By Father William J. Byron, SJ
I served on the task force in the mid- to late 1990s that helped produce the U.S. bishops’ seminal statement called “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions.” The idea was to call the attention of all U.S. Catholics to the existence of Catholic social principles — a body of doctrine with which, the bishops said, “far too many Catholics are not familiar.”
In fact, they added, “many Catholics do not adequately understand that the social teaching of the Church is an essential part of Catholic faith.”
Often during our periodic meetings over the course of two years, it occurred to me that one (admittedly only one) reason why the body of Catholic social teaching is underappreciated, undercommunicated and not sufficiently understood is that the principles on which the doctrine is based are not clearly articulated and conveniently condensed.
They are not “packaged” for catechetical purposes like the Ten Commandments and the seven sacraments. While many Catholics can come up with the eight Beatitudes and some would be willing to take a stab at listing the four cardinal virtues, few, if any, have a ready reply to the catechetical question the bishops want to raise: What are those Catholic social principles that are to be accepted as an essential part of the faith?
I have come up with 10. There is nothing at all official about my count. Some future Catechism of the Catholic Church may list more or fewer than these 10, if compilers of that future teaching aid find that Catholic social teaching is suitable for framing in such a fashion.
“Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.”
This is the bedrock principle of Catholic social teaching. Every person — regardless of race, sex, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, employment or economic status, health, intelligence, achievement or any other differentiating characteristic — is worthy of respect. It is not what you do or what you have that gives you a claim on respect; it is simply being human that establishes your dignity.
The body of Catholic social teaching opens with the human person, but it does not close there. Individuals have dignity; individualism has no place in Catholic social thought. The principle of human dignity gives the human person a claim on membership in a community, the human family.
“Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity.”
Human life at every stage of development and decline is precious and therefore worthy of protection and respect. It is always wrong directly to attack innocent human life — that is part of any moral vision for a just and good society.
“Our tradition proclaims that the person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society — in economics and politics, in law and policy — directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.”
The centerpiece of society is the family; family stability must always be protected and never undermined. By association with others — in families and in other social institutions that foster growth, protect dignity and promote the common good — human persons achieve their fulfillment.
“We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.”
Without participation, the benefits available to an individual through any social institution cannot be realized. The human person has a right not to be shut out from participating in those institutions that are necessary for human fulfillment.
This principle applies in a special way to conditions associated with work. “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected — the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”
“In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the last judgment (see Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”
Why is this so? Because the common good — the good of society as a whole — requires it. The opposite of rich and powerful is poor and powerless. If the good of all, the common good, is to prevail, preferential protection must move toward those affected adversely by the absence of power and the presence of privation. Otherwise the balance needed to keep society in one piece will be broken to the detriment of the whole.
“Catholic social teaching proclaims that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they live. We are one human family. ... Learning to practice the virtue of solidarity means learning that ‘loving our neighbor’ has global dimensions in an interdependent world.”
The principle of solidarity functions as a moral category that leads to choices that will promote and protect the common good.
“The Catholic tradition insists that we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.”
The steward is a manager, not an owner. In an era of rising consciousness about our physical environment, our tradition is calling us to a sense of moral responsibility for the protection of the environment — croplands, grasslands, woodlands, air, water, minerals and other natural deposits. Stewardship responsibilities also look toward our use of our personal talents, our attention to personal health and our use of personal property.
This principle deals chiefly with “the responsibilities and limits of government, and the essential roles of voluntary associations.”
The principle of subsidiarity puts a proper limit on government by insisting that no higher level of organization should perform any function that can be handled efficiently and effectively at a lower level of organization by human persons who, individually or in groups, are closer to the problems and closer to the ground. Oppressive governments are always in violation of the principle of subsidiarity; overactive governments frequently violate this principle.
“Equality of all persons comes from their essential dignity. ... While differences in talents are a part of God’s plan, social and cultural discrimination in fundamental rights ... are not compatible with God’s design.”
Treating equals equally is one way of defining justice, also understood classically as rendering to each person his or her due. Underlying the notion of equality is the simple principle of fairness; one of the earliest ethical stirrings felt in the developing human person is a sense of what is “fair” and what is not.
