Catholics for Renewal


Editorial June 2020

Implementing the principle of Subsidiarity without delay

Will dioceses and the Plenary Council itself be guided by the Church’s ‘principle of subsidiarity’, a principle endorsed by Vatican II and every recent Pope?  Subsidiarity calls for dialogue and decision-making as close as possible to those impacted by what is decided. 


In his 1931 encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno Pope Pius XI formulated the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ as: 

Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private enterprise and endeavour can accomplish, so it is likewise unjust and a gravely harmful disturbance of right order to turn over to a greater society of higher rank functions and services which can be performed by lesser bodies on a lower plane.


Pope John XXIII repeated the principle in his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, and Vatican II invoked it as a norm for international cooperation at the economic level for the universal common good, and insisted that, in the education of children, the prime role of parents and their freedom to choose the type of education be accepted.


The 1967 Synod of Bishops called for greater application of subsidiarity within the Church and the 1983 Code of Canon Law made some provision for decentralisation of decision-making, provided the unity of discipline of the universal Church was safeguarded.  In practice, however, the application has been limited.  The 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops also looked to subsidiarity having greater application in the Church and how it might contribute to greater ‘decentralisation’ of church governance; but again, with little effect.


Subsidiarity is meant to ensure that individuals, groups and associations have maximum freedom to exercise personal responsibility pursuing their goals in light of the common good.

Recently, Pope Francis, speaking about the sexual abuse crisis, called every Christian “to become involved in ecclesial and social change ...[to] awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”  This call was subsidiarity in action, as well as an exhortation to subsidiarity. It was an inclusive invitation to the leaders of local churches and all people of good-will to personally initiate and contribute to improved safeguarding and governance practices for the common good.  


The sexual abuse of children in our Church should make us ask how ‘subsidiarity’ can be more precisely defined in this context, and how it can contribute more to a ‘decentralisation’ of church governance.  In Australian civil society there is significant participative decision-making, with community engagement and inclusive boards and management chosen from a wide range of backgrounds, human talents and abilities. Our Church can learn from these.


Catholics for Renewal is pleased that the GPRT report on governance in the Church has given prominence to the principle of subsidiarity and recommended that, along with collegiality, synodality, stewardship, dialogue, participation and good leadership, it “be reflected in the governance structures and decision-making processes of dioceses, parishes and church agencies” (Recs. 3 and 7).  We fully endorse these recommendations and urge the Australian bishops to act on them without delay.


For a more detailed explanation of the principle of subsidiarity we refer you to our Summary Document (HERE)

Abstract Painting: Participation (interpretation).  Aubrey Williams (late 70s). Tate Gallery