Subsidiarity, Solidarity, and Social Teaching: A Catholic Perspective on Political Economy

From the first cry of “Habemus papem!”[1] almost one year ago, Pope Francis, the succesor of St. Pe­ter and leader of the world’s over one billion Catholics, has charmed the world with a ministry of humility and compassion. Noticing at first his decision to withdraw from the papal apartments and to dress simply, the rov­ing eye of the media has since fastened upon his washing of the feet of those in prison, his embrace of the physi­cally deformed, and his special pastoral attention to the poor. Such coverage is valuable in that it highlights the labors of a man who has laid down all his heart, all his soul, and all his strength in obedience to God and in service to the Church.[2] The value of this coverage wanes, however, as it seeks, on account of its preoccupation with novelty, to invest the current papacy with radical quali­ties that it does not possess. Such presentations, which describe Pope Francis primarily in contrast to those that preceded him, isolate his papacy from the richness and the majesty of the Church tradition. They depict the fruit of thousands of years as the harvest of a mere moment, ineffectually compressing profound, and often difficult, truths into six-word headlines or two-second sound-bites. It is a process that results in confusion and uncer­tainty even amongst those with a genuine openness to Catholic thought.

For this reason, Francis’ most recent papal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, has suffered from superficial treat­ment and widespread misunderstanding. I refer specifi­cally to its most controversial section, “Among the Crisis of Communal Commitment.” Here, the Pope denounces a culture obsessed with money, a culture in which the “sacralized workings of the market” have eclipsed the sanctity of the human person.[3] In a statement echoed by President Obama, Francis laments the condition of a so­cioeconomic order in which “it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points.”[4] Certainly, such statements form a major part of Francis’ exhortation, and yet only seldom does popular media offer its audience much more, save for insinuations, as vacuous as they are ubiquitous, that the new papacy will herald some suitably progressive “change” in Church doctrine.

As a result, many larger questions are unresolved. To what extent has Pope Francis broken away from his predecessors? Does a Marxist Pope sit in Rome? In answer to this first question, consider a quote that sounds suspiciously Francis-esque: “It is alarming to see the hotbed of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.”[5] It might surprise some to learn that these words were spoken, on World Peace Day 2013, by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. If Benedict counts as too recent to dispel beliefs in an impending revolution of Catholic social thought, consider the words of Pope Leo XIII, who wrote in 1891, “By degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.”[6] These words suggest that criticism of unregulated market forces has remained a constant in the perspective of the Church. But I would not, like so many in popular media, expect readers to be satisfied with or convinced by a few decontextualized quotes. A desire to understand the comprehensive groundwork of such admonishments, as well as their scope and implications, will motivate our investigation.

In this article, then, I will begin by examining the Church’s understanding of property rights. From there, I will expand the scope of inquiry to encompass the twin pillars of the Church’s economic teaching: the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Having accomplished this much, perhaps we will have moved closer to understanding the most underappreciated line of Pope Francis’ entire exhortation, namely, “I take for granted the different analyses which other documents of the universal magisterium[7] have offered, as well as those proposed by the regional and national conferences of bishops.”[8]

As with any comprehensive economic philosophy, the Church’s social doctrine has, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, offered a careful account of the proper scope of the individual’s right to private property. And because the magisterial analysis of more complex topics rests implicitly upon the answers to such questions, it is here that prudence dictates our investigation begins. Pope Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical[9] Rerum Novarum marked a milestone in the development of the Church’s economic teaching, claimed that a right to private property arises, in the most general sense, as an outgrowth of man’s essentially rational nature. Man’s intellective powers, which set him apart categorically from all other living creatures, render him the sort of being fit to hold things in “permanent and stable possession.”[10] If, borrowing from Aquinas, reason consists, at least in part, of the ordering of one’s actions to some final end, or telos, then an important part of man’s activity as a rational being necessarily finds its expression in his formulation of plans for the future.[11] Consider one good perfective of man’s natural capacities: the good of knowledge. Right reason not only identifies knowledge of the truth as a form of human flourishing, but it also allows man to develop a plan of action in pursuit of this end. One might, for example, plan to enroll in a university with the further aim of attending classes and studying the assigned texts. Because the pursuit of final ends, such as knowledge of the truth, represents an enduring project rather than an ephemeral desire, man naturally projects his vision into the future, deliberating and ultimately deciding upon a reasoned course of action.

