At the heart of the Church’s social teaching there are two essential insights into the nature of the human person and of his or her social behaviour. First, there is the sexual doctrine of the Church which arises from the radical claim that our bodies are not our own. Then, there is the economic doctrine of the Church which makes the equally radical claim that our goods are not our own.
Almost everyone finds it really difficult to accept one or the other of these principles, and if we look at contemporary politics, at least in the West, we find ourselves in a distorted world where truth is pitted against truth. We are encouraged to believe that we must reject one of these two basic principles in order to embrace the other.
So on the Left, we tend to find find people proclaiming a disordered degree of autonomy over the body. On the Right, we tend to find people demanding a disordered degree of autonomy for the market. And even if you’re the kind of person who is able to accept both, there’s still a lot of pressure within society to fall into one camp or the other. And so we get this perverse situation where the term “social justice” becomes a slur within the pro-life movement, and where those who are pro-life become anathema within social justice circles.
And we see this reflected, especially, in the way that people have responded to the last two popes – not just in the secular world, but in the Catholic world as well. Benedict was perceived as being pro-life, and a lot of Catholics don’t realize that he was also very strongly pro social justice. His social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is possibly one of the most brilliant things ever written on the subject…and it was largely ignored because it didn’t push the image of Benedict as a conservative crusader. (Full disclosure: it is also my favourite Vatican document). Francis, on the other hand, is perceived as a champion of the poor…and his pro-life positions are routinely under-reported. But if you actually read the social encyclicals of the Church you find that there is a remarkable continuity, not only between Popes but also between the sexual and the social teachings.
So today we are going to look at the roots of Catholic social teaching, particularly as it has been expressed for the present age. So that means we’re drawing primarily on the Catechism, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the writings of the past three popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
We begin in the Beginning. If you look at the Compendium of the Social Doctrine there’s an entire section that is basically just a condensed version of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. But instead of exploring the implications of our original state, and of the fall, on sexual ethics we go in a different direction: we look at those exact same truths about the human person and we look at how they apply to the economic sphere and to relations within society.
So what are those primordial truths?
First, that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. That we each bear that image in a unique and unrepeatable way. This means that the human person is willed by God, loved into being, for his or her own sake. And it means also that there is a fundamental equality between all human beings. So the very first and most foundational premise of Catholic social teaching is that we are to love our neighbour – every neighbour, including our enemies – as another self and we are to love them as ourselves.
Second, that the God in whose image we are made is not unitary. God is not an isolated, self-sufficient individual. God is a trinity: a unity of three persons who are joined so profoundly that they are one in being. From this, we see that “it is not good that man should be alone.” We are made for one another, for communion. And it’s at this point that the social doctrine turns in a different direction from the sexual teaching: the reflections of Theology of the Body concentrate primarily on the way in which this calling to communion manifests itself in sexual love, the love between a man and a woman. But the social doctrine of the Church calls us to realize that this exact same paradigm drives all human relations – and therefore it defines the social dimension of our humanity.
Third, that we are made through a radical gift of God, in order to be a radical gift for others: for God, for other people, and for the earth as well. And if you think that sounds flaky, that’s actually right there in Theology of the Body. Everything that we have and everything that we are is given to us gratuitously, as a fruit of God’s generosity. The Catechism is pretty inclusive about this: not only are our material goods and our bodies a gift from God, but so are our talents, our abilities, and even our virtues. I’m just gonna read you one of my favourite quotes here from the Catechism – it’s taken from Catherine of Sienna’s conversations with God:
“I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others. .. I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one. .. And so I have given many gifts and graces, both spiritual and temporal, with such diversity that I have not given everything to one single person, so that you may be constrained to practice charity towards one another. .. I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me.”
From this truth we arrive at three principles which form the bedrock of Catholic social thought:
1. The inalienable dignity of the human person
2. The principle of solidarity
3. The universal destination of goods.
Alright. So we’re going to expand on these three principles and talk about some of the conclusions that follow from them. First, the Dignity of the person.
The obvious, immediate conclusion that we derive from the inalienable dignity of the person is of course the right to life. Each unique human being is supposed to be given a chance, if at all possible, to be born, to grow, to develop, and to pursue what the Church calls “authentic, integral human development.” What does that mean? It means that it’s not enough to simply ensure that people are born. Human beings have fundamental and inalienable rights which flow from our inherent dignity.
What are those rights? So we have a couple of lists. John Paul II’s includes the right to life from the moment of conception, the right to a united family and a proper moral environment in childhood, the right work, the right to receive a living wage for oneself and one’s family through work, the right to have a family in the first place and to raise children. And religious freedom.
