Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions
Solidarity and Subsidiarity:

Solidarity and Subsidiarity:

Practical Principles from Catholic Social Teaching


Common Good and Society

Solidarity and subsidiarity are two principles of the moral teachings of the Church that are absolutely required for a well-ordered and functioning society. In fact, the common good cannot be served without them. It is from this starting point of the common good that we must begin. Pope St. John XXIII said in 1963 that “... civil authority must strive to promote the common good in the interest of all, without favoring any individual citizen or category of citizen (Pacem in Terris, 56).” Pope Leo XIII even said in 1891 that “civil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general… (Rerum Novarum, 51).”

Civil society, serving the common good, is ordered towards men establishing of right-relationship with one another and setting up a commonwealth. No man is an island unto himself and the good of each individual is inextricably linked to the good of the society as a whole. The depths of this reality are rooted in the charity of Almighty God. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate: “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it (Caritas in Veritate, 7).” How else can this be accomplished than in a community, a society, and gathering of individuals united to common purpose, at least to some large degree. 


The common good is the aim of civil society, but how is it served? The first principle to examine is solidarity. Solidarity basically is the reality that there is an interdependence among individuals and nations. 

In his work Centesimus Annus, Pope St. John Paul II provides the historical context of the word solidarity. He reports that in the writings of Pope Leo XIII, the Greek philosophical term of “friendship” is employed with the same meaning as what is now called solidarity. Pope Piux XI refers to solidarity with the term “social charity.” And Pope St. Paul VI expanded “the concept to cover the many modern aspects of the social question, speaks of a ‘civilization of love’ (Centesimus Annus, 10).” Pope Benedict XVI put it eloquently to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in 2008 when he said: 

“Solidarity refers to the virtue enabling the human family to share fully the treasure of material and spiritual goods, and subsidiarity is the coordination of society’s activities in a way that supports the internal life of the local communities (Pope Benedict XVI, 2008).”

In our modern, interconnected world, with global media, we experience keenly the reality that we are connected. We watch the news and feel personally affected by injustice and human rights violations committed in countries in which we have never stepped foot. There is a moral connotation to this, as well, because we wonder: how can I help? What can I do? The human heart naturally reaches out to the suffering and pain of others and desires justice. Yet, what can we do? Well, in solidarity, we understand that we are interconnected.

As St. John Paul II put it 1987:

“It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a "virtue," is solidarity. This then 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 (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 38).”

Committed to the common good, and aware of the interconnectedness of man, we set out in charity to sanctify the temporal order. This is the heart of solidarity. We see the world as God sees it. We recognize the members of society as persons. Seeing the image of God and recognizing opportunities to practice solidarity do not belong exclusively to one class either. As St. John Paul II puts it:

“Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others (Sollicitudo rei socialis, 39).”

In other words, no one is excused from the practice of Christian charity. Likewise, because civil society exists to serve the common good, an essential condition for global solidarity is autonomy and free self-determination. Men organize themselves to constitute a commonwealth. Government should support this swelling of justice and charity, without undermining it by a tyrannical top-down approach.

Government and Solidarity

Those in government work can support the practice of solidarity by understanding that man’s fulfillment comes by using his intelligence and freedom in freely giving of himself to others. Private initiative and ownership are, therefore, to be respected and kept in preeminent position. To quote St. John Paul II from Centesimus Annus:

“Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity. Moreover, he collaborates in the work of his fellow employees, as well as in the work of suppliers and in the customers' use of goods, in a progressively expanding chain of solidarity (Centesimus Annus, 43).”

It is Catholic and just to ensure bonds of solidarity among working people and allow them to practice useful work, without exploitation and being used as a means of making profit only. Man works to provide for the needs of others and his work ought to firstly expand the work and wealth of society, which then can lead to profits but only secondarily. Even at the level of the family, a mutual support of husband and wife ought to be fostered and care given by one generation to the other. The family is rightly ordered as a community of work and solidarity. 

Solidarity requires seeing the human person. Often today, we might find two prevailing forces which seek to devalue us. On the one hand, the market sees only producers and consumers of goods. On the other hand, the government only sees statistics and objects of State administration. But society serves the life of human persons and the common good; the market and the State are not the final purpose of society. 

Associations of persons and state agencies should work to promote a deeper vision of human solidarity. By doing so, solidarity can be shown by civil society in a way surpassing that of any one individual. Pope Francis said in 2013 that 

“As Church we all have a strong responsibility to spread hope through works of solidarity, always seeking to collaborate in the best possible way with public institutions with respect for their respective responsibilities (Pope Francis, 2013).”

As St. John Paul II put it in 1995, 

“Many Christians from all Communities, by reason of their faith, are jointly involved in bold projects aimed at changing the world by inculcating respect for the rights and needs of everyone, especially the poor, the lowly and the defenceless (Ut Unum Sint, 43).”

