Catholic Social Teaching: An Introduction
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Jason Wilde draw on a wide range of Catholic sources to explain the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching. We’ve included the sources we’ve quoted below.
What is Catholic Social Teaching?
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is often misunderstood. When it is brought up, people can be quick to think of economics . . . or of socialism! It is also a complicated topic and isn’t discussed enough.
Humans are social beings. CST is the Church’s teaching on our social interactions. We’re called to live with justice and charity toward our neighbors. The Beatitudes and the Works of Mercy can help us to understand CST, which can be seen as the Works of Mercy applied to society.
Justice and Charity
Without justice, charity is useless. We’d be highly offended if somebody stole our possessions, and then claimed to be charitable when they gave a few of them back! Too often, Christians focus on personal charity but ignore the aspect of justice. The teaching of the Church, going all the way back to St. John Chrysostom, is that feeding the poor is a matter of justice, not merely of charity.
We can also see the works of mercy, the acts of charity, as personal responses to failures of social justice. We have to personally aid the poor, but the Church’s CST also provides us with the tools to analyze and combat wider social injustices.
Framing aid to the needy as a matter of justice rather than charity can be uncomfortable. We all instinctively realize that while even a small amount of charity is laudable, falling even a little short of what justice requires is reprehensible. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, we should take this opportunity to realize our need for a Savior. Only Jesus can save us from the web of evil in the world. We are all somewhat unjust on this side of Heaven.
The Principles of Catholic Social Teaching
All the CST principles are tightly interwoven. They each depend on the others; if we drop one or two of them the others don’t make sense.
The Rights of Workers
The rights of workers are tightly connected to the dignity of every human person, but they are also connected to the dignity of work itself. Through work, we can participate in God’s ongoing act of creation. Work needs to be properly oriented, both to sustaining those who perform it, and ultimately toward leisure. All work is for the sake of not working. It can be difficult to remember this in a culture with a deeply flawed view of work.
Human Rights and Responsibilities
All humans have certain basic rights; most fundamentally, the right to life, and to the basic necessities for living a good human life, such as food, shelter, clothing, basic medical care, and adequate rest. Every right comes paired with a responsibility. In the case of basic human rights, society and individual human beings have a responsibility to make sure that the rights of others are met. In our individual lives, we can’t let a focus on our own rights blur a realization of our duties toward others, and we should be willing to waive our lesser rights so that the more fundamental rights of others can be honored.
The Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
We all have rights, but the Church calls us to have a special concern for the poor and vulnerable. In part, this is just pragmatic; the poor and vulnerable are more likely to “fall through the cracks” unless they are given special attention. But it is also part of the Gospel Message. Christ said he came to bring good news to the poor. Poverty does not equal virtue, but it does help to prepare one’s heart to encounter Christ. (We discussed this in our episode on Gospel Poverty.)
Solidarity calls us to see all human beings as brothers and sisters. This has a natural dimension, but above all it has a spiritual dimension. We are called to see every other human being as created in the image and likeness of God, and as at least potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ. This means that we should care deeply about what happens to every human person, much as we would care about the members of our families or the members of our own bodies.
The Dignity of the Human Person
All CST is ultimately grounded in the Dignity of the Human Person. Every human being has this dignity from conception to natural death, which is why the Catholic Church opposed abortion and all other attacks on life. If we don’t believe in the fundamental dignity that each person has, we won’t see any reason to respect human rights, stand in solidarity with others, value human work, or care for those who are poor.
The Call to Family, Community, and Participation
But we are not just individuals; we are communal, and therefore we are called to seek the Common Good. Common Goods are those things which are not diminished by being shared. The ultimate common good is the contemplation of God in Heaven; this good is not diminished by being shared. Neither is the good of belonging to a family or community.
Care for Creation
As a community, we need to care for our common home and the common goods provided by Creation. This will the theme of our next CST episode, which will be an in-depth discussion of Laudato Si.
On our website we have a list titled “101 Ways to Change Your Life Right Now!” If you want to start putting CST into practice, this list might be a good place to start. We’re not yet at 101, but we have more than 60 action items listed. (Contact us if you have any suggestions to add to the list.)
This is a list of most if not all of the sources we quoted during the episode (and some that we didn’t get time to quote!) with links to the originals where relevant. Text in bold before each section of quoted text was added by us to indicate the connection to our discussion in the episode.
These sources come from different eras and help to show the unity of CST over time.
Evangelium Vitae by Pope St. John Paul II
- Section 3: The Dignity of Every Human Life. “Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15) . . . .