So Joh Paul is focusing here on the moral and spiritual rights that people have. Gaudium et Spes gives a list of more concrete material rights:
“food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom.”
The Vatican is quite clear that the development of the notion of human rights is a very good thing – that these rights derive from our relationship with the Creator so they are not merely a positive kind of law. That means, we don’t just assert rights; those rights are proper to our identity as children of God. And the Church is equally clear that the validity of human rights binds us to certain obligations. Specifically, we have an obligation to make sure to the best of our ability that the rights of others are respected and that they are enabled not only to live, but also to live in a way that affords them the opportunity for a dignified life.
So that means that we are supposed to make sure, as much as we are able, that people enjoy the conditions necessary to use their talents, to grow as individuals, to express their creativity, and to pursue their vocations. We are to build, in the words of Paul VI, “a human community where men can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily.” And in particular we’re supposed to encourage a society in which people are enabled to work to the best of their ability, to work in safe conditions, to have recourse to legal protections in the workforce, to form trade unions and to receive a living wage for their work.
Finally, the inherent dignity of the individual leads to the principle of subsidiarity. This basically means that higher levels of authority should always serve to empower those below them, and should avoid unnecessary impositions, interventions or mechanisms of control. The full use of each individual’s creative potential demands that we actually allow people to operate creatively, as individuals, and that we leave a lot of breadth for the exercise of freedom. Reasonable regulations – consumer protections, for example – are definitely necessary; the Church is clear on that. But unless there is some kind of real risk to the common good, we are not supposed to micromanage those who happen to be below us on the totem pole.
Second, the principle of solidarity.
This is where we get into the idea that we have a responsibility towards other people – and not just towards those who share our national or cultural identity, but towards the whole human race. This is a point that gets made over and over and over again in the social encyclicals. Most of the time it’s made in reference to relations between states: how are governments supposed to secure peace? How do wealthy countries avoid exploitation and contribute to the development of poorer countries? How do we provide for the needs of those who John Paul II referred to as the “fourth world,” that is people like migrants, the elderly, the chronically unemployed or homeless people who may inhabit a wealthy country but who are excluded from the advantages, and sometimes even the juridical protections that most citizens enjoy?
And the Church is quite clear that we all play a role in trying to secure the rights of the vulnerable and marginalized. There is no toleration in Catholic thought for the idea that systemic evils can exist independently, without individual humans making evil choices. And conversely, this means that we are all responsible for building up systems of virtue – that is, by our actions and our choices we make it easier for other people to live dignified and worthy lives.
What are some of these choices? They are wide ranging. Benedict XVI makes the very astute observation that we are called to promote the common good to the degree that we wield influence within society. I want to dwell on this point for a moment, because it happens to have been revolutionary in my own life. I used to do that thing that many idealistic people do where you sit around and you develop these lofty theories about how to fix various problems in the world. And then maybe you hop on-line and argue with other people about how your solutions should be enacted. Or maybe you just sit around being mad about the state of the world, thinking that you have the answers.
But what Benedict taught me is that I have a particular sphere of influence, and I will do a lot more good by acting within that sphere than by pontificating about how other people with more influence ought to be behave.
So given that so much of the contemporary Church’s social doctrine deals with high level problems – with the behaviour of nations, and governments, and corporations – and given that most of us are just people going through our lives, how do we serve the common good in a concrete way?
Paul VI suggests that the rich especially have an obligation to consider the poor, not only in direct giving or supporting charities, but also in consumer decisions and through taxes: “Is he prepared to support, at his own expense, projects and undertakings designed to help the needy? Is he prepared to pay higher taxes so that public authorities may expand their efforts in the work of development? Is he prepared to pay more for imported goods, so that the foreign producer may make a fairer profit? Is he prepared to emigrate from his homeland if necessary and if he is young, in order to help the emerging nations?”
We are called to engage in charity towards others, and this charity takes two different forms: first there is private charity. We often think of the corporal works of mercy – and of course, when Christ describes the Last Judgment His description centres on exactly these works. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Caring for the sick. Visiting the imprisoned. These personal works of mercy form the core of our Gospel calling and the words of Christ are frankly terrifying when He talks about those who do not perform them. You can be a prophet. A priest. You can cast out demons in His name. But if you do not serve Him in the poor, the marginalized, the stranger, the outcast, then He will say “depart from me, I do not know you.” So that’s kind of scary.
