Catholic social teaching
In high school I took a sophomore religion course entitled, “Catholic Social Justice.” At that time, it did not mean a lot to me. Over the years, however, I have returned to the themes articulated in this course, especially as I seek to respond to injustice in our world today.
The church’s understanding of social justice has grown into a major body of work known as Catholic social teaching. This teaching deals with life and death, poverty, wealth, economics, social organization and the role of the state. Its foundations are widely considered to have been laid by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, although its roots can be traced to the writings of Catholic scholars, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo, and to Sacred Scripture.
Many of the themes of Catholic social teaching were identified in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” and this understanding has been enriched through a variety of papal encyclicals.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI said that Catholic social teaching’s purpose “is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just. … The church has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice cannot prevail and prosper” (no. 28).
The seven key themes of Catholic social teaching include: the right to life and dignity of the human person; the call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and caring for God’s creation. We are discussing Catholic social teaching in this series on faithful citizenship because the Catholic approach to faithful citizenship begins with these moral principles, not with political party platforms. In fact, Catholic social teaching is distinctive in its critiques of social and political ideologies of both the left and the right.
The correct understanding of the human person is the foundation of Catholic social teaching. In the Catholic tradition, our belief that the human person is created in the image of God grounds all claims to human rights. When we speak of the image of God, we are not speaking of an abstraction but as a belief that has a direct bearing on how we treat others and how we regard ourselves. The logic is this: If sin against God is to be avoided and if we harm others, we have sinned against God, then we must not harm others.
Catholic social teaching provides principles for reflection, criteria for judgment and guidelines for action. Ultimately, we see the work of justice reflected in Catholic social teaching as an essential to evangelization because the work for social justice is first and foremost a work of faith called for by Jesus.
What are some implications of Catholic social teaching?
- We are called to work for the common good, help build a just society, uphold the dignity of human life, and lift up our poor and vulnerable brothers and sisters.
- We recognize the social dimension of the human person. People grow and achieve fulfillment in community. Since the family is the central social institution, family life needs to be supported by other institutions and by governments.
- Excessive individualism, competition and greed mitigate against community and the common good.
- People have a fundamental right to life and to those things necessary for human dignity, such as food, shelter, medicine, education and employment.
- People have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Corresponding to these rights are responsibilities to respect the rights of others and work for the common good.
- The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around. Persons have a right to humane working conditions, productive work and fair wages. Work is about more than making a living.
- We are all one human family, and we are responsible for the well being of each other.
- All of creation is a gift from God, so we show our respect by the way we respect people and the planet.
- The moral test of society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, and we must judge our public policies by how they affect the vulnerable and the poor.
- When we live by the principles of Catholic social teaching, we live justly as faithful citizens in relationship with God and one another.
Father Anthony L. Chandler
Pastor, Immaculate Conception Church
La Grange, Ky.