An Introduction to the Principles of Catholic Social Thought

The creation of the Center for Social Concerns was inspired by the people, documents and principles of the Catholic social tradition. Growing out of the Center for Experiential Learning and the Volunteer Services Office of the 1970’s, the Center staff hopes to challenge ourselves and others in the words of John Paul II, to “the ‘new evangelization,’ … which must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the church’s social doctrine.”

Our current effort is to more proactively promote the integration of Catholic social thought (CST) with our programs and courses. Over the years we have observed that many students who come into our programs are not aware of Catholic social thought but once they read and study CST, they find that their service and social awareness experiences are enhanced by the integration of these principles with their experiential learning. Thus, we have prepared this document to assist students in integrating Catholic social thought with their service experience and actions for justice.

The principles of Catholic social thought are drawn from papal documents, conciliar documents, and statements from Bishops’ conferences in the past 100+ years. The documents, however, are best understood by studying the underpinnings of the principles in Scriptures and in the lives and work of many men and women in the Christian tradition. The development of Catholic social thought continues today in both theory and practice.

As you read the following descriptions of the principles, it is important to see the principles as intimately connected, yet standing on their own. The foundational principle is the common good based on the understanding in Catholic social thought that persons are created as social beings, always in interrelationship and interdependence with others (Principle 1). Catholic social thought also promotes the dignity of every human being, as each is made in the image and likeness of God, but this dignity always needs to be seen in relationship to the promotion of the common good ( Principle 2).

Human dignity grounds and is protected by a spectrum of human rights and corresponding duties. This principle of the correlation of rights and duties promotes just living conditions for all as well as the dignity of work and the rights of workers (Principle 3). Many persons, though, are marginalized in our society and all are called to make an option for the poor (Principle 4), keeping those who are economically poor in the forefront of our minds in all decision-making.

As stewards of God’s creation, both in terms of people and the earth, (Principle 5) we need to face the environmental concerns of our day, which disproportionately affect the economically poor. In response to how decisions are made to address the challenges in each of the spheres of society, the principle of subsidiarity (Principle 6) calls for action at the lowest level possible. 
For further explanation of each of these principles and examples of how students have reflected on the meaning of each principle in relation to their experience with social concerns, please read on and then engage with others in this ongoing conversation.

(1) The Common Good

"When interdependence becomes recognized …, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a 'virtue,' is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all." (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, para. 38)

The common good as a foundational principle is closely intertwined with Human dignity and leads to solidarity as described by John Paul II above. Because we are created as social beings, individual rights need to be experienced within the context of promotion of the common good. "Contrary to the cultural bias of our time, there is a long-standing, Christian conviction, rooted in biblical, patristic and medieval thought that what one deserves can only be properly determined within a framework that takes the common good and the needs of the poor into account. Pope John Paul II has updated the traditional conviction in a way that addresses the realities of today's high-tech, knowledge based economy." The common good is the "good that comes into existence in a community of solidarity among active, equal agents."

The virtue of solidarity that John Paul II speaks of in the quotation above is a solidarity that "is not only a virtue to be enacted by individual persons one at a time. It must also be expressed in the economic, cultural, political, and religious institutions that shape society." The participation of all in society is the grounds for the common good. As human interdependence grows throughout the world, the common good "today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race." Individual rights need to be experienced within the context of promotion of the common good.

The duty of all is to make the sacrifices necessary so that those who are marginalized can also become active participants. "It is not enough to draw on the surplus goods which in fact our world abundantly produces; it requires above all a change of lifestyles, of modes of production and consumption, and of established structures of power which today govern societies."

In terms of international relationships, "interdependence must be transformed into solidarity, based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all. That which human industry produces through the processing of raw materials, with the contribution of work, must serve equally for the good of all." Accordingly, we must strive to craft an international order that reflects true biblical justice—a society marked by the fullness of love, compassion and peace.

Essential to the common good is participation by all in all spheres of society. The social nature of the person requires that structures of both the civil society and the state allow full human growth and development. All of society is responsible for the common good, but only the state is responsible for public order (that part of the common good which involves public peace, minimum standards of justice and public morality).

All 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 in the full range of social spheres the benefits available to an individual through any social institution cannot be realized, such as in a dictatorship when the state squeezes out all voluntary associations. The human person has a right not to be shut out from participating in those institutions that are necessary for human fulfillment.

The family is a central social institution that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. While our society often exalts individualism, the Catholic tradition teaches that in association with others—in families and in other social institutions that foster growth, protect dignity and promote the common good—human beings grow and come to their fulfillment. The most "appropriate and fundamental solutions to poverty will be those that enable persons to take control of their own lives."

