These pages provide a summary of Catholic Social Teaching. It is not meant to provide an exhaustive account of the teaching; rather, it is intended to give readers an overview of the principal elements and encourage further reading if the reader is so minded. Most of the text is taken from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and DoCat.
What is Catholic Social Teaching?
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is the official teaching of the Church on the social order, impacting on all dimensions of society, including the economic and the political. It is an essential part of the Catholic faith.
At the core of CST is the common good. That is, the good of the community. St Augustine describes the common good as one which is not diminished by being shared with others.
The Church wants to build a just society and it seeks to do so on the solid foundation of four fundamental values: Truth, Freedom, Justice and Love. Note, however, that it is not the Church’s role to replace the state and politics. Neither is it the Church’s role to make policies; rather, the Church seeks to inspire the state and, in particular, its political institutions with the beauty and goodness of CST in order to bring about a more just society.
It is useful to briefly introduce the fundamental values of social life mentioned above. The three values of truth, freedom and justice, which are all underpinned by love, are the highest and universal criterion of the whole of social ethics.
We all have a duty to move always towards the truth, to respect it and bear responsible witness to it (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 2467). When a community is founded on truth, it is ordered and fruitful and it corresponds to the dignity of all.
Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image of God, and consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person. It is exercised in relationships between human beings and every person has the natural right to be recognised as a free and responsible human being. The meaning of freedom must not be restricted, such as making it individualistic and reducing it to the exercise of one’s own personal autonomy.
Freedom allows the person to fulfil their personal vocation; to seek truth and profess his religious, cultural and political ideas; to express his opinions; to choose his state of life and, as far as possible, his line of work; to pursue initiatives of an economic, social or political nature (all within the limits imposed by the common good and public order). Freedom also includes the capacity to refuse what is morally negative.
St Tomas Aquinas wrote that justice “consists of the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour.”
It is behaviour that is based on the will to recognise the other as a person. So, what is just is not determined by the law but by the profound identity of the human being.
The Way of Love
Love, often restricted to relationships of physical closeness, must be reconsidered in the authentic value as the highest and universal criterion of the whole of social ethics. It is from the wellspring of love that the values of truth, freedom and justice are born and grow.
Human life in society is ordered, bears fruit of goodness and responds to human dignity when it is founded on truth; when it is lived in justice, and animated by selflessness.
Love presupposes and transcends justice, which must find its fulfilment in charity. No legislation, no system of rules or negotiation will ever succeed in persuading men and peoples to live in unity, brotherhood and peace; no line of reasoning will ever be able to surpass the appeal of love. Only love can animate and shape social interaction moving it towards peace in the context of a world that is ever more complex.
St Thomas Aquinas said that “love is delight in what is good; the proper object of love is the good. To love is to wish good to someone.”
Where does Catholic Social Teaching come from?
The first source of CST is the Bible. Consider the Ten Commandments (the old law) and Christ’s perfection of the old law when he calls us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and our neighbour as we love ourselves.
The second source is the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The Fathers, such as St Augustine, took the teachings of the Apostles and explained and defended them in the years following Christ’s death and resurrection.
The Doctors of the Church are teachers who have made important contributions to the faith through the years. For example, St Thomas Aquinas, St Catherine of Siena, and St Anthony are doctors of the Church.
The third source is the evangelical letters and speeches of the Popes, and the Magisterium of the Church. The first encyclical to tackle social issues was Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1892. In it the pope outlined a just social order in response to a lack of basic employee rights and an increasing tendency towards class warfare.
All of the relevant teaching can now be found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. There is also a condensed version aimed at young people called DoCat. The content of these pages is taken mainly from both of these sources.
What does Catholic Social Teaching have to do with me?
CST is the official teaching of the Church. All Catholic people are expected to abide by the beauty and goodness of CST and to apply it in their everyday lives. Each individual Catholic person is also expected to encourage the state, by way of their own participation in the political process (voting, lobbying etc), to appreciate the goodness of CST and the values of truth, justice, freedom and love which underpin it.
God’s Master Plan of Love
God created the whole world, including humanity, out of love. It therefore follows that love underpins our entire existence. We are called to love, and this is confirmed when Jesus challenges us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
The Ten Commandments provide a framework for a just world that accords with God’s plan of love. It sets out rights and duties applicable to each and every human being. They are, in effect, the basic rules of life and have formed the basis of countless laws in countless societies. Albert Schweitzer, missionary doctor and Nobel Peace Prize winner once said: “Again and again I wonder about this: there are more than thirty million laws worldwide to enforce the Ten Commandments.”
Sadly, however, humanity all too often fails to follow God’s plan of love and we are drawn to sin against God and to distance ourselves from him. This brings about considerable injustice and suffering in a world that should be overflowing with love. It is of course valid to ask why God allows people to do wrong and to commit sin. However, this is easily explained by reference to God’s plan of love. Nobody can be forced to love. If we want to truly and authentically love we must do so voluntarily. Forced love is not love at all. Therefore, God has given us genuine freedom to decide whether or not we want to follow His plan of love.
God also provides us with principles we can follow in order to live a good and loving life. The Ten Commandments teach us duties and rights and provide the basic rules of life together in society. Jesus then intensifies the commandment to love our neighbour when he commands us to love one another as I have loved you. This love is oriented both toward the individual and the community; the building of a civilisation of love.
The Church’s Social Mission
Pope Benedict XVI, in his Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est stated that “The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man: it seeks his evangelisation through Word and Sacrament and it seeks to promote man in the various arenas of life and human activity. Love is therefore the service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man’s sufferings and his needs, including material needs.”
Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium then expands on this, saying: “Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love. This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way. The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged to love the good life of the Gospel.”
Add to this the words of John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus declares that, with her social doctrine, the Church aims “at helping man on the path of salvation.” This is, of course, the primary purpose of the Church; and the Church has a right to proclaim the Gospel in the context of society, to make the liberating word of the Gospel resound in the complex worlds of production, labour, business, finance, trade, politics, law, culture, social communications, where men and women live.
The Church places herself concretely at the service of the Kingdom of God above all by announcing and communicating the Gospel of salvation and by establishing new Christian communities. The sharing of Gospel values is, therefore, central to the mission of the Church.
As stated in Gaudium et Spes, however, the Church must not be confused with the political community and is not bound to any political system. Indeed, the political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other although they share a common purpose: to be at the service of the personal and social vocation of humanity.
Pope Francis, in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, provides further insight into the need for social doctrine: “All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world.” The Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change, and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ.
Social doctrine of the Church has two purposes:
- To set forth the requirements of just social action as they appear in the Gospel; and
- In the name of justice, to denounce social, economic, or political actions and structures whenever they contradict the Gospel message.