Marriage Matters

Subsidiarity and the Family

God’s gift of marriage and family life extend further than you may realize, especially if you’ve adopted the attitude that marriage and family life is nothing more than a private institution. The fact is, families are the foundation of society. And this statement means more than just “families are really important to society.” The very definition of society is the cooperation of families to help each other provide the best. When we forget the importance of the family, our society and culture suffer. 

Society Consists of Families

Every family seeks to provide the best for its members. Parents are especially charged with this responsibility and motivated to give their children the best possible upbringing. But no family can do it alone. We all have different talents and abilities, and we therefore rely on each other to meet our needs. Furthermore, there are some good things that aren’t even possible except in the context of society. So families reach out to each other, work together toward a common good, create culture and organize structures to make working together more efficient. 

One such structure is government. Government plays the role of assuring order within a given society. It regulates the flow of goods, creates financial systems to make cooperation among families more efficient, and provides laws to protect members of society against those who would take advantage of the system.

But the core of all of this is the family. 

When Things Get Turned Around

The challenge is that once a society develops and grows, it tends to take on a life of its own. The legitimate good of the society – the common good that families work toward together – gives way to a disordered importance that puts society above the family. As governments grow in power, they seek to draw even more power by taking it away from the family. Societal institutions go beyond their rightful role of helping parents provide things such as education and healthcare and begin to take over the proper roles of the family.

Research constantly shows that this is bad for society as well as for the family. Families are the best places for children to learn good citizenship. There is no better place for children to learn what it means to work together toward a common goal, to put individual needs aside for the sake of others, and to respect the rights and needs of all members of a community. Families are also by and large much more effective and efficient at providing for physical, emotional, psychological and social needs of their members. When society and government try to take over the roles of the family, many more resources are spent for a much less desirable outcome.

Finding the Right Balance – the Principle of Subsidiarity 

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So society is necessary for families to achieve the best for their members. But things go bad when society tries to replace the family. What’s needed is a proper balance that allows for families and societies to both perform the role they’re best at.That balance is found in the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is a principles of the Church’s social teaching, but it’s one that people often don’t hear about. If the term is unfamiliar to you, think of the related term “subsidize.” When something is subsidized, an institution provides partial funds to help people pay for a good or service. The idea behind a subsidy is for a higher institution (like the government) to support a lower institution (like a business) so that the end user (the consumer) can afford what the business produces. Government may subsidize the auto industry in order to keep car price low. But a subsidy does not pay for the entire car. The consumer still needs to take most of the financial responsibility.

The principle of subsidiarity goes beyond financial support, but it works very much the same way. The principles states that any need in society should be handled by the lowest possible social unit whenever possible, but when the lower social units cannot meet the need, then higher social units should offer enough support to help the lower units to do so. 

Ok, all this talk about lower and higher social units can get confusing – until we remember our first point, that the family is the foundation of society. The family is the lowest (most basic or fundamental) social unit. “Higher” units are measured based on how far removed from the family they are.  So here’s one model for a ranking of “social units” from lowest to highest:

The principle of subsidiarity would state that the primary responsibility for meeting the needs of children belongs to the family. But when the individual family falls short, it should reach out to other families in the neighborhood. When the neighborhood lacks the resources to meet certain needs, it should reach out to the greater (and more formally organized) community of the city. Cities are organized into counties to help each other meet needs that individual cities can’t handle alone. Counties can appeal for help and support from the state in areas where they fall short, and states in turn can appeal to the greater power of the federal government to provide help.

But each higher level should offer only as much support as needed to help the lower levels do things on their own.

Let’s look at the example of education. The education of children is primarily the responsibility of parents. The Church calls parents the “primary educators” of their children – a term that applies mainly to moral and spiritual upbringing but that also extends to “reading, writing and arithmetic.” The home schooling movement is an acknowledgement of this role. But even home educators recognize that they cannot offer their children everything they need on their own. So they reach out to the community and create home education associations. Furthermore, not every family can home school. So neighborhoods and cities create schools where children can go to be educated while the parents work. Catholics schools have a long tradition of meeting this need on a local level. But running “private” schools costs money, requiring schools to charge families tuition. Many families cannot afford this financial burden. So higher levels of government may subsidize “private” education in order to make it more affordable. In the United States, the states have also chosen to provide tax-funded schools that all children can attend at no extra cost. These schools are often subsidized by federal funds to help the states keep them running.

Now all of this is of course fraught with political question and debate about the best way to do things. But the principle of subsidiarity should be applied to these questions and debates. What would help families provide the best education for their children? 

But when subsidiarity is ignored, governments begin making decisions not only about how schools should be funded, but what schools should teach. They begin to take decisions about the goal of education, the quality of education, and even the moral and spiritual formation that comes with education away from parents.

We’ve even seen the effects of ignoring subsidiarity within the Church, where parents have been trained to leave formation in the faith up to the parishes, religious education programs and youth groups. This trend ignores the wisdom of research, experience, and (most importantly) God’s plan for marriage and family life – all of which tell us that children come to a loving relationship with Jesus primarily through the channel of family love. 

Isn’t it time for families to start taking back the responsibility that is rightfully theirs in all areas of life? Institutions such as governments, schools and religious education programs are not evil. But they should be run according to the principle of subsidiarity – helping families provide for the needs of their members. Then strong families will be empowered once again to build strong, healthy societies.


by Jeff Arrowood


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