Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic World Mission exists to carry on and further the work of Jesus Christ in our world today. As such, it joyfully embraces the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC). We find that teaching in the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine published in 2004, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the many encyclical letters of popes beginning from Pope Leo XIII in 1891 (Rerum Novarum) all the way to Pope Francis today.

Catholic social teaching offers rich insights from the human and spiritual experience of the world’s largest and longest-standing institution. The Church’s teaching on social matters is a fundamental aspect of the Catholic faith, calling all God’s children to a covenant of justice and love. The life, teachings, and words of Jesus Christ are the foundation for the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC), and the teaching authority he gave to his apostles has led the Church to clarify and propose aspects of Jesus’s teachings applicable to modern social realities.

To understand Catholic social teaching, it is important to clarify what we mean by the term. Let’s start by saying what the Social Doctrine of the Church is not:

  • It is not a political platform. It transcends and should inform political positions.
  • It is not a comprehensive collection of what the Church has to say on social issues.
  • It is not a simplistic recipe that the Church has developed to solve social ills.
  • It is not a one stop shop for Catholics involved in politics or social issues to search on an issue and find what a Catholic should necessarily think about the United States’ security on its southern border, or about tax reform, or any other societal issue.
  • It doesn’t offer one-size-fits-all, concrete solutions.

Now that could sound disconcerting! If it doesn’t offer answers, then what does it offer? The elements of each country, place, social situation, time, causes, and conditions are so varied that the Church does not attempt a readymade, universal solution for all. Rather, the Social Doctrine of the Church is a set of principles, criteria, and guidelines with an eye to forming and sustaining a society worthy of the human person. It requires virtuous and wise people to apply those principles to real-life situations.

So let’s look at each element in this dense definition.

  • Firstly, it is doctrine. It forms part of the body of teachings of the Catholic Church, rooted in divine revelation in Scripture. The content stems from Jesus Christ and what he taught through his words and actions, which the Church has meditated on, matured, and communicated over the centuries. Tremendous wisdom and experience of millennia are condensed in its content.
  • Secondly, this Social Doctrine has statements of varying levels. (a) Principles inform our baseline thinking about social matters, and include human dignity, common good, the universal destination of goods, subsidiarity, participation, and solidarity. (b) Criteria for judgement help us apply principles to concrete cases; some criteria include justice and observance of just laws, commitment to the common good, primacy of the family over every other community and the State, respect of human rights, exercise of the right to resistance, employment of ethical and not merely economic considerations in decision-making, use of Christian anthropology, and authenticity.  (c) Guidelines for action. The Church, in her social doctrine at times urges concrete actions to improve an area of social concern. St John Paul II’s proposal to forgive international debt of the world’s poorer countries during the Jubilee Year 2000 is an example of a guideline for action.
  • Thirdly, this body of teachings aims to improve human society by shaping our interactions and structures to be more just, human, and respectful.

It is our hope that through these blog posts, Catholic World Mission can open the treasure of the Church’s social doctrine and equip you for prudent decision making and wise leadership. We will also highlight concrete ways in which Catholic World Mission is putting into practice these wise principles, to make our world a better place.

We will start by looking at the precursor – human dignity – and then the five principles of Catholic social teaching: Common good, universal destination of goods, subsidiarity, participation, and solidarity.

Human Dignity

Underlying the entirety of the Catholic Church’s social teaching is a presupposition: Human dignity. This foundational truth is that each living human person exists and has an inherent dignity to be respected. This dignity precedes any activity, and it does not diminish because of bad behavior.

The universal human experience is that I exist and have feelings, emotions, and needs worthy of attention. In normal maturation, we soon after discover there are other people around us in our families, neighborhoods, and in society. These persons have an inherent value, equal to mine. The source of that dignity is not given by me, but by their creator, and discovered by me. Not only should I respect the other person, but public authorities and society at large should respect them and their inalienable rights. From a legal perspective, the United States Declaration of Independence rightly recognizes these God-given rights as “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

If we dig a little deeper into human dignity and how we understand it, we find two senses of the term. First, human dignity in the subjective sense is based on what a person values. I, the subject, am a person and so I possess self-worth and value myself. I can also value other persons close to me, who provide a service or entail a special relationship. For example, a person may be my mother and so for me, they have a special dignity and worth.

