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Basic Principles of Catholic Social Teaching
Copyright © 2011 Deacon Dan Gannon
Introduction The Church’s primary mission is to help man on the path of salvation.[i] The Church’s social teaching is, “an integral part of her evangelizing ministry”[ii], and is theological in nature – viz. “aimed at guiding people’s behavior”.[iii] Thus, the Church’s social doctrine is integral to the life of the Church and her mission. Key principles of the Church’s social doctrine include her evangelization and teaching regarding: the dignity and right to life of the human person – as revealed by God via Divine Revelation, the centrality and preeminence of the family to society, man’s fundamental freedom, the right to labor, just wages and working conditions, the right to own private property in service to the common good, the democratic government model and the right to freedom of religion and to form associations. We will briefly review these basic principles in the context of the Compendium and other Church documents, elucidating their importance in our duty as Catholics to witness Christ’s love in society.
The Dignity and Nature of Man in the Image of God – Sources of Social Doctrine The Church’s sacred sources are the origin of her principles on social thought – Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as interpreted and promulgated by the Magisterium.[iv] Scriptural principles are innumerable, but certainly exhort us to respect life,[v] provide for the hungry, the homeless, the naked, widows, and orphans; to give to “Caesar” what is his and to God what is God’s; to love one’s neighbor and enemies and forgive others; the laborer deserves his wages; and the rich receive the Lord’s warning of “woe”.[vi] The Magisterium thus proclaims the Gospel and also identifies and interprets natural law principles, such as the right to life, family and its connection to the right to just wages and private property – in expounding its social doctrine.[vii] Marriage, family and private property rights find their origins in the very nature of man; the right to labor and a just wage flow directly from this as well.[viii] Pope Leo XIII thus states that private property ownership is essential for the well-being of individuals and the family: “Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.”[ix] This right does have its limitations, however.[x] Central to the Church’s thesis here, is the “whole man – not a detached soul or a being closed within its own individuality, but a person and a society of persons – is involved in the salvific economy of the Gospel.”[xi] The People of God’s faith must manifest itself in works (cf. Jas 2:18-26) – corporal works of justice in the social context, in addition to spiritual works. This is why the Church’s social teaching is connected to the sacred sources, natural law and the life of virtue through following Christ and obeying His New Law of love.[xii] Touching for a moment on the right to life, it is important to note that, while much focus on “social justice” teaching of the Church is exemplified in Rerum Novarum and its progeny (labor, employment, discrimination, rich and poor, property rights, errors of socialism, etc.), the right to life is itself a most grave and pressing social issue, as Evangelium Vitae strongly teaches.[xiii] If society cannot respect life in its most vulnerable stages of beginning and end – how can one build a social framework of justice in labor, wages, property and freedom? Thus, abortion, euthanasia and other artificial means of reproduction (e.g. in vitro, cloning, etc.) must be identified here as absolutely repugnant to the dignity of the human person and require the Church’s continuing, urgent work of evangelization for life.[xiv]
Toward Justice in Labor and Capital Rerum Novarum marked out a new path for the Church in its addressing issues regarding respective duties of laborers, employers, government authority and the questions of private property, the poor and the common good.[xv] The document was ground-breaking because Pope Leo XIII explicitly set out the Church’s teaching on these important social issues, applying the principles that we set out in the above section. The Compendium summarizes and affirms Rerum Novarum as seminal to Church teaching on social issues, as did Pius XI (Quadragesimo Anno) and subsequent pontiffs, especially John XXIII and John Paul II (Centesimus Annus). With the radical changes of the Industrial Revolution, many social problems arose – depriving workers of their rights and dignity – unjustly low wages, terrible working conditions and the inability to practice their religion.[xvi] As noted earlier, the Church teaches that man’s rights (and duties) regarding labor, just wages, favorable working conditions and religious freedom -- flow from his very nature and from God’s Law.[xvii] Not only is man to be given his due in labor, the Church notes both the necessity and the personal nature of labor. It is necessary for self-preservation; it is personal, because man shares in God’s image through being a worker, a creator of something new, which is “bound up” with the “impress of his personality”.[xviii] Thus, no private or public entity may violate these rights. Rather, capital and labor as well as the State and its citizens are mutually dependent upon one another and must collaborate for the common good. In this vein, the Church also commends intermediate associations and unions, which enhance dialogue and collaboration between workers and employers.[xix] Pope John Paul II cites Poland’s solidarity movement as a paradigm of peaceful, yet forceful change for human and workers’ rights.[xx] Socialism and communism are “utterly rejected” as “intrinsically perverse” as remedies to social ills.[xxi] At the other end of the spectrum, liberalism is rejected as it allows unrestrained competition between economic forces. John Paul II cautions capitalism on a similar note – viz. while socialism and communism cause injustice via oppression, unbridled capitalism can cause injustice via consumerism, which emphasizes “having over being”.[xxii] Government’s sole purpose is to preserve the safety of the commonwealth and, “to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, shall … realize public well being and private prosperity.”[xxiii] It seems critical that a major protection from an overly-intrusive State, leading to socialism and communism -- is the recognition of private property.[xxiv] The principle of subsidiarity is strongly supported by the Church in the case of appropriate State intervention, which says the State should not impose its controls beyond what can be handled by individuals and intermediate associations.[xxv] That being said, the Church also recognizes the State must step in to ensure the needs of all are met – viz. the poor and wealthy alike. Pope Leo calls this justice “distributive – toward each and every class alike.”[xxvi] There are many additional principles of Catholic social teaching, but these highlight a few of them.
