Catholic social teaching: a guide

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By Kevin Clarke

It’s the kind of subject not a lot of parents are comfortable talking over with their children. Sometimes even educators in the finest schools are unwilling to bring it up with their students, worried that even just talking about it could lead to all these, well, feelings that might actually lead their kids to do something.

I’m talking, of course, about Catholic social teaching (what did you think I was talking about?). While it would be great to learn about Catholic social teaching (CST) from your parents, your parish, or your school, unlike some other subjects you actually can learn about CST from the streets because that’s where it may inspire you to spend a lot of time, picketing for debt relief in the third world, more humane health care policies in the United States, or affordable housing programs that will mean decent shelter for people in your community.

A secret best not to keep
Catholic social teaching offers Catholics a powerful critique of the social contradictions and failures that can trouble our culture, which is based in faith and scripture, not in political theory. In the same way we use Catholic moral teaching to provide the foundation for our personal examination of conscience.

Catholic social teaching provides a parallel framework to support an examination of institutional, economic, or social conscience. CST helps us track down structural occasions of sin and offer practical, commonsense, but always compassionate guidelines for effecting change aimed at mitigating such “social sin” and doing a kind of civic penance for it. CST escapes easy political labeling intended to shut down debate on contemporary social questions. It asserts a passionate moral challenge to Catholics of every generation.

Some have called this nearly 120-year-old tradition the church’s best kept-secret. Personally I don’t think CST is best kept secret for even a moment longer. That’s because for young people wondering how their faith can be relevant to their lives or the crushing social needs of our times, or suspecting that Christians might be called to do more than respond with charity to social inequities that lead to want among others, CST is often a shocking revelation. It can motivate them to struggle for social justice while it contributes to a deeper understanding of the radical implications of their Christian faith.

The history of a teaching
Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, this teaching continued with 1931’s Quadragesimo Anno, gathered steam during the cultural and political turmoil of the 1960s, and was neatly bookended by the late Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus in 1991. CST has been augmented by statements and pastoral letters from bishops’ conferences and includes another encyclical from Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, in 1995. The social encyclicals, basically letters to the faithful issued by various popes, were typically composed during periods of great social upheaval when economic or historic currents were challenging the church to think beyond its institutional borders.

CST’s founding encyclical, Rerum Novarum, for example, was intended as a message of hope and support to working people around the world during the late 19th century. At that time, appalling working conditions and economic exploitation encouraged radical political alternatives that not only threatened the established social order but also challenged the relevance of the church itself.

While Rerum Novarum called both capitalists and workers to accept their different roles in society, it also detailed a series of new rights and responsibilities in a justly ordered society and asserted the freedom of workers to form unions to defend their rights. Later social encyclicals likewise were attentive to the signs of their times, extending the understanding of a just economic order meant to serve people—and not the other way around (the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra); building a new spiritual framework toward the establishment of true peace in the world (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris); or redefining the notion of “authentic development” during a time when Western technocrats offered a purely materialist “fix” for the problems of human deprivation in the developing world (Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio).

CST calls Catholics to reevaluate societal realities with a keen eye to the status of the individual, the family, and the community of humankind. It implores us to protect the sanctity of all life and creation, calls us to pay particular attention to the plight of the poor among us, and asks us to act always in a spiritual and practical union with our neighbors, whether those neighbors live next door or on another continent.

Social Encyclicals

Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor)
Pope Leo XIII - May 15, 1891
Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth)
Pope John XXIII - April 11, 1963 - on Establishing Universal Peace 
Laborem Exercens (On Human Work)
Pope John Paul II - September 14, 1981
Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)
Pope John Paul II - March 25, 1995
Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason)
Pope John Paul II - September 14, 1998
Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love)
Pope Benedict XVI - December 15, 2005
Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)
Pope Benedict XVI - June 29, 2009

CST: The basics
A few major themes capture the heart of CST’s decades of instruction.

• CST recognizes the sanctity of all life and seeks to protect and promote the dignity of all people. The church’s position of defending the unborn is well known; less known is its insistence that all life by definition is imbued with worth, that human dignity, a CST theme, must be safeguarded whether from the careless violence of conflict or the indifferent mechanisms of a soulless economic order.

• In keeping with its defense of human dignity, CST repeatedly comes to the aid of working people (even as it details their just obligations to their employers), demanding a “just wage” for workers, time off to allow for recreation and family life, and other basic rights. A just economic and political order seeks the common good of all citizens and deplores a system that reduces workers to mere economic cogs in a relentless machinery of production and profit.

• CST also stresses what it calls a “preferential option for the poor,” meaning that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable people are always considered the first obligation in a justly ordered society.

• CST expresses the church’s understanding of and commitment to solidarity, the idea that we are all members of one human family, that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, whether those family members may be represented by people unable to pay for decent health care in our own society or people going hungry because a global economic structure starves them of affordable food halfway around the world.

