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Catholic Social Teaching Principles

Catholic social teaching (CST) is complex and continues to evolve with changing conditions and deepening understandings of faith. However, there are certain principles that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes as foundational.

These principles can be organized into a binder for analyzing any issue and providing an analytical framework for moral instruction and formation of conscience.

Dignity of the Human Person

The fundamental principle of human dignity is the Church’s commitment to uphold the worth of every person and all his or her rights. It is the foundation of the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, unjust war, and many other social questions.

It is also the basis for Catholics’ moral decision-making in a secular society. It sets the standard by which we measure whether a proposed law or government policy protects or detracts from human dignity.

Dignity is an intrinsic property of the human person. It is something that a person gets, not from their behavior or abilities (though these can be factors), but from the fact that they are a person—a unique and irreplaceable gift of God.

This theme is central to Catholic social teaching, and it has been explored in a number of papal and conciliar documents. It has been emphasized in Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, and Centesimus annus, among others. It is the foundation for other Catholic teachings, such as those on family and community. It is the reason why the Church opposes collectivist approaches such as communism and unrestricted laissez-faire policies, but it is also the basis for its teaching on subsidiarity, where larger institutions should not interfere with or overwhelm smaller, local ones unless they are incapable of meeting human needs and protecting dignity. The Church advocates a role for intermediary organizations such as labor unions, charities, and fraternal groups.

Dignity of the Family

The Church teaches that human life begins at conception and ends at natural death, and every person has intrinsic dignity. Actions or circumstances that violate this dignity are immoral. These include abortion, euthanasia, unjust wars, and political or economic systems that treat human beings as mere means rather than as ends in themselves. It is also important to note that family life is a fundamental aspect of human dignity and that the family must be promoted in the social context.

While Catholics may differ on particular policies and politics, they should strive for a consistent ethic of life in their daily lives and in society at large. This can be achieved by incorporating the seven core themes of Catholic social teaching (DST) in their daily lives and by using the principles of DST to evaluate how governments and political or economic systems treat people.

A common theme throughout the encyclicals on DST is that the State is responsible for protecting natural rights, not destroying them. Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum that the “natural rights of man, even if conferred by the State, do not depend on the will of the majority or on any other artificial means”. Another important principle is subsidiarity which states that larger institutions should not dominate or interfere with smaller ones, but that they do have essential responsibilities when the local ones cannot satisfy them (Centesimus Annus). Finally, it is important to recognize the dignity of private property, but only if it is used in a way that promotes the good of all, and does not lead to an idolatrous attachment to the goods of money, power and status.

Dignity of the Church

Catholic social teaching teaches that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, has a unique role in helping to form and sustain a society worthy of human dignity. Rather than offering a ready-made, one-size-fits-all solution to social problems, the Church provides a set of principles, criteria and guidelines, which are intended to be helpful in making prudential judgments about particular situations.

For example, the Church teaches that private ownership is justified only when goods are owned for the benefit of all and not for the benefit of any individual; in other words, when they serve the common good. This teaching is articulated in a number of papal documents, including Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”), Pacem in Terris (“Peace in Our Time”) and Centesimus Annus (“On the Development of Social Doctrine”).

While sharing many of its perspectives with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Catholic social teaching distinguishes itself by grounding human dignity in the foundational belief that every person bears God’s imago Dei (Image of the Father) and has an innate dignity that no one can take away. This distinctive view of human dignity, in turn, shapes all other social teaching principles and is especially evident in the Church’s emphasis on a just and equitable distribution of resources and on the Church’s call to serve the poor.

Dignity of Workers

Throughout history, the Church has emphasized the dignity of work. This concept is rooted in scripture from Genesis through the prophets and the Gospels. Work is seen as a way of glorifying God and part of the creation process. The Church believes that people have an obligation and right to work in order to provide for themselves and their families. They should be able to earn a living wage in an environment that is conducive to their physical and mental health. They should be protected from abuses of the law and able to organize for better working conditions.

The encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and his successors have continued to explore these issues. This is especially true of the teaching on workers’ rights. In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, St. John Paul II addressed this issue and updated the Church’s teaching for our post-industrial world. He also highlighted that the economy is subordinate to the rights of the worker. The Church teaches that the right to private property is limited by the right to the common good in order to promote the dignity of the human person and achieve economic stability.

It is important to understand this concept of the church because it will help you to respond to those who claim that putting people before profits is wrong. They often argue that a booming economy requires efficiency and charity is dependent on the economy.

Dignity of the Poor

Over the centuries, Christians have attempted to take Jesus’ words and example to heart in social settings very different from ancient Palestine. The result has been Catholic social teaching (CST), the official instruction on a range of social issues from Popes and Bishops.

CST provides Catholics with the framework for reflecting on and evaluating society, as well as the Church’s criteria for making prudential judgments about specific situations. It is often communicated through formal teaching documents like encyclicals from the Pope and pastoral letters from Bishops.

In the document Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council called us to address poverty and inequality around the globe. This instruction was based on the enduring teachings of the Church throughout history.

A key part of this teaching is the emphasis on work as an essential form of human dignity. The Church teaches that the right to private property must be subordinated to the right to use goods in common. The Church also teaches that the poor must be treated with dignity. This principle has been incorporated into Catholic social teaching through the principles of the Church’s work on economic justice, especially the document Laborem exercens and its successor Centesimus annus.

The Church also promotes the concept of subsidiarity, which says that groups and organizations at higher levels must support or assist those at lower levels for the sake of the common good. This has been incorporated into the Church’s work on economic and environmental policies through the principle of common good and the ten principles of sustainable development.

Dignity of Life

The most fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is the dignity of the human person. It explains that all people are created in the image of God and have an innate dignity that cannot be taken away. This is true whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, free or imprisoned, powerful or weak.

Because of this, the Church has a clear moral obligation to protect human life from conception to natural death and to build what Pope John Paul II calls a culture of life. This includes a firm commitment to defend the right to life of unborn babies, people with disabilities and the elderly.

In addition, Catholics have a responsibility to support laws that promote the dignity of all people and that ensure that everyone has access to basic goods, such as health care and education. This requires a careful balance between protecting the rights of individuals and preserving the integrity of society.

Often, this balance is difficult to achieve, and prudential judgments must be made in specific situations. This is why people of good will can legitimately disagree about the appropriate level of government intervention to solve a particular social problem. However, Catholic social teaching provides a framework for principled engagement in political life and offers a structure for reflecting on and discerning the Gospel’s call to justice. To learn more about the principles of Catholic social teaching, visit the Office of Justice, Ecology and Peace or Caritas Australia websites.

Mr. Greg

An English teacher from Scotland who made a website to share resources for free with the whole world! Currently based in Hong Kong, teaching in an International Kindergarten and tutoring Primary students.

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