Further Explanation

The Church has always had social teaching and the most fundamental source is the Bible. There was also the tradition of the Church Fathers in such areas as ownership of property, the just war and the charging of interest. In its modern form, however, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) first emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a response to the injustices of the Industrial Revolution and the threat of Communism. While recognising that social teaching is a lived tradition and not just a written one, our focus is on the considerable development that has taken place over the last century.

What is Catholic Social Teaching?

• An authoritative Church teaching on social, political and economic issues
• It is informed by Gospel values and the lived experience of Christian reflection
• It analyses that lived experience of Christian reflection from different historical, political and social contexts
• It provides principles for reflection, a criteria for judgment and guidelines for action
• Thus, it enables us in our struggle to live our faith in justice and peace


What Catholic Social Teaching is not:

• A ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism. It constitutes a category of its own. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, paragraph 41).
• It is not an ideology, but rather the result of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and the Church’s tradition… It therefore belongs to the field of moral theology and not of ideology. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, paragraph 41).
• It is not a model: the Church has no models to present; models that are real and effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in their social, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with each other. (Centesimus Annus, pargraph 43).


Principles of Catholic Social Teaching:

Below are a list of some of the main principles of Catholic Social Teaching that are highlighted throughout the website.


The dignity of the human person:

The focal point of CST is the human person, made in the image of God, and so having fundamental freedom and dignity, the basis for human rights. Recognising this image in our neighbour, the teaching rejects any policy or system that reduces people to economic units or passive dependence. (See especially Pacem in Terris & Laborem Exercens).


The Common Good

People exist as part of society. Every individual has a duty to share in promoting the welfare of the community and a right to benefit from that welfare. This applies at every level: local, national and international. Public authorities exist mainly to promote the common good and to ensure that no section of the population is excluded. (See Sollicitudo Rei Socialis).



As members of the one human family, we have mutual obligations to promote the rights and development of peoples across communities and nations. Solidarity is the fundamental bond of unity with our fellow human beings and the resulting interdependence. All are responsible for all; and in particular the rich have responsibilities towards the poor. National and international structures must reflect this. (See Populorum Progressio, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis & Centesimus Annus)



All power and decision-making in society should be at the most local level compatible with the common good. Subsidiarity will mainly mean power passing downwards, but it could also mean passing appropriate powers upwards. The balance between the vertical (subsidiarity) and the horizontal (solidarity) is achieved through reference to the common good. (See Quadragesimo Anno)


Option for the poor

Implicit in earlier CST, this has now been taken up with new urgency and far-reaching consequences for pastoral action. Fidelity to Christ means seeing him above all in the faces of suffering and wounded people. (See Sollicitudo Rei Socialis & Centesimus Annus)


Putting into Practice

Applying abstract principles is always difficult but John XXIII outlined a well-tried procedure:

(a) examine the concrete situation (See);
(b) evaluate it with respect to the principles (Judge);
(c) decide what should be done in the circumstances (Act). (Mater and Magistra, paragraph 23)

This methodology is precisely what is followed in The Pastoral Cycle.

The Pastoral Cycle

A Developing Teaching

CST is by no means a fixed body of doctrine. Grounded in the principles identified above and Gospel values, it has focused on major themes that have evolved in response to the challenges of the day. Many of the changes date from around the time of the Second Vatican Council though some are taking a long time to be properly integrated into the life of the Church.

(a) Changes in attitude
• Political involvement: Responding to the privatisation of religion and the political apathy this engendered, Vatican II gave fresh emphasis to the Church’s shared responsibility for secular as well as sacred history. Quadragesimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year” sees politics as aimed at the transformation of society. In this sense political involvement is a must. Christians and the Church itself must be prepared to take a prophetic stand in bearing witness to the peace and justice of the kingdom.

