The mission of our organization “A Faith That Does Justice” includes much overlap with the principles contained in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (henceforth, CST). Rooted in the Scriptures and the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, Catholic Social Teaching represents a developing tradition that brings together what is and what ought to be. The moral values and principles we hold dear are often violated in practice, especially in the worlds of politics and the economy. We should never be afraid of identifying social injustices and working to correct and overturn them.
Of course, there are many approaches to social justice in our world today, as various religions and ideologies seek to share the wisdom of their adherents and to make their voices heard in public. Among all the competing voices, CST deliberately seeks to make a constructive contribution that is useful to all. To utilize the insights of CST is to employ a lens that sees social issues in a way that at once reflects distinctively Roman Catholic values and also remains appealing to a wide range of people, from many backgrounds and faiths.
The search for common consensus is aided by the tendency of CST to promote values that are general enough to win a broad audience. This is in line with the very definition of the word “catholic,” whose Greek roots refer to inclusivity and totality. Think of CST as a component of Catholicism that serves not as a barrier that divides Roman Catholics from other people (as doctrines sometimes function), but as a bridge that connects people of conscience seeking justice in our troubled world. CST is at once where Catholic theology meets the wider world, and a gift that Catholicism offers to “all people of good will” searching for tools to take on the challenges of a world plagued by injustice.
To see how broad CST is, and to understand its appeal even in the most pluralistic settings, consider four of its key principles. The formulation of each of the following is taken from the reference work, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2005 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
1) The principle of human dignity:
A just society can become a reality only when it is based on respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person. … “Hence, the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons, not the other way around.”(from Compendium No. 132, quoting the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, no. 26)
2) The principle of the common good:
…According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” (ibid No. 164, quoting Gaudium et Spes, no. 26)
3) The principle of subsidiarity:
The principle of subsidiarity protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups [families, cultural, recreational and professional associations, unions, political bodies, neighborhood groups] to fulfill their duties. This principle is imperative because every person, family and intermediate group has something original to offer to the community. (ibid Nos. 185-187)
4) The principle of solidarity:
Solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an ever more committed unity. … there persist in every part of the world stark inequalities between developed and developing countries, inequalities stoked also by various forms of exploitation, oppression and corruption … The acceleration of interdependence between persons and peoples needs to be accompanied by equally intense efforts on the ethical-social plane, in order to avoid the dangerous consequences of perpetrating injustice on a global scale. (ibid No. 192)
The vehicles of modern CST include about a dozen papal encyclicals (from 1891 to present), documents from other Vatican sources (church offices, synods, and councils), and statements of many conferences of bishops across the world, such as pastoral letters from the U.S. bishops on matters of social justice. Besides the four principles mentioned above, CST treats topics such as labor, poverty, family life, property, peacemaking and care for the natural environment. In all of these areas, CST operates according to the commonsense see-judge-act method. It takes seriously the task of gathering ample data, making practical judgments based on careful reasoning, and taking proactive measures to carry out prudent planning.
Future installments in this series will explore how CST applies principles to a range of justice issues in society.
Fred Kammer, SJ, JD, is a member of the Central and Southern Province of Jesuits. He is the executive director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University, New Orleans.
Thomas Massaro, SJ, is a member of the Northeast Province of Jesuits. He is Professor of Moral Theology at Fordham University, New York.