Student Reflections:

Notre Dame students are transitory visitors of four years in the city of South Bend. This creates the tendency for isolation and gives students little incentive to invest time and energy in building relationships with those outside of the Notre Dame community. This tendency is compounded by the very nature of Notre Dame: an elite and internationally renowned educational institution with prestige, power, influence and wealth. It is nestled in the economically and racially diverse community of South Bend, and, more specifically the Northeast Neighborhood. This fact makes the temptation of believing one is "worthy of special attention" particularly prevalent for the predominately white, upper- and middle-class Notre Dame students.

The principle of the common good challenges us to rise above the socioeconomic barriers between Notre Dame and the many parts of the Northeast Neighborhood in order to strengthen our "human family" and work together. The administration and student leaders of a Catholic university such as Notre Dame have an obligation to help its students meet these challenges….Students are the next-door neighbors of many of the Northeast Neighborhood residents; they present an immediate and prominent face of the university to the Northeast Neighborhood residents on a daily basis. If the university is committed to the promotion of the common good, it needs also to be committed to solidarity between the students and the surrounding neighborhoods.--Julie Davis, Jesse Flores and Brian Moscona; Christian Leadership, THEO 273, April 2002

Questions for discussion/reflection:

  1. What tensions do you see between individual rights and the promotion of the common good in our society?
  2. What observations did you make during service/social action experiences regarding policies that do not serve the common good? What can be done to address these issues? 
  3. The U.S. Catholic Bishops, in Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium, call us to deeper participation and active citizenship. What concrete actions might we take to respond to this challenge?

(2) The Life and Dignity of the Human Person

"We believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a 'Gospel of life.' It invites all persons and societies to a new life lived abundantly in respect for human dignity." (Living the Gospel of Life, para. 20)

Central to the principle of human dignity is the understanding that, every human being is created in the image of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, destined for union with God, and therefore worthy of respect as a member of the human family.

We are called to respect all persons with the sense of awe that arises in the presence of all that is sacred and holy. Our tradition teaches that every human person is sacred from conception to death. We believe that those who are weak, vulnerable, or marginalized deserve special respect, especially those who are unborn, disabled, elderly or dying. A key measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. One factor that denies the inherent dignity of each person is discrimination in its many forms, such as that based on race, gender or economic status.
This principle is not merely a prohibition against killing or harming life; rather, it calls us to proclaim a new culture of life by revering life, loving life and fostering life at all stages. Drawing our strength from Christ and following the example of Mary, we say "yes" to life in word and deed. We say "yes" in gratitude and joy at the incomparable dignity of each human being that impels us to share this message with everyone.

Student Reflection:

In many cases, people are judged by their beauty, intelligence, economic status, or ethnicity, forgetting that the very condition of being a human person is worthy of the utmost dignity and respect. The human condition should be embraced by all people, because God chose to be present to the world in the form of a human being. Because of the interdependency of all persons in the Catholic social tradition, we are responsible to care for all persons. Recognizing that people with AIDS are still people and thus deserve to be treated with respect is critical; this disease robs the individual of health, a livelihood, and other rights essential for the preservation of human dignity.
The Catholic social teachings provide a powerful argument for assisting Cambodians with AIDS in this globalized, capitalistic society. Perhaps the vision statement for the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful best encapsulates the theological reflection presented here: "We strive with (the poor, marginalized and oppressed peoples of the earth) for justice, peace and fullness of life. We celebrate the holiness of everyday life and even amidst sin, suffering, and death, we proclaim the hope of resurrection." Our status as human beings and creatures of God gives each individual an inherent dignity that must be preserved. AIDS is not a moral punishment by God, but another example of suffering on earth in which God and Christians can find solidarity in brokenness.-- Amy Braun, The Cambodian AIDS Epidemic and the Global Community, THEO 274, 2001.


Questions for Discussion/Reflection:

  1. Please give examples of what you understand by the phrases "culture of life" and culture of death".
  2. Pope John Paul II challenged us to "Place all of your intelligence, talents, enthusiasm, compassion and fortitude at the service of life." What gifts do you have and how will you use them to build a new culture of life?
  3. In addition to the "life" issues (abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, etc), what other situations and conditions are an affront to human dignity, and how can we change them? 

(3) The Correlation of Rights and Responsibilities

"The attainment of the worker's rights cannot … be doomed to be merely a result of economic systems which on a larger or smaller scale are guided chiefly by the criterion of maximization of profit. On the contrary, it is respect of the objective rights of the worker – every kind of worker: manual or intellectual, industrial or agricultural, etc. – that must constitute the adequate and fundamental criterion for shaping the whole economy." (Laborem Exercens, para. 17)

Human dignity grounds and is protected by a spectrum of human rights and corresponding duties. Society facilitates participation in all spheres of the social order through inter-related rights and duties. Every person has the right to means that are necessary for the development of life: food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and the necessary social services. Likewise, all citizens have a duty to respect human rights and to fulfill their responsibilities to each other and to the larger society. The primary duty is to live in solidarity, that is, "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good." 

