Subsidiarity, the idea that those closest to a problem should be the ones to solve it, plays a particular role in development. However, it can be an idea that is a bit “slippery”: who does what and when? What is the role of faith-based organizations? What is the role of government?  Susan Stabile, Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law, has written “Subsidiarity and the Use of Faith-Based Organizations in the Fight Against Poverty” at Mirror of Justice blog and has a succinct view of subsidiarity:

Faith-based organizations have tremendous advantages over the provision of direct benefits by the federal or state governments, being capable of steering a course between welfare as an entitlement for all and state based determinations as to what general criteria make one worthy of receiving governmental assistance. The fact that they are closer to the problem allows them to better tailor aid and solutions to the situations of those they serve. The fact that they are community-based allows them to better facilitate the full development of the human personality of those who they touch. The fact that they are faith-based allows them to capture benefits of attempting to address some of the behavioral contributors to the difficulty of improving the lives of those they serve.

However, subsidiarity emphasizes action at the level most suited to address a problem, not merely action at the lowest level. It is thus important that subsidiarity not be used as an excuse to merely devolve responsibility downward without assurance of effectiveness, that it not be used as an excuse for the federal government to abdicate responsibility to provide for the social welfare of its citizens, viewing social welfare as the responsibility of states and localities, aided by private actors. Doing so would be inconsistent both with the concerns underlying the principle of subsidiarity and with subsidiarity’s context within the broader body of Catholic social teaching, and would be little more than merely a ruse for simply reducing federal expenditures. It is thus important to recognize that the effective provision of social services requires multiple actors. While it is desirable that faith-based organizations play a significant role, the federal government must also retain a significant role both in enabling faith-based organizations to do their job and in doing those things that can not be done effectively by such organizations. Ultimately, the government must remain the ultimate backup to ensure that no one is left behind.

Ms. Stabile goes on to say that, “…addressing people’s spiritual needs, helping change their lives rather then just providing for their material needs, empowers them.” By focusing on the empowerment of people on the local level, both those in poverty and those trying to alleviate poverty, we remain centered on the human person, created in God’s image and likeness, with creative power to serve and solve.

This article is cross-posted at PovertyCure.org.


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  • http://profiles.google.com/museredux dm conner

    What would Jesus Cut?
    “Just on foodstamps alone, Congressman Ryan is wrong that the church can take care of this issue. The cuts that have been proposed and passed by the [U.S.] House are going to require every church, every synagogue, every mosque, every house of worship in the United States, each year for ten years, to each raise $50,000. It’s impossible.”
    The Nuns on the Bus Go Up and Down

    • Roger McKinney

      That assumes that all of the money the Ryan plan cuts is really needed and that churches and synagogues are just as inefficient and wasteful as the government, neither of which is necessarily true.

      Jesus would probably cut everything that did not conform the the only government he ever created – that in the Torah. In his original government, he provided not state mechanism to force people to support the poor. Standard Jewish thinking about the poor laws, Jubilee, etc., were not to be enforced by the courts but were issues between the individual and God. The Bible consistently encourages helping the poor, but only voluntary help, never forced aid by state redistribution.

  • David Deavel

    Susan Stabile’s current academic home is the University of St. Thomas here in St. Paul, MN.