“The common good is understood as the social conditions that allow people to reach their full human potential and to realize their human dignity.”
The social conditions the bishops have in mind presuppose “respect for the person,” “the social well-being and development of the group” and the maintenance by public authority of “peace and security.” Today, “in an age of global interdependence,” the principle of the common good points to the “need for international structures that can promote the just development of the human family across regional and national lines.”
What constitutes the common good is always going to be a matter for debate. The absence of any concern for or sensitivity to the common good is a sure sign of a society in need of help.
As a sense of community is eroded, concern for the common good declines. A proper communitarian concern is the antidote to unbridled individualism, which, like unrestrained selfishness in personal relations, can destroy balance, harmony and peace within and among groups, neighborhoods, regions and nations.
This is adapted with permission from an article that originally appeared in America magazine. Jesuit Father William J. Byron, a professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa., is the president emeritus of The Catholic University of America.
In Matthew 25 (with echoes of Isaiah 58:6-7), Jesus reminds us that at the end of our lives, he will judge us by the principle, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
In Catholic tradition, that Scripture passage has been distilled into the seven corporal works of mercy:
1. Feed the hungry
2. Give drink to the thirsty
3. Clothe the naked
4. Shelter the homeless
5. Visit the sick
6. Visit those in prison
7. Bury the dead
In 2005, the U.S. bishops conferences came up with seven key themes of Catholic social teaching, drawing from a tradition of papal conciliar and episcopal documents.
The “foundation of a moral vision for society” is based on the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the human person, the bishops’ conference said. “We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.”
By their nature, humans are social beings, starting with the “central social institutions” of marriage and the family, that “must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.”
Rights and responsibilities
Corresponding to rights are responsibilities; every person has a fundamental right to life and “a right to those things required for human decency,” but that brings responsibilities “to one another, to our families and to the larger society.”
Echoing Pope John Paul II, and the accumulated wisdom of centuries, the bishops’ conference notes that societies are judged by how their most vulnerable members fare. For Catholics, there’s the added instruction of Jesus in the story of the Last Judgment ( see Mt 25:31-46), which “instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”
The economy serves humans, not the other way around. Work, no matter how dreary, earns dignity as a participation in God’s continuing work of creation. “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected — the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property and to economic initiative.”
“Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world.” At the root of this sense of shared responsibility for all is the awareness that we are all children of God.
“We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.”
Rerum Novarum ("On the condition of Labor"), Pope Leo XIII, 1891
One of the first documents in modern Catholic social thought, Pope Leo addressed the plight of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. He calls for the protection of the weak and poor, but condemns socialism and class struggle.
Quadragesimo Anno (“After Forty Years”), Pope Pius XI, 1931
Pope Pius calls for a reconstruction of society on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and warns of the dangers to humanity both of unbridled capitalism and totalitarian communism.
Mater et Magistra (“Christianity and Social Progress”), Pope John XXIII, 1961
Pope John called for greater awareness of the need for all peoples to live as one community with a common good, and he focused on emerging social problems.
Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), Pope John XXIII, 1963
In one of the most famous 20th-century encyclicals, and the first addressed also to non-Catholics, Pope John underscores the importance of respect for human rights, and urges negotiations rather than recourse to arms in conflicts.
Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), Second Vatican Council, 1965
The council describes the Church’s role of service to the world, and underscores the inviolability of human dignity.
Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”), Pope Paul VI, 1967
Pope Paul calls attention to the plight of the growing number of the world’s poor and describes the need for integral human development.
Octogesima Adveniens (“A Call to Action”), Pope Paul VI, 1971
Pope Paul calls on Christians to live out the Gospel through participation in social reform.
Justicia in Mundo (“Justice in the World”), Synod of Bishops, 1971
Working for social justice is a key part of proclaiming the Gospel, the bishops say.
Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II, 1981
Pope John Paul underscores the dignity of work, and the consequences of that understanding.
Solicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concern”), Pope John Paul II, 1987
Pope John Paul defines human development, which he says must go far beyond the purely economic sphere.
Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), Pope John Paul II, 1991
Looks anew at growing injustices in the distribution of the world’s wealth, and criticizes welfare state approaches to the problem.