It is this vision of seeing the human person rather than a vague abstraction and respecting the needs of these persons that we enter into solidarity. As Pope Benedict XVI put it:

“Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me (Deus Caritas Est, 18).”

Really, solidarity is instantiated in our place of work when we serve the other. If you are in real estate, are you viewing the human purpose of the structure you are helping to buy and sell? In healthcare, are you treating symptoms and diseases or paying care to the whole human person? In government, are you giving due deference to human communities or simply building a more efficient bureaucracy?

Pope Francis warned us in 2013 that “This word solidarity runs the risk of being deleted from the dictionary because it is a word that bothers us, it bothers us. Why? Because it requires you to look at another and give yourself to another with love (Pope Francis, 2013).” By practicing solidarity, from the heart of the Church, we are able to work in the public sector and transcend the cultural, political, social, and geographic differences that separate people in an effort to see persons as God sees them. As we encounter persons in the private or public sector in a clinical or service capacity, we grow in solidarity if we see them as persons to be loved. Likewise, from an administrative or policy standpoint, we are provided opportunities to practice the virtue of solidarity and create systems and structures which facilitate the growth in holiness, virtue, and a more holistic view of the dignity of each human person.


The companion principle to solidarity is the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity can be defined a couple of different ways. The best definition, in my estimation, is this: the best decision is made at the lowest possible level and the highest level necessary. Put another way: any activity that can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be.

The principle of subsidiarity comes into play on every level of analysis. We can look at the interplay of the family in a community. Or we can investigate the proper balance between a regional government and a national government. On the level of the State, subsidiarity dictates that the State should not do things which belong properly to the capacity of individuals or private associations operating independently of the State. Again, subsidiarity means that the best decision is made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary.

We should be careful not to simply see subsidiarity as a conservative/traditional principle that seeks to limit the power of the State. Instead, subsidiarity sets limits on the State but it also justifies the existence of the State. The highest level necessary sometimes means that a national or federal level of oversight is necessary. Think, for example, of the existence of border security, military administration, or policies regarding national patriotism. So, the State is necessary, but it needs to be rightly limited to only those actions necessary to be administered at that level.

The heart of the principle of subsidiarity is human dignity. As Pope Benedict XVI beautifully teaches:

“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 (Caritas in veritate, 57).”

If we do not allow decisions to be made at the proper level, then power will be exercised in a foolish way on the one hand or in a tyrannical fashion on the other hand. Though the effects of globalization have yielded some fruits on the international stage, there is still a threat of a “dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature,” to borrow a phrase of Pope Benedict XVI. He acknowledges there should be sufficient global authority to pursue the global common good, but, most importantly, “[t]his 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 (Caritas in veritate, 57).”

Pope Pius XI, in 1931, wrote of this reciprocal nature when he said: 

“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 to 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 (Quadragesimo Anno, 80).” 

The State cannot, however, be all-encompassing and tyrannical, unjustly limiting individual autonomy. In the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in 2015, Pope Francis said this: “No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty (Pope Francis, 2015).”

If we do not heed the Church’s sage understanding of subsidiarity, then the State will begin to provide everything, even those things best left to a lower level or strata of society. This would inevitably become a mere bureaucracy which can never guarantee the thing needed most by those who are suffering: loving personal concern. As Pope Benedict XVI writes in his encyclical on love:

“We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need (Deus Caritas Est, 28).”

Solidarity and Subsidiarity

Solidarity and subsidiarity come together as a pair or neither are assured. If we have subsidiarity without solidarity, then we have what Pope Benedict XVI calls “social privatism.” In this situation, the individual is free to operate as they will but with no regard for his fellow man. This does not serve the common good. On the other hand, if we have solidarity but not subsidiarity, then we have what Pope Benedict calls “paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need (Caritas in veritate, 58).”

In 1961, Pope St. John XXIII wrote clearly that 

“Experience has shown that where personal initiative is lacking, political tyranny ensues and, in addition, economic stagnation in the production of a wide range of consumer goods and of services of the material and spiritual order (Mater et Magistra, 57).”

This paternalist social assistance could also be called a Social Assistance State or Welfare State. Such a society deprives individuals of personal responsibility. The Social Assistance State, says Pope St. John Paul II, 

“... leads 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. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need (Centesimus Annus, 48).”

The lesson here is an incredibly practical one. For those involved in the public or private sectors alike, we must view people as persons with true value. We need to work towards the common good and ensure that we are keeping subsidiarity and solidarity operative. If we are to avoid tyranny then we must put subsidiarity into practice. If we are to avoid a privatism devoid of charity, then we must put solidarity into practice!

For further reading, check the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

or Peter Kwasniewski’s book A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching.

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