An Introduction to
Catholic Social Teaching
In 1891, Pope Leo
XIII released his encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition
of Labour). This was the first of the great social encyclicals
of the Catholic Church. It was written in an era of immense social
change in Europe, distinguished by the awakening of democracy
and the popular appeal of communism to the working class. It was
an era of far-reaching social transformation and it called forth
a response from the Pope.
Essentially, Leo XIII
had two concerns. Firstly, he opposed the atheistic philosophy
of communism but recognised its appeal to workers. Communism offered
workers a socio-economic and political alternative to the self-interested
alliance between aristocratic privilege and capital-industrial
interests. In short, it was an influential part of a growing movement
for political and economic equality. This was a movement the Church
could not ignore.
Secondly, he took
issue with what he saw as the excesses of liberal-capitalist development
in Europe. Central to these excesses was the exploitation and
dire poverty of workers and the concomitant concentration of privilege
and wealth in the hands of a few. Seeing this situation, he argued
- the recognition
of human dignity;
- the protection
of basic economic and political rights, including the right
to a just wage and to organise associations or unions to defend
- the right to private
- the rights of labour
- the just
organisations of society for the common good.
In short, Leo rejected
communism and the philosophy on which it was based. At the same
time, he did not ignore the basis of its appeal to workers and
condemned the exploitative nature of the liberal-capitalist alternative.
positive affirmations about the political implications
of human dignity are summarized in a phrase from
the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum which has been
cited many times in the later documents of the tradition: "Man (sic)
precedes the State". The worth of human beings,
in other words, is the standard by which political and
legal institutions are to be evaluated.
Hollenbach, Claims in Conflict, 1979 p. 47
Novarum was a watershed in the life
of the modern Church because it situated the Church in the social,
political and economic ferment of the late nineteenth century
and it began a tradition of engagement with the social order which
slowly took shape over the next century. Appendix 1 provides
a time-line showing the historical development of CST over one
hundred years. It is noteworthy that forty years lapsed before
the writing of a second social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno
(The Reconstruction of the Social Order). It is also noteworthy
that the last thirty years have seen rapid development in this
aspect of the Church's life.
the development of the CST has been organic, building upon, developing
and adding to the central themes of Leo's encyclical. The anniversary
of this first social encyclical has, since 1961, become an occasion
for the release of another social encyclical. This has followed
consistently in all the decades since Mater et Magistra
(Mother and Teacher).
are relevant here. Firstly, this teaching highlights the Church's
engagement with the big socio-economic and political issues since
1891 and, it is evident from the time-line, that the papacy of
Pope John XXIII and Vatican II gave significant impetus to this
dynamic in the life of the Church. Secondly, the time-line only
shows the major social encyclicals and council documents which
have come from the Vatican. While these are especially significant
for the worldwide Church, they have inspired and been inspired
by numerous other documents that have grown out of and been addressed
to specific faith communities. Some examples are:
- the Australian
Bishops' Conference, Common Wealth for the Common Good;
- the Medellin
and Puebla documents from the Latin American Church;
- the American
Bishops' Economic Justice for All; and
- the African
Bishops' Justice and Evangelisation in Africa.
the significant contribution of local Bishops' Conferences to
CST, what follows is mainly focused on the encyclicals and documents
originating from Rome.
It is not
accidental that the development of CST paralleled the modern development
of Catholic biblical scholarship and interpretation. Encouraged
by the Pius XII encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired
by the Divine Spirit) in 1943 and further endorsed by the
Vatican II document Dei Verbum (The Word of God),
Catholics in the later half of the twentieth century have re-claimed
a biblical heritage that placed great emphasis on the prophetic
tradition of justice and the 'preferential' place of the poor
in the kingdom of God. This has influenced CST significantly.
So, the development
of CST in the last one hundred years has been significant in the
life of the Church. Each of the social encyclicals reflects the
issues of the time in which it was written and the personality
of the author. This being said, what does this tradition of CST
teach us and call us to?
