Subsidiarity: Call to Family, Community, and Participation


Call to Family, Community, and Participation The person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society—in economics and politics, in law and policy—directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. So, the principle of subsidiarity is really about the duty of the higher order to provide assistance to the lower order when appropriate. One example is when the lower order cannot provide a necessary function, such as defense, or has failed to protect the rights of persons and the common good, such as civil rights.

Prayer of Reflection

Almighty and ever living God, empower your one human family to join hands on our journey of faith. Send us your Spirit of hope, so that we may work to alleviate human suffering and foster charity and justice in our world.



Read from the Bible

1 Peter 4:8-11

  • 8 Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace. 11 Whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God; whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews 10:24-25

  • 24 We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. 25 We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Romans 12:4-8

  • 4 For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ* and individually parts of one another. 6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them:* if prophecy, in proportion to the faith; 7 if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching; 8 if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others,* with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Read from the Catechism of the Catholic Church 

  • 1883 Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “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 functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (CCC, no. 1883)

Read from the Letters from the Popes

Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home [Laudato Si’], nos. 179, 219

  • “Local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. . . Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.”

Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel [Evangelii Gaudium], no. 220, quoting United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, Nov. 2007, no. 13

  • “People in every nation enhance the social dimension of their lives by acting as committed and responsible citizens, not as a mob swayed by the powers that be. Let us not forget that ‘responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.’”

Saint John Paul II, The Family in the Modern World [Familiaris Consortio], no. 48

  • “Christian families can [be a sign of unity for the world] by presenting to their children a model of life based on the values of truth, freedom, justice, and love.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth [Caritas in Veritate], no. 57

  • “Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others.”

Reflections from the Poor Handmaids and Saint Katharina Kasper

Katharina’s leadership of the congregation operated in the spirit of collegiality and subsidiarity before they became churchy terms.  It was just natural to her that no one person held all the truth.  And so she readily sought the advice and consultation of her leadership team. Because Katharina was a woman of her time she believed that priests and bishops in particular were to be consulted and their advice highly respected – but let us not forget her ability to voice her difference of opinion when it mattered mightily. She also asks advice from people whom she considered free of self-interest. She seemed to feel that God brought other people into her life whose voices she needed to hear especially if they had no vested interest in the outcome and could therefore be objective in their perspective.

Katharina also encouraged her Sisters to work out concerns in their community living or difficulties in their ministry with those involved in the issue.  Only when the Sisters brought unresolved difficulties to her attention did she step in to negotiate the situation. Subsidiarity was particularly evident with Katharina’s guidance of the early Sisters ministering in America.  She trusted and supported their decisions without a full understanding of the culture and character of immigrant America in the late nineteenth century.

Subsidiarity has played a major role in the development of the Poor Handmaid Associate Community.  What began in 1983 as a program managed by Poor Handmaids developed in time as a Partnership led by a Sister and an Associate and then further matured in the past several decades as a faith community radiating the charism of Saint Katharina in its unique way.  This development of

self-determination has resulted in a community of spiritual kinship and interdependence with the Sisters, expressing both the fruits of subsidiarity and the resilience of the charism.

Examples from the Foundation’s Work

The challenge and opportunity for the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation is how to best steward resources to those decision-makers in the community. We try to avoid “decision-taking” from local communities, rather we aim to “walk alongside” those already within the community who have firsthand understanding of the local needs. We have:

  • Built relationships with individuals who serve vulnerable populations, listening for ways we can best respond to the client needs identified by these providers and those trusted within vulnerable communities
  • Given preference to programming whose leadership includes representation of the people they serve
  • Worked with our governmental partners and also advocated for appropriate allocation of resources and authority to local, vulnerable populations
  • Financially supported local grassroots programming that strengthens families and communities in low-income areas with minimal access to resources.


  • How is our board and staff welcoming direct influence from the people we serve?
  • How is our board and staff directly listening and responding to the needs of the people we serve?
  • What internal initiatives or external organizations exemplify excellent prioritization of subsidiarity? Past and Present
  • Describe a time when a person with authority to influence your situation asked for your input; how did that interaction affect you?
  • How can we encourage and support people within vulnerable populations to use their voice and talents to address the needs they see in their community?

Additional Resources


The information above was compiled by Meg Distler, Mary Tyndall, and Mark Burkholder as a student capstone project for the Catholic Social Tradition and Philanthropy course offered by the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame, and the Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) in the Summer of 2023.