Varying Emphasis in Social Doctrine Documents published by the United States Bishops tend to emphasize the injustice of racism as vitally important, as they issued a specific document on Racism in 1979.[xxvii] Racism is identified as a “radical evil that divides the human family”.[xxviii] Clearly, racism is contrary to the dignity of the human person and radically opposed to love of neighbor, as Christ commanded (cf. Jn 15:17). The document then goes on to illustrate racism by noting the disproportionate number of minorities in various associations and corporations, advocating affirmative action as an appropriate remedy, along with a call to personal conversion.[xxix] However, the U.S. bishops’ document on social teaching sets out very briefly and generally the same themes as the Compendium, but gives most attention to caring for the environment – which is puzzling, indeed.[xxx] The main emphasis of the document is to incite more awareness and action regarding social issues. Most of this paper has focused on papal encyclicals and the Compendium to briefly highlight the “social Magisterium” of the Church. The Compendium’s emphasis is quite different from the U.S. bishops – the endeavor (of Ch. 2) is twofold: a) to set out the authentic origins of Catholic social doctrine in the sacred sources, natural law and the mission to evangelize; b) to summarize the ordinary magisterial social teaching by citing authoritative papal documents, including those cited in this paper.[xxxi] The U.S. bishops very sparsely cited papal documents.[xxxii]
The Church’s social doctrine stems, “not from theoretical motivation, but by pastoral concerns.”[xxxiii] With Leo XIII, we must recall that, “first of all, there are the interests of the soul. Life on earth, however good and desirable in itself, is not the final purpose for which man is created; it is only the ways and means,” to eternal life.[xxxiv] This only underscores man’s eternal value and dignity, which is the core, guiding principle of the Church’s social teaching. Any question or issue in the social arena can be correctly addressed in light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.[xxxv] Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them (as their God). He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away." The one who sat on the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new." (Rev 21:1-5)
[i] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (CA), 54: AAS 83 (1991), 860.
[ii] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Compendium), (2004), n. 66.
[iii] Compendium, n. 73, citing, John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 41: AAS 80 (1988), 572.; Cf. Compendium, n. 73. Regarding the theological nature of the Church’s social doctrine, it is, “specifically theological-moral, since it is a doctrine aimed at guiding people’s behavior.”
[iv] Cf. New Catholic Encyclopedia (NCE), Social Thought, Catholic, p. 247. Specifically, the social teachings of the Church proceed from the ordinary Magisterium -- which requires the assent of all Catholics. Cf. CA, n.3, “The treasure is the great outpouring of the Church’s Tradition, which contains “what is old”… and which enables us to interpret the ‘new things’… spurred on by the social Magisterium…”; Cf. Compendium, n. 74-5 “The Church’s social doctrine finds its essential foundation in biblical revelation and in the tradition of the Church…faith and reason represent the two cognitive paths of the Church’s social doctrine: Revelation and human nature.”
[v] Cf. See next paragraph, where I provide a special mention of the significance of the right to life as being, in essence, the ultimate social doctrine of our day.
[vi] Cf. Law of Moses exhorts the, “releasing of those bound unjustly… sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and homeless, clothing the naked.” (Is 58:5-7); the poor, widows and orphans (Cf. Dt 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:19-21; 26:12-13, etc.); “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mk 12:17); “But I say to you: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Mt 5:43-44); “This I command you: to love one another” (Jn 15:17); “Woe to you rich!” (Lk 6:24); “The laborer deserves his wages.” (Lk 10:17; Cf. 1 Tim 5:18); “If any man will not work, neither let him eat.” (2 Thes 3:10); “there is neither slave nor freeman” among the baptized (Gal 3:28; Cf. Col 3:11).
[vii] NCE. Cf. p. 248 “…the natural moral law is one, universal, invariable and immutable and …the Catholic Church is its official custodian and interpreter.”; Cf. Leo XIII Encyclical Letter, Rerum Novarum (RN), n.12. No State may abolish the right to marriage and rearing a family, as Pope Leo XIII states: “No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage… consequently, [the family] has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.” Thus, the head of the family must provide for the needs of his dependents. Such obligations are intrinsic to the very nature of man, according to Pope Leo.