Furthermore, a little reflection will convince one that the flourishing of a human life depends upon this sustained striving towards substantive final ends, such as health, friendship, and closeness with God more than the satisfaction of passing desires. In order to provide for the sustenance of his own life and for the free pursuit of the final goods naturally perfective of that life, man must possess a certain sphere of permanence, stability, and control, within the context of which it becomes possible for him to engage in meaningful planning and action.[12] The inviolability of a general, though not necessarily unrestricted, right to private property serves as the foundation of just such a space. As later affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, “Private property or some ownership of external goods affords each person the scope needed for personal and family autonomy.”[13] To deny an individual the right to private property, therefore, would be to render him incapable of pursuing his integral fulfillment in the way appropriate to him as an inherently rational being.

At this point, one might object on the grounds that the benevolence of a centralized, high-functioning State could, through wise socioeconomic calculation, create this sphere itself, obviating the need for private property. Vested with suitable powers, it would claim ultimate control over all property, or at least all productive property, bending the economic activity of its members to satisfy some enlightened vision of human progress. In the remaining space, man could pursue his personal ends, availing himself of the state-sanctioned use of resources but not their ownership. Thus, the whole would prosper through the State’s coordination of its parts. Under this maestro State, the right to private property, and perhaps a few other rights as well, would be irrelevant, if not flatly antithetical, to the common good.

Whether or not a State with the capacity for such calculation could exist in practice, I leave to more knowledgeable economists and political scientists. Papal encyclicals beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, however, argue that even a hyper-competent State should be constrained to respect certain spheres of personal freedom. Because the individual and the family exist prior to the State “in idea as in fact” they possess the right and responsibility independent of the State to provide for their own sustenance and basic needs.[14] To the extent that the State usurps, rather than supports, its members in this fundamental role, it reaches beyond the bounds of its rightful authority, interfering inappropriately in their lives. Because the stability requisite for the continuous fulfillment of man’s naturally recurring needs as well as for his planning for the future presupposes some general, though not necessarily unrestricted, right to private property, the State cannot justly abrogate these rights in favor of pursuing its own designs, however well-intentioned. Such analysis is an application of the principle of subsidiarity, a key part of Church doctrine that will be explored in greater generality later in this essay.

Some might wonder, even accepting the above argument, about the consistency of private property rights with the “universal destination of earth’s goods.”[15] For in Genesis 1:28, God says, “Increase and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the Earth.”[16] Creation is a gift to the whole of humanity, not merely to any single person or community. Private property rights, one might object, fail to acknowledge the universal generosity of this bequeathal.

Certainly, the Church affirms the bounty of creation, a bounty arising from the infinite love of God. Of such abundance Leo XIII writes, “God has granted the earth to mankind in general […] No part of it was assigned to any one in particular.”[17] However, the earth does not simply yield up boundless resources at a mere whim of mankind. Rather, God’s gift requires “a particular human response,” namely the application of man’s strength and perseverance, his intellect, and his will.[18] Labor, by no means unnatural, then, to humankind, transforms the earth, rendering that which was once merely potential an actual source of sustenance, even comfort. Such a process intimately involves a man in the object of his labor, and thus, in his toils, he “leaves the impress of his personality” upon it.[19] Man changes the object of his labor so that it reflects the joint working of his reason and his will; in this way, he acquires ownership rights, strong but in no sense absolute, over it. Such ownership, encouraged and proliferated amongst all people, accords fully with the doctrine of universal destination.

Most, however, will find a general right to private property relatively uncontroversial. A wide variety of stark divisions tend to arise instead around questions that examine the nature of social justice and the proper role of the State in regulating economic affairs. Rather than render prudential judgments on specific economic policies, the responsibility for settling empirical disputes belonging to the laity, the Church seeks to elevate discourse on pressing socio-economic issues by promulgating Christian principles of action and judgment.[20] One such principle that has proven invaluable to the strength and coherence of the Church’s social teaching over the last one hundred and fifty years is the often-overlooked principle of subsidiarity.

The principle of subsidiarity states, “A community of higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”[21] The essential conception here is one of a dynamically layered body politic in which the lower-level entities that together constitute higher-level institutions possess rights and responsibilities prior to those of the organizations in which they participate. This priority of rights and responsibilities stems from an existential priority “both in idea as in fact” of lower-level groups such that, for example, the family precedes intermediate organizations, which in turn precede the State.[22] Priority in “idea” means that higher-level groups exist for the sake of lower-level groups rather than the lower for the higher. Priority in “fact” means that the lower groups constitute higher groups.