The Content of Catholic Social Teaching
Novarum opened the Church up to consideration
of the socio-economic, political and cultural forces that were
shaping and continue to shape the modern world. In general, the
encyclicals have taken issue with many facets of the contemporary
world which are deemed to violate the essential dignity of the
human person and trample upon justice and the common good of the
global community. For example:
- Leo XIII
was concerned for the plight of the working class in late nineteenth
century Europe and for the role of government;
- Pius XI
proposed the principal of subsidiarity as the basis for social
- John XXIII
was concerned with the conditions for world peace, confronting
the arms race, international relations, racism and development
- Paul VI
was concerned with development and justice, trade issues, structural
injustice, development aid and working for justice;
- John Paul
II's encyclicals have encompassed concern with the changing
nature of work and workers' conditions, the North-South gap,
the option for the poor, the universal destination of the world's
goods and the structures of sin.
many global concerns but it has always had a particular concern
with the situation of the poor and the structural causes that
create the conditions of poverty and marginalisation. Further,
CST has developed in an organic way, with each new encyclical
and document building upon the tradition and adding new dimensions
to it. Part 4 provides a brief summary of each of the papal
encyclicals, synod documents and letters which constitute the
official Roman CST canon, highlighting the distinctive issues
each has added to the evolving tradition.
It is important
to acknowledge that CST does not purport to offer a 'blueprint'
for an ideal type of society. Rather, CST proposes principles
aimed at creating 'right' social, economic and political relationships
and the construction of social structures and institutions based
on justice and respect for human dignity. Inherent in CST is the
belief that the application of these principles to the structures
and institutions of society, both nationally and globally, will
enhance human dignity, overcome poverty and promote and ensure
The key principles
which emerged and have been developed in over one hundred years
of CST centre on:
- the dignity
of the human person
- the common
- the purpose
of the social order
- the purpose
- the universal
purpose of goods
- the option
for the poor
- the care
Key Principles of Catholic Social Teaching Expanded
The Dignity of the Human Person
are created in the image of God and, therefore, are endowed with
dignity. This inherent dignity carries with it certain basic rights
and responsibilities which are exercised within a social framework.
dignity of the human person is affirmed, individuals live in common
with others and the rights of individuals must be balanced with
the wider common good of all. The rights and needs of others must
be always respected.
are social by nature and do not exist merely as individuals. When
considering the human community it must be remembered that it
consists of individual and social elements.
recognises that society is based on organisations or communities
of people ranging from small groups or families right through
to national and international institutions. As a rule of social
organisation, subsidiarity affirms the right of individuals and
social groups to make their own decisions and accomplish what
they can by their own initiative and industry. A higher level
community should not interfere in the life of a community at a
lower level of social organisation unless it is to support and
Purpose of the Social Order
order must uphold the dignity of the human person.
Purpose of Government
of government is the promotion of the common good. Governments
are required to actively participate in society to promote and
ensure social justice and equity.
and groups must be enabled to participate in society.
Universal Purpose of Goods
goods are meant for all. Although the Church upholds the right
to private property this is subordinate to the right to common
use and the overall common good. There is a social mortgage on
Option for the Poor
to seeing the world through the eyes of the poor and standing
with the poor in solidarity. This should lead to action for justice
with and on behalf of those who are poor and marginalised.
Care of Creation
is God's gift and all species have a rightful place in it. Humans
share this habitat with other kind and have a special duty to
be stewards and trustees of the Earth.
Summary of the Main Encyclicals and Documents
Novarum: On the Condition of Labour (Leo XIII, 1891)
Lays out the rights
and responsibilities of capital and labour;
Describes the role of Government in a just society;
Condemns atheistic communism;
Upholds the right to private property.
Anno: On Reconstructing the Social Order (Pius XI,
Condemns the effects
of greed and concentrated political and economic power and proposes
that social organisation be based on the principle of subsidiarity.
et Magistra: Mother and Teacher (John XXIII, 1961)
Identifies the widening
gap between the rich and poor nations as a global concern of
Raises concerns about the arms race;
Calls upon Christians to work for a more just world.
in Terris: Peace on Earth (John XXIII, 1963)
Focus on human rights
as the basis for peace;
Calls for disarmament;
Stating the need for a world-wide institution to promote and
safeguard the universal common good.
et Spes: The Church in the Modern World (Vatican Council
that the Church is immersed in the modern world;
Warns about the threat of nuclear war;
Christians must work to build structures that uphold justice
Progressio: On the Development of Peoples (Paul VI,
Focus on human development
- 'development is the new name for peace';
Condemns the situation that gives rise to global poverty and
Calls for new international organisations and agreements that
promote justice and peace.