But private charity is not the whole of our calling to care for the least of these in society. We are also supposed to use our influence – whether that is our vote, or our voice, or some more direct form of political involvement – to advocate for policies that uphold the dignity of all people and that provide protection for the poor and the vulnerable. “This,” Benedict tells us, “is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis.”
I’d like to belabour this point a little, because there is a fairly widespread error that a lot of Catholics seem to have been taught, and this is the error of thinking that government is basically just evil and corrupt and that there is only merit in private charity. The teaching of the Church is actually pretty clear on the essential goodness of government. The organization of human beings into political bodies is seen as natural, and obviously you have to have legitimate authorities ruling over political bodies.
Now, for an authority to be legitimate, that does not mean that it is perfect. Or even that the politicians involved in administrating it are good, worthy and upright people. If we look at the story where Jesus is asked about taxation, what does He do? He takes a coin and He asks whose head is one it, and He says, “Render unto Caesar.” So those of you who don’t know your Roman history may be unaware that Caesar at the time was Tiberius – this is the guy after Augustus and before Caligula. And he was not exactly an exemplar of great government or personal virtue. Basically he ran off to Capris and indulged himself in all kinds of debauchery while leaving the government of the state to the head of the Praetorian guard, a bloodthirsty, ambitious police-state type of character named Sejanus. Rome at the time not only permitted abortion but also infanticide, and physician assisted suicide was an option not only for extreme end-of-life situations, but also as a cure for problems like political disgrace. Rome was an aggressive Imperial oppressor who overtaxed the Judean poor and even sometimes took their land and their possessions by force and gave it to their soldiers so that they wouldn’t have to dip into the state coffers to cover their mustering out pay. During this period the Roman army engaged in brutal border raids against the Germanic tribes, putting women and children to the sword. Tiberius was not a poster child for good, upright government. And yet Christ told the people of occupied Roman Jerusalem to pay their taxes.
So while particular governments may be corrupt, that’s an abuse and it’s not how we’re supposed to see government in general. I’ll draw an anology. Let’s say that a particular child is raised by abusive parents. They might think that it is absolutely wrong to protect the rights of parents. They might even think that children would be better off without parents, raised by some sort of collective. But this is because their experience of parenthood is abusive, not because parenthood itself is a bad thing.
But there’s another thing that also happens, usually with teenagers, where someone who has normal, imperfect but ultimately loving parents, thinks that their parents are horrible and that being subject to a parent is a kind of intolerable imposition on their freedom. I used to run a homeless shelter, and we once had a girl come to stay with us who had that kind of an attitude. She went back home within a week.
So, there’s an analogy here to the way that we relate to our governments – and it’s an apt analogy. There’s a reason why our responsibilities as citizens are covered in the chapter of the Catechism that deals with the fourth commandment “Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother.” Some people believe that government is inherently abusive because they have actually suffered abusive treatment at the hands of their government. Others think that government is inherently abusive because they have an overweaning and disordered notion of their own individual autonomy and they see the legitimate demands of government – just laws or just taxation – as an unreasonable imposition on their freedom.
Solidarity demands that we form organized societies, and that use the institutional structures of those societies to seek the common good: the good of individuals, the good of families, the good of communities, the good of nations, and the good of all humanity. I would add that all three recent Popes have specifically spoken of the need for international regulatory bodies to deal with the problems of international exploitation, inequalities between nations, and threats to peace. I gotta say that came as something of a shock to me the first time that I read Caritas in Veritate, because at the time I was a small government libertarian and I thought that the UN was basically evil and that any kind of world government was necessarily a threat to national sovereignty and therefore contrary to the principle of solidarity. So Benedict scandalized me, but in a good way.
Alright, so now lets talk about the Universal Destination of Goods
Possibly the most common error that I encounter in on-line discussions about Catholic Social teaching is the belief that the Church teaches that the right to private property is absolute. I’m not sure who is responsible for spreading this idea. But it’s definitely widespread enough that I would almost say there is a crisis of catechesis surrounding the Church’s social teaching, similar to the crisis of catechesis surrounding the sexual teaching in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae.
For some people this will be super controversial, so I’m just going to quote from the Vatican:
“The universal right to use the goods of the earth is based on the principle of the universal destination of goods. Each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development. The right to the common use of goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order”  and “the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine”. For this reason the Church feels bound in duty to specify the nature and characteristics of this principle. It is first of all a natural right, inscribed in human nature and not merely a positive right connected with changing historical circumstances; moreover it is an “inherent”  right. It is innate in individual persons, in every person, and has priority with regard to any human intervention concerning goods, to any legal system concerning the same, to any economic or social system or method: “All other rights, whatever they are, including property rights and the right of free trade must be subordinated to this norm [the universal destination of goods]; they must not hinder it, but must rather expedite its application. It must be considered a serious and urgent social obligation to refer these rights to their original purpose”.