The intermediate organizations referred to above might include trade unions, religious groups, and voluntary aid societies. They do not hold the distant, coercive power of the State but are composed of a community’s local members and are capable of ministering to that community in a direct and intimate way. When a broader organization attempts to appropriate for itself duties whose fulfillment is the natural object of lower-level societies, then that organization has failed to respect their autonomy and their rights.[23] Thus, in the example of private property mentioned above, the State cannot justly withhold from the individual those rightful powers and instruments by means of which he satisfies an obligation to provide for his own sustenance. Alternatively, consider the right and duty, under anything resembling normal circumstances, of parents to provide for the healthy physical, intellectual, and spiritual growth of their children. The State should support parents by cultivating a sociocultural environment conducive to the rearing of children. Once the State attempts to replace the parents, however, or to infringe upon their autonomy in fulfilling their fundamental duties toward their children, for example, by mandating enrollment in exclusively State-run schools, then it has overstepped its rightful bounds, even if it does so with benevolent intentions. According to the principle of subsidiarity the State only acts justly, and the body politic only truly flourishes, when the autonomy of all levels of society enjoys proper respect.

Subsidiarity’s relevance to economic affairs is likely already apparent, especially given contemporary debates on the role of the State in alleviating the poverty denounced by Evangelii Gaudium. Francis’ remarks therein have been interpreted by some as justification for a comprehensive welfare state in which the federal government presides over vast redistributive programs. Given the principle of subsidiarity, however, such an interpretation screams implausibility. Subsidiarity, as one might imagine, demands a much less top-heavy solution, such as the one advocated by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centissimus Annis. In this encyclical, John Paul II is unambiguously critical of the “Welfare State.” A State that has empowered itself to undertake the tremendous levels of economic intervention necessary to build up a comprehensive welfare state, he claims, “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies.”[24] Such large-scale federal control would also foreseeably result in a ballooning of the bureaucratic machine, one manifestly unsuited to the flourishing of fraternal sentiment in civil society. Much more than the raw data of a distant State, “[human] needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.”[25] Although there does, in some sense, exist a right to work, it must be kept in mind that the State does not and cannot exist as the guarantor of each and every right. In fact, direct efforts on the part of the State to assure this right in every possible circumstance, independent of lower bodies and organizations, could only be successful through an untenable constriction of individual freedom.[26]

All these negative consequences flow from the welfare state’s breach of the principle of subsidiarity. The “primary responsibility” for ensuring the proper functioning of human activity in the economic sphere rests not with the State but with the plurality of lower-level institutions, organizations, and communities that comprise the body politic as a whole. Instead of directing its focus toward micromanagement of the economic system, the State’s duty is to “sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities.”[27] In this way, the State plays a supportive role, maintaining a framework in which the autonomous initiative of lower-level actors can shape and build society in a dynamic way, from the bottom up. Thus, the body politic grows organically with the full participation of all its members.

Does subsidiarity translate into broad justification for laissez-faire policies aimed at separating the spheres of Market and State, with the former unquestioned and unrestrained in its action upon society? Does it entail a sort of justice unconcerned with the suffering of others? In answer to these questions, let us consider for a moment Jesus’ parable of the beggar Lazarus. It begins with a man robed in “purple and fine linen,” opulent clothing that testifies to a life of luxury. There is, however, a beggar named Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, covered not with linen but with sores. As he peers in, he longs to eat even the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. Lazarus, treated much like a dog, enjoys the company only of dogs. When both die, however, Lazarus is received into heaven, and the rich man is tormented in hell.[28]

Such a story provides a way into the second pillar of the Church’s economic doctrine: the principle of solidarity. The rich man never stole from Lazarus; he never abused him or exploited him. And yet, he was condemned justly to eternal damnation. The rich man had a duty to poor Lazarus. A duty, we may infer, that would not have been satisfied by the rich man paying taxes to Caesar, even a Caesar committed to establishing a generous “imperial” safety net for his people. The rich man understood his exorbitant wealth as a means of insulating himself from the suffering of the poor rather than as a means of alleviating it. His indifference, his lack of compassion, and engagement, are what testified against him at the end of his earthly life. We are called to act, to the extent possible given our socioeconomic situation, in sympathy and fraternity, in solidarity with the poor.

How does this message translate onto a larger scale? The market, just like the State, is not an end in itself but rather an instrument in service to the immensity of the dignity of the human person. Therefore, the market must not eclipse the State in power, becoming capable of defying the State’s authority as overseer of the common good.[29] In harmonious cooperation, the relationship of mutual support ensured by the principle of subsidiarity, the two must together also strive to satisfy the principle of solidarity. The principle of solidarity emphasizes the importance of recognizing actively, and in fully human ways, the dignity of the most vulnerable. As the United States Catholic Bishops write, “A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.”[30] In Centesimus Annus, John Paul laments “forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person.”[31] A collapse in solidarity is one of the primary subjects of Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium.

