Our subgroup has sought to develop a brief summary of the substance of Catholic social teaching which may be useful to the other subgroups of our task force as they assess the integration of Catholic social teaching within Catholic education and develop strategies for the future. This report is not a definitive or comprehensive summary of Catholic social teaching. It seeks to offer a very basic outline of the foundations, principles, and key concepts of Catholic social tradition to help the task force in its work.
While there are a variety of commentaries on the Church's social tradition, this summary is drawn directly from the authoritative documents of the universal Church and the statements of the U.S. bishops on Catholic social teaching. This summary is drawn particularly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the U.S. bishops' statement, A Century of Social Teaching.
The summary offers a guide to the scriptural roots, theological foundations, and basic principles of the Catholic social tradition. It is not a substitute for the original documents or the wide variety of statements and commentaries applying the tradition to particular issues. To offer more concrete assistance in sharing this tradition in educational settings, we refer the reader to the Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the General Directory for Catechesis, the National Catechetical Directory for Catholics of the United States, and other related documents.
Catholic social teaching is rooted in our understanding of human life and human dignity. Because every human being is created in the image and likeness of God and is redeemed by Jesus Christ, we believe in the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death. Each person has inherent value and dignity, which come from God and are independent of any human accomplishment or quality.
Our experience of the Triune God is also a basis for Catholic social thought. God has revealed himself to us in creation and in redemption. In the act of creating man and woman and establishing their relationship with each other and with him, God reveals our eminently communal and social nature. In the coming of Jesus Christ, we understand the Trinitarian nature of God's own inner life. Jesus reveals God as Father and sends the Holy Spirit as his gift to us to dwell in our hearts and to form us into community. God's nature is communal and social; therefore our nature, created in his image, is communal and social as well. We are communal and social because of the way we have been created and because of the One who has redeemed us. We are all children of God and share in the Lord's call to justice and peace. We cannot call ourselves Catholic unless we hear and heed the Church's teaching to serve those in need, to protect human life and dignity, and to pursue justice and peace.
The Catholic social tradition is deeply rooted in the Scriptures and expressed in Catholic teaching. It constitutes, in the words of John Paul II, "the Church's ‘social doctrine.'" This tradition is
- founded on the life and words of Jesus Christ, who came "to bring glad tidings to the poor . . . liberty to captives . . . recovery of sight to the blind" (Lk 4:18-19), and who identified himself with "the least of these," the hungry, the homeless, the stranger (cf. Mt 25:45);
- inspired by the passion for justice of the Hebrew prophets and the Scripture's call to care for the weak and to "let justice surge like water" (Am 5:24);
- articulated by the social teaching of our Church, including papal encyclicals, conciliar documents, and episcopal statements that have explored and expressed the social demands of our faith, especially over the last century. This tradition insists that work for justice and peace and care for the poor and vulnerable are the responsibility of every Christian;
- shaped by those who have come before us, by St. John Chrysostom, by St. Augustine, by St. Francis, and by more recent leaders such as Dorothy Day and countless others whose lives and work have been models of the Christian commitment to justice and peace;
- lived by the People of God, who seek to build the kingdom of God, to live our faith in the world, and to apply the values of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church in our own families and parishes, in our work and service and in local communities, the nation, and the world.
Catholic social teaching is both true doctrine and a framework for action. It is not optional or fringe; it is an integral part of the Christian message and Catholic education. Catholic schools, seminaries, religious education programs, and universities or colleges are called to make a serious effort to share the social mission of the Church. This is not a new challenge. It is a theme of the National Catechetical Directory and a recurring theme of the new Catechism. Sharing our social teaching is integral to the mission of Catholic education in all its forms.
Basic Principles of Catholic Social Teaching The development of the Catholic social tradition over the past one hundred years has led to a sophisticated body of teaching that cannot be simplified or summarized easily. However, several key principles have been identified in recent Vatican and episcopal documents. The principles listed below are drawn primarily from the new Catechism of the Catholic Church and the U.S. bishops' 1991 statement, A Century of Social Teaching.
The Life and Dignity of the Human Person
In the Catholic social tradition, the human person is central. Every human life has inherent value and dignity, independent of race, gender, age, or economic status. Because we believe in the inherent value and dignity of every life, we believe the test of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human life and human dignity. In the Catholic tradition, people are more important than things.
Equality of all persons comes from their essential dignity, having been created in God's image and likeness. While differences in talents are a part of God's plan, social and cultural discrimination in fundamental rights on the basis of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion are not compatible with God's design. Excessive economic and social disparities are contrary to the virtues of social justice, human dignity, and peace.
