Subsidiarity and Social Pluralism

  • Jonathan ChaplinEmail author
Part of the Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives on Law and Justice book series (IUSGENT, volume 37)


What has come to be called the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ is widely taken to be a general norm of decentralisation. The principle is thought to mean that authority should be allocated to the ‘lowest level possible’ in society; typically, from the state to some intermediate or ‘lesser’ community. This chapter argues that this is a significant misunderstanding of the principle, resulting from lack of attention to the social ontology underlying its original formulation in Catholic social thought. Such an ontology yields a strong account of social pluralism, namely an affirmation that there is a plurality of human communities necessary for human flourishing, each legitimately claiming a sphere of independent self-governance and properly resisting incorporation by or subordination to other communities, notably the state. Subsidiarity is not a principle of decentralisation, but rather, as Russell Hittinger has put it, a principle of ‘non-absorption’. The chapter opens with a brief overview of the emergence of ‘social pluralism’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, of which Catholic social thought was one distinctive strand. The main body of the chapter expounds the meaning and implications of subsidiarity in the light of the larger social ontology it presupposes. The final section tests the contemporary political relevance of subsidiarity by asking how far it is exemplified in the recent ‘Big Society’ idea propounded by the British Conservative Party.


Subsidiarity Pluralism State Decentralisation Catholic social thought Big Society 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Kirby Laing Institute for Christian EthicsTyndale HouseCambridgeUK

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