A Brief Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching

Since the time of Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum novarum in 1891, the popes and bishops of the Catholic Church have promulgated a vast body of social teaching. While the Church has always taught on the ways that the faith bears upon human activity, including in the political and economic spheres, rapid global changes in politics and economics over the long 19th century were the impetus for this new body of teaching. Not only were new moral questions occasioned by the rise of capitalism and socialism in the wake of the industrial revolution, but also the shifting relationship between the Church and civil authority—now embodied in new secularized nation-states—gave rise to new questions about the purview of the Church in the temporal sphere. A decline in the popes’ direct political power coincided with a dramatic increase in their exercise of moral and pastoral teaching authority. The purview of this teaching authority is the domain of faith and morals.

Catholic social teaching is the Church’s moral teaching—enlightened by divine revelation—as it pertains to the political and economic orders. It is primarily the role of the Magisterium (the Church’s official teaching office), which is entrusted with safeguarding and transmitting the deposit of faith, to teach the enduring and universal principles of Catholic social doctrine. On the other hand, it is primarily the responsibility of lay persons, who have duties and competence in the temporal sphere, to make the informed prudential judgments by which those principles may be implemented in the actual concrete circumstances of the world (Deus caritas est, 29). Therefore, it is extremely important for ordinary lay persons to learn the Church’s social teaching. This responsibility increases in proportion to a person’s decision-making capacity in the social, political, and economic arena. For example, it is especially vital for employers, policy makers, leaders of civic organizations, military officers, financial experts, and those who hold public office—as well as individuals who directly support such persons—to know the Church’s social doctrine. One of the best ways to begin acquiring this knowledge is through a prayerful reading of the core social teaching documents themselves, which are available on the Vatican website and linked below. 

The principles of Catholic social teaching specify the demands of justice as it pertains to the social, political, and economic order. Therefore, while many of the principles are factual states of affairs (such as a fair wage or the universal destination of goods), implicit in them is a practical norm—a directive claim—about what persons ought to do (such as to pay employees fairly or to treat one’s private property as ordained for the good of all). While over a dozen such principles (for example, the preferential option for the poor) may be discerned within the body of Catholic social teaching, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (160) lists four foundational principles: These are (1) the dignity of the human person, (2) the common good, (3) solidarity, and (4) subsidiarity. Of these four, the first two—in stated order—are the most pivotal. 

The dignity of the human person consists in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God. Endowed with an immortal, spiritual soul, the human is a person capable of rational, reflective knowledge, and self-determination. Capable of giving themselves and entering into communion with others, human persons are the only creatures God has willed for their own sake (Gaudium et spes, 24) and reflect the Triune God who created them. Human persons are called to communion with God himself (Gaudium et spes, 22) and are capable by their spiritual nature of becoming members of God’s family—sharing in his divine life—through the grace of baptism. Consequently, human persons must be treated according to the immense dignity and inviolability that their nature and ultimate possibilities imply. One respects the dignity of the human person by protecting his goods (Veritatis splendor, 13).

A common good is that end for the sake of which persons coordinate their actions and are thereby constituted as a group. Ultimately, the common good of the human race is that for the sake of which human persons—and the rest of creation for their sake—were created: Namely, the kingdom of God, and centrally, the communion of human persons with God. For, human persons seek happiness as their ultimate end in acting, but their happiness truly lies in the kingdom of God. In the context of Catholic social teaching, “the common good” has a narrower sense though one that is rooted in the more comprehensive definition just outlined. In Catholic social teaching, “the common good” typically refers to the political common good, namely, that total set of social conditions which enables people to more readily achieve their own greater perfection (Mater et magistra, 65). These conditions are the end for the sake of which persons act as a socio-political unit. One ought to pursue the political common good because it is conducive to the ultimate flourishing of human persons. Because the political common good is the good of persons, it is never opposed to the good of individuals as such and the violation of the good of individuals must never be accepted as the cost of pursuing some amorphous collective good, as though individual persons were dispensable cogs in some vast, impersonal, state or corporate machine. At the same time, concern for the common good enjoins that persons not pursue goods individualistically, lacking concern for their neighbors.

Concern for the common good out of respect for one’s neighbor and his goods is embodied in the virtue of solidarity. Solidarity is that disposition whereby one shares one’s goods with one’s neighbor, treating him or her with fairness and generosity as equal in dignity to oneself. Ultimately, solidarity means placing one’s very life at the service of one’s neighbor. It encompasses even the willingness to make oneself less than one’s neighbor in order to serve him or her, as Pope Benedict XVI taught (A Reason Open to God, 192). Solidarity overcomes the vicious tendencies toward selfishness, greed, and indifference.

Finally, subsidiarity is the principle that larger, higher-level institutions (such as the state) should not supplant intermediate institutions (such as local governments, civic organizations, charities, parishes, and especially, families) when the common good can be adequately preserved and promoted by the intermediate institution. When it cannot, institutions at a further remove from the individual person should, because of their vaster resources and capacities for organization, support rather than supplant mediating institutions. That is because the needs of the individual persons whose welfare is at stake are typically better understood and more effectively fulfilled by institutions nearer to them. By empowering institutions that mediate between the individual and higher-level institutions, subsidiarity checks the power of higher-level institutions and channels it toward the common good, thereby safeguarding human dignity.


    Are you interested in learning more about the Church’s Social Teachings?

    This spring, the Christendom Graduate School will be offering the course, THEO 802/Catholic Social Teachings, which is open to causal students and auditors, as well as regular degree-seeking graduate students.

    Call the Graduate School at 703-658-4304 for more details.

    Core Historic Catholic Social Teaching Documents

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