The Rights and Responsibilities of the Human Person
Each person, reflecting their God-given dignity, has basic rights and responsibilities that flow from our human nature and belong to us as humans regardless of any social or political structures. These rights begin with the right to life. They include those things that make life truly human, such as the rights to freedom of conscience and worship; to raise a family; to immigrate; to live without discrimination; and to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family, including adequate food, clothing, housing, health care, education, employment, and a safe environment. These rights carry corresponding responsibilities—to one another, to our families, to our communities, and to the larger society—to respect the rights of others and to work for the common good.
The Call to Family
Every human being is intrinsically social, finding fulfillment in relationship to God and other persons, and realizing our dignity and rights in relationship with others, in our families and in our communities. No relationship is more central than the family. It is where we learn about moral principles and where we learn to act on them. The state and all other institutions have an obligation to respect the family and to foster and protect it, not to undermine it.
The Call to Community and Participation
Because of our social nature, all human beings have a right and a responsibility to participate in society and in the institutions that make up our communities. These institutions have important roles in protecting the life, the dignity, and the rights of the person; promoting economic initiative and the well-being of our families and communities; and pursuing the common good. A central moral test of political, legal, and economic institutions is what they do to people, what they do for people, and how people might participate in them. The right to participate in society must be promoted and protected by the state and other institutions. With the right to participate comes an obligation to participate in the life of the community and in the structures that shape public life. We have a responsibility to exercise our right to participate in a fair and equitable way for the good of all.
The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
In Catholic thought, work is more than a way to make a living; it is a way of expressing and realizing our dignity, and it is an opportunity to collaborate with God in the development of creation. Therefore, workers should participate in the workplace in a manner reflecting their responsibilities and dignity. Employers should treat workers with respect; they cannot be reduced to mere commodities. People have the right to productive work, to fair wages, and to private property and economic initiative. The Church has a long tradition of supporting workers' rights to form and join unions and worker associations of their choosing. In Catholic teaching, the economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.
The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
Poor and vulnerable people have a special place in the Catholic tradition that is reflected in the challenge of the Hebrew prophets, in Jesus' parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46), and in many papal and episcopal social documents of the past one hundred years. The Church appeals to everyone to recognize a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable to defend and to promote their dignity and to ensure that they can participate fully in society. A basic moral test of a society is how its most vulnerable members are faring. This is not promotion of "class struggle" nor an exclusive preference. It reflects the principle of solidarity and our call as Christians to respond to the needs of all of our brothers and sisters, especially those with the greatest needs. We do this through acts of charity, through meeting the immediate material needs of those who are poor and vulnerable, as well as through our own participation in society, shaping political and economic institutions that meet basic needs, promote justice, and ensure the participation of all.
Solidarity expresses the Catholic image of the Mystical Body, that we are one human family, regardless of our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. It calls us to see others not as "enemy" but as "neighbor," and it requires a just social order where goods are fairly distributed and the dignity of all is respected. As our world grows more and more interdependent, these responsibilities cross national and regional boundaries. Violent conflict, poverty, and the denial of dignity and rights to people anywhere on the globe diminish each of us. The principle of solidarity calls us to work for world peace, global development, protection of the environment, and international human rights.
Because of our interdependence as expressed by the principle of solidarity, the Church supports the development of voluntary associations and institutions at the local, national, and international levels to promote development in such areas as economic and social life, cultural and recreational activities, professional pursuits, and political affairs. These institutions have important roles as well as limitations. The principle of subsidiarity defends the freedom of initiative of every member of society—and of the intermediate institutions that make up society—from excessive intervention by the state or other larger institutions. The Church vigorously defends the unique roles of families, community associations, and other intermediate institutions and insists their roles cannot be ignored or absorbed by the state or other large institutions. However, when the common good or the rights of individuals are harmed or threatened, society—including governmental institutions—has a responsibility to act to protect human dignity and rights.
The Common Good
The common good is understood as the social conditions that allow people to reach their full human potential and to realize their human dignity. The common good has three essential elements:
- Respect for the person, reflected in social structures that promote each person's opportunity to realize his or her human dignity
- The social well-being and development of the group, reflected in social structures that promote development and make accessible what is necessary for a truly human life, including food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, a safe environment, and the right to establish a family
- Peace and security, protected by the public authority to ensure a just order
In an age of global interdependence, the Church recognizes a universal common good and affirms the need for international structures that can promote the just development of the human family across regional and national lines.