Beyond the subjective sense of the term there is also an objective sense of the term human dignity. This is the value that flows from a persons’ identity. At the most basic level, this dignity stems from being human “in the image of God.” I have dignity by the mere fact that I am a human person and belong to the human race. This is the most fundamental sense of human dignity and the sense from which other meanings of the term flow and generally the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and the Social Doctrine of the Church use it when speaking of human dignity. The objective sense of human dignity can secondarily stem from a person’s role in society (president, police officer, educator), or achievements (sports champ, war hero), or even your belonging to a race or group.

What then is the source/origin of human dignity? The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1934 points out four sources:

  • We are created in God’s image.
  • We have a spiritual and rational soul which gives us ontological dignity.
  • We have been redeemed by Christ’s blood.
  • We have immortal souls destined for eternity (heaven) and thus humans have eternal value.

These four elements would be the source of human dignity which all persons share equally. All human beings deserve the same respect given their equal dignity as human beings.

Equal dignity does not mean we are all the same in every respect. To achieve equality in every way is not the goal of society, even while human wisdom and our Christian faith lead us to strive as a society to respect every human being’s dignity and rights. Variety in levels of responsibility, ways of contributing to the common good, wealth, and social status is natural; attempts to eliminate such diversity in the name of equality have led to grave evils. Embracing God-given diversity helps us to recognize that each person has unique gifts and a specific contribution to the good of others, offering a chance to practice communion and collaboration, working together in mutual charity. It creates a stronger social fabric in both the family and society at large when all respect both equal dignity and the diversity of gifts.

Some implications of respect for human dignity of the person are found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

  • “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person… the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around.” n. 132
  • “In no case, therefore, is the human person to be manipulated for ends that are foreign to his own development, which can find complete fulfillment only in God and his plan of salvation.” n. 133
  • “Authentic social changes are effective and lasting only to the extent that they are based on resolute changes in personal conduct.” n. 134

Catholic World Mission recognizes the dignity of each one of our donors, partners, and those whose lives we are helping to improve. We all share equal dignity in God’s eyes, but distinct possibilities and responsibilities. We recognize the need to offer a hand up – not a handout – to those in need. Catholic World Mission avoids engaging in toxic charity or creating unhealthy dependency, applying the proverbial “teach a man to fish, feed him for life” to our projects.

As Pope Benedict XVI made clear in Caritas in veritate, n. 25, “Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering. I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: ‘Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.’”

Common Good

What does the Church mean by the common good? Many erroneous notions of it are bandied about in our society, so let’s establish clearly what it is not:

  • It’s not adding up parts to attain a whole. It’s not the collection of all the goods of each individual in a society summed up, constituting some abstract “common goods.” This understanding is insufficient because it violates the principle of human dignity; each individual is a free person, destined for God, needing space and the conditions to realize their own personal good. Properly understood, the common good is the sum of conditions allowing each person to flourish.
  • It’s not a cost/benefit calculation. The common good is also not just the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. In this misguided notion, there’s an unspoken assumption that happiness is quantifiable and a commodity to be produced by society.[1]
  • It’s not a decision for the majority. If we followed the prior erroneous line of thinking, when you can’t meet everyone’s good, you’d have to sacrifice some individuals’ good for the sake of others. In that mindset, if we achieve the good/happiness of 95 people in a society, it would be fine to violate the good and dignity of five others. No, every person must be respected.

The Christian view of the common good stems from a realization that each man or woman is essentially social. “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1879). Society emerges as the fruit of us fulfilling our God-given nature, not primarily as a social contract.

The Catechism (#1906) defines the Common Good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people as groups or individuals to reach their fulfillment more easily and more fully. Let’s break this down:

  1. “The sum total of social conditions.” This is the basis for equal opportunity (not necessarily equal outcomes). It entails a level playing field where each person has a chance to thrive and succeed.
  2. “Which allow people as groups or individuals to reach their fulfillment.” The fair conditions are oriented to foster flourishing, creating, building, and ordering the world. Remember the mandate of God to Adam to cultivate the garden and bring order. In this conception, both individual and social flourishing are organically linked, not opposed one against the other.
  3. “More easily and more fully.” This indicates a dynamic nature. Society should positively foster the conditions to make it easier for each person to flourish. We seek a society where it is easier to be good, not harder to be good. To flourish means to live full alive within our God-given human dignity and in his will.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church offers us several numbers to complement what is said above.

