Catholic Social Teaching

6 Themes of CST (US Bishops)

Starting Points

Catholic Social Teaching is widely known in summary form by a list of themes; a themes handout is circulated in parishes. (See the US Bishops' six themes of CST.) The themes approach to CST gives the impression that the themes have equal weight and have no moral hierarchy; the themes handouts that I have seen do not identify the reasoning by which the themes emerge. I prefer to identify the root assumptions of CST: if people understand its starting points, then the conclusions found within the Church's social documents are clear. 

The following are my three root assumptions of CST.
  • the transcendental value of the person (the person is a good which may not be subordinated to other goods; social structures must be ordered to, or at least not hinder movement toward, the true telos of the person)
  • natural law (a universal moral standard to which all governments and leaders are accountable)
  • love (agape) as the telos (God-designed goal or purpose) of all human relationships (a truth entrusted to the Church -- i.e., revelation -- to share with the world as a sign-post of where the person is ordered)

One might add a fourth, the claims of human community, but this is derivative from the first three. 

Excerpts from Church Documents

Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life
“In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death,’ there is need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs….

“What is urgently called for is a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life: new, because it will be able to confront and solve today's unprecedented problems affecting human life; new, because it will be adopted with deeper and more dynamic conviction by all Christians; new, because it will be capable of bringing about a serious and courageous cultural dialogue among all parties….

“While the urgent need for such a cultural transformation is linked to the present historical situation, it is also rooted in the Church's mission of evangelization. The purpose of the Gospel, in fact, is ‘to transform humanity from within and to make it new.’ Like the yeast which leavens the whole measure of dough (cf. Mt 13:33), the Gospel is meant to permeate all cultures and give them life from within, so that they may express the full truth about the human person and about human life

“We need to begin with the renewal of a culture of life within Christian communities themselves. Too often it happens that believers, even those who take an active part in the life of the Church, end up by separating their Christian faith from its ethical requirements concerning life, and thus fall into moral subjectivism and certain objectionable ways of acting.

“With great openness and courage, we need to question how widespread is the culture of life today among individual Christians, families, groups and communities in our dioceses. With equal clarity and determination we must identify the steps we are called to take in order to serve life in all its truth.

At the same time, we need to promote a serious and in-depth exchange about basic issues of human life with everyone, including non-believers, in intellectual circles, in the various professional spheres and at the level of people's everyday life.”

Human Rights, acc. to John XXIII's Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963)

  • Right to life
  • Right to worthy standard of living
  • Right to worship god according to one’s conscience
  • Right of meeting and association, which includes labor unions in later documents
  • Right to emigrate and immigrate
  • Right to choose freely one’s state of life

Rights pertaining to moral and cultural values:

  • Right to respect for one’s person, to one’s good reputation
  • Right to freedom in searching for truth and in expressing and communicating opinions
  • Right to freedom in pursuit of art, within the limits laid down by the moral order and the common good
  • Right to be informed truthfully about public events
  • Right to share in the benefits of culture
  • Right to take an active part in public affairs and to contribute one’s part to the common good of the citizens
  • Right to a basic education and to technical and professional training in keeping with the stage of educational development in the country to which one belongs

“Every effort should be made to ensure that persons be enabled, on the basis of merit, to go on to higher studies, so that, as far as possible, they may occupy posts and take on responsibilities in human society in accordance with their natural gifts and the skills they have acquired.”

Economic rights

  • “right by the natural law not only to an opportunity to work, but also to go about his work without coercion”
  • “right to demand working conditions in which physical health is not endangered, morals are safeguarded, and young people’s normal development is not impaired. Women have the right to working conditions in accordance with their requirements and their duties as wives and mothers”
  • “right to carry on economic activities according to the degree of responsibility of which one is capable”
  • “right to a wage determined according to criterions of justice, and sufficient, therefore, in proportion to the available resources, to give the worker and his family a standard of living in keeping with the dignity of the human person”
  • “natural right of each individual to make of his work the means to provide for his own life and the lives of his children”

Common Good

"By common good is to be understood 'the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.' The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority." (Catechism 1906, quoting Vatican II)

According to the Catechism, the "essential elements" of the common good are:

  • Respect for the (inalienable rights of) person (1907)
  • The well-being and development of the social group (1908)
  • Peace, in the sense of security and stability (1909)

"The common good of the whole of society dwells in man; he is ... 'the way of the Church.' ... It could be said that here we encounter the loftiest definition of man: The glory of God is the common good of all that exists; the common good of the human race." (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families 11)

Government's purpose (1 of 2) is to realize the Common Good:

"The State, whose purpose is the realization of the common good in the temporal order…Moreover, it should safeguard the rights of all citizens, but especially the weaker, such as workers, women, and children. Nor may the State ever neglect its duty to contribute actively to the betterment of the living conditions of workers" ("Christianity and Social Progress," Pope John XXIII (1961)

The Catechism on the Proper Use of Authority

It is worth reflecting upon the significance of the blue phrases: "The exercise of authority is meant to give outward expression to a just hierarchy of values in order to facilitate the exercise of freedom and responsibility by all. Those in authority should practice distributive justice wisely, taking account of the needs and contribution of each, with a view to harmony and peace. They should take care that the regulations and measures they adopt are not a source of temptation by setting personal interest against that of the community." (2236)

  • "Freedom and responsibility" - how persons use their freedom affects others, so freedom cannot be a license to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants
  • "taking account of the needs and contribution of each" = from each according to the ability to give, to each according to need
  • Laws should not tempt people to pursue their own selfish good at the expense of the good of the community