It is important to see that all rights have a corresponding responsibility. "Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget of neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other."

The political rights of all persons set limits on the state, such as the freedom of association and freedom of speech. All persons have economic rights, as well, which set limits on market logic, such as the right to work, a just wage, humane working conditions, and health care.

Related to rights and responsibilities is the dignity of work and the rights of workers. In an economy where too often profits take precedence over the rights of workers, a moral analysis is necessary. The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work not only helps people make a living, it is a continuing participation in God's creation (Gen. 1:28, Matt. 6:25-34). "The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily on the kind of work being done but on the fact that the one doing it is a person."

The dignity of work is Three issues related to work are distinguishable: the dignity of work; worker's unions and cooperatives; and workers sharing the ownership of the means of production. The dignity of work is safeguarded when worker's rights are respected. Workers have the strong support of the Church in forming and joining unions and worker associations of their choosing in the exercise of their dignity and rights. "The many proposals put forward by experts in Catholic social teaching … take on special significance: proposals for joint ownership of the means of work, sharing by the workers in the management and/or profits of business. … It is clear that recognition of the proper positions of labor and the worker in the production process demands various adaptations in the sphere of the right to ownership of the means of production."

Student Reflection:

The people of Fort Lauderdale are able to buy their produce 60% cheaper than anywhere else in the world because of migrant workers. Companies like 6L maximize their profits because migrant workers are paid next to nothing. … I agree with what (John Paul II) says concerning workers' rights:
"The attainment of the worker's rights cannot however be doomed to be merely a result of economic systems which on a larger or smaller scale are guided chiefly by the criterion of maximization of profit. On the contrary, it is respect of the objective rights of the worker – every kind of worker: manual or intellectual, industrial or agricultural, etc. – that must constitute the adequate and fundamental criterion for shaping the whole economy." (Laborem Exercens, #17)

When I worked in the tomato fields alongside migrant workers, I came to the horrible realization that most people of society have no idea how hard these laborers toil to earn enough money to support themselves and their families. They are taken for granted, and in fact exploited, in order for supermarket prices in the United States to be the cheapest in the world. Raise the price of a chalupa at Taco Bell by less than a cent, and wages for migrant workers increase to a living wage.
Sara Vennekotter, Reflection Paper, Migrant Worker Seminar, March, 2002.

Questions for discussion/reflection:

  1. In what ways do we need to act to ensure the rights of all persons? In what ways can we further educate others so that individual rights do not preclude the common good?
  2. In our society which emphasizes individual rights, where do you observe the call to responsibility? 
  3. What questions and issues arise for you when you consider purchasing clothing or food, thinking about the workers who made the clothing or provided the manual labor for the production of the food?

(4) The Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

"Positive signs in the contemporary world are the growing awareness of the solidarity of the poor among themselves, their efforts to support one another, and their public demonstrations on the social scene which, without recourse to violence, present their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of public authorities. By virtue of her own evangelical duty the Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests, and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good." (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, para. 39)

As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a preferential option for the poor, namely, to create conditions for marginalized voices to be heard, to defend the defenseless, and to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. The option for the poor does not mean pitting one group against another, but rather, it calls us to strengthen the whole community by assisting those who are most vulnerable.

From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God's covenant with Israel was dependant on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel's history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God's transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).

Therefore, the preferential option for the poor is not optional. The Latin American bishops' conferences at Medillín (1968) and Puebla (1979) aimed to emphasize the use of option as a verb rather than as a noun. As such, each Christian must make a choice to lift up the poor and disadvantaged in very real and concrete ways. Preferential option for the poor means that Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work in solidarity for justice.

Student Reflection:

The option for the poor asks everyone to realize the plight of those who struggle to survive, and to put the needs of these most vulnerable members of society ahead of individual selfish interests…We can never stop questioning an oppressive system that forces billions of our brothers and sisters in our country and around the world to live in poverty. We need to ask "why?" Why are people starving around the world? How can the United States, the richest nation in the world, allow its people to live in poverty, to be homeless in the "land of opportunity," to lack good education and adequate health care and to starve to death?…What occurs in the United States and throughout the world that allows so many to have so little when so few have so much? As one of the elite—the fed, the clothed, the sheltered, the educated—what are my responsibilities as I step out into this unjust world society and try to make my way?-- Christine Raslavsky, Seminar on Poverty and Development in Chile, 1995.


Questions for discussion/reflection:

  1. The Bishop's Pastoral on the U.S. Economy states, "Followers of Christ must avoid a tragic separation between faith and everyday life…economic life is one of the chief areas where we live out our faith [and] love our neighbor." In what ways ought we manage our economic resources as faithful Christians? In what ways are you conscious of those who are economically poor or disadvantaged?
  2. What are some very concrete ways that you can make a preferential option for the poor?
  3. Are we collectively responsible for the conditions of poverty both locally and globally? What can you do both directly and indirectly to work for change?