[viii] Cf. RN, n.9 “Private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature … [when man labors] toward procuring the fruits of nature…that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own…”
[x] Cf. CA, n. 30, NOTE: it is important to qualify the Church’s teaching on private property, using John Paul II’s own words. In reference to Leo XIII, he states, “While the Pope proclaimed the right to private ownership, he affirmed with equal clarity that the “use” of goods, while marked by freedom, is subordinated to their original common destinations created goods, as well as to the will of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Gospel.” John Paul II continues: “The successors of Leo XIII have repeated this twofold affirmation: the necessity and therefore the legitimacy of private ownership, as well as the limits which are imposed on it.” Cf. RN, n.22, which expounds on those limits – “it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.” Significantly, he adds, “it is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law.”
[xi] Compendium, n. 65. Notice the connection between family life and the social issues of wages and labor. If man is to serve God and grow spiritually, he must have a solid foundation in his practical life to sustain body and soul.
[xii] The Compendium emphasizes this connectedness of social doctrine to the Church’s mission of evangelization.
[xiii] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Evangelium Vitae (EV), n. 3-4 “Today this proclamation is especially pressing because of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenseless.”
[xiv] EV, n. 64, 65 – where John Paul II condemns abortion and euthanasia as gravely evil.
[xv] Cf. Compendium, n. 87.
[xvi] Cf. Compendium, n. 89 Summarizing these principles“… the right to property, the principle of collaboration instead of class struggle as the fundamental means for social change, the rights of the weak, the dignity of the poor and the obligations of the rich, the perfecting of justice through charity, on the right to form professional associations.”
[xvii] Cf. RN, n.10 “Is it just that the fruit of a man’s own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by anyone else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.”; Cf. RN, n. 13 We see the connection again of man’s labor and wage rights to his fundamental duty to family: “It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten…the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty.”
[xviii] RN, n. 9.
[xix] Cf. Compendium, n. 91, citing, Pius XI Encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (QA), “warns about the failure to respect the freedom to form associations and stresses the principles of solidarity and cooperation in order to overcome social contradictions.”
[xx] Cf. CA, n. 23. The fall of the oppressive government “by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice.” He goes on to contrast this to Marxism, which advocates violent confrontation for change.
[xxi] Cf. RN, n. 15 “It is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind …”; Cf. Compendium, citing Pius XI who described communism as “intrinsically perverse”.; Cf. QA, n. 120 “…no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”
[xxii] Cf. CA, n. 34-6 “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being’..”.; Cf. CA, n. 40 “Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms…a person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying … cannot be free.”
[xxiii] RN, n. 32; Cf. RN, n. 35 “The safety of the commonwealth is not only the first law, but it is a government’s whole reason of existence…”
[xxiv] Cf. RN, n. 46 “We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved, save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”
[xxv] Cf. QA, n. 78 “The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance…” In a related matter, the Church also calls for moderation in taxes.
[xxvi] RN, n. 33.
[xxvii] Cf. U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on Racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us (Brothers), (1979).
[xxviii] Brothers, p. 4.
[xxix] Cf. Brothers, p. 4. Bishops take issue with those who think, “too much is being given to racial minorities by way of affirmative action programs” but that such people merely “reflect the desire to maintain the status quo that favors one race”. This reasoning is conclusory, at best, for one may oppose the moral probity of affirmative action without desiring any race to be deprived of rights or opportunities. The U.S. Bishops offer no argument in support of affirmative action and their repeated examples of cultural plights of minority races in America – except to suggest that there is great moral value in creating a society where “distributive justice” means achieving literal equality in the form of quotas.
[xxx] Cf. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions, (1995). This document identifies major themes as: life and the dignity of the human person; the preeminence of the family; divisions between rich and poor; and solidarity. Peculiarly, the longest among these sections is the section on the need to care for the environment. The latter has become a great spectacle of moral diversion from the major life issues facing society today, and dissipates the appropriate magnitude and attention that must be given to counter the culture of death and promote other, more urgent moral issues.
[xxxi] Cf. Compendium, n. 60-86 (origins and nature of social doctrine) and n. 87-104 (overview of papal documents and actions regarding social issues)
[xxxii] The difference in methodology of the USCCB compared to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is striking. The difference in emphasis is also noteworthy. In fairness to the U.S. bishops, racism has been and still continues to be (though progress has been made) an important and fundamental moral issue. America has certainly carried the banner against racism and has raised awareness to this issue. While the bishops were certainly right on with their basic tenet that racism is evil and contrary to the Gospel, many inferences made regarding remedial action were not adequately supported, in my view (e.g. affirmative action).
[xxxiii] Compendium, n. 104.
[xxxiv] RN, n. 40.
[xxxv] Cf. CA, n. 53 John Paul II states that man “is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission … the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption. This and this alone, is the principle which inspires the Church’s social doctrine.”
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Centesimus Annus. 1991.
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Evangelium Vitae. 1995.
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. 1987.
Leo XIII Encyclical Letter, Rerum Novarum. 1891.
New Catholic Encyclopedia, Social Thought, Catholic. 2002.
Pius XI Encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. 1931.
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. 2004.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on Racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us. 1979.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Reflections of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions. 1995.…...