The Catholic origins of the EU’s principle of subsidiarity

By Andreas Pacher | 20 March 2018

To quote this document: Andreas Pacher, “The Catholic origins of the EU’s principle of subsidiarity”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 20 March 2018,, displayed on 02 June 2023

The EU’s principle of subsidiarity is rooted in Catholic social thought. It offers guidance on how to allocate powers among a plurality of communities. While the Catholic understanding centers around individual dignity and the vocation of each human collective to offer itself as a gift to social life, the EU’s approach resembles federalist visions based on instrumental-rational calculations of efficiency.

Political concepts as a ‘secularized theology’

International politics is filled with concepts nourished by Christian foundations. ‘Sovereignty’, for instance, denotes a secularised monotheism focusing on a single ruler (Kantorowicz 1957); ‘balance of power’ parallels a harmonious order of things designed by God’s will (Agamben 2011); the term ‘national interest’ is directly borrowed from St. Augustine’s animus dominandi or ‘lust for power’ (Guilhot 2010, 246); diplomacy’s inherent thrust to maintain relations between estranged entities despite the acceptance to live under conditions of separateness is evocative of Apostle Paul’s ambassadorial sending (Constantinou 2006); and the very concept of ‘human rights’ has an intellectual genealogy which can be traced back via scholasticism to biblical teachings. Sovereignty, balance of power, national interest, diplomacy, human rights – these are just a few examples of the ‘secularised theological concepts’ that lurk around in international relations (Schmitt 1985, 36).

Within the EU, there is one principle which is obligatorily addressed in each legislative initiative by the European Commission, and which has repeatedly caused political and judicial fights ever since it became first enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty 1992 – the principle of subsidiarity. The term was drawn from Catholic social teaching, which conceptualized subsidiarity in the 19th and 20th century when the Church struggled against Liberalism and Totalitarianism. Liberalism sought to marginalize the state on the basis of a relentless individualism, whereas Totalitarianism aimed at expanding its outreach by negating the dignity of non-state actors (extra rempublicam nulla sallus).

Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Thought

Subsidiarity is a guidance for determining proper allocation of authority among various communities in a society. Within a multitude of organized human gatherings – from sport clubs to NGOs, from hospitals to religions, from state agencies to diasporic associations – which collective should ‘rule’ in a given domain or area?

The Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium recalls that according to the Gospel, ‘ruling’ and ‘serving’ are inherently the same: Servire regnare est. Musing about Adam and Eve, John Paul II. found that the two ‘served’ each other by gifting themselves to one another. People are not simply bearers of power, but also poised to act in self-giving. This is evocative of the term munus: Deriving from an Etruscan rite of bloodstained sacrifice on ancestral graves, munus came to mean a gift of service, and later entered the word ‘com-munity’ which denotes the sharing of gifts. In his encyclicals, Pius XI. stated that all com-munities (families, corporations, governments, international organizations etc.) have iura and officia and munera, i.e. rights to vindicate, power to wield, and gifts to give. As each collective possesses its proper munus, the latter’s plurality prompts the question of when the state (as simply yet another, but more powerful, institution) may claim to fulfil another community’s tasks. This is what the concept of subsidiarity seeks to answer (Hittinger 2002).

During the political mood of creeping totalitarianism, Pope Pius XI. conceptualized subsidiarity similar to what we usually associate with human rights. At least in so-called Western countries, we take for granted that fundamental rights protect individual dignity. In applying this latter notion, Pius XI. argued that each social institution possesses its own dignity as well – its proper function, its social munus, which derives from the laity’s vocation to ‘rule’ (i.e., to ‘serve’ the common good). When exercised wisely and in liberty, the plurality of munera creates an aggregated common good. Parallel to the biblical metaphor of the Church as a body consisting of various limbs, society itself is a body which only functions when each collective can perform its proper end. Only if one of the body parts fails “to perform its essential functions to a degree which has significant public consequences” (Chaplin 1997, 122), only then may another suitable institution (e.g. the state) offer its aid, or ‘subsidy’ (subsidium), to exercise the task.

