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Catholic Social Teaching is the part of Catholic teaching that addresses matters of social, economic and ecological justice in the world. It is mainly concerned with inter-group or social relationships rather than interpersonal relationships. Like other parts of Church teaching, it is grounded in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. It develops through time by placing these sources in dialogue with the signs of the times.
Catholic Social Teaching operates at both the international and the local level and it has three elements: principles for reflection, criteria for judgement and guidelines for action. It is usually communicated through formal teaching documents like encyclicals by Popes and pastoral letters by Bishops.
Catholic Social Thought is broader than Catholic Social Teaching. It includes the thinking and writing of scholars, practitioners, and movements within the Church rather than being limited to the formal teachings of Popes and Bishops. By living and working out of the Church’s social justice tradition, and offering our reflections and advice based on this experience, all members of the Church can influence the development of the formal teachings. Thus Catholic Social Thought informs the development of Catholic Social Teaching.
There is no single official list of Catholic Social Teaching principles, but instead you will find lots of different lists! Each one is likely to include the four principles that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says are valid always and everywhere. These are: human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.
When choosing which list to use, think about the context and purpose for which it was written. For example, a Bishops’ Conference in Asia might choose to emphasize different principles than a Catholic health care facility in Australia. You can draw on different sources to make your own list suited to your context and purpose.
While Catholic Social Teaching develops in dialogue with changing social realities, some principles have stood the test of time. The four most important principles of Catholic Social Teaching are: human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. These four are permanent or perennial; they are valid always and everywhere. Other principles are sometimes derived from them. Over time we continue to try to understand them more deeply, and sometimes we might express them differently.
Respect for the dignity of the human person is the bedrock of all Catholic social ethics. We believe that each person is created in the image and likeness of God and is endowed with freedom and responsibility. Hence each and every person is willed into existence by God and is of inestimable worth. Each person reveals something of God’s self; there are no spare or disposable people. Furthermore, nothing a person might do or that might be done to them can deprive them of their human dignity. The claims that human dignity makes on others can be understood as human rights. They continue to exist even if they are not respected.
The common good is not the same as net aggregate welfare. It is not enough that those who ‘win’ from a change could compensate ‘losers’. The common good requires that every person and group in society can actually meet their needs and realise their potential. Unless everyone is included, it is not ‘the good of all of us’ as Pope Benedict XVI put it.
Subsidiarity affirms the right of people and groups to participate in decisions that affect them, but there is more to it than that. The element of subsidium – or assistance – from which the principle takes its name, indicates that organisations at a higher level of aggregation have a duty to support or assist those of a lower, or more local order, for the sake of the common good. Thus subsidiarity is about the multi-layered organisation of responsibility among groups at different levels. Participation is an implication of subsidiarity not just another word for subsidiarity (see Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church n 189).
Solidarity is a firm and persevering commitment to the common good. It is not just a vague feeling of compassion. When we exercise solidarity we see other people and groups as sisters and brothers whom we are called to love, care for and stand with. It is not only a matter of recognising our common humanity, but also of accepting and valuing others in their differences from ourselves.
Encyclicals are circular letters from the Popes, and they are formal teaching documents. Some of them are addressed to the Bishops, others to all Catholics, and some are addressed to everyone. The social encyclicals are the ones that are primarily concerned with social, economic or ecological justice.
There is no official list or ‘canon’ of social encyclicals. None the less scholars agree to a significant extent about which social encyclicals are the most important. In fact, some of the most important international Catholic Social Teaching documents aren’t social encyclicals. Some are Apostolic Exhortations (documents from the Pope that encourage – or exhort – us to do something), Letters or Synod documents. You can find links to major Catholic Social Teaching documents of the modern period here.
We will continue to add more Catholic Social Teaching FAQs over time, so please visit again.