• Commitment to the world: The Council presents the world in positive terms – created and redeemed by God. We share in the creator’s plan, working for its realisation in history. (See Gaudium et Spes & Laborem Exercens). So CST has developed a more global vision affecting every level in society and both rich and poor nations. It has also taken a peace-making role more seriously. (See Pacem et Terris, Gaudium et Spes, Populorum Progressio & Centesimus Annus)

• Preaching the Gospel: ‘Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world are a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel’ (Justicia in Mundo – Justice in the World, paragraph 6). This means that when this dimension is lacking in our preaching, we are failing to preach the Gospel.

(b) Changes in methodology
• Reading the ‘signs of the times’: ‘The Church has the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel’ (Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 4). God speaks in and through human history: ie the Church learns from the world where God’s Spirit is at work. The world is part of God’s continuing creation for whose transformation we take responsibility.

• Empowering the local Community: ‘It is up to the Christian communities to analyse the situation proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel, and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from CST’ (Quadragesimo Anno, paragraph 4). This is to combine the Pastoral Cycle with Subsidiarity. In other words, the Church does not have ready-made answers: it is for the local community to discern what should be done ‘in dialogue with other Christians and everyone of good will’ (ibid).

• Greater use of scripture: CST has moved away from a deductive, rather narrow adherence to natural law ethics towards a more objective approach based on human experience, with scripture as the new touchstone. This is particularly evident in the encyclicals of John Paul II. The resulting change has brought a new radicalism that sees the obligations of the rich towards the poor as part of the co-responsibility for creation and a share in God’s covenant with the poor.

• Primacy of love: Instead of CST being primarily based on reason, more recent documents have been increasingly shaped by the primacy of love, understood as including the biblical themes of justice, mercy and option for the poor. Reason is not discarded but put in its proper place.

• Action oriented planning: The starting point of pastoral and social reflection is people – with all ‘the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties’ (Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 1). In their struggle for justice and peace, the outcome of the process is action. The emphasis is on right doing (orthopraxis) and not just right thinking (orthodoxy). Earlier CST methodology often led to social idealism, isolating reason from the whole pastoral cycle process.

Future Development

• Consultative: It would be possible at the national or regional level to follow the lead of the US Bishops and use a consultative process in producing documents on key social issues. Presented in this way the documents have been held in high regard. ‘Reception’ of teaching by an informed church is increasingly recognised as integral to the teaching process.

• Ecumenical: It should also be possible to explore social teaching ecumenically. The World Council of Churches has worked over the years – most notably in the areas of Poverty, Racism and Integrity of Creation. There would be everything to gain from close co-operation. The European Ecumenical Assemblies of Basel (1989) Gratz (1997) and Sibiu (2007) have shown just how effective that co-operation could be.

• Gaps: Wide-ranging though it is, CST will always need to develop and apply its methodology to new social contexts. The most obvious gap is on the role of women: this was the focus of a US Bishops’ Pastoral circulated in draft but withdrawn under pressure from the Vatican. They also produced The Challenge of Peace (1983), Economic Justice for All (1986), Renewing the Earth (1991). These were all circulated first in draft as consultative documents.


Key Documents

With the exception of a Council Pastoral Constitution and a Synod statement, the following are all papal texts, but there are also documents from regional conferences of bishops, like those of CELAM (Latin America) or FABC(Asia) – particularly that of Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979) – which applied CST to their own context and reflected on such ideas as conscientisation, basic communities and option for the poor. Many of these themes have been picked up by the wider Church. There have also been contributions from the Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace: – on Debt (1986), Homelessness (1987), Racism (1988), Refugees (1992) and Land Reform (1997).

1891 Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” – Leo XIII

The Condition of Labour examines working conditions in industrialised countries and insists on workers’ rights. The Church, employers & workers should work together to build a just society.

1931 Quadragesimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year” – Pius X

The Reconstruction of the Social Order at the time of major economic depression, QA criticises abuses of capitalism & communism. Unity between capital & labour. Ownership brings social responsibilities. Subsidiarity.

1961 Mater et Magistra – “Mother & Teacher” – John XXIII

Christianity & Social Progress Updates earlier teaching and applies to agriculture and aid to developing countries, thus ‘internationalising’ CST. Role of laity in applying social teaching as an integral part of Christian life.

