Solidarity and Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Teaching
Solidarity and subsidiarity go to form a pair of principles which, much like right and duty, should not be considered as separate or opposed, but rather as two sides of a coin which go to create a complementary harmony. Because of their correspondence, we have grouped them under the same heading. In fact, just as right destroys itself if divorced from the concept of duty, so subsidiarity and solidarity are guaranteed to destroy themselves if taken in isolation. That is why, as a general rule of thumb, we ought to be wary of any politician or reformer who claims to be a firm believer in one of these principles if he seems to neglect the other. He who does not grasp the interdependence of the pair will inevitably upset the balance of justice:
“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.”
Having stressed their relation, we can proceed to discuss the unique truth represented by each.
a. Solidarity—working for the common good
St. Paul says in the Scriptures that we are one body, and that “if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.” The principle of solidarity is nothing more than the acknowledgement of this truth. It is not shallow sentimentalism; it is the acknowledgment of a responsibility:
“[Solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
“It is precisely in this sense that Cain’s answer to the Lord’s question: ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ can be interpreted: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Gen 4:9). Yes, every man is his ‘brother’s keeper’, because God entrusts us to one another.”
However, even though there is an undeniable aspect of obligation in the principle of solidarity, at its core it is an expression of love, because to love another is to desire their good and to be willing to act in order to secure it.
b. Subsidiarity—enabling responsibility
Described by the popes as an effort to achieve a “graduated order” and to encourage the “stratified” organization of social institutions, subsidiarity promotes the teaching that man has a role to play in both private and public life, and ought to be allowed to play it insofar as he is capable of doing so.
i. Subsidiarity as a response to doctrinaire individualism. We must be wary of subsidiarity as abused by the libertarian ideology. It is not, as has been frequently construed, meant to be an affirmation of individualism. In fact, if we trace the development of subsidiarity in CST, we find that it was originally formulated as a response to the evils that pervasive individualism had brought about:
“When we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind, not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”
This passage illustrates the point that even sound principles, if pushed to an extreme limit, will sooner or later turn into their opposite. This has certainly proven true in the case of individualism, which, as we have just seen, is actually the cause of rather than the answer to the growth of the paternal State.
ii. Subsidiarity defined. Thus, subsidiarity represents an answer to the dual problem of individualism and collectivism, meant to act as a harmonizing principle between autonomy and unity:
“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also 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 organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”
iii. Subsidiarity enables the State to act in its proper sphere. Only if the principle of subsidiarity is acted upon will States themselves be able to focus on those areas in which they are most competent:
“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. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.”
iv. Geared toward the family and intermediate associations. It is worth noting once more that CST rarely addresses men as individuals. Even when protecting his autonomy, the Church speaks in such a way that his social nature is affirmed rather than denied. Thus, the principle of subsidiarity itself is geared, not toward individuals, but toward associations, so that these small communities—the first and foremost being the family—can act responsibly without being “subsumed” by larger bodies. The overarching idea is not that man ought to be more atomized, which is the tendency of individualism, but that he ought to be free to associate effectively and in a personal, responsible fashion with his peers:
“Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. 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.”
 Cf. 1 Cor 12:12-26.