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= a principle in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, which gives preference to civil society and lower level groups, that has also been adopted by political bodies such as the European Union


"The principle stating that those most closely involved at a particular level of the common good are charged with the immediate responsibility of monitoring and reforming the level of the common good in which they live, work, function, etc. The "Principle of Subsidiarity," is defined by the late social philosopher Rev. William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D. in two parts: First, no higher organization may arrogate to itself a function which a lower organization can adequately perform; second, no lower organization may usurp a higher one for its own particular purposes. In management terms, subsidiarity refers to the delegation of decision-making power over a particular area of operation by those working directly in that area." (


From the Wikipedia:

"Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. The concept is applicable in the fields of government, political science, cybernetics and management. Subsidiarity is, ideally or in principle, one of the features of federalism.

The word subsidiarity is derived from the Latin word subsidiarius and has its origins in Catholic social teaching. The concept or principle is found in several constitutions around the world (see for example the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution).

It is presently best known as a fundamental principle of European Union law. According to this principle, the EU may only act (i.e. make laws) where member states agree that action of individual countries is insufficient. The principle was established in the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, and is contained within the proposed new Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe. However, at the local level it was already a key element of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, an instrument of the Council of Europe promulgated in 1985 (see Article 4, Paragraph 3 of the Charter)" (


Subsidiarity is in fact not a sovereignty-related concept

M.R.R. Ossewaarde:

"Unlike sovereignty and federalism, subsidiarity is not an attribute of statehood, but of nature. It is a concept that is alien to both sovereignism and federalism. Sovereign states can be federal or not, but the concepts of sovereignty and subsidiarity in themselves tell us nothing about the distribution of powers within states. Subsidiarity is a scholastic natural law principle of hierarchy that not only applies to states, but also to human bodies, families, churches, villages, forests, seas – in fact, to all things of nature. Subsidiarity has little, if anything to do, with federalist issues of centralization and decentralization (distribution of powers) within states or within the European Union, because it is not an exclusive attribute of statehood. As a principle, subsidiarity only becomes relevant to states, when the state (and its citizens or political animals), like any other community (and its members), is thought of as a feature of nature, as Aristotle and the scholastics believe. Subsidiarity cannot be reconciled with the concept of sovereignty since it does not recognize sovereignty as the defining attribute of statehood or nature. As Paulo Carozza (2003: 69) has recently recognized the rival relationship between the two concepts, “the idea of subsidiarity leaves no room for sovereignty as such”."

Source: Three Rival Versions of Political Enquiry: Althusius and the Concept of Sphere Sovereignty. By M.R.R. Ossewaarde

Appropriateness of scale

Andrew Simms:

"If EF Schumacher's great work on rethinking economics had been called the Principle of Subsidiary Function its audience, I suspect, might not have reached the millions that were touched by Small is Beautiful.

Yet the former is a more accurate description of the concept at the heart of his work and the latter, in spite of being key to his book's success, not only did Schumacher resist, but it became a caricature of his ideas, easier for opponents to dismiss than the subtlety of his actual arguments. Because Schumacher's interest was not in smallness, per se. That would, in every sense of the term, be small-minded. He was interested in "appropriateness of scale".

The more accurate, if cumbersome, term "subsidiarity" he borrowed from the teachings of the Catholic church. In a papal encyclical, Pope Pius XII put it like this: "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."

Things are best done, in other words, at the smallest appropriate scale. Hence, Schumacher's vision wasn't that everything should be small and local, but that in all things, ranging from decision-making in firms, to growing and distributing food and generating energy, our default position should be toward human scale. In this, the distance between decision and consequence, production and consumption, is kept as short as usefully and practically possible.

Every neighbourhood might, therefore, have its own bakery, but not a factory making trains." (

In the Social Doctrine of the Church

From the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church, at

"What is Subsidiarity?

“a. Value of civil society

417. The political community is established to be of service to civil society, from which it originates. The Church has contributed to the distinction between the political community and civil society above all by her vision of man, understood as an autonomous, relational being who is open to the Transcendent. This vision is challenged by political ideologies of an individualistic nature and those of a totalitarian character, which tend to absorb civil society into the sphere of the State. The Church’s commitment on behalf of social pluralism aims at bringing about a more fitting attainment of the common good and democracy itself, according to the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and justice.

Civil society is the sum of relationships and resources, cultural and associative, that are relatively independent from the political sphere and the economic sector. “The purpose of civil society is universal, since it concerns the common good, to which each and every citizen has a right in due proportion”.[853] This is marked by a planning capacity that aims at fostering a freer and more just social life, in which the various groups of citizens can form associations, working to develop and express their preferences, in order to meet their fundamental needs and defend their legitimate interests.

b. Priority of civil society

418. The political community and civil society, although mutually connected and interdependent, are not equal in the hierarchy of ends. The political community is essentially at the service of civil society and, in the final analysis, the persons and groups of which civil society is composed.[854] Civil society, therefore, cannot be considered an extension or a changing component of the political community; rather, it has priority because it is in civil society itself that the political community finds its justification.

The State must provide an adequate legal framework for social subjects to engage freely in their different activities and it must be ready to intervene, when necessary and with respect for the principle of subsidiarity, so that the interplay between free associations and democratic life may be directed to the common good. Civil society is in fact multifaceted and irregular; it does not lack its ambiguities and contradictions. It is also the arena where different interests clash with one another, with the risk that the stronger will prevail over the weaker.

c. Application of the principle of subsidiarity

419. The political community is responsible for regulating its relations with civil society according to the principle of subsidiarity.[855] It is essential that the growth of democratic life begin within the fabric of society. The activities of civil society — above all volunteer organizations and cooperative endeavours in the private-social sector, all of which are succinctly known as the “third sector”, to distinquish from the State and the market — represent the most appropriate ways to develop the social dimension of the person, who finds in these activities the necessary space to express himself fully. The progressive expansion of social initiatives beyond the State- controlled sphere creates new areas for the active presence and direct action of citizens, integrating the functions of the State. This important phenomenon has often come about largely through informal means and has given rise to new and positive ways of exercising personal rights, which have brought about a qualitative enrichment of democratic life.

420. Cooperation, even in its less structured forms, shows itself to be one of the most effective responses to a mentality of conflict and unlimited competition that seems so prevalent today. The relationships that are established in a climate of cooperation and solidarity overcome ideological divisions, prompting people to seek out what unites them rather than what divides them.

Many experiences of volunteer work are examples of great value that call people to look upon civil society as a place where it is possible to rebuild a public ethic based on solidarity, concrete cooperation and fraternal dialogue. All are called to look with confidence to the potentialities that thus present themselves and to lend their own personal efforts for the good of the community in general and, in particular, for the good of the weakest and the neediest. In this way, the principle of the “subjectivity of society” is also affirmed.” ([1])

Additional Citations


smaller social units — whether nations themselves, communities, ethnic or religious groups, families or individuals — must not be namelessly absorbed into a greater conglomeration, thus losing their identity and having their prerogatives usurped. Rather, the proper autonomy of each social class and organization, each in its own sphere, must be defended and upheld. This is nothing other than the principle of subsidiarity, which requires 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 rightful functions; (


In keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, the poor must be heard on issues and be at the center of local, national and international programs for sustainable development. Persons living in poverty must be considered as participating subjects. Individuals and peoples cannot become tools but must be the protagonists of their future,9 able to be the "agents of their own development" (

More Information

Subsidiarity at Work: a Catholic's Vision of Social Policy