Catholic social teaching

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Important Documents

Rerum Novarum (1891)
Stone Lectures ( Princeton 1898)
Graves de Communi Re (1901)
Quadragesimo Anno (1931)
Laborem Exercens (1981)
Sollicitudi Rei Socialis (1987)
Centesimus Annus (1991)

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Thomas Aquinas · John Calvin
Pope Leo XIII · Abraham Kuyper
Maritain · Adenauer · De Gasperi
Pope Pius XI · Schuman
Pope John Paul II · Kohl

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Catholic social teaching comprises those aspects of Catholic doctrine which relate to matters dealing with the collective aspect of humanity. The foundations of modern Catholic social teaching are widely considered to have been laid by Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum.

A distinctive feature of Catholic social teaching is its concern for the poorest members of society. This concern echoes elements of the Jewish law and of the prophetic books of the Old Testament, and recalls the teachings of Jesus Christ recorded in the New Testament, such as his declaration that "whatever you have done for one of these least brothers of mine, you have done for me." Another distinctive feature of Catholic social doctrine is the way in which it has consistently critiqued modern social and political ideologies both of the left and of the right: Communism, Socialism, liberalism, capitalism and Nazism have all been condemned, at least in their pure forms, by the Popes at one time or another.

Key themes

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

Life and dignity of the human person

The foundational principle of all Catholic Social Teaching is the sanctity of human life and the inherent dignity of the human person. 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 in his watershed encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (Latin for "The Gospel of Life").

Acts considered attacks and affronts to human life include abortion, euthanasia, and every other deliberate taking of life, and must always be opposed. In the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, it is written that “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care ."

War and the death penalty must almost always be opposed, the former being guided by the principles of just war doctrine and the latter may only be employed when "this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor." Both must always be a last resort. In addition, each human, being made in the image and likeness of God, has an inherent dignity that must always be respected. 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." Racism and other forms of discrimination must then always be opposed.

Call to family, community, and participation

Immediately after forming Adam the "LORD God said: "It is not good for the man to be alone.". The 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. 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. All people have a right to participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of society and under the principle of subsidiarity state functions should be carried out at the lowest level that is practical.

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.

The Church supports private property and teaches that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own." The right to private property is not absolute, however, and is limited by the concept of the social mortgage. 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.

Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable

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."

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."

Dignity of work and the rights of workers

Society must pursue economic justice and the economy must serve people, not the other way around. Workers have a right to work, to earn a living wage, and to form trade unions to protect their interests. All workers have a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions.

Workers must "fully and faithfully" perform the work they have agreed to do and 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."


Solidarity "is 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...." 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, 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.

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. Charity to individuals or groups must be accompanied by transforming unjust structures.

Care for 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." Man was given dominion over all creation, but in return must be a good steward of the gifts God has given him. We cannot use and abuse the natural resources God has given us with a destructive consumer mentality.


Key Documents
Rerum Novarum (1891)

Quadragesimo Anno (1931)

Mater et Magistra (1961)

Pacem in Terris (1963)

Gaudium et Spes (1965)

Populorum Progressio (1967)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987)

Centesimus Annus (1991)

Key Figures

Dorothy Day

Oscar Romero

Pope John Paul II

Joseph Bernardin

The principles of Catholic social teaching, though in most cases far older in origin, first began to be combined together into a system in the late nineteenth century. Since then, successive popes have added to and developed the Church's body of social teaching, principally through the medium of encyclical letters.

Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno

On May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum, subtitled "On Capital and Labor". In this document, Leo set out the Catholic Church's response to the social instability and labor conflict that had arisen in the wake of industrialization and had led to the rise of socialism. The Pope taught that the role of the State is to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony. He restated the Church's long-standing teaching regarding the crucial importance of private property rights, but recognised, in one of the best-known passages of the encyclical, that the free operation of market forces must be tempered by moral considerations:

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

Rerum Novarum is remarkable for its vivid depiction of the plight of the nineteenth-century urban poor and for its condemnation of unrestricted capitalism. Among the remedies it prescribed were the formation of trade unions and the introduction of collective bargaining, particularly as an alternative to state intervention. Rerum Novarum also recognized that the poor have a special status in consideration of social issues: the modern Catholic principle of the "preferential option for the poor" and the notion that God is on the side of the poor found their first expression in this document.

Forty years after Rerum Novarum, and more than a year into the Great Depression, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno, subtitled "On Reconstruction of the Social Order". Released on May 15 of 1931, this encyclical expanded on Rerum Novarum, noting the positive effect of the earlier document but pointing out that the world had changed significantly since Pope Leo's time. Pius XI reiterated Leo's defence of private property rights and collective bargaining, and repeated his contention that blind economic forces cannot create a just society on their own:

Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life...

Quadragesimo Anno also supported state intervention to mediate labor-management conflicts (a reference to the economic system which Mussolini was attempting to establish in Italy at the time), and introduced the concept of subsidiarity into Catholic thought.

One question which had occupied some Catholics prior to Quadragesimo Anno was whether Leo XIII's condemnation of radical left-wing politics in Rerum Novarum extended only to outright Communism or whether it included milder forms of Socialism as well. Pius made it clear that non-communistic Socialism was included in the condemnation. The Catholic Church thus marked out a distinctive position for itself between free-market capitalism on the right and statist Socialism on the left.

Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council

Further development came in the post-World War II period when attention turned to the problems of social and economic development and international relations. On May 15, 1961 Pope John XXIII released Mater et Magistra, subtitled "Christianity and Social Progress". This encyclical expanded the Church's social doctrine to cover the relations between rich and poor nations, examining the obligation of rich countries to assist poor countries while respecting their particular cultures. It includes an examination of the threat of global economic imbalances to world peace. On April 11, 1963, Pope John expanded further on this in Pacem in Terris (Latin for "Peace on Earth"), the first encyclical addressed to both Catholics and non-Catholics. In it, the Pope linked the establishment of world peace to the laying of a foundation consisting of proper rights and responsibilities between individuals, social groups, and states from the local to the international level. He exhorted Catholics to understand and apply the social teachings:

Once again we exhort our people to take an active part in public life, and to contribute towards the attainment of the common good of the entire human family as well as to that of their own country. They should endeavor, therefore, in the light of the Faith and with the strength of love, to ensure that the various institutions--whether economic, social, cultural or political in purpose -- should be such as not to create obstacles, but rather to facilitate or render less arduous people's perfectioning of themselves both in the natural order as well as in the supernatural.

This document, issued at the height of the Cold War also included a denunciation of the nuclear arms race and a call for strengthening the United Nations.

It was Pope John XIII who convened the Second Vatican Council, which considered a wide variety of topics in its four sessions from 1962 to 1965, and which was presided over by Pope Paul VI after Pope John's death in 1963. The primary conciliar document concerning social teachings is Gaudium et Spes, the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World", which is considered one of the chief accomplishments of the Council. Unlike earlier documents, this is an expression of all the bishops, and covers a wide range of issues of the relationship of social concerns and Christian action. Fundamentally, this document asserts the fundamental dignity of each human being, and declares the Church's solidarity with both those who suffer, and those who would comfort the suffering:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

Other conciliar documents such as Dignitatis Humanae concerning religious freedom have important applications to the social teachings.

Pope Paul VI

Like his predecessor, Pope Paul VI gave attention to the disparities in wealth and development between the industrialised West and the Third World:

There can be no progress towards the complete development of individuals without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity.

Released on March 26, 1967, Populorum Progressio, (Latin for "The Development of Peoples"), asserts that free international trade alone is not adequate to correct these disparities and supports the role of international oirganizations in addressing this need. Pope Paul called on rich nations to meet their moral obligation to poor nations, pointing out the relationship between development and peace. The intention of the Church is not to take sides, but to be an advocate for basic human dignity:

Experienced in human affairs, the Church ... "seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ Himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit." ... But, since the Church lives in history, she ought to "scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel." Sharing the noblest aspirations of men and women and suffering when she sees them not satisfied, she wishes to help them attain their full flowing, and that is why she offers all people what she possesses as her characteristic attribute: a global vision of man and of the human race.

The May 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens addressed the challenge of urbanization and urban poverty and stresssed the personal responsiblity of Christians to respond to injustice. For the tenth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul issued Evangelii Nuntiandi, (Latin for "Evangelization in the Modern World") ( October 26, 1975). In it he asserts that combating injustice is an essential part of evangelizing modern peoples.

Pope John Paul II and the new millennium

John Paul II, who was elected to the papacy in 1978, continued his predecessors' work of developing the body of Catholic social doctrine. Of particular importance was his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens.

On one hand there is a growing moral sensitivity alert to the value of every individual as a human being without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or social class. On the other hand these proclamations are contradicted in practice. How can these solemn affirmations be reconciled with the widespread attacks on human life and the refusal to accept those who are weak, needy, elderly, or just conceived? These attacks go directly against respect for life;they threaten the very meaning of democratic coexistence, and our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted, and oppressed, instead of communities of "people living together."

While not endorsing any particular political agenda, the Church holds that this teaching applies in the public (political) realm, not only the private.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has argued that John Paul II was significantly more friendly towards capitalism than Paul VI, an attitude that she attributed to his experience of Communism in Poland. Certain other discontinuities between the different Popes' approaches to social questions may perhaps be discerned: for example, Prof. Eamon Duffy has argued that Leo XIII's successor, Pope Pius X, retreated somewhat from the position articulated in Rerum Novarum. On the other hand, the general development of Catholic social teaching since the nineteenth century has been consistent and evolutionary, with the Church continuing both to insist upon the importance of the ethical dimension of social and political action and to critique ideologies of the left and of the right, from Communism to Laissez-faire, which it judges not to conform with the requirements of Christian morality.

Christian Democracy, a political movement in numerous European countries, took the social and political principles taught by the Popes as its main agenda. Catholic principles have also influenced many other political movements in varying degrees throughout the Christian world, even in non-Catholic nations.

Encyclical letters of the Catholic Social Teaching tradition

  • Rerum Novarum (1891)
  • Quadragesimo Anno (1931)
  • Mater et Magistra (1961)
  • Pacem in Terris (1963)
  • Populorum Progressio (1967)
  • Laborem Exercens (1981)
  • Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987)
  • Evangelium Vitae (1995)
  • Centesimus Annus (1991)
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