurance, so if you can’t work anymore because you’re old, very sick, lose your job etc. you get payments from the insurance based on what you earned before and how long you worked. If you haven’t been able to find work from the start after highschool or university, or if you have been unemployed for a year or longer, you don’t get that kind of payment, but a minimum payment directy from the federal state – not very much, but enough to get by. However, if you get that, you have to show up at the county administration every one or two months and the people there will try to help you find a job. They give you offers for jobs you’re suited for, you have to apply for a certain number of jobs per month (if you don’t, your payments will be cut), they can also help you find an apprenticeship or programs to get you additional qualifications (say, IT skills) or programs to help you fight drug addiction or mental illness or anything like that, if that should be necessary. I once did a short internship at such a county administration, and it’s definitely not as if the unemployed people had been treated just “impersonally” like “helpless victims” there. Actually, they were getting personally suited support and help. By the way, there’s also other government programs here like the following: “Kindergeld” (children’s money) means that parents get money from the state just for having a child until it is grown up (it’s about 150 or 200 Euros per month, a bit more for a third or fourth child than for a first or second), and in the first year of the child’s life, they additionally get “Elterngeld” (parents’ money) if they stay at home or just work part-time in order to care for the child. If you go to university or college, in my state (Bavaria) you can get a credit from the Bavarian state of which you only have to pay back half the money later; whether you get it and how much you get is based on what your parents earn, how many siblings you have and whether your siblings already earn their own money; I think there are similar programs in the other states of Germany. (Germany is a federal state like the US, so a lot of things are done by the individual states.) So there is maternity leave and paternity leave, there are pensions for widows and orphans, there are laws that protect workers from just being fired, everybody has health insurance, and, for some years now, there is a minimum wage. I’m not trying to say Germany is a social paradise, but all these things just provide a safety net; you don’t have to worry that you might end up on the street if you don’t find some nice person or charity to help you.
    And, nevertheless, there are still a lot of charities that do good – and are still needed. (For example, there’s the “Tafel” (“table”) which collects food from supermarkets that is still good but is after its expiration date and hands it out to people who get, for example, that minimum payment from the state I mentioned above and therefore don’t have a lot of money to spend on food, there are organised efforts in parishes to visit old people or help refugees, there are hospices for the dying, also child hospices for dying children where they can be housed together with their family, there are programs for the mentally disabled (for example communities where they are encouraged to live as independently as possible and can work in special work shops), and so on. These charities are often also supported with money from the state.) I never really understood this American argument about “personal charity”, actually. In the one system, the European one, the community grants organised support to the unlucky ones who can’t care for themselves, which is, in my opinion, justice, not charity, anyway; in the other system it is just random luck whether you will find someone who helps you if you are in need. I don’t see any reason why the second system should be preferred. There will always still be reason and opportunity enough for “personal” charity. And actually, if charities don’t have to care for everyone who is out of work so that these people can just afford rent and food, they can concentrate on other problems – helping isolated old people, neglected youth, victims of sexual abuse, etc.
    And actually, if you look at history, there are lots of reasons to say that this system is more in line with Catholic social teaching. German Catholicism nowadays has a bad reputation in the world, and there’s a reason for that (although with the new evangelisation, things are getting better now), but that was not always the case. In the 19th and early 20th century, when Catholics were a sizeable but often disliked minority in the German Empire, they were very loyal to the Pope and had their own Catholic party, the Center party (in Germany, there never was a “first past the post”-voting system, so the Center party could gain some influence in the parliament), whose main focus were a) the freedom of the Church (think of the Kulturkampf under chancellor Bismarck in the 1870s) and b) social justice. It was rather near to the Social Democrats sometimes. Actually, Catholic social teaching as formulated by Leo XIII owes a lot to German Catholics from that period like Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler or Bl. Adolph Kolping. After the war, the first German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was a devout Catholic (he had been a member of the Center party, mayor of Cologne before 1933 and been deposed and shortly incarcerated by the Nazis) who helped found the Christian Democratic Union which was meant to unite Catholics and Protestants. He and his minister Ludwig Erhard introduced this concept of social market economy that is still a central part of German society: people have a right to private property and the state shouldn’t steer the economy, but property also brings with it an obligation to solidarity, there have to be some rules and regulations for the sake of justice and the state should do something for the poor and unprotected.
    Maybe it’s interesting to provide an example of what conservatives and leftists around here are at odds about: Two or three years ago, the federal parliament made a law that guarantees all German parents a place in day-care for their children, if they want one. Then the conservative Christian Social Union (the Bavarian branch of the Christian Democratic Union, it is part of the government coalition consisting of the CDU, the CSU and the Social Democrats) insisted on also introducing a law to give mothers or fathers who instead care for their children themselves during the first three years of their lives a payment of 150 Euros per month, so that they should not be pressed to go to work but have more liberty to choose. The Left (the Social Democrats in the coalition, and the Socialists and Greens in the opposition) vehemently opposed that, for no other reason than that they are very antagonistic against stay-at-home-mothers, and the CDU under Angela Merkel wasn’t very enthusiastic about it either. Then the Supreme Court ruled that such a payment would be a matter of the states, not the federal government, anyhow, so the CSU promptly introduced it in Bavaria (where the party has been governing ever since 1949). That’s what the German CONSERVATIVES are like. Don’t get me wrong, they also have some positions that Americans would recognize as more classically conservative (like wanting a bit lower taxes, not wanting too many regulations burdening the economy, wanting to reduce state debts or being rather unenthusiastic about immigration and generally valuing law and order), but there just is no party here that would say the state shouldn’t care financially for people who need it; and it is just totally normal for Germans to get some money from the state at one point or other in life. It’s normal and accepted. The vast majority of Bavarian university students, for example, get that credit from the state I mentioned. (Maybe you can also see how all that is good from a pro-life perspective – here, it is just a fact that a single mother with a baby will still always be able to get by okay, even if she is still at college, unemployed or whatever. It is just easier for women to have their babies.)
    Well, I guess my position is just as typically European as yours is typically American, but really – I just don’t see any reason why the state shouldn’t help the poor. To me, that’s equivalent to saying the state shouldn’t build schools, but all children should just be home-schooled, since that’s more personal.

    1. Agree (I’m a US citizen in Germany since the 1980s).
      I really respect and like the basic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, but agree that the assignment of levels seems more effective in Germany, and the way they are theoretically interpreted by US Catholics seems reactionary and unrealistic (in texts such as these or at the “Acton Institute”).
      In the US, the solidarity-subsidiary levels *are* mixed, but a reform to purely “personal or parish charity” is unrealistic for the reasons you describe. Studies have shown it doesn’t work as well as the next-level up, to be able to cushion the effects of economic change and temporary disparities by district or region.
      I wish you could divide your text into shorter chunks with some labels. It would be easier for more people to read and appreciate that the US could learn from European solutions.

  11. By the way: In what way does being a victim rob people of their inherent dignity? Wasn’t Our Lord just a victim of the people who crucified Him? Sometimes it is just an objective fact that some people are helpless victims of circumstances, and it is totally okay to recognize that and help them out of it. Maybe I am misunderstanding what you are saying, but it seems strange to me.

    PS: I’m sorry if my comments sounded rude or something, they aren’t meant to. I actually like your blog a lot in general, I just sometimes get annoyed by certain things, but I don’t mean to be rude.

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