Daniel Henninger doesn’t quite understand subsidiarity:

Subsidiarity—an awful but important word—attempts to discover where the limits lie in the demands a state can make on its people. Identifying that limit was at the center of the Supreme Court’s mandate arguments.

The first major use of subsidiarity as a basis for public policy was in Pope Leo XIII’s famous 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (though the word itself doesn’t appear). Leo was seeking a way to protect the dignity of human beings caught during those years in the tension between unfettered capitalism and unfettered government.

This is somewhat misleading. I’m not sure why Henninger thinks subsidiarity is an “awful” word, but his definitions are not entirely accurate. Pope Pius XI states a definition of the principle of subsidiarity in the later encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:

The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.

Setting limits on what the state can do is part of what subsidiarity means, but it is a principle that also sometimes requires support and regulation from a “higher order” community when “lower order” communities are unable or unwilling to remedy injustices. As Rerum Novarum states, “The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference — the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.”

Rerum Novarum was concerned first and foremost with the relationship between capital and labor. Much of the encyclical’s text was concerned with the conditions of workers, and it was subtitled “On the Conditions of Labor,” which is how Pope Pius XI referred to it in the encyclical he issued forty years later to build on what Leo XIII had written. Pope Pius praised the earlier encyclical at length, writing at one point, “For it boldly attacked and overturned the idols of Liberalism, ignored long-standing prejudices, and was in advance of its time beyond all expectation, so that the slow of heart disdained to study this new social philosophy and the timid feared to scale so lofty a height.”

Rerum Novarum was an attempt to re-state Catholic social teaching in a way that addressed the plight of laborers in an industrializing world. This was done partly to present a Christian alternative to the message offered to laborers by socialist and social democratic parties of the time and to reject the solutions they offered. It was also done to promote social justice and to rebuke the exploitation of laborers. The encyclical defends private property, but also exhorts employers not to abuse their workers, and it acknowledges that public authority has a role to remedy injustices.

Here is a sample of the beginning of the encyclical, which would probably terrify many of Henninger’s readers if they heard it today:

Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.

Much of the encyclical concerned itself with remedying this condition. It is misleading to portray this primarily in terms of setting limits on the state when so much of what the encyclical discusses concerns the relations between the classes and the need to create harmony between different social orders. What was particularly important about the encyclical when it was issued was that it endorsed the legitimate rights of laborers and insisted that those rights be respected. The equally important principle of social solidarity that the encyclical articulated has been one of the cornerstones of political Catholicism ever since.