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Catholic Social Teaching

An Introduction to

Catholic Social Teaching

1. Historical Overview

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 for:

  • 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 just claims;
  • the right to private property;
  • the rights of labour over capital;
  • 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.

Leo's 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.

David Hollenbach, Claims in Conflict, 1979 p. 47

Rerum 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.

Essentially 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).

Two observations 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.

While recognising 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?


2. The Content of Catholic Social Teaching

Rerum 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 organisation;
  • John XXIII was concerned with the conditions for world peace, confronting the arms race, international relations, racism and development aid;
  • 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.

CST encompasses 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 social justice.

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 good
  • solidarity
  • subsidiarity
  • the purpose of the social order
  • the purpose of government
  • participation
  • the universal purpose of goods
  • the option for the poor
  • the care of creation.


3. Key Principles of Catholic Social Teaching Expanded

1. The Dignity of the Human Person

Human beings 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.

2. The Common Good

While the 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.

3. Solidarity

Human beings 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.

4. Subsidiarity

This principle 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 enable.

5. The Purpose of the Social Order

The social order must uphold the dignity of the human person.

6. The Purpose of Government

The purpose 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.

7. Participation

Individuals and groups must be enabled to participate in society.

8. The Universal Purpose of Goods

The world's 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 private property.

9. The Option for the Poor

This refers 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.

10. The Care of Creation

The Earth 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.


4. Summary of the Main Encyclicals and Documents

Rerum 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.

Quadragesimo Anno: On Reconstructing the Social Order (Pius XI, 1931)

Condemns the effects of greed and concentrated political and economic power and proposes that social organisation be based on the principle of subsidiarity.

Mater et Magistra: Mother and Teacher (John XXIII, 1961)

Identifies the widening gap between the rich and poor nations as a global concern of justice;
Raises concerns about the arms race;
Calls upon Christians to work for a more just world.

Pacem 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.

Gaudium et Spes: The Church in the Modern World (Vatican Council document, 1965)

Clear recognition that the Church is immersed in the modern world;
Condemns poverty;
Warns about the threat of nuclear war;
Christians must work to build structures that uphold justice and peace.

Populorum Progressio: On the Development of Peoples (Paul VI, 1967)

Focus on human development - 'development is the new name for peace';
Condemns the situation that gives rise to global poverty and inequality;
Calls for new international organisations and agreements that promote justice and peace.

Octogesima Adveniens: An Apostolic Letter: A Call to Action (Paul VI, 1971)

Calls for political action for economic justice;
Develops the role of individual local churches in responding to unjust situations and acting for justice.

Justice in the World (Synod of Bishops, 1971)

States that "action for justice" is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.

Evangeli Nuntiandi: Evangelisation in the Modern World (Paul VI, 1975)

Links the work of doing justice with evangelisation;
The Gospel is about liberation from all oppressive structures;
Respect for cultures.

Laborum 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.

Sollicitudo 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.

Peace 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 of faith;
The integrity of creation must be upheld;
Ecological education to nurture a new global solidarity that takes account of nature.

Centesimus 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.

(This Summary has been adapted and developed from NETWORK 1998,
Shaping a New World, pp 5-11)


5. 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.

Notwithstanding this 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;
  • reflecting 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.


6. Conclusion

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.


7. References


Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference (1992)
Common Wealth for the Common Good (Collins Dove, Australia)

Dorr, Donal (1993)
Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching (Collins Dove, Dublin)

Downey M (Ed.) (1993)
The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (The Liturgical Press, Minnesota)

Henriot P, Berri E, Schultheis M (1992)
Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret (Collins Dove, Australia)

Hollenbach D (1979)
Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition (Paulist Press, New York)

NETWORK (1998)
Shaping a New World - A Challenge for the 21st Century (Sixth Edition - A NETWORK Education Program)

Paul, Camille (1999)
Equal or Different? Women, the Papacy and Social Justice (John Garratt Publishing, Australia)


Click here for a list of relevant websites.


Appendix 1

Catholic Social Teaching 1891-1991

1891 Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII) (The Condition of Labour)
1931 Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI) (The Reconstruction of the Social Order - 40th year)
1961 Mater et Magistra (John XXIII) (Mother and Teacher - Christianity and Social Progress)
1963 Pacem in Terris (John XXIII) (Peace on Earth)
1965 Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II) (The Church in the Modern World)
1967 Populorum Progressio (Paul VI) (Progress/Development of Peoples)
1971 Octogesima Adveniens (Paul VI) (Apostolic Letter: Call to Action - 80th year)
1971 Iustitia in Mundo (Synod of Bishops) (Justice in the World)
1975 Evangelii Nuntiandi (Paul VI) (Evangelisation in the Modern World)
1981 Laborem Exercens (John Paul II) (On Human Work)
1987 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (John Paul II) (Social Concerns of the Church)
1989 Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation (John Paul II)
1990 Redemptoris Missio (John Paul II) (Missionary Activity of the Church)
1991 Centesimus Annus (John Paul II) (One Hundred Years)


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