Adveniens: An Apostolic Letter: A Call to Action (Paul
Calls for political
action for economic justice;
Develops the role of individual local churches in responding
to unjust situations and acting for justice.
in the World (Synod of Bishops, 1971)
States that "action
for justice" is a constitutive dimension of the preaching
of the Gospel.
Nuntiandi: Evangelisation in the Modern World (Paul
Links the work of
doing justice with evangelisation;
The Gospel is about liberation from all oppressive structures;
Respect for cultures.
Exercems: On Human Work (John Paul II, 1981)
Affirms the dignity
of work and the dignity of the worker;
Affirms the rights of labour;
Calls for workplace justice.
Rei Socialis: The Social Concerns of the Church (John
Paul II, 1987)
Includes the "option
for the poor" as a central tenet of Church teaching;
Also develops the notions of 'solidarity', the 'structures of
sin' and 'the social mortgage on property';
Suggests that the resources used for the arms race be dedicated
to the alleviation of human misery;
Nature must be considered in development.
with God the Creator, Peace with Creation - Pastoral
Letter (John Paul II, 1990)
The ecological crisis
is a moral crisis facing humanity;
Respect for nature and ecological responsibility is a key tenet
The integrity of creation must be upheld;
Ecological education to nurture a new global solidarity that
takes account of nature.
Annus: One Hundred Years (John Paul II, 1991)
Reaffirms the principles
of Catholic Social Teaching over one hundred years;
Celebrates Rerum Novarum;
Identifies the failures of both socialist and market economies.
Summary has been adapted and developed from NETWORK 1998,
Shaping a New World, pp 5-11)
The Ongoing Development of Catholic Social Teaching
What is now known
as Catholic Social Teaching evolved in the period since 1891.
It developed organically. Each document drew upon and affirmed
what had preceded it but also added to and developed the teaching.
Given this, it is possible to point to consistent values and principles
within this tradition.
and the importance of CST to the life of the contemporary Catholic
Church, there are some matters which require further development
and better inclusion in this canon of teaching. These include:
- the role and status
of women in society and in the Church has not been addressed
adequately and remains a significant limitation of CST;
- an encyclical on
the environment is overdue even though some move has been made
in this direction by the current Pope; the main focus of CST
has been anthropocentric;
the European base of the Catholic Church, CST tends to be euro-centric
in its focus. For example, in recent times CST has made reference
to the significance of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe
but little reference has been made to the demise of apartheid
in South Africa; arguably, the release from prison of Nelson
Mandela in 1990 was as significant for colonised people in Africa
as the destruction of the Berlin Wall was for Europeans!
As it has evolved
since 1891, it is hoped that this will continue into this new
century and continue to push the boundaries of faith to incorporate
the big issues of the future.
Catholic Social Teaching
has been referred to as the Catholic Church's "best kept
secret". It is Church teaching that is rarely preached about,
rarely written about and rarely spoken about in Church circles.
Consequently, it rarely informs decision making and action -
at least explicitly. Now is a good time to reclaim this tradition
and to allow it to become a benchmark for the living out of faith
in today's world.
Catholic Bishops' Conference (1992)
Common Wealth for the Common Good (Collins Dove, Australia)
Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching
(Collins Dove, Dublin)
The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (The Liturgical
Berri E, Schultheis M (1992)
Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret (Collins
Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human
Rights Tradition (Paulist Press, New York)
Shaping a New World - A Challenge for the 21st Century
(Sixth Edition - A NETWORK Education Program)
Equal or Different? Women, the Papacy and Social Justice
(John Garratt Publishing, Australia)
here for a list of relevant websites.
Social Teaching 1891-1991
Novarum (Leo XIII) (The Condition of Labour)
Anno (Pius XI) (The Reconstruction of the Social Order
- 40th year)
et Magistra (John XXIII) (Mother and Teacher - Christianity
and Social Progress)
in Terris (John XXIII) (Peace on Earth)
et Spes (Vatican II) (The Church in the Modern World)
Progressio (Paul VI) (Progress/Development of Peoples)
Adveniens (Paul VI) (Apostolic Letter: Call to Action
- 80th year)
in Mundo (Synod of Bishops) (Justice in the World)
Nuntiandi (Paul VI) (Evangelisation in the Modern World)
Exercens (John Paul II) (On Human Work)
Rei Socialis (John Paul II) (Social Concerns of the Church)
with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation (John
Missio (John Paul II) (Missionary Activity of the Church)
Annus (John Paul II) (One Hundred Years)
to Catholic Social Teaching homepage