As Jonathan Chaplin, a specialist of Christian political thought, writes, “Humans are social creatures unable to realize their ends in isolation from others; they need the subsidium, the help, of others in order to be human. The human community itself thus performs a ‘subsidiary function’ in relation to persons; ‘all social activity is of its nature subsidiary’, as Pius XII puts it” (Chaplin 1997, 118).

The EU’s understanding of subsidiarity

Subsidiarity in the EU hardly mirrors this Catholic approach. At the European level, most of the debates occurring under the label of subsidiarity simply use it synonymously with federalism or decentralisation. Read Article 5(3) TEU (Treaty on European Union, better known as a part of the Lisbon Treaty): “Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.”

The Treaty’s wording already indicates rightly that the EU’s subsidiarity arose out of the Member States’ fear of centralization (cf. Føllesdal 1998). In the 1980s, the European Parliament, Britain and Germany (whose Länder sought to maintain their constitutionally allocated national competences) apprehended European federalism which had already grown to be far-ranging due to the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ’s) integrationist activism. In a number of ground-breaking judgements, the ECJ established the doctrines of direct effect of EU law in national settings (the famous case Van Gend en Loos from 1963), and the principle of the EU law’s primacy over national laws (the case Costa vs. ENEL from 1964), thus contributing to deepened supranational dynamics perceived to erode the Member States’ claim to sovereignty. The principle of subsidiarity was devised as a counter-balance to creeping EU competences, stipulating that powers allocated to the EU should generally rest with lower-level political units (i.e. with Member States) unless the tasks’ efficiency would be indubitably enhanced when undertaken by the higher authority (i.e. the EU) (de Búrca 2000). The burden of argument naturally lies with the European Commission.

As a consequence, the EU’s principle of subsidiarity contains a clear devolutionary bias, an inherent thrust towards decentralization. It is a political instrument contrived by Member States (and sub-state entities) against the EU to drain the latter of its authority (Golemboski 2015).

Divergences between Catholic and EU approaches

How does the EU’s understanding diverge from its Catholic origins? First, the EU’s approach implies a vertical hierarchy of social bodies rather than a horizontal equality as in the Church’s encyclicals. In this perspective, the right to rule is purely instrumental of rational, state-sanctioned calculations of efficiency.

Secondly, the EU approach recognizes as sub-units potentially endowed with authority only political-territorial bodies (i.e. sovereign governments). The scope of authorities who regulate social life under the principle of subsidiarity is thus limited to the EU and the Member States. By contrast, in Catholic thought, any human institution – starting with the individual and the family – can be considered under the label of subsidiarity.

The most prominent explanation for EU integration is the so-called “neofunctionalism”. Neofunctionalists premise that individuals generally channel loyalty towards their nation, but with increasing allocation of powers to a supranational body, people will gradually aggregate their loyalty towards the supranational institution. This mode of thought assumes a zero-sum game: Loyalty is either here or there. But if one is to take the fundamental Catholic question tackled by subsidiarity seriously – i.e. the relationship between the individual and the community – then one will find that there are multiple loyalties to various social institutions which are equally worthy (and none of them simply instrumental to rational choice and efficiency). There is no space for a politicized desire to attain aggregations of loyalty anymore, but rather a differentiated assessment about which of the many institutions in society is best suited to exercise its proper munus in a given domain. Subsidiarity advocates a sensitivity to the laity’s vocation to rule according to the munera allocated by divine providence: “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” (Chaplin 1997, 118), as Chaplin writes before departing from the hierarchical terminology of ‘greater/higher’ and ‘subordinate/lesser’ in favour of a semantics implying a horizontal-equal understanding of communities.

In essence, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity seeks to maintain the proper dignity of each human collective so that it can offer the gift it is best able to bestow on society. It prescribes that none of the divinely appropriated munera get lost; “that when subsidium be given either by the parts to the whole or the whole to the parts, the plurality of functions or munera should not be destroyed or absorbed” (Hittinger 2002, 394).




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