If it is true that everyone is born with the right to use the goods of the earth, it is likewise true that, in order to ensure that this right is exercised in an equitable and orderly fashion, regulated interventions are necessary, interventions that are the result of national and international agreements, and a juridical order that adjudicates and specifies the exercise of this right.”
Okay. So the Church is not opposed to private property, obviously. But she doesn’t see the right to private property as an inalienble right. What do I mean by that? I mean that private property is seen by the Church as a necessary accommodation to the realities that human beings face following the Fall. In Eden there would not have been private property because there was no need for it. It’s an idea that arises out of the need to deal with the fact that fallen humans compete for goods. But in the Beginning it was not so. In the Beginning, all of the trees of the garden were completely open to anyone who wanted to eat from them…except of course for one.
So the Church sees the universal destination of goods as primordial, and although private property rights are good they are always to be seen as subordinate to this higher principle, that the goods of the earth are a gift for everyone.
One of the most challenging consequences of this is the idea that the things we own are not exactly ours. They are given to us in trust, and we are supposed to employ them, care for them, and invest them for the common good.
Another consequence is that we are not obligated to care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, the dispossessed, the stranger, the oppressed, widows, orphans, and others in need as a manifestation of charity – but as a manifestation of justice. This principle is so important that the Catechism actually repeats it three times in a row. We know from the Scripture that if something is repeated three times, that’s an indication that you’d better wake up and pay attention: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”239 “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”240 When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.241”
The Catecism also points out that going back to the earliest Biblical forms of government, there were juridical traditions that favoured justice for the poor. So if we read about the laws in the Old Testament, you were required by law to pay tithes that provided for the needs of widows and orphans. You were required to show hospitality to strangers. You weren’t allowed to be completely thorough in harvesting your fields, and you had to allow the poor to come in and glean what was left after the harvesters had done their work. And these were very definitely laws – they were compulsory. This was a theocracy, and there were penalties for breaking the Mosaic code.
The universal destination of goods also requires us to understand that the goods of the earth are not just for everyone right now, they are also for future generations. Pope Francis devoted most an encyclical, Laudato Si, to the question of preserving our ecological inheritance, but he is hardly the first pope to address this problem. It’s an issue that comes up again and again in papal writings, with increasing urgency over the last fifty years.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI actually draw a direct link between environmental justice and what they call the “human ecology.” Both deeply oppose the separation between human goods and the preservation of the natural world. Benedict has a lovely passage in Caritas in Veritate where he talks about how we have the same error – the error of trying to secure a technological autonomy from God’s creative authority – played out in both the personal and economic spheres. That on the one hand we have people who recognize the need to submit their bodies to God’s design – in the demands of chastity – but who see no need to secure respect for the gift of the earth, and on the other hand we have those who wish to protect the earth as a sacred trust – but also wish to treat the body as an object, an absolute possession that we can employ as we will. For Benedict there can be no opposition between ecological concern for the created world and concern for the nature of the human person because both flow from our obligations to God as the creator of both the natural world and of our bodies. And from the recognition that we are given both this world, and ourselves, as a gift, in trust, to be used to glorify God and to serve Him in the bodies and the souls of our neighbours.
So, this is essentially a super basic primer. I’ve tried to hit on some of the most essential elements that underwrite the social teaching of the Church – but I really encourage you to go and actually read some of the documents. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is available for free at vatican.va, and it’s a reasonably short read. Plus it has the advantage of being the Vatican’s own condensed version of the teaching. Obviously if you go anywhere else, including to me, you’re going to get some degree of bias in what aspects of the teaching are emphasized, but the Compendium really does a great job of boiling down a huge body of teaching into a balanced and reasonably accessible documents. And obviously I’m gonna plug Caritas in Veritate, because I’m a total fangirl. Benedict can be a little steep, and he’s definitely a very abstract thinker, but if you sit down with it and give it the time and attention it deserves that document is really just so sophisticated and insightful.
Finally, if you’re interested in my opinions on this stuff, or on other things like, say, weird horror fiction, I will have books for sale after I take your questions.
EDIT: I forgot to mention that I wrote a book about this stuff called ‘Slave of Two Masters‘ a number of years ago that you can read pieces of on this blog here:
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