Published in Church & Life((1846) 31.1.2013 – 27.2.2013 No 3 Pg 2

Sometimes described as the Church’s Best Kept Secret – the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church find their basis in Holy Scripture; and as such pre-exist the Church of Pentecost. In the Old Testament we read of God exhorting his people: Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.” (Exodus 22:22); and “He [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18). In the New Testament we read in Acts about the early Church caring for the poor and marginalized (cf. Acts 6: 1); as well as in the Letter of St. James: “You believe in the one God – that is creditable enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear. Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Issac, on the altar? So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did. In this way the scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name ‘ friend of God’.’You see now that it is by deeds, and not only by believing, that someone is justified. There is another example of the same kind: Rahab the prostitute was she not justified by her deeds because she welcomed the messengers and showed them a different way to leave? As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds”. (James 2: 14 – 26; cf. James 2: 2 – 6).

The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, known as the Didache is also replete with a social message. Centuries later, one of the greatest preachers of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, was also to become one of the Church’s most forthright advocates for Social Justice. Many of his sermons have as their underlying theme, the redistribution of wealth and the importance of the Faithful giving alms.

At the core of the Church’s Social Teachings has been Her missionary work that includes the building of hospitals and the establishment of schools and universities – as well as Her centres for distributing funds to the poor and marginalized. The Catholic Church is today the largest non-government welfare provider in the world.

Catholic Social Teachings in the Modern World:

At the Second Vatican Council the Church began to re-examine Her mission in the light of the world she found Herself in. One theologian, Philip Land SJ (1981), writes that this change had four components:

(i) That the Church was called into action. The Church had been accused of political apathy, in the first half of the 20th Century, and now She sought to make ‘prophetic stands’ against political and economic injustices.

(ii) The Church had to commit Herself publicly to the ‘humanization’ of life – primarily the sanctity of human labour – and the protection of labour rights.

(iii) The Church had to become more involved in issues of global justice; especially with regard how wealthy and developed nations relate to the poor and developing world.

(iv) The Church now proposed the notion of The Preferential Option for the Poor. Following the example of Christ in the Gospels, the Church’s mission had always been to care for the poor and marginalized; however the Preferential Option for the Poor, emphasized that the Church must identify with the poor, and make the poor Her priority.

Philip Land SJ, also describes five shifts in how the Church began to approach the formulation of Social Teaching after Vatican II. These are:

(i) The notion of the Church being the ‘People of God’. (cf. Lumen Gentium, 1964). This re-imaging now moved the Church from a passive to an active role. We are a missionary Church, and She must seek to address societal ills.

(ii) The Church needed to look outward in order to read the “Signs of the Times”. We seek God in the world – but must also be aware of where the message of the Gospels is being most threatened.

(iii) The Church must return to the Scriptures in order to energize Her mission. The Church is altruistic – but it is altruistic with a Divine Purpose.

(iv) At the foundation of the Church’s mission is love. Love is at the heart of justice; love is the motivator of action; moral action and reason must be grounded in love.

(v) All planning had to involve praxis – action that comes out of reflection and leads back to reflection. The Church needs to reflect on the needs and hopes of peoples in order to minister to them.

Authors: Henriot, De Berri and Schultheis (1992), list 14 major tenets that are taught in Catholic Social Teachings. They are:

(i) The linkage of the religious and social dimensions of life: human society does not stand outside of God’s plan – but operates within this plan; therefore justice and faith are integrated. (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1965, The Church in the Modern World).

(ii) The Dignity of the human person: Both men and women are made in the image and likeness of God – therefore this dignity must be recognized and protected. (cf. Laborem Exercens, 1981, On Human Work).

(iii) Political and Economic Rights: All people are granted by God inalienable rights – both political (freedom of speech, migration); and socio-economic (food, education, work). These must be recognized by the community. (cf. Pacem in Terris, 1963 Peace on Earth).

(iv) The Preferential Option for the Poor: A priority should be given to the economically disadvantaged – who because of their status in society, suffer various forms of powerlessness. (cf. Octogesima Adveniens, 1971, Call to Action).

(v) Link of love and justice: The lynch-pin of justice in society, is love of neighbour, a failure to love neighbour, will lead to structures that do neighbour ill. (cf. Justice in the World).

(vi) Promotion of the Common Good: The Church emphasizes that society must protect the conditions of human life: economic, political and cultural. There is also the notion of an international common good. (cf. Mater et Magistra, 1961, Christianity and Social Progress)

(vii) Subsidiarity: As often as possible – all responsibilities and decisions should take place at the lowest level of competent authority. Large government bodies do have a role in co-ordination, but decisions should be encouraged to be made where the point of decision-impact will fall. (cf. Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, The Reconstruction of the Social Order).

(viii) Political participation: People should be encouraged to participate in the democratic process. (cf. Pius XII, “Christmas Message”, 1944; (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 1990, The Missionary Activity of the Church).

(ix) Economic Justice: The economy is for all people and resources are to be shared.

The basic definition of justice, according to Catholic Theology is: to give your neighbour their due.(cf. Laborem Exercens, 1981, (On Human Work).

(x) Stewardship: The notion that all property has a ‘social mortgage’. People are to share in and protect the environment. (cf. Laborem Exercens, 1981, (On Human Work).

(xi) Solidarity: We belong to one human family – and therefore have a responsibility that transcends not only our local community, but reaches out to the world. (cf. Populorum Progressio, 1967, The Development of Peoples); (cf. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1988, The Social Concerns of the Church; (cf. Centesimus Annus, 1991, One Hundred Years).

(xii) Promotion of Peace: Peace is the consequence of justice. We must promote peace at all levels of human society. (cf. Pacem in Terris, 1963 Peace on Earth).

(xiii) Work: People have a right to work – by so doing they serve the activity of God. People have a right to a fair wage, just conditions, and a right to form unions. (cf. Laborem Exercens, 1981, On Human Work).

(xiv) Liberation: An important part of the Church’s activity is the liberation of peoples from social, political, economic oppression. This liberation must be sought by peaceful means and must encompass the spiritual and religious dimensions of the human person. (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 1990, The Missionary Activity of the Church).


One further critical element of the Church’s Social Teachings is: the Sanctity of Human Life. The Church stands in direct opposition to the modern Culture of Death – by preaching a Gospel of Life. (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 1995, The Gospel of Life). The Sanctity of Human Life speaks for the indissolubility of marriage, and against abortion, pornography, prostitution and contraception.


It is critical for the life and the mission of the Church, that all Catholics become acquainted with the vast richness that is the Church’s Social Teaching; for if this Truth becomes incarnated in how we as a People of God act – the world without doubt will become the Kingdom of God.

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