An adage has it that the Church’s best kept secret is Catholic social teaching.  

In some ways, it’s hard to see how that’s possible. Throughout the centuries, and up to modern days, the Church has stood out as the world’s leading institution providing education, health care, food and shelter to the needy.

Today, some 25 percent of the world’s AIDS patients are cared for by Catholic agencies. In the United States, the legacy of Catholic health care continues in a Catholic hospital system that sees one out of six inpatient visits every year. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, Catholic Charities USA spent nearly $4 billion providing humanitarian services to 8.5 million people across the nation.

The roll of modern and U.S. Catholic saints is replete with social justice heroes: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Katharine Drexel, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, St. Damien of Molokai, to name only a few.

But while all of this at least floats in the periphery of most Catholics’ consciousness, it is generally acknowledged that many Catholics are poorly catechized in the Church’s social teaching, which popes and theologians have clarified, deepened and developed in the last century or so.

In the United States, understanding of that teaching sometimes has been warped by rancorous partisan politics. Some Catholics are wary of Church social teaching because of a false (but unfortunately sometimes real) association with secular social justice activism, which does not in every case share the Church’s vision of the dignity of each human person.

Fundamentally, as Pope Benedict XVI noted in his most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Catholic social teaching is rooted in love and cannot be understood without reference to Jesus Christ.

“Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine,” he wrote. “Every responsibility and every commitment spelled out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law. It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbor; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones). For the Church, instructed by the Gospel, charity is everything because, asSt. John teaches and as I recalled in my first Encyclical Letter, ‘God is Love’ ( Deus Caritas Est ): Everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity; it is his promise and our hope.”

The following pages explore the principles of Catholic social teaching, including the basics that every Catholic should know.