In this first part of a two-part series on Catholic Social Teaching, we explore the seven main themes. This is a bird’s eye view of Catholic Social Teaching and only begins to scratch the surface.
The Heart of Christ
The social teaching of the Church is a rich treasury of the heart of Christ. As human beings, we are made to be social. Man cannot live without love, and love does not exist in isolation. The way that we navigate our society and live the call to holiness must be modeled after Christ Himself if we are to be authentic Catholic Christians.
So, what are the main themes of Catholic social teaching? They are:
1) the Life and Dignity of the Human Person,
2) the Call to Family, Community, and Participation,
3) Rights and Responsibilities,
4) the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable,
5) The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,
7) Care for God’s Creation.
Many members of the worldwide Church for a few decades, in particular, have chosen to emphasize one or two causes rather than the cause of Christ. To His disciples, the members of the Body of Christ, Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me (Mt 25:40).” And He also says, “… what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me (Mt 25:45).” Therefore, we cannot work for one cause and remain inactive on the rest. In other words, we cannot be lukewarm, we must take the whole of Christ’s teaching or none of it.
There are those who often fight for the dignity of the life in the womb, and rightly so, but who do not take into consideration a stewardship of the environment. There are priorities, such as fighting the genocide of abortion, but the other themes cannot be forgotten. Each of these areas of consideration in Catholic social teaching flow from the heart of Christ.
We cannot pick and choose the doctrines we like or dislike. Therefore, the first step is to look at our own lives. Do we live in accordance with the teachings of Christ? Then, we look at our surroundings and work to effect change where it is needed. In doing this, we change the world and show Christ; we become the light of the world (cf. Mt 5:14).
The Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, every single person has dignity and worth from the moment of conception in the womb until they draw their final breath. Human life is sacred, which means that it has been set apart. We have each been set apart to come into relationship with Christ and one day be with Him forever in Heaven.
Human life is under direct attack from the evils of abortion and euthanasia, which are unacceptable under any circumstance. There is a lot more to say on these topics, but this is more of a primer. For more, please read Evangelium Vitae by Pope St. John Paul II.
There is also a threat to the value of human life from embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and the imprudent use of the death penalty. There are also many unjust wars, acts of terrorism, and acts of violence in our world. Catholic social teaching exhorts nations to find peaceful solutions to disputes whenever possible. However, a nation or an individual has the right and obligation to protect innocent human life when it is threatened.
The Call to Family, Community, and Participation
In 1960, the global divorce rate was 12%. Divorce is also a violence to a couple because marriage is a lifelong union. There is no such thing as a clean divorce; someone is always harmed. For this reason, the Church tenderly reaches out to those who have suffered divorce to offer the healing of Christ. This past year, the global divorce rate was 44%. In the United States, the rate is 46%, 42% in the United Kingdom, and 38% in Australia.
With such high divorce rates, it is not uncommon to see broken families. Catholic social teaching upholds that the person is sacred, but that the person is also social. Our economics, politics, laws, policies, and social institutions must therefore defend marriage and the family. Without the family being at the core, these social institutions will erode and eventually break apart.
With crumbling families, the need for community has never been more important. It is our obligation as Catholics to reach out to our fellow man, especially the poor and vulnerable. All are called, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity to seek the common good.
Our participation in community is not negotiable. We need our brothers and sisters and they need us. Our world has become increasingly individualized and people are finding themselves more and more isolated. This isolation is contrary to God’s design for us. As a result, rates of mental illness and suicide have skyrocketed. As Catholics, we are called to breathe life into our communities, in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Rights and Responsibilities
In order for our communities to thrive and be able to uphold and protect the dignity of human life, at all stages, rights must be protected and responsibilities met. St. John XXIII enumerates these rights: “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood (Pacem in Terris, 11).”
Every natural right begins with the right to life. Therefore, the right to life must be protected above all else, because without life there are no other rights. The following natural rights, listed by Pope St. John XXIII lead to the duty of the state and individuals to protect the rights of others. There is also a responsibility to use these rights well in the service of God and man.
The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
The greatest test of a society is how well vulnerable members of that community are doing. In nations ravaged by communism, there is an ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the ultra-poor. In areas of unfettered capitalism and many types of socialism, there is likewise a disappearing middle class. In other words, societies that do not care for the poor and vulnerable tend to lead to the poor getting poorer and rich getting richer.
The Catholic Church has always upheld the call of Christ Himself to the corporal works of mercy. The needs of the poor and vulnerable must come before our own. This is called the preferential option for the poor. Do I feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead? Notice I said “Do I?” It is not enough for our parish to do these things; in one way or another, we will be individually judged by God on whether we personally did these things in service of Christ.
The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Work has dignity. The economy is there to serve the people, not the people to serve the economy. Work is a participation in the creation of God. We do not work simply to make money. If work has dignity, then the rights of workers should be protected.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops summarized the rights of workers very well: “All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, no. 5).”
All of our earthly fathers share in the Fatherhood of God. Our Father in Heaven has called us His own through the waters of Baptism. Therefore, in Christ, we are all brothers and sisters; we have become co-heirs to the kingdom. Beyond our own belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ, we also share in our one Creator. Therefore, we all belong to one human family, regardless of nation, race, ethnicity, economic or ideological differences.
Recent technological shifts and globalization have made this reality all the clearer. We are connected. Our solidarity with our one human family spurs us to pursue true justice and peace. In the midst of sufferings, especially violence and conflict, we are called by the Church to work for peace.
Care for God’s Creation
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, following suit after Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, wrote beautifully on the care for our common home in his work, Laudato Si. In this document, he writes, “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit (Laudato Si, 159).”
Caring for God’s Creation is part and parcel of the Catholic life. In our throw away culture, we realize that the environment is impacted by wastefulness and the dignity of human life is impacted by a disregard for the poor. Everything in God’s creation is connected, and we must seek to serve God and our fellow man in all things.
Want to know more? Check out this excellent video for more details on CST.