  1. The demands of the common good are (…) above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human 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. Nor must one forget the contribution that every nation is required in duty to make towards a true worldwide cooperation for the common good of the whole of humanity and for future generations also.
  2. The common good therefore involves all members of society, no one is exempt from cooperating, according to each one’s possibilities, in attaining it and developing it. (…) Everyone also has the right to enjoy the conditions of social life that are brought about by the quest for the common good. The teaching of Pope Pius XI is still relevant: “the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice”.
  3. The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason that the political authority exists. The State, in fact, must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression, in order that the common good may be attained with the contribution of every citizen. The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life. Hence the necessity of political institutions, the purpose of which is to make available to persons the necessary material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods. (…)
  4. To ensure the common good, the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice. (This is), in fact, one of the most delicate tasks of public authority. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that in the democratic State, where decisions are usually made by the majority of representatives elected by the people, those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority.

Catholic World Mission works for the Catholic understanding of common good in three ways.

  • First, it creates opportunities for individuals and communities in developing countries who otherwise would not have a chance. Whether that is a new well for clean drinking water, a quality education for underprivileged children, or motorcycles so missionary priests can reach more people with the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are creating opportunities.
  • Second, we strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and community wherever we establish partnerships. Those missionaries, priests, sisters, and dedicated partners on the ground live in the communities filled with needs; they know best how to meet those needs, and how to stymie waste or corruption. By partnering with them, we empower them to better the conditions for those in their communities and strengthen the social fabric.
  • Third, our internal processes at Catholic World Mission sort out which partners and projects are most impactful and worthy of support. We weed out scams and validate worthwhile projects. This invaluable work makes it easier for donors to give generously, knowing their hard-earned dollars won’t be wasted, but will make the greatest possible contribution to the common good.

At Catholic World Mission, we are dedicated to alleviating spiritual and material poverty by sharing the word of God and providing opportunity to those less fortunate. We can share the Gospel of Christ and make a significant impact on our world with your generous donation.

Share your prayer intentions with Catholic World Mission or donate online to support our mission and spread God’s love.

Universal Destination of Goods and Subsidiarity

The principle of the universal destination of goods is quite simple: Before anything is someone’s, it is everyone’s; when it is someone’s, this is to better safeguard or develop it for everyone. “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity” (Compendium, n. 171, quoting Gaudium es Spes, n. 69).

This does not mean “that everything is at the disposal of each person or of all people, or that the same object may be useful or belong to each person or all people” (Compendium, n. 172). On the contrary, this principle entails respect for private property, national and international agreements, and juridical order to safeguard rights, yet all in light of the original purpose of all goods. As well, this principle includes the “preferential option for the poor,” by which we recognize our need to practice “a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity” (Compendium, n. 182). The Compendium continues:

  1. Human misery is a clear sign of man’s natural condition of frailty and of his need for salvation. Christ the Saviour showed compassion in this regard, identifying himself with the “least” among men (cf. Mt 25:40,45). “It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones. When ‘the poor have the good news preached to them’ (Mt 11:5), it is a sign of Christ’s presence”.

Jesus says: “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Mt 26:11; cf. Mk 14:7; Jn 12:8)… Christian realism, while appreciating on the one hand the praiseworthy efforts being made to defeat poverty, is cautious on the other hand regarding ideological positions and Messianistic beliefs that sustain the illusion that it is possible to eliminate the problem of poverty completely from this world. This will happen only upon Christ’s return, when he will be with us once more, for ever. In the meantime, the poor remain entrusted to us and it is this responsibility upon which we shall be judged at the end of time (cf. Mt 25:31-46): “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren”.

  1. The Church’s love for the poor is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, by the poverty of Jesus and by his attention to the poor. This love concerns material poverty and also the numerous forms of cultural and religious poverty…

“Giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God”, even if the practice of charity is not limited to alms-giving but implies addressing the social and political dimensions of the problem of poverty. In her teaching the Church constantly returns to this relationship between charity and justice: “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”. The Council Fathers strongly recommended that this duty be fulfilled correctly, remembering that “what is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”. Love for the poor is certainly “incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use” (cf. Jas 5:1-6).