The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council and with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator””
Let Us Dream, by Pope Francis
- pp. 52-53: Catholic Social Teaching is based on the Beatitudes. “Jesus gave us a set of keywords with which he summoned up the grammar of the Kingdom of God: the Beatitudes. They begin in the hope of the poor for the fullness of life, for peace and fraternity, for equity and justice. It is an order of existence in which values are not negotiated but sacrosanct. Reflecting on the kingdom of God in response to the way we live in the modern world, the Church has developed a series of principles for reflection, together with criteria for judgment that also offer directives for action. It is known as Catholic Social Teaching. While they are drawn from reflection on the Gospel, its principles are accessible to all, seeking to translate and set in motion the Good News in the here and now. “
- pp. 116-117 The Dignity of Workers “There is a 12th-century midrash, or commentary, on the story of the Tower of Babel in chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis. The tower was a monument to the ego of the people of Babel. Building the tower required huge numbers of bricks, which were very expensive to make. According to the rabbi, if a brick fell it was a great tragedy: work was stopped and the negligent worker was beaten severely as an example. But if a worker fell to his death? the work went on. One of the surplus laborers—slaves waiting in line for work—stepped forward to take his place so that the tower could continue to rise . . .
And nowadays? When shares of major corporations fall a few percent, the news makes headlines. Experts endlessly discuss what it might mean. But when a homeless person is found frozen in the streets behind empty hotels, or a whole population goes hungry, few notice; and if it makes the news at all, we just shake our heads sadly and carry on, believing there is no solution . . .
Either a society is geared to a culture of sacrifice—the triumph of the fittest and the throwaway culture—or to mercy and care. People or bricks: it is time to choose.”
Caritas in Veritate, by Pope Benedict XVI
- From paragraph 6: The Relation of Charity and Justice. “Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.”
Apostolicam Actuositatem, from the Second Vatican Council
- From Chapter II, Section 8: The Relation of Justice and Charity, Solidarity in Christ, Reform of the Social Order. “In order that the exercise of charity on this scale may be unexceptionable in appearance as well as in fact, it is altogether necessary that one should consider in one’s neighbor the image of God in which he has been created, and also Christ the Lord to Whom is really offered whatever is given to a needy person. It is imperative also that the freedom and dignity of the person being helped be respected with the utmost consideration, that the purity of one’s charitable intentions be not stained by seeking one’s own advantage or by striving for domination, and especially that the demands of justice be satisfied lest the giving of what is due in justice be represented as the offering of a charitable gift. Not only the effects but also the causes of these ills must be removed and the help be given in such a way that the recipients may gradually be freed from dependence on outsiders and become self-sufficient.”
Communities of Salt and Light, from the USCCB, 1993
- From Chapter 3, the Social Mission of the Parish: The Relation of Justice and Charity. “Catholic teaching calls us to serve those in need and to change the structures that deny people their dignity and rights as children of God. Service and action, charity and justice are complementary components of parish social ministry. Neither alone is sufficient; both are essential signs of the gospel at work. A parish serious about social ministry will offer opportunities to serve those in need and to advocate for justice and peace. These are not competing priorities, but two dimensions of the same fundamental mission to protect the life and dignity of the human person.”
A Sermon on the Gospel of Luke, by St. Basil the Great
- “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
(A slightly different translation of this quote can be found on page 69 of On Social Justice, a book of St. Basil’s writings edited by C. Paul Schroeder.)
Rerum Novarum, by Pope Leo XIII
- From paragraph 3: The Exploitation of Workers. “In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class . . . 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.”
Laborem Exercens, by Pope St. John Paul II
- From the introduction, section 1: Concern of the Church for the Dignity of Work. “I wish to devote this document to human work and, even more, to man in the vast context of the reality of work. As I said in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, published at the beginning of my service in the See of Saint Peter in Rome, man “is the primary and fundamental way for the Church”4, precisely because of the inscrutable mystery of Redemption in Christ; and so it is necessary to return constantly to this way and to follow it ever anew in the various aspects in which it shows us all the wealth and at the same time all the toil of human existence on earth.”
“Work is one of these aspects, a perennial and fundamental one, one that is always relevant and constantly demands renewed attention and decisive witness. Because fresh questions and problems are always arising, there are always fresh hopes, but also fresh fears and threats, connected with this basic dimension of human existence: man’s life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity, but at the same time work contains the unceasing measure of human toil and suffering, and also of the harm and injustice which penetrate deeply into social life within individual nations and on the international level. While it is true that man eats the bread produced by the work of his hands— and this means not only the daily bread by which his body keeps alive but also the bread of science and progress, civilization and culture—it is also a perennial truth that he eats this bread by “the sweat of his face“, that is to say, not only by personal effort and toil but also in the midst of many tensions, conflicts and crises, which, in relationship with the reality of work, disturb the life of individual societies and also of all humanity.”
