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Catholic Social Teaching

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" He said in reply, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live." - Luke 10:25-28 (New American Bible)

Our faith tradition not only tells us about God, it tells us how we are to act towards each other. Jesus further underscored the importance of how we treat each other when he expanded the requirement from "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" to "love each other as I have loved you." (John 13:34) This commandment certainly includes acting as neighbor to the person in front of us; it also includes thinking about legislation, our social system, the economy, and the world situation to identify arrangements that harm human dignity -- and working to change them.

While Catholic Social Teaching as spelled out in papal, conciliar, and episcopal documents is often an attempt to apply this social commandment to specific situations (as, for example, Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical On The Condition of Labor, which addressed the deplorable working conditions of the time), there are some common themes throughout. The themes from Catholic Social Teaching that undergird NETWORK's vision, positions and efforts are:

1. The Dignity of the Human Person

The dignity of the human person flows from his/her creation in God's image. This divine image gives sanctity to every human life. Consequently, every human being possesses an inalienable dignity and fundamental value that transcends gender, race, class, ethnicity and nationality.

We can only support human dignity and achieve healthy communities if we protect human rights. Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human dignity, such as adequate food, housing, work, education, transportation, healthcare, and freedom of communication and expression. It follows, then, that the goods of the earth are meant to enhance human life and dignity ("universal destination of goods"). They are not meant to be counters in a competition to see who can amass the most, nor are they meant to be symbols of superiority. Owners who heedlessly idolize their goods (cf. Matthew 6:24, 19:21-26; Luke 16:13) become owned and enslaved by them. Only by recognizing that these goods are dependent on God the Creator and then directing their use to the common good, is it possible to give material goods their proper function as useful tools for the growth of individuals and peoples.

2. Common Good

Persons are both sacred and social; human dignity is realized in community. Every aspect of life in community is measured by how the dignity of each person is upheld.

This means that the community (society, economy, nation, world) must be structured to do the most good for all the persons who inhabit it. When each person focuses exclusively on his/her own personal gain, this does not result in a community that serves everyone. The poorer, weaker members of the group are denied the means and opportunities for a dignified life – and everyone is treated as prey rather than as neighbor. Both personal and collective actions must be judged according to whether they promote the common good, not just one's own self-interest. Indeed, the authentic reason for government is to achieve the common good.

3. Preferential Option for People Who Are Poor

Because poorer members of the group do not have the same resources as wealthier, more powerful members, Catholic Social Teaching says that we must focus special attention on meeting the needs of those who are poor. When decisions are being made, extra weight should be given to helping people who are vulnerable and at the margins of society.

4. Solidarity

We are one human family despite boundary lines and prejudices. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, wherever they may be. Solidarity helps us see the "other" – whether a person, group or nation – as our neighbor, a "sharer," a "helper," without regard to age, race, gender, ethnicity, political persuasion or any other category. There is an interconnection among all peoples that demands we value and respect all.

5. Participation as a Basic Human Right

Given the dignity of each person, it follows that participation in decisions that affect us is a basic human right. This, in turn, suggests subsidiarity as a basic rule of social organization: decisions should be made as close as possible to the level of individual initiative in communities and institutions. Families, local community groups, local governments and small businesses should be fostered and their input considered. Larger government structures have an important role to play, but that role only occurs when greater social coordination, regulation and efficiency are necessary for the common good. Indeed, the principle of subsidiarity – from the same Latin root ("subsidium") that gives us "subsidy" – requires larger government structures to support, promote and develop those forms of social organization that are closer to the level of individual initiative.

6. Dignity of Work

Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation. It is a way to express the uniqueness of the person in a way that contributes to the good of the whole. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, and to economic initiative. The economy must serve people, not the other way around.

7. Stewardship of God's Creation

We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation; indeed, we are "co-creators" of the world we touch. This means that we need to stay in right relation with the physical world. Because of the greater impact that human beings have on the world, we have a special responsibility in our use of material things: the production, transport, sale and disposal of goods must be respectful of ecological systems and the all that depends on those systems. This is not merely do-gooder benevolence to species other than ourselves, it is a requirement for our own survival. We simply cannot live without clean air, clean water and a healthy environment. Our earthly resources are limited; we need to use them in a way that allows regeneration (replacing resources when possible, like growing new trees) and sustainability (using resources prudently so that they will last as long as possible).

Those interested in digging deeper into the rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching can go to the Web site of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.