The principle of subsidiarity is a crucial complement to the prior points, protecting against the misguided transfer of all responsibility for our neighbor to a Social Assistance State (or welfare state). Centessimus Annus #48 states that “by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.”

Organizing ourselves implies giving up personal freedoms and autonomy, in order to gain the benefits of pursuing personal and common goods which otherwise could not be met as easily or effectively. But it has a risk as the state or other instances of authority can excessively intervene to the point of threatening personal freedom and initiative.

The principle of subsidiarity counters this danger. By this principle, a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal order of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need. The higher order should help coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (Catechism of the Catholic Church – CCC – 1883, Centessimus Annus 48)

In practice, this means prudential decisions should be made by those closest to the circumstance and the people who will be affected, who generally understand the needs and will more readily meet them while avoiding undue interventionism, waste, or bureaucracy. This also favors greater creativity, ownership, and autonomy of small groups and individuals, and thus the dignity of the person.

For example, who should decide on content of education? A higher authority (county, state or federal) helps coordinate to ensure education happens, and sufficient standards are met. But the parents are the primary educators and should have the primary say on the content of what their children learn. Parent teacher associations, school boards, and more immediate forms of parental involvement in classroom content are all preferable to higher forms of state, regional, and federal agencies.  These higher forms should be there to help serve, coordinate, and ensure that the education parents desire is more effectively offered.

Catholic World Mission is putting into practice this principle of subsidiarity by partnering with Gospel agents – priests, missionaries, sisters – who live in the communities they are serving. They are so close to the communities they serve that they are part of them. Their proximity reduces waste and ensures incredible creativity in the projects they propose. Instead of funds being diverted to pad the pockets of corrupt officials, your donations are handled by reliable men and women of faith whose entire life is dedicated to Jesus Christ and the people they serve. Our strict compliance policies at Catholic World Mission ensure safe transferal of funds, documentation of how they are used, and visual proof of project progress and completion. These steps give you confidence to be a good steward of what you have earned in life and invest it well for eternal reward through your almsgiving.

At Catholic World Mission, we are dedicated to alleviating spiritual and material poverty by sharing the word of God and providing opportunity to those less fortunate. We can share the Gospel of Christ and make a significant impact on our world with your generous donation.

Participation and Solidarity

Catholic World Mission is carrying forward the beautiful mission of Jesus Christ in the world today, contributing to the work of the Catholic Church. In past blogs, we’ve covered the foundation for Catholic Social Doctrine by exploring human dignity, and we reviewed the first three of five principles: The common good, universal destination of goods, and subsidiarity. This month, we cover the final two principles: Participation and solidarity.

The principle of participation stems from the prior principles of Catholic Social Doctrine. The Compendium defines it succinctly:

  1. The characteristic implication of subsidiarity is participation, which is expressed essentially in a series of activities by means of which the citizen, either as an individual or in association with others, whether directly or through representation, contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs. Participation is a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good.

The spiritual vision behind these principles is that every human being has something to contribute to the overall good of society, and none should be excluded. Each person matters, created by God as a unique gift and bearer of a mission to serve others. First, we need to be responsible in the areas that are entrusted to us – our families, our schools, our parishes, our businesses (CCC 1914). Second, we should also engage in more public and broader areas of life such as voting, civil society and non-profits, participation in local community groups, or involvement in local or national government. As responsible citizens and people of faith, we should not just be observers, but participants and leaders.

The principle of solidarity reminds us that we are our brother’s keeper (cf. Genesis 4:9, Matthew 25:31-40). It also answers the question of who is responsible for promoting the common good. Every society has authority figures responsible to promote the common good. They use their legitimate authority given them by the members of that society to help orchestrate “the sum total of social conditions which allow people as groups or individuals to reach their fulfillment more easily and more fully,” (CCC 1906) something which isolated individuals could not achieve on their own.

But it is not exclusively the responsibility of those in positions of authority to achieve the common good. Rather, Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1898) highlights that we all play a part. Just like a family, the parents are the primary persons entrusted with the common good of the family, but every child and sibling needs to contribute from their place. The principle of solidarity says we all have a role. We are all interdependent as social beings within a community; we all need to participate.

