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"An issue or problem should be dealt with by the people who are closest to it."
- Rudy Carrasco


The principle of subsidiarity holds that social and economic problems should be solved by those closest to them whenever possible (i.e., the family, the church and neighborhood, the community), making temporary recourse to more distant levels of assistance only when necessary and with deep awareness of the dangers of institutionalizing detached and distant forms of bureaucratic assistance. The complementary principle of solidarity—which emphasizes the inherently social nature of the human person and humanity’s common bond as creatures made in the image of God—is often and rightly invoked in discussions of global poverty, but the principle of subsidiarity also bears on the subject, and has played an important role in both Catholic and Protestant social thought. 

Subsidiarity in Action

The principle of subsidiarity is strongly supported by empirical evidence. One negative example is the distribution of malaria nets in Africa. Malaria kills roughly one million Africans each year, and bed nets have served as one tool in protecting people against the mosquitoes that carry the disease. The World Bank sponsored a donation of mosquito nets to countries suffering acutely from malaria (mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa). Unfortunately, many of those nets ended up in the hands of corrupt dictators and from there into a black market, often ending up as fishing nets and wedding veils.

In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly contrasts such an approach to one guided by the principle of subsidiarity. Population Services International (PSI) sells nets to nurses in Malawi for fifty cents (White Man's Burden, p. 25). The nurse who distributes the nets gets nine cents per net. PSI also sells nets for five dollars to rich Malawians, which allows them to subsidize the cost of the nets so they can get to people who actually need them.

This is just one example of how subsidiarity works. It was the Malawians who came up with the concept of selling the nets through the nurses: they knew the situation “on the ground” and so were able to find an informed, effective way to get the nets to the people in the community who needed them, and who could explain how to use the nets and why they were worth using. In sum, PSI succeeded by connecting with, listening to, and partnering with key actors embedded in the local culture. 

Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Teaching

Pope Leo XIII began to develop the principle of subsidiarity as Catholic social teaching in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. The principle of subsidiarity was formally defined and further developed by Pope Pius in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Pius wrote, “It is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies. This is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, unshaken and unchangeable, and it retains its full truth today.” As he further emphasized, “The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly.”

In 1991, Pope John Paul II emphasized the principle of subsidiarity in Centesimus Annus, the papal encyclical celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. There he wrote that the welfare state ignores the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and aggressively in local communities, leading to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

Subsidiarity in the Bible

The biblical foundation for both Protestant and Catholic teaching is rooted in a rich understanding of being made in the image and likeness of God. Scripture tells us that we are responsible for addressing our own needs whenever we are able. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 exhorts, “If a man shall not work, he shall not eat.” God has equipped the majority of us to be productive and create wealth and resources for ourselves and others.

We are also called to help others, and Scripture makes clear that this begins with our families. The life and story of Ruth beautifully illustrates this mandate and privilege, but it’s just one of many places in Scripture where we read of the importance of taking care of family members. In 1 Timothy 5:3-8, for instance, Paul urges Christians to take care of their widowed mothers and grandmothers, and he describes the person who does not care for family members in need as “worse than an unbeliever” (vs. 8). Further, Paul goes on to describe the responsibility that each of us has to care for the widows and the orphans among us. Paul explains that individual Christians should take care of widows they are related to so that church leaders need only be responsible for those in extreme need. We are also called upon to be mindful of our neighbors. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus answers the question of what it means to be a neighbor; to see a person in need, show compassion, and get personally involved in addressing that need. Throughout Scripture, we are frequently reminded to determine how God has equipped us to address the needs around us before calling on other people or institutions to intervene.

Notably, Scripture almost always speaks of caring for needs as a form of service to one another. From a biblical perspective, tangible generosity takes place in the context of a personal relationship. This means that money and physical resources are not seen as the primary solution to social problems. The start of the solution to social problems in Scripture begins with the acknowledgment that we exist in relation to God and to one another, and that it is a great responsibility and privilege to care for needs around us in the most effective manner. 

Subsidiarity in Protestant Thought

The principle of subsidiarity is widely known as a social, political, and ecclesiastical idea that finds its classic modern expression in Catholic social teaching. Lesser known, however, is that the more remote origins of the principle of subsidiarity are found in the ecclesiastical and political thought of the Reformation. The development of Reformed political thought, particularly with regard to the concepts of federalism and subsidiarity, are often identified with the Dutch thinker Johannes Althusius. The Renaissance and Reformation attempts to synthesize various sources from the history of legal and religious thought find expression in Althusius’ Dicaeologicae, which itself was an immense work that sought to construct a single comprehensive juridical system by collating the Decalogue, Jewish law, Roman law, and various streams of European customary law. In both theology as well as law, during this period, the topical method of organization, along with attention to the various streams of traditional precedents, set the stage for the sort of massive integrated works that Dicaeologicae typifies.

Besides the pervasive influence of a scholastic method modified by the insights provided by Renaissance humanism, an important ecclesiastical source for the development of the concept of subsidiarity is embedded in a resolution passed in 1571 by the Dutch synod of Emden. This resolution was intended to govern the relationship between parishes and general synods. The first article produced by the Synod of Emden in 1571, for instance, has a textual predecessor in the Wezelse Artikelen of 1568. Furthermore, we can trace the origins of the expression of subsidiarity present in the Emden resolution through the influence of earlier texts, themselves influenced by the Reformed churches in sixteenth-century France.

Subsidiarity and the Information Problem

Subsidiarity, then, has a lot to do with knowledge. The closer you are to a problem, the more likely you are to be familiar with the relevant information. Thus, in seeking to help poor people, we ought to seek and support local initiatives informed by local knowledge, and to forge partnerships with local actors, partnerships that share wisdom and provide mutual accountability. 

Rethink Poverty

Subtitled in 15 languages, this six part video series that will change absolutely everything about how you approach charity and missions.