Authentic solidarity must begin with a well-ordered conception of the poor, one no longer dominated by “a mentality in which the poor – as individuals and as peoples – are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced.”[32] Rather, current economic conditions must be assessed with the understanding that the poor ask for nothing more than “the right to share in enjoying material goods and to make good use of their capacity for work, thus creating a world that is more just and prosperous for all.”[33] One cannot, then, orchestrate an economic renewal that accounts only marginally for those suffering in abject privation. Instead, the fate of the poor must move to occupy a central position in the minds of those seeking to improve the economic and moral character of society.

Resisting the temptation to entrust the advancement of the poor to a distant and potentially despotic State, it is evident that all levels and branches of society must proceed in harmony with each other if the problem of poverty is to be addressed in a fully human way. The State has, in its subsidiary role, the responsibility of enforcing laws that uphold a just wage and that safeguard workers against discrimination and unsafe working conditions.[34] These guarantees, however, would prove powerless to elevate the situation of the poor in the absence of a robust network of intermediary organizations. Local, volunteer associations are positioned uniquely to minister in real and intimate ways to the souls of their communities. Religious and other service-oriented groups can and do play a significant role in strengthening and preserving social connectedness. By organizing and empowering members of the community to tend to the needs of those within it, such groups can do a great deal more to infuse a real sense of hope, compassion, and belonging than can a series of government checks in the mail. With the flexibility and special understanding that proceeds from personal knowledge of a place and its people, these groups can work to heal what are often deeply fractured and disjointed communities, elevating the value of material aid by mixing it with the transformative power of personal compassion.[35] Also of note here is the labor union. Free and voluntary associations of workers, bound together not by resentment or envy but by fraternal feeling, play an invaluable role in support of labor. Unions fair and reasonable in their negotiations can contribute to a greater cohesion in the community of workers and employers, the strengthening of which honors the dignity and magnifies the prosperity of both.[36]

The demands of solidarity, however, will never be satisfied in a framework attentive only to the material aspects of human life and cooperation. For the totality of the human person extends far beyond the satisfaction of physical needs and fleeting desires. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of the flourishing life, and by extension the flourishing of the common good, that lacks a deep engagement with the non-commercial and the spiritual elements of human existence.[37] In gauging the status of many contemporary forms of capitalism, man must reflect deeply on a number of difficult questions: To what extent does the system show contempt for the weak and disadvantaged? How does our form of economic organization respect and cultivate respect for the intrinsic rather than the merely instrumental value of human beings? How do current conditions either empower or enfeeble men and women seeking to lead their lives and raise their families in accordance with Gospel values? With regard to these metrics, much of the extant system has proven a profound and tragic failure. As Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have accurately pointed out, “the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing.”[38] An atomistic, individualist, value-free conception of society content to solve exclusively technical problems revolving around increases in aggregate production and consumption will never minister to the needs of the people, never allow man to realize his transcendent worth or to rise above the market and above the State. Only a deep and comprehensive infusion of Christian cultural values can ensure that the laudable advancements in economic wealth, opportunity, and innovation produced by a market system contribute not to the vitiation of society’s moral sensibilities but rather to the real and practiced recognition of the sublime dignity of the human person.



1. Translated: “We have a pope!”

2. From Luke 10:27, Douhey-Rheims translation: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind: and thy neighbor as thyself.”

3. Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium, 2.I.54

4. Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium, 2.I.53

5. Pope Benedict XVI Blessed Are the Peacemakers, 1

6. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 3

7. The authoritative body that lays down the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church

8. Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium, 2.51

9. A papal letter sent to all bishops of the Catholic Church

10. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 6

11. Aquinas Summa Theologica, Question 91, Article 1

12. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 7

13. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.30

14. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 13

15. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, I.6

16. Genesis 1:28, DR

17. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 8

18. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.13

19. Pope Leo XII Rerum Novarum, 9

20. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, 3

21. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, V.48

22. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 13

23. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, II.11-15

24. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.48

25. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.48

26. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.48

27. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.48

28. For the story in full detail, see Luke 16:19-31, DR

29. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.35

30. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. A Catholic framework for Economic Life

31. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, III.22

32. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, III.28

33. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, III.28

34. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, II.15

35. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.49

36. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 49

37. Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum, 57; Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.36

38. Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus, IV.33


Nicholas is an Eastern Rite Catholic and a double major in philosophy and economics. He can’t wait to switch back to the twenty-meal plan so that he can enjoy a leisurely breakfast every morning in Sharplés.

Photo credit: mconnors from

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