The problem with Catholic Social Teaching today is not that it is unknown, but rather that it is almost too commonplace.
[This post was originally published by the author at the St. Augustine Catholic Parish (Oakland, CA) Young Adult Blog.]
It used to be said that Catholic Social Teaching was the “best kept secret” of the Catholic Church. I am not sure that is really true anymore. My experience as a Catholic school teacher and my conversations with many friends in the same field make it clear that anyone who has gone through Catholic High School in the past decade has a thorough instruction in the social tradition of the Church. Catholic colleges under the rubric of Catholic Social Teaching were far ahead of the surge of mission trips and volunteer opportunities that have now become a normative part of the “college experience” even at non-Catholic schools. And in the past decade or two, social justice ministries have become standard in most Catholic parishes, with some larger parishes even employing a full-time social justice minister. Here at St. Augustine, incidentally, “social justice” (a heading that includes our Corazon mission, St. Vincent de Paul, and our Kenya Project) was our second most popular answer to “Where do we want to grow at St. A’s?” and our eighth most popular response to “What do we value at St. A’s?” in our recent parish transition meeting.
It seems to me, that the problem with Catholic Social Teaching today is not that it is unknown, but rather that it is almost too commonplace. We take it for granted that as Catholics we stand for human life and human dignity and that we stand on the side of the poor and the vulnerable without ever really reflecting on how special that is, or what that really ought to require of us. Like most faiths, Catholicism has a set of moral standards for how individuals ought to act: rules of individual behavior like “thou shall not kill” and “honor thy father and mother.” But unlike many other belief systems, our faith also teaches us a vision of society that we are to work toward together – a vision of what God’s Kingdom ought to look like. This was the subject of most of Jesus’ parables: “The Kingdom of God is like… a mustard seed… a good Samaritan… the feast for the prodigal son.” Our Church, in the body of encyclicals and conciliar documents that has come to be known collectively as Modern Catholic Social Teaching, has brought these teachings forward, examined the “signs of the times,” and identified the most pressing social concerns of our day so that we may each do our part to work toward the Kingdom of heaven.
Despite the fact that they (largely) share the same scripture, many of our Protestant cousins still tend to emphasize a personal relationship with God and lose sight of the social teachings of Jesus. Our Catholic faith does not do that. In Catholicism, a personal relationship with Jesus is important, but so is a communal relationship. There is a social good that cannot be reduced to the sum of individual goodness.
Of course, if there are irreducible social goods then there are also irreducible social sins. Take for example the phone that each of us carries every day. That phone was most likely constructed in China or some other labor rich country by workers who work in such dreadful working conditions that companies have to install suicide nets on the tops of buildings. That same phone also requires rare minerals such as Coltan (every cell phone does) that are only found in the Great Lakes region of Africa (i.e., Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya), where control of these mineral rights been both the cause of and the funding source for perpetual war, genocide, and other atrocities. By purchasing and using that phone, are we personally responsible for the sins the construction of the phone has caused? Perhaps “personal responsibility” claims too much, but to deny any responsibility claims to little. Rather, to ask such a question is a little like the question the disciples asked Jesus regarding the man born blind: “was he blind because of the his own sins or the sins of his parents?” (Jn 9:1-41) The disciples were asking the wrong question about sin and so are we if we try to make sin a purely personal affair. Sin and goodness can be and in this case are social realities as well as personal realties.
Social sins require social solutions. This is the essence of Catholic Social Teaching. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching (listed below) offer a framework for how society ought to be constructed. To be sure, we bring such a society into the world through our individual actions, but if CST stops at individual action it fails in its goals. The principles of CST cannot be understood as rules to be followed – they must be understood as modern-day guidelines for the Kingdom of Heaven, and in the meantime, for our society here on earth.
Ten Themes of Catholic Social Teaching
There is no definitive list of principles of Catholic Social Thought and the topics addressed by CST has actually evolved over time. However, since all lists are based on the same body of teachings beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and continuing through Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritae in 2009, all lists tend to be fairly similar in scope. The U.S. Conference of Bishops has their list of “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Thinking” here but I prefer the list offered by Jesuit Theologian Thomas Massaro (see his Living Justice for perhaps the finest introduction to the subject ever written), with a tenth theme added to address the concern for the environment that has become commonly included since Massaro wrote his book:
- The Dignity of Every Person and Human Rights
- Solidarity, Common Good and Participation
- Family Life
- Subsidiarity and the Proper Role of Government
- Property Ownership in Modern Society: Rights and Responsibilities
- The Dignity of Work, the Rights of Workers, and Support for Labor Unions
- Colonialism and Economic Development
- Peace and Disarmament
- Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
- [Care for God’s Creation]
[Matthew Gaudet is an adjunct professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco and a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union. For more of Matt's posts on this blog, please click here]