1963 Pacem in Terris – “Peace on Earth” – John XXIII

Peace on Earth With the immanent threat of nuclear war, this is a plea for peace based on the social order from a framework of rights and duties applying to individuals, public authorities and the world community.

1965 Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” Vatican II

The Church in the Modern World Church’s duty is discernment of the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. Principles of cultural development and justice, enhancing human dignity and the common good. Work for peace.

1967 Populorum Progressio – “The Development of Peoples” Paul VI

The Development of Peoples Charter for development – ‘the new name for peace’. Deals with structural poverty, aid and trade. Limits put on profit motive and the right to private property. Christians to strive for international justice.

1971 Octogesima Adveniens – “On the Eightieth Year” – Paul VI

A Call to Action Rome doesn’t necessarily have the answer: need for local church to respond to specific situations. Urbanisation has brought new injustices. We are called to political action.

1971 Justicia in Mundo – “Justice in the World” – Synod

‘Justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel…’ The Church must examine its conscience about its lifestyle and so witness to the Gospel. Importance of Education for Justice.

1975 Evangelii Nuntiandi – “Evangelisation in the Modern World”- Paul VI

Profound links between evangelisation and development and liberation. Only the kingdom is absolute; everything else is relative. All levels of society are to be transformed by the power of the good news.

1981 Laborem Exercens – “On Human Work” – John Paul II

On Human Work For JPII work is the central social issue. Work increases human dignity. Priority of labour over capital. Rights of workers (especially women) and unions. Critique of capitalism as well as Marxism.

1987 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – “The Social Concern of the Church” – John Paul II

Social Concern Updates Populorum Progressio with analysis of global development: North/South divide blamed on confrontation between capitalism and Marxism. Conversion from ‘Structures of sin’ towards solidarity and option for the poor.

1991 Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year” – John Paul II

One Hundred Years Review of CST and major events of the last century, constantly affirming human dignity and human rights, justice and peace. The fall of Marxism does not signify a victory for capitalism.

1996 – The Common Good

In 1996 the catholic Bishops of England & Wales produced The Common Good in preparation for a General Election. Strongly critical of dominant market values it also serves as a readable introduction to CST and its application to some of the issues facing our society.

2009 Caritas in Veritate – “Charity in Truth” – BenedictXVI

Charity in Truth Updates Populorum Progressio with a comprehensive review of development and some reflection on the economic crisis and business ethics. Provides a theological framework for CST.

Some other documents of John Paul II contain important sections for CST:
Redemptor Hominis (1979): human dignity & human rights; modern technology; war & arms race.
Dives in Misericordia (1980): growing disparity in wealth; justice is shaped by the power of love.
Redemptoris Missio(1990): pro inculturation & economic liberation; but true liberation is in Christ.
Tertio Millennio Adveniente(1994): J&P a necessary condition for celebrating Jubilee of year 2000.
Evangelium Vitae(1995): brings together CST and teaching on sex & the family as ‘Gospel of life’.
Novo Millennio Ineunte(2000): challenges of ecology, peace and human rights; all to work for J&P.

2010 – Choosing the Common Good

In March 2010 our bishops produced another document, Choosing the Common Good, in order to reach a shared vision about the sort of society we want to live in. “Given our recent past we need to restore trust in our society between individuals, citizens & the state, and in our institutions (especially in MPs, Bankers and the Church itself)“. Hence they sought agreement on the principles & values for a just and civil society. These core principles are the Common Good, integral human development and the pursuit of virtue. (These are key themes of CST and apply to all of us).

2013 Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel – Pope Francis

While not a papal encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium gives particular attention to the ‘social dimension of Evangelisation’.

2015 Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home – Pope Francis

Laudato Si’ is a passionate call to all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action”, particularly in relation to the destruction of the environment.

Brian Davies, Social Justice Specialist

Brian Davies




Birmingham Justice & Peace commission, England