• The CST-based concept of subsidiarity argues that social problems should be resolved at the lowest appropriate level of authority. This concept encourages the full participation of the individual in his or her political life as a complete expression of their humanity, but also compels that appropriate authority be brought to bear to respond to specific social dysfunction. So you and I may work collectively to resolve a community problem, but we have to appeal to our elected representatives when we seek redress of a larger social problem like unemployment, global hunger, or affordable housing or health care.

• CST asserts the right of all people to what might be called the basic necessities of life: food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing. Securing those basics affords people the opportunity to achieve the full expression of themselves as individuals, as family members, and as participants in their civic society. We also have a duty to assure these rights for others and the obligation to express these rights in fulfillment of our responsibilities to our families, to each other, and to the larger society.

• Participation, therefore, in the judicious creation of a just social order through the political process becomes a moral responsibility for Catholics. We are called to involve ourselves in the resolution of our own problems and our nation’s, whether that means working on our local school boards, running for political office, or advocating for greater generosity in foreign aid at the national level.

Defending human dignity, protecting the poor, promoting the common good—CST expects much from us as Christians and citizens, but it asks no more than what our God-given talents, passion, and energy can offer. Don’t wait another moment to learn about this rich and powerfully motivating tradition of justice.

Reprinted from the 2009 VISION Catholic Religious Discernment Guide.

Catholic social teaching: What the church favors in society

Compiled by Joel Schorn from various sources

Human dignity and rights. All persons are sacred, made in the image and likeness of God. Every human life—regardless of race, sex, age, national origin, religion, employment or economic status, health, intelligence, or achievement—is worthy of respect. It is not what you do or what you have that gives you a claim on respect; it is simply being human that establishes your dignity—people over things, being over having.

Given that dignity, the human person is, in the Catholic view, never a means, always an end. The principle of human dignity gives the human person a claim on membership in a community, the human family. Society should be organized for the benefit of the human person. Society should also promote the spiritual good of persons and protect the role of belief.

Respect for human life. Human life at every stage of development and decline is precious and therefore worthy of protection and respect. It is always wrong directly to attack innocent human life.

Association. The centerpiece of society is the family; family stability must always be protected and never undermined. By association with others—in families and in other social institutions that foster growth, protect dignity, and promote the common good—human persons achieve their fulfillment. The human person is both sacred and social. We realize our dignity and rights in relationship with others, in community.

Today, in an age of global interdependence, the principle of the common good points to the need for international structures that can promote the just development of the human family across regional and national lines. What constitutes the common good is always going to be a matter for debate, but a proper communitarian concern is the antidote to unbridled individualism, which, like unrestrained selfishness in personal relations, can destroy balance, harmony, and peace within and among groups, neighborhoods, regions, and nations.

Participation. Without participation, the benefits available to an individual through any social institution cannot be realized. The human person has a right not to be shut out from participating in those institutions that are necessary for human fulfillment. This principle applies in a special way to conditions associated with work. People have a right to decent and productive work, fair wages, private property, economic initiative, and the freedom to organize. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.

Preferential protection for the poor and vulnerable. The moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members; the poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of any community. We are called to look at public-policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor. If the good of all, the common good, is to prevail, preferential protection must move toward those affected adversely by the absence of power and the presence of privation. Otherwise the balance needed to keep society in one piece will be broken to the detriment of the whole.

Solidarity. We are one human family. We are interdependent. Our responsibilities to each other cross national, racial, economic, and ideological differences. We are called to work globally for justice. The principle of solidarity functions as a moral category that leads to choices that will promote and protect the common good.

Stewardship. A good steward is a manager, not an owner. In an era of rising consciousness about our physical environment, our tradition is calling us to a sense of moral responsibility for the protection of the environment—croplands, grasslands, woodlands, air, water, minerals, and other natural deposits. Stewardship responsibilities also look toward our use of our personal talents, our attention to personal health, and our use of personal property.

Subsidiarity. Decision-making should be closest to people effected and should use the smallest effective groups. The principle of subsidiarity puts a proper limit on government by insisting that no higher level of organization should perform any function that can be handled efficiently and effectively at a lower level of organization by human persons who, individually or in groups, are closer to the problems and closer to the ground. Oppressive governments are always in violation of the principle of subsidiarity; overactive governments frequently violate this principle.

Human equality. Treating equals equally is one way of defining justice, also understood classically as rendering to each person his or her due. Underlying the notion of equality is the simple principle of fairness; one of the earliest ethical stirrings felt in the developing human person is a sense of what is “fair” and what is not.

Rights and responsibilities. People have a fundamental right to life, food, shelter, health care, education, and employment. All people have a right to participate equally in the decisions that affect their lives. We are called to be positively involved in economic development.

Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities to respect the rights of others and to work for the common good. Rights and responsibilities apply especially to the use of personal property for the benefit of those who have the least.

Learn more about Catholic social teaching at or at the U.S. Catholic bishops’ new campus website for Catholic social teaching: Or read the Vatican's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Kevin Clarke is an associate editor of America magazine. Joel Schorn is the managing editor of VISION.




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