The Universal Destination of Goods, the Right to Private Property, and the Integrity of Creation
The goods of this world are intended by God for the benefit of everyone. Therefore, there is a universal purpose of all created goods that exist to promote the right to life and the dignity of all. We are called to see a "social mortgage" that guides our use of the world's goods, and we are invited to be "social trustees" of the goods of the world for today and for the future.
Private property is the necessary means for the maintenance and success of self and family. Therefore, each person has a right to private property. But this right is not absolute. The ownership of property carries a responsibility to use it in ways that are consistent with the common good. Moreover, political authorities have the duty to regulate the exercise of the right to private property for the purpose of promoting the common good.
Use of the resources of the universe cannot be separated from respect for the integrity of creation and a commitment to its preservation. Respect for the Creator is demonstrated by our care for creation. Our commitment to the common good and our concern for our neighbors and for generations yet to come require responsible stewardship of the earth.
All people have the right to economic initiative, to use their talents to contribute to the common good and to reap the just fruits of their labor. The state has an obligation to regulate the pursuit of economic initiative for the sake of the common good, but it should not unnecessarily interfere with the individual's opportunity for creative enterprise.
Charity and Justice
From the Hebrew prophets to Christ's description of the Last Judgment, the Scriptures are clear that we are called to help those in need and to oppose unjust and oppressive laws. The practice of charity and the pursuit of justice are linked and complementary duties. The principle of the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable demands that we respond to the needs of others and work to ensure their full participation in economic and political life. The tradition of the corporal works of mercy calls us to provide direct aid to those in need, offering food for the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. While these charitable acts are essential, they are not a sufficient response to the Christian vocation. We are also called to work for justice. In our daily lives, through our roles at work, in our communities, in our families, and as citizens, we are called to participate in shaping a social order that promotes just relationships and safeguards human rights.
Call to Action
These principles and concepts are not just abstract theory and ideas, they are a framework for action. They compel believers to these actions:
- Protecting human life from conception to natural death and resisting the violence of abortion, the vengeance of capital punishment, the despair of euthanasia and assisted suicide. We believe every life is sacred no matter how young or how old, whatever the race, ethnicity, nationality, or physical condition of each person.
- Promoting economic justice and measuring society by how the poor and vulnerable are faring, by how the dignity of work and the rights of workers are respected, and by the practice of the virtue of solidarity in local, national, and global policies.
- Pursuing peace in a world marked by too much violence and too little development. Catholic teaching offers a moral framework for interdependence and ethical criteria for the use of force in defense of human life and dignity.
- Caring for creation as a sign of respect for the Creator. An authentic environmental ethic is an expression of stewardship for the creation God has given us.
In our efforts to protect "the least among us," to promote the common good, and to pursue justice and peace, it is vital that believers share the principles of Catholic social teaching and act on our faith in the marketplace, the public square, family life, and all community life. As the Second Vatican Council has taught and as John Paul II has repeatedly pointed out, the laity has a preeminent role in working for justice and peace in every aspect of society—as parents, workers, educators, consumers, businesspeople, citizens, and taxpayers. Christians are called by the Scriptures to be the salt, light, and leaven in human society.
These principles, concepts, and applications can provide a general framework for assessment and action by Catholic educators. Catholic educational ministries and institutions can review curriculum and programs for how the spirit and substance of the Catholic social tradition are reflected in their educational activities: Are they integral or optional? Are the central ideas taught or assumed? Is the Church's concern for human life and dignity, justice and peace integrated clearly into the curriculum and life of the school, seminary, religious education program, college, or university?
There are many valuable sources of information on Catholic social teaching from all over the world. A complete survey of these documents is beyond the scope of this report. We have focused our work on Vatican and U.S. documents on social justice and Catholic education. The following have served as the principal sources for the work of the Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education.
Papal, Conciliar, and Synodal Documents on Social Justice
Papal, Conciliar, and Synodal Documents on Education
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities)
- General Directory for Catechesis
- Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church's Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests
U.S. Episcopal Documents on Social Justice
- A Century of Social Teaching
- The Challenge of Peace
- Communities of Salt and Light
- Economic Justice for All
- The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace
- Program of Social Reconstruction
- Putting Children and Families First
- Renewing the Earth
U.S. Episcopal Documents on Education
- National Catechetical Directory for Catholics of the United States
- To Teach as Jesus Did