Ten Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine (Part 1 of 2)

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, considered the Magna Carta of contemporary Catholic political theology, since it was the pioneer Church document regarding social issues. Leo XIII laid the foundations of social doctrine of the Church through his controversial encyclical at a time in which the Industrial Revolution was transforming rural economy and socialist ideals were brewing across the world.

One of the richest treasures of the Catholic Church lies in its social doctrine. Due to the challenges that our society faces today, such as widespread famine, wars, division of classes, irresponsible States, violation of human life, among many other moral issues, it is important to educate all Catholics on what the Church truly teaches about social responsibility. At the same time, as we approach election day, it is imperative for Catholics to understand where the Church stands in the political, economic, and social sphere in order to exercise our right to vote accordingly.

Catholic social doctrine is based primarily on two key concepts proceeding from Scripture:

The Earth and human beings as God’s creation: this doctrine focuses on the vertical relationship between God and His creation (Genesis 1,2).

The Common Good: this teaching is horizontal in nature, since it is concerned with how human beings should relate to one another in a social context based on Jesus’ commandment to love one another (Jn 13:34-35).

Based on these two fundamental principles, Catholic social teaching branches out in ten basic themes:

1. Dignity of the Human Person
2. Common Good and Community
3. Option for the Poor
4. Rights and Responsibilities
5. Role of Government and Subsidiarity
6. Economic Justice
7. Stewardship of God’s Creation
8. Promotion of Peace and Disarmament
9. Participation
10. Global Solidarity and Development

This post will be divided in four parts as we will explore a few themes at a time.

1. Dignity of the Human Person

The dignity of the human person is the foundation and starting point for a moral vision of society, since we know from Scripture that we are made in God’s image (Gn 1:27). Thus, human life is sacred and our primary responsibility as Catholics is to safeguard it and respect it. However, care for life should extend beyond the womb, which means that fundamental human rights such as food, shelter, clothing, employment, health care and education should also be ensured for everyone.

2. Common Good and Community

The human person is sacred, but it is at the same time social. We are not called to live isolated from our neighbors and our dignity can only be achieved in a context of relationships within society. Moreover, these relationships will safeguard the dignity of the human person and encourage community growth as long as society is organized properly in regards to economics, politics, laws, and policies. All of these elements should work together to bring above all the good of the whole society, in other words, to ensure the common good. (Rerum Novarum, 34)

3. Option for the Poor

This theme does not intend to accentuate the division of classes to an even greater degree, but instead to emphasize our responsibility towards the most vulnerable members of society. As citizens we are called to educate ourselves before we vote so we can elect those candidates who will protect those who are more exposed in our society to ever-changing public policies. Same applies to the State: “It lies in the power of a ruler to benefit every class in the State, and amongst the rest to promote to the utmost the interests of the poor.” (Rerum Novarum, 32)

4. Rights and Responsibilities

Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency such as food, shelter, clothing, employment, health care, and education. As Catholics, we have the duty to ensure that these basic rights are true for all members of society. John Paul II challenges us to go beyond our feelings of compassion and take an active part in defending human rights:

“This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38).

At the same time, we have responsibilities towards our families, one another, and to the larger society. These responsibilities extend beyond the boundaries of our homes, neighborhoods, countries, and even cultures and religions, since “we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38).

We exercise our responsibilities towards our fellow citizens and those members of society whose voice cannot be heard by voting for candidates who will promote human dignity and protect human rights.

5. Role of Government and Subsidiarity

The State exists to ensure public order, protect human rights, promote human dignity, and build the common good. To the surprise of many, the Church does not oppose government involvement; in fact, it recognizes the significance of the State’s role in guaranteeing the good of the community. Leo XIII expresses the importance of those who work in service to the public:

“Some there must be who devote themselves to the work of the commonwealth, who make the laws or administer justice, or whose advice and authority govern the nation in times of peace, and defend it in war. Such men clearly occupy the foremost place in the State, and should be held in highest estimation, for their work concerns most nearly and effectively the general interests of the community” (Rerum Novarum, 34).

The Church understands her mission to serve the faithful, and especially to serve the most vulnerable members of society. She does this through various organizations throughout the world. However, the Church acknowledges her limitations in helping to relieve poverty and many other social concerns. In order for poverty to be eradicated and justice to be administered properly, there have to be laws and policies in place. The Church delegates this authority to the State, but does not minimize her role in bringing forth Christ’s truth in social matters:

“The Church uses her efforts not only to enlighten the mind, but to direct by her precepts the life and conduct of each and all; the Church improves and betters the condition of the working man by means of numerous organizations; does her best to enlist the services of all classes in discussing and endeavoring to further in the most practical way, the interests of the working classes; and considers that for this purpose recourse should be had, in due measure and degree, to the intervention of the law and of State authority.” (Rerum Novarum, 16)

The principle of subsidiarity holds that the functions of the government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. If the needs in question cannot be met adequately at the lower level, then it is imperative that higher levels of government intervene.

Suggested Reading

Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII Papal Encyclical

Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI Papal Encyclical

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II Papal Encyclical

Laborem Exercens, John Paul II Papal Encyclical

Pacem in Terris, John XXIII Papal Encyclical

Mater Et Magistra, John XXIII Papal Encyclical

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Gaudium Et Spes, Second Vatican Council

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