The Evangelization Station

Best Catholic Links

Search this Site




Mailing List

Pray for Pope Francis

Scroll down for topics

100+ Important Documents in United States History


Apostolic Fathers of the Church

Articles Worth Your Time

 Biographies & Writings of Notable Catholics

Catholic Apologetics

Catholic Calendar

Catholic News Commentary by Michael Voris, S.T.B.

Catholic Perspectives

Catholic Social Teaching


Church Around the World

Small animated flag of The Holy See (State of the Vatican City) graphic for a white background

Church Contacts

  Church Documents

Church History

Church Law

Church Teaching


Doctors of the Church



(Death, Heaven, Purgatory, Hell)

Essays on Science


Fathers of the Church

Free Catholic Pamphlets

 Heresies and Falsehoods

How to Vote Catholic

Let There Be Light

Q & A on the Catholic Faith

Links to Churches and Religions

Links to Newspapers, Radio and Television

Links to Recommended Sites

Links to Specialized Agencies

Links to specialized Catholic News services


General Instruction of the Roman Missal


Marriage & the Family

Modern Martyrs

Mexican Martyrdom

Moral Theology


Pope John Paul II's

Theology of the Body

Movie Reviews (USCCB)

New Age


Parish Bulletin Inserts

Political Issues

Prayer and Devotions



Hope after Abortion

Project Rachel


Help & Information for Men


Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults




The Golden Legend


Vocation Links & Articles


What the Cardinals believe...

World Religions

Pope John Paul II

In Memoriam

John Paul II


Pope Benedict XVI

In Celebration

Visits to this site

"Have You Heard?The Secret Is Getting Out"

Mark Brumley

A Review Essay on An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching

It is a cliché in Catholic circles that the Catholic Church’s social teaching is her "best kept secret." But like many clichés, there’s a great deal of truth to it. Few Catholics seem aware that the Church even has a body of social teaching and fewer still seem to know what that teaching includes. That shouldn’t surprise us, really, since surveys of Catholics over the last thirty years reveal a general decline in knowledge of the faith. Why should knowledge of Catholic social doctrine be exempt from the trend?

Well, that’s the bad news. The good news is that Oxford’s Jesuit Father Rodger Charles wants to reverse the trend and has done something about it. A decade and a half ago, he wrote The Social Teaching of Vatican II (Ignatius Press), a large-scale summary of Catholic social teaching in light of the Council. Recently, he published a hefty two-volume work, Christian Social Witness and Teaching: the Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus (Gracewing). That monumental contribution to Catholic learning won’t make much of an impact at your local parish–at least not right away. Written primarily for those doing graduate work in theology, the two tomes that comprise the project would probably be as intelligible to the average, even otherwise well-educated Catholic as an academic paper on quantum mechanics. And not because Father Charles’ prose is dense—it isn’t. But because the average, even otherwise well-educated Catholic must start from scratch when it comes to Catholic social teaching, while Father Charles’ two-volume work necessarily assumes a fair amount of theological background.

Not so the hundred-and-so-page distillation of Father Charles’ work recently published by Ignatius Press. Titled An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching, the book is a much-needed primer on the subject, written for the non-theologian. In fact, a good deal of the book consists of excerpts from magisterial documents, so the layman can become acquainted with the original doctