Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Truth About Catholic Social Teachings

By Peter Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 19, 2005

In a recent article I wrote about federal social programs and Catholic principles. This is a very broad, controversial subject that demands further treatment. In this article, I’m going to take a brief look at the basis for Catholic social teachings, and how individual freedoms relate to the common good. In doing so, I hope that I’m able to answer many of the individual questions from readers.

Conversion at the Heart of Social Justice

Although the Church does draw on centuries of observation of social principles (and human behavior in general) in forming Catholic social teachings, this is not her primary impetus. Rather, the primary consideration is man’s relationship with God. In practice this means that the Church’s first concern is human sanctity, or “goodness”.

In this context, the Church has defined the degrees of responsibility that the individual has for his own goodness and that of his neighbor. First the individual person is responsible for his own goodness, and second he is responsible (to a lesser degree) for the salvation of his neighbor. The category of neighbor is broken down in level of priority, with family members receiving the most prominent level of consideration, and then moving on to true friends, then to those that we necessarily interact with in our daily experiences, and then to those that we seek out and collaborate with to pursue the common good.

In 1986 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, which states:

The Church is of course aware of the complexity of the problems confronting society and of the difficulties in finding adequate solutions to them. Nevertheless she considers that the first thing to be done is to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the individual and to the permanent need for inner conversion, if one is to achieve the economic and social changes that will truly be at the service of man.… Moral integrity is a necessary condition for the health of society. It is therefore necessary to work simultaneously for the conversion of hearts and for the improvement of structures.

The essence of creating a strong social system is personal conversion and the conversion of our neighbor. However, we must be able to pursue this process of our own free will. Just as God does not force us to love Him, neither does the Church envision a world in which charity is mandatory.

Freedom in Society

The Church has defined “freedom” as the freedom to do the good. So while the state should be ordered to prevent individuals and groups from doing evil, it should also seek to preserve the ability of individuals to discriminate in how they choose to apply the good.

The Church has referred to man’s “vocation to freedom”, an embracing of freedom in conformity with the Natural Law. A prominent aspect of the Natural Law in this discussion is that man is a social being. It is a requirement of our liberty that we share that freedom with others by bringing them truth through love. The love from which the truth flows must be one that confirms the dignity of the human person.

So, all men are called to act with one mind towards a greater understanding of human dignity. However, the solutions that man seeks to create and sustain this understanding must not take on a life of their own to the extent that the individual’s freedom is devalued. This has been definitively stated in a number of Church documents (including encyclicals), but has been summed up with careful distinction of terms in Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation. The document states:

Intimately linked to the foundation, which is man’s dignity, are the principle of solidarity and the principle of subsidiarity. By virtue of the first, man with his brothers is obliged to contribute to the common good of society at all its levels. Hence the Church’s doctrine is opposed to all forms of social or political individualism. By virtue of the second, neither the state nor any society must ever substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and of intermediate communities at the level on which they can function, nor must they take away the room necessary for their freedom. Hence the Church’s social doctrine is opposed to all forms of collectivism.

The Balance of Goals

This quotation is remarkably succinct in its summary of the Church’s position. Basically, we are required to ensure that individuals not elevate their own good over the good of the society, and that they do not cede their personal goods to a governing body at an inappropriate level. It is in balancing these two goals that much of the debate develops—and then degenerates as meanings get blurred, secularized, and distorted. The Church is insistent that these terms (solidarity, subsidiarity) not be reduced to a purely socio-economic definition. In other words, the Church’s social teachings do not boil down to the rights of the wealthy, middle class, or poor members of our society.

The Church’s competence and mission demand that she establish principles of right social order while leaving to the laity the prudential judgments concerning the means most in keeping with these principles.

Therefore, you will not see the teaching documents of the Church make a determination one way or the other on the federal welfare system and whether it violates the principles of solidarity and subsidiary. If there is a grave evil being committed by a particular structure, the Church will generally point it out. Otherwise, she leaves it up to the civil authorities (elected by the people) to make determinations regarding the types of structures and policies that will most promote the common good.

Considerations for Judging Structures

So the Church offers some compelling practical advice for applying the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity to these structures. First, it speaks of the “primacy of persons over structures”. We need to ensure that the person’s ability to act freely from his moral center is not placed in jeopardy: “The priority given to structures and technical organization over the person and the requirements of his dignity is the expression of a materialistic anthropology and is contrary to the construction of a just social order.”

In my previous article (Federal Social Programs and Catholic Principles) I quoted Pope Leo XIII’s comments on how the individual and the family should be allowed to retain their freedom of action. He goes on to make many excellent points about the virtues of those Catholics that work tirelessly for just wages, better working conditions, and a justice that allows all men equal opportunity to pursue their moral and religious duties. He noted that when a class of persons is threatened with injustice within the society, the government should step in to right this injustice through the creation of just laws and regulations.

John Paul II confirmed these points in Rerum Novarum, but to a certain extent clarified the principle of subsidiarity referred to in Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation by remarking:

It is by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity. Every individual must give this response, which constitutes the apex of his humanity, and no social mechanism or collective subject can substitute for it.

He also stated, as I noted in the previous article:

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 concern for their clients…. 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.

True “social justice” demands that we must pursue solutions in the structural level that most adequately addresses the needs of the family from two different standpoints. First, is the opportunity afforded to the individual to pursue sustaining work/employment in an environment that will protect the totality of his person? Will he be given a fair opportunity to provide for the material needs of his family in such a manner that they will be given the opportunity to address their spiritual needs?

Second, is it recognized that the family is an entity that precedes the State and is entitled to a level of respect at least equal to that afforded to the state? This demands that when solutions to societal injustices are sought, that they be handled at the closest level to the family as possible.

For Leo XIII, John Paul II, and the CDF, community bodies (or social structures) that have governance over social affairs do not begin and end with municipal/county, state, or federal entities. Rather, they are the family, the Church, privately formed communities ordered for the common good (for example, charities and unions), and then the various levels of government.


Undoubtedly this is a highly abridged summary of the social teachings of the Church, and anyone who follows politics with an eye towards improving the nation’s plight would do well to read the three documents mentioned in this article thoroughly. You might actually find yourself entertained. After all, Rerum Novarum was written at the dawn of the Communist Revolution, and Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation was written in the twilight of Communism’s primary formal influence in Eastern Europe. Centesimus Annus was written in 1991 by a man well suited to provide a reflection on the 100 years that had passed since Leo XIII’s document.

Ultimately, the future of Society rests squarely on the shoulders of Catholics, who are called to personal conversion and the conversion of others. Leo XIII pointed out that a truly just society will be founded on religion, and even then no society will be anything more than an imperfect reflection of divine truth. Even so, we are called to be “perfected as our heavenly Father is perfect.” The wellspring of the world’s conversion is the loving, peaceful Catholic family; the water that comes bubbling forth from such an entity renews the world, preparing it for a life beyond this life—and the true justice to be found only in heaven.

Next article: “Principled Catholic Social Action”, in which I briefly highlight the guidelines set forth by the Church for social action by non-elected officials (the laity and the clergy), according to vocation.

Peter Mirus is a business, marketing, and technology consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with companies and nonprofits, ranging from start-ups to large international organizations. From 2004-2014 he contributed articles on the Catholic Faith, culture, and business to the website.
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