Catholic Social Teaching

Categories: Thomas Aquinas

* is a body of doctrine developed by the Catholic Church on matters of poverty and wealth, economics, social organization and the role of the state. Its foundations are widely considered to have been laid by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, which advocated economic Distributism and condemned both Capitalism and Socialism, although its roots can be traced to the writings of Catholic thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo, and is also derived from concepts present in the Bible.

* The Catholic Social Teaching has two basic characteristics, namely, being permanent and developing.

* Permanent

-Since the teachings are based on the Gospel, they offer a permanent complex idea to be pursued in the ever changing historical conditions and ways. These teachings can never go out of date in their fundamentals. Examples of these permanent teachings are exemplified in the following principles:

1. Human dignity and Solidarity
2. Social justice and Christian love
3. Active non-violence and peace
4. Preferential option for the poor
5. Value of human work
6. Universal destinations of all goods of the earth
7. Stewardship and the integrity of creation
8. People empowerment
9. Authentic and holistic (integral) human development

* Developing

-The fundamentals of Church Social Teaching make up the steadily growing collection of the Church’s social principles that must be creatively applied to and renewed in ever changing concrete situations of various events, cultures, and human needs in the historical process. Deeper insights into permanent values develop as the Church reads the signs of the times.

* Methods and Sources

1. Scripture. The authoritative books which record the Jewish and Christian  experiences of God’s self-disclosure.
Scripture reveals who God is and who we are called to be in response to God. Interpretation of Scripture requires attention to historical context and is best done in community.

2. Tradition: the ways of thinking and living that are “handed over” (traditio) from one generation to the next; an ongoing conversation across the ages about our most important questions. Also the body of theological reflection and the ways of putting this reflection into practice that are “handed over” (traditio) from one generation to the next. Magisterium: official teaching office of church and authoritative voice of tradition. While theologians, activists, and ordinary Catholics make contribute to this body of theological reflection in important ways, a privileged source of Catholic tradition is the magisterium or the official, authoritative teaching office of the church. This official teaching office is exercised by Catholic Bishops, and in particular the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), as well as groups appointed by the Pope. This teaching is expressed in the form of a) papal encyclicals;

b) encyclicals of Church Councils (such as Vatican II) or Synods of Bishops, c) statements by Vatican offices, congregations, and commissions; & d) Episcopal conferences (regional meetings of Bishops, such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States).

3. Reason. The natural human capacity to know truth. The way we interpret and understand Scripture, Tradition, and experience.

* Reason as Natural Law

The preeminent form of reasoning for much of Catholic tradition has been natural law reasoning. To understand Catholic natural law reasoning, one must get inside a whole worldview, culture, and language within Catholic tradition. Natural law holds that God’s intentions are expressed in the order that God “built into creation.” This order takes the form of “natures” or intelligible patterns of being. Humans are capable of knowing this order by reflecting upon creation. As humans we must first recognize our nature and act according to it so as to fulfill our created nature. For example, humans by nature (or by creation) have a “built in” instinct for self-preservation. Aquinas argues that to use appropriately limited violence in self-defense is good because it is to act according to our God-given nature. (God’s creation is good).

* Four Levels of Law

St. Thomas Aquinas defines law is “an ordering of reason” (ordinatio rationis) or the most important way that reason rules or measures actions. He describes four levels of law: a. Eternal Law: the mind (ratio) of God which orders and governs creation b. Divine Law: the explicit revelation of the mind of God in Scripture c. Natural Law: the expression of the mind of God in the order that God has built into creation. This order takes the form of natures or patterns of being that humans can know by using their reason to reflect on creation. For example, because humans by nature (or creation) have a built in instinct for self-preservation, limited self-defense is in accord with our God-given nature. See Romans 2:14-15 d. Human Law: human attempts to formulate laws that reflect the natural law.

* Two Interpretations of Human Nature

There have been two major strains of interpretation of human nature: a) “nature as physical”—humans must respect their biological “givenness” or the physical order (ex. artificial contraception interferes with the natural order of sexual intercourse whereas the rhythm method respects this order.) b) “nature as rational”—humans must act in accord with reason; they must seek to discover and fulfill their fullest purpose. Biology does not trump other cues in discovering “nature.” Instead, we must look to all sources of human wisdom in order to discover how things are meant to be. The pope reasons that the purpose of property is for the good of all creation but a limited right to private property is consistent with human dignity and human wisdom about how well people take care of common property.

4. Experience. Our encounter with the world both past and present. Christian tradition privileges the experience of those at the margins of society—the poor and the oppressed. In Catholic social thought experience is enriched and expanded by a four step process of interpretation and reflection which I will call “the interpretive circle”. a. experience: insert yourself into a situation, see what is going on, and gather necessary information

b. social analysis: “What are the structural or “root” causes of injustices?” “What are the patterns of action that reinforce these injustices?” c. theological reflection: “What light does faith, especially as expressed in Scripture and Catholic social teaching, shed upon our experience and social analysis?” “Where is God in this situation and how might we respond to God’s call to us?” d. practical planning: “What are the most faithful, creative, and effective ways of acting upon the first three steps?”

* How does Catholic tradition use these four sources?

1. They serve as checks and balances to each other. Each should inform and complement the other in critical dialogue. 2. “Reason informed by faith.” Reason and faith penetrate each other and form a unified way of approaching problems. Scripture and Christian Tradition provide the overall story, worldview, and values that serve as the framework for moral reasoning.

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Catholic Social Teaching. (2016, Nov 12). Retrieved from

Catholic Social Teaching

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