Solidarity is not a vague feeling of compassion for the distress of others. Rather it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good – the good of all and each individual (Solicitudo Rei Socialis #38). Of course, we should feel compassion for the downtrodden, but showing solidarity is broader, entailing a determined commitment to be engaged and help each society I am a part of to achieve its portion of the common good.

The Compendium explains how interdependence is growing in the world and why solidarity is so critically important:

  1. The new relationships of interdependence between individuals and peoples, which are de facto forms of solidarity, have to be transformed into relationships tending towards genuine ethical-social solidarity. This is a moral requirement inherent within all human relationships. Solidarity is seen therefore under two complementary aspects: that of a social principle and that of a moral virtue.

Solidarity must be seen above all in its value as a moral virtue that determines the order of institutions. On the basis of this principle the “structures of sin” that dominate relationships between individuals and peoples must be overcome. They must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems.

Solidarity is at the heart of the radical change Christianity brought to the world:

Jesus of Nazareth makes the connection between solidarity and charity shine brightly before all, illuminating the entire meaning of this connection: “In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimensions of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation. One’s neighbour is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One’s neighbour must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3:16).” (Compendium, n. 196).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1913-1917) also touches on solidarity, connecting it to participation and responsibility. We all have an obligation to participate in the community and offer our part; this means not just looking at what society can do for me, but what I can do for society.

The principle of solidarity also helps us to put respect for our common home into perspective. We care for God’s creation because we care not only for the current inhabitants of our planet, but also for the generations yet to be born. We also honor God by respecting his creation. In his encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis expounded upon teachings from predecessors for an integral ecology taking “us to the heart of what it is to be human” (n. 11).

It’s clear then that the five principles of Catholic Social Doctrine are all intertwined: There “exists an intimate bond between solidarity and the common good, between solidarity and the universal destination of goods, between solidarity and equality among men and peoples, between solidarity and peace in the world” (Compendium, n. 194).

Catholic World Mission works to put these principles into practice. For the principle of participation, we always explore what the local recipients can contribute to their own betterment. Everyone has something to give. By ensuring that we don’t just give handouts, local recipients take ownership of improving their communities. Taking healthy pride in their communities, what they’ve done together, and how they are improving their lot, all contribute to improving their world.

For the principle of solidarity, Catholic World Mission is creating awareness of the many needs around us in the world… and how easy it is to make a difference. Catholic World Mission serves as a bridge-builder: We identify worthy partners and projects, then we connect them with donors who want to better this world. Whether a scholarship for a child in Bangladesh to get a good education, formation for seminarians who will dedicate their lives to serving others, or raising up a church building in a rural village, each of our partners and projects gives you a chance to be a good neighbor (cf. Mk 12:31, Lk 10:25-37) and to lay up treasure in heaven (cf. Mt 6:19-21).

At Catholic World Mission, we are dedicated to alleviating spiritual and material poverty by sharing the word of God and providing opportunity to those less fortunate. We can share the Gospel of Christ and make a significant impact on our world with your generous donation.

Share your prayer intentions with Catholic World Mission or donate online to support our mission and spread God’s love.

[1] At the root of erroneous ideas about the Common Good, there are mistaken conceptions of a person’s good (human dignity), what society is, and how it is formed. Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau posited that society was the result of individuals making a social contract (i.e., a transaction) to get the greatest possible peace and happiness for themselves. This individualistic and utilitarian approach leads to a view of “the Common Good” as the result of this transaction. This does not align with Catholic teaching.

Fr. Daniel Brandenburg LC
Chairman of the Board of Directors at Catholic World Mission | Website | + posts

Fr. Daniel Brandenburg LC is the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Catholic World Mission and was ordained a priest with the Legionaries of Christ in 2007. He currently serves as chaplain for the Lumen Institute, Regnum Christi men, and Young Catholic Professionals in Atlanta, GA. He holds summa cum laude licentiate degrees in philosophy and theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, Italy, and is currently pursuing a doctorate through Creighton University’s Interdisciplinary Leadership Program. Fr. Daniel is the author of seven published books.