(5) Stewardship and Care for Creation

"Christian love forbids choosing between people and the planet. It urges us to work for an equitable and sustainable future in which all peoples can share in the bounty of the earth and in which the earth itself is protected from predatory use. The common good invites regions of the country to share burdens equitably…It also invites us to explore alternatives in which our poor brothers and sisters will share with the rest of us in the banquet of life, at the same time that we preserve and restore the earth, which sustains us." (Renew the Earth, Section 4, para.C)

There is a solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator and are ordered to glory and worship of the Creator. Humanity's dominion over inanimate and other living beings is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his or her neighbor, including generations to come. As such, the steward is a manager, not an owner. Accordingly, use of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from our moral responsibilities. Our stewardship of the earth enables us to be participants in God's act of creating and sustaining the world.

Studies on the state of environmental justice in this country cite race as a predictor of who bears a disproportionate burden of environmental degradation in the U.S. These studies state that, "African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders are among the highly vulnerable populations most susceptible to the injustices of racism, poverty, and environmental degradation."

Likewise, the conditions of the poor are often closely connected to environmental issues. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II argues that the direct or indirect result of industrialization is frequently the pollution of the environment, which often has serious consequences to the health and well-being of the poorest members of society. Moreover, the overuse of natural resources by the West endangers their long and short-term availability, especially for the poor. Authentic development seeks to make a preferential option for the poor in the same way that it aims to care for creation.

Student Reflection:

[Natural Gas] Developers … mine through the center of the mountaintops, removing earth and flattening the mountain itself. This is repeated for all strata in which coal can be found, peeling away layers at a time…Locals are having major difficulties with the sinking of the land under their houses, causing massive damage that is often beyond repair…As if the destruction of the environment and the beautiful scenery found in southwest Virginia were not bad enough, employment rates for local miners have drastically fallen in recent years with the coming of new technology…What is most disturbing about the environmental situation, however, is that the people living in this area obviously cannot afford to fight developers on their own, and no one really seems to care. It is a region that is ignored by the rest of the population, virtually swept under the rug without a second thought, aside from those of the neighboring states as they ship loads of trash and prisoners out of their own territory. Even more tragic, though, is that it looks as if this vicious cycle is never ending.--Kristine Martel, Appalachia Seminar, 2002

Questions for Discussion/Reflection:

  1. What does Leviticus 25.2-4, 10-12 say concerning stewardship, and how can we relate those principles to the environmental issues we encounter today?
  2. In what ways can we hold corporate and government entities responsible for the ways they have abused the environment, even if those practices have made basic necessities and luxury items available at a lower cost to the consumer (e.g. heat, water, transportation)? Should the consumer be held to the same standards? If so, what are the implications?

(6) Subsidiarity

"One should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. For every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to the members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them." (Quadragesimo Anno, para. 79)

Regulating the movement from marginalization to participation for the sake of the common good is the principle of subsidiarity. This principle warns about the tendency of the state and other large scale institutions to usurp authority to control persons, thereby destroying individual liberty and initiative. The notion of subsidiarity is that activities or functions ought to be accomplished by the most local of smallest grouping possible, rather than be assumed by the larger groups or collectivity. In Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI explicitly makes the principle of subsidiarity the guiding norm upon which the social order is to be restored. "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of the right order to assign to a greater or higher association what a lesser and subordinate organizations can do."

The main effect of this principle is to limit the role of the state and other large scale institutions while empowering local efforts. But those needs which cannot be effectively addressed at a local level should be referred to at the next highest level of organization. This principle was initially used to protect individuals and groups, but more recently it has been employed to define the relationship between particular nation-states and worldwide public authorities.

Student reflection: 

Looking at the University's model of independent monitoring of sweatshops, which integrates regional and local NGO's, church officials, human rights activists, and labor leaders, Notre Dame has made a commendable effort to further the principle of subsidiarity. By employing local representatives to monitor working conditions, the task is being handled "at a lower level of organization by human persons who … are closer to the problem and closer to the ground" (Byron, Building Blocks, p.24). With membership in the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), Notre Dame will now be partaking in even more grassroots monitoring efforts. As opposed to the corporate involvement in our current monitoring system, the WRC system is comprised solely of NGO representatives. The mechanism for reporting unjust labor practices comes directly from the workers, removing the vertical level of organization that the University currently employs.--Andrea Mechenbier, Fulfilling the Mission: Is Notre Dame Living Up to It's Mission Statement? THEO 273, Spring 2001.

Questions for discussion/reflection:

  1. What do you learn about subsidiarity from the example described by Andrea Mechenbier?
  2. Was giving states control of welfare reform a good decision by the federal government? Why or why not?
  3. Give an example of subsidiarity being violated.
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