- From Chapter 3, section 12: The Priority of Labor over Capital. “The structure of the present-day situation is deeply marked by many conflicts caused by man, and the technological means produced by human work play a primary role in it. We should also consider here the prospect of worldwide catastrophe in the case of a nuclear war, which would have almost unimaginable possibilities of destruction. In view of this situation we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle ot the priority of labour over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labour is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man’s historical experience.”
Centesimus Annus, by Pope St. John Paul II
- Chapter 4, section 41: Just Wages, the Dignity of Workers. “Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labour, grows or diminishes as a person, either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement, in which he is considered only a means and not an end.
The concept of alienation needs to be led back to the Christian vision of reality, by recognizing in alienation a reversal of means and ends.”
- Chapter 1, section 7 The Right to Sufficient Rest and Leisure. “we can appreciate the Pope’s [Leo XIII] severe statement: “It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies”. And referring to the “contract” aimed at putting into effect “labour relations” of this sort, he affirms with greater precision, that “in all agreements between employers and workers there is always the condition expressed or understood” that proper rest be allowed, proportionate to “the wear and tear of one’s strength”. He then concludes: “To agree in any other sense would be against what is right and just””
- Chapter 5, section 47: Human Rights. “Following the collapse of Communist totalitarianism and of many other totalitarian and “national security” regimes, today we are witnessing a predominance, not without signs of opposition, of the democratic ideal, together with lively attention to and concern for human rights. But for this very reason it is necessary for peoples in the process of reforming their systems to give democracy an authentic and solid foundation through the explicit recognition of those rights.96 Among the most important of these rights, mention must be made of the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality; the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth; the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth’s material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one’s dependents; and the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one’s sexuality. In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person.”
- Chapter 1, section 5. Social Doctrine as Evangelizing Mission. In effect, to teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness to Christ the Saviour.
Quadragesimo Anno, by Pius XI
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, by The Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice
- Sections 279-280: New Forms of Exploitation of Workers. “The relationship between labour and capital often shows traits of antagonism that take on new forms with the changing of social and economic contexts. In the past, the origin of the conflict between capital and labour was found above all “in the fact that the workers put their powers at the disposal of the entrepreneurs, and these, following the principle of maximum profit, tried to establish the lowest possible wages for the work done by the employees”. In our present day, this conflict shows aspects that are new and perhaps more disquieting: scientific and technological progress and the globalization of markets, of themselves a source of development and progress, expose workers to the risk of being exploited by the mechanisms of the economy and by the unrestrained quest for productivity.
One must not fall into the error of thinking that the process of overcoming the dependence of work on material is of itself capable of overcoming alienation in the workplace or the alienation of labour. The reference here is not only to the many pockets of non-work, concealed work, child labour, underpaid work, exploitation of workers — all of which still persist today — but also to new, much more subtle forms of exploitation of new sources of work, to over-working, to work-as-career that often takes on more importance than other human and necessary aspects, to excessive demands of work that makes family life unstable and sometimes impossible, to a modular structure of work that entails the risk of serious repercussions on the unitary perception of one’s own existence and the stability of family relationships.”
Pacem in Terris, by Pope St. John XXIII
- Sections 28-30: The Relationship between Rights and Duties. “The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other.
Thus, for example, the right to live involves the duty to preserve one’s life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.
Once this is admitted, it follows that in human society one man’s natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.”
Octogesima Adveniens, by Pope St. Paul VI
- Section 23: The Duty to Renounce our Rights in Favor of Others under some Circumstances. In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others. If, beyond legal rules, there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then even equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis of equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
- 2448: The Preferential Option for the Poor “In its various forms – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death – human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.”
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, by Pope St. John Paul II
- Chapter 6, Section 42: The Preferential Option for the Poor“Today, furthermore, given the worldwide dimension which the social question has assumed,76 this love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. It is impossible not to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the “rich man” who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate (cf. Lk 16:19-31). Our daily life, as well as our decisions in the political and economic fields, must be marked by these realities.”
Homily 50 on Matthew by Saint John Chrysostom
- Feeding the Poor comes before Decorating Church Buildings “Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold, would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?
Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison. Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”
- (The quote mentioned in the episode “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice” is a paraphrase of St. John Chrysostom’s thought and not a direct quote.)
Lumen Gentum of the Second Vatican Council
- Chapter 5, Section 42 The Danger of Riches. Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away.
Header Image: Portrait of Pope Leo XIII in the Public Domain; Pope Francis, Casa Rosada CC BY-SA 2.0; Pope John Paul II, Beyond Forgetting CC BY-SA 2.0