Seven Key themes of Catholic Social Teaching

Posted on 24. Feb, 2009 by in Catholic Social Teaching


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has identified these seven key themes of Catholic Social Teaching:

[edit] Sanctity of human life and dignity of the person

The foundational principle of all Catholic social teachings is the sanctity of human life. Catholics believe in an inherent dignity of the human person starting from conception through natural death. They believe that human life must be valued infinitely above material possessions. Pope John Paul II wrote and spoke extensively on the topic of the inviolability of human life and dignity in his watershed encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (Latin for “The Gospel of Life”).

Catholics oppose acts considered attacks and affronts to human life, including abortion,[2] euthanasia,[3] and every deliberate taking of life. In the Second Vatican Council‘s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (Latin for “Joy and Hope”), it is written that “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care .”[4] Genocide, torture, and the direct and intentional targeting of noncombatants in war or terrorist attacks are considered wrong.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Statement on Capital Punishment of 1974, declared a commitment to the value and dignity of human life. Bishop John May, of Mobile, Alabama, proposed a brief resolution which said simply: “The U.S. Catholic Conference goes on record in opposition to capital punishment.” Catholic teaching accepts the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime, and that the state may take appropriate measures to protect itself and its citizens from grave harm, nevertheless, the question for judgment and decision today is whether capital punishment is justifiable under present circumstances. The Catechism of the Catholic Church(no. 2267) states: “If…non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person”.

Catholics do not necessarily oppose war; there are pacifists and just war theorists. Catholics discourage application of the death penalty,[5] the former being guided by the principles of just war doctrine and recourse to the latter is not excluded “if this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”[6] It is argued that the defense of lives includes the provision of deterrence and the establishment of justice. Both war and the death penalty must always be a last resort. In addition, believing humans are made in the image and likeness of God,[7] Catholic doctrine teaches to respect all humans based on an supposed inherent dignity. According to John Paul II, every human person “is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God.”[8] Catholics oppose racism and other forms of discrimination. In 2007, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote:

Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; and to overcome poverty and suffering. Nations are called to protect the right to life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflicts except as a last resort, always seeking first to resolve disputes by peaceful means. We revere the lives of children in the womb, the lives of persons dying in war and from starvation, and indeed the lives of all human beings as children of God.[9]

[edit] Call to family, community, and participation

According to the Book of Genesis, immediately after forming Adam the “LORD God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”.[10] The Catholic Church teaches that man is now not only a sacred but also a social animal and that families are the first and most basic units of a society. Full human development takes place in relationship with others. The family—based on marriage between a man and a woman—is the first and fundamental unit of society and is a sanctuary for the creation and nurturing of children. Together families form communities, communities a state and together all across the world each human is part of the human family. How these communities organize themselves politically, economically and socially is thus of the highest importance. Each institution must be judged by how much it enhances, or is a detriment to, the life and dignity of human persons.

Catholic Social Teaching opposes collectivist approaches such as Communism but at the same time it also rejects unrestricted laissez-faire policies and the notion that a free market automatically produces justice. The state has a positive moral role to play as no society will achieve a just and equitable distribution of resources with a totally free market.[11] All people have a right to participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of society[12] and under the principle of subsidiarity state functions should be carried out at the lowest level that is practical.[13]

[edit] Rights and responsibilities

Every person has a fundamental right to life and to the necessities of life. In addition, every human has the right to what is required to live a full and decent life, things such as employment, health care, and education.[14] The right to exercise religious freedom publicly and privately by individuals and institutions along with freedom of conscience need to be constantly defended. In a fundamental way, the right to free expression of religious beliefs protects all other rights.

The Church supports private property and teaches that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.”[15] The right to private property is not absolute, however, and is limited by the concept of the social mortgage.[16] It is theoretically moral and just for its members to destroy property used in an evil way by others, or for the state to redistribute wealth from those who have unjustly hoarded it.[17]

Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities—to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. Rights should be understood and exercised in a moral framework rooted in the dignity of the human person.

[edit] Preferential Option for the poor and vulnerable

Main article: Option for the poor

Jesus taught that on the Day of Judgement God will ask what each of us did to help the poor and needy: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”[18] This is reflected in the Church’s canon law, which states, “[The Christian faithful] are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.”[19]

Through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. When instituting public policy we must always keep the “preferential option for the poor” at the forefront of our minds. The moral test of any society is “how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.”[20]

Pope Benedict XVI has taught that “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel”.[21] This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in our nation and beyond—unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression.

[edit] Dignity of work and the rights of workers

Society must pursue economic justice and the economy must serve people, not the other way around. Employers must not “look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but… respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character.”[22] Employers contribute to the common good through the services or products they provide and by creating jobs that uphold the dignity and rights of workers.

Workers have a right to work, to earn a living wage, and to form trade unions[23] to protect their interests. All workers have a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions.[24] Workers also have responsibilities—to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, to treat employers and co-workers with respect, and to carry out their work in ways that contribute to the common good. Workers must “fully and faithfully” perform the work they have agreed to do.

In 1933, the Catholic Worker Movement was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. It was committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the marginalized and poorest in Society. Today over 185 Catholic Worker communities continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.

[edit] Solidarity

“Solidarity is undoubtedly a Christian virtue. It seeks to go beyond itself to total gratuity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It leads to a new vision of the unity of humankind, a reflection of God’s triune intimate life….”[25] It is a unity that binds members of a group together.

All the peoples of the world belong to one human family. We must be our brother’s keeper,[26] though we may be separated by distance, language or culture. Jesus teaches that we must each love our neighbors as ourselves and in the parable of the Good Samaritan we see that our compassion should extend to all people.[27] Solidarity includes the Scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us—including immigrants seeking work, a safe home, education for their children, and a decent life for their families.

Solidarity at the international level primarily concerns the Global South. For example, the Church has habitually insisted that loans be forgiven on many occasions, particularly during Jubilee years.[28] Charity to individuals or groups must be accompanied by transforming unjust structures.

[edit] Care for God’s creation

A Biblical vision of justice is much more comprehensive than civil equity; it encompasses right relationships between all members of God’s creation. Stewardship of creation: The world’s goods are available for humanity to use only under a “social mortgage” which carries with it the responsibility to protect the environment. The “goods of the earth” are gifts from God, and they are intended by God for the benefit of everyone.[29] Man was given dominion over all creation as sustainer rather than as exploiter,[30] and is commanded to be a good steward of the gifts God has given him.[31] We cannot use and abuse the natural resources God has given us with a destructive consumer mentality.

Catholic Social Teaching recognizes that the poor are the most vulnerable to environmental impact and endure disproportional hardship when natural areas are exploited or damaged. US Bishops established an environmental justice program to assist parishes and dioceses who wanted to conduct education, outreach and advocacy about these issues. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops Environmental Justice Program (EJP) calls Catholics to a deeper respect for God’s creation and engages parishes in activities that deal with environmental problems, particularly as they affect the poor.

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