Forget the DaVinci Code and all the other supposedly mysterious workings of the Catholic Church. The Church’s best kept secret is its social teaching.
It’s not that the Church is trying to keep it a secret. In fact, during the last 120 years, the Church has issued a wide range of documents suggesting ways that people and organizations can help create a more humane world, especially one shaped by greater economic justice.
You might ask: Why has a 2,000-year-old Church gotten around to the issue of social justice only in the last hundred years or so? In fact, the Church has been engaging social issues throughout its history. And it has relied heavily on ideas of justice and charity from the Old and New Testaments, as well as from its long tradition of interpreting the word of God.
For example, medieval Christianity was permeated with the social teaching of the Church. As one writer has put it: “In the confessional Christians declared not only their sins against faith but also any transgressions with regard to just prices, stipulated merchandise, loans, contracts, and relations with employers or dependents.”
But with the Industrial Revolution came a need to apply the Christian ethic to a changing world. The medieval world of farms and handicrafts and regional fairs was displaced by the new world of machines and factories. Life in the factories could be a brutal existence. During the early years of the Industrial Revolution, for example, it was not unusual for little girls (some as young as ten) to be on duty in the factory for 14 hours a day. The irony of using young children in factories was not lost on social critics, like the one who wrote this short poem: “The golf links lie so near the mill That almost every day The laboring children can look out And see the men at play.”
It was against this backdrop that Pope Leo XIII wrote the first papal encyclical of the Church’s modern social teaching. Encyclicals are letters issued by popes that clarify areas of Church teaching. This first social encyclical was entitled Rerum Novarum, or “Of New Things,” and its subject, as Pope Leo wrote, was the “Condition of the Working Classes.” Since Rerum Novarum, the Church has developed a theology and a philosophy that apply Christian teachings to political, social, economic, cultural and technological life. As the subject of Rerum Novarum suggests, much of the teaching concerns the workplace and the people who labor in it. In 2005, the Church issued an extensive discussion of its social teaching in the form of a book entitled, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
The Compendium has many themes which characterize the Church’s teaching, but only four main principles. Its bishops and theologians, for the most part, are not working social scientists, so the Compendium focuses on those aspects of society where it can really add value. Those are the questions that get to the heart of our lives on earth, that explore the meaning of human life and how well the issues of producing and consuming enhance that meaning.
Here’s a short description of each.
Human Dignity. The first and most basic principle of Catholic Social Teaching is human dignity. This is a dignity that is conferred not by society or by statute or by custom, but by the law of God and the law of nature. People are created in the image of God, and so, by their very nature, have a right to life, freedom of conscience, and many other rights, as well as responsibilities. Human dignity is inalienable, meaning it can’t be taken away by any human institution. This principle is common to believers and unbelievers. It was accepted by philosophers long before the birth of Christ and has a prominent place in America’s Declaration of Independence.
The Common Good. The second principle is the common good. As Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, pointed out three centuries before Christ: “Man is by nature a social animal.” People can’t find fulfillment by themselves. They can find it only by cooperating with others, by helping others to find their own fulfillment in a search for the good purposes in life which are common to all members of society. The ultimate purpose in life is union with God. The common good creates the conditions in society that help people live more fulfilling lives and achieve their ultimate goal.
Solidarity. The third principle is solidarity. In a word, we’re all in this together. It’s not race against race, nation against nation, class against class, man against woman, worker against management. Solidarity seeks cooperation rather than competition. It seeks the common good rather than personal advantage. Solidarity seeks justice in our relationships with others, as well as true charity, which is more than simply giving alms to the poor but is also an active commitment to help those among us develop into the people of character they were capable of being.
Subsidiarity. The fourth principle is subsidiarity, which has been a constant teaching of the Church since the early social encyclicals. It is the understanding that true civil society is more than the lone individual, on the one hand, and an all-powerful state, on the other. Civil society encompasses all sorts of institutions. The most important is the family, which was the first, and still is, the most basic institution in society. But subsidiarity is about more than protecting individuals. It is also about helping individuals and communities use their own initiative and industry to develop themselves. It is the recognition that people and organizations at the grass roots are often, although not always, better at judging what is needed for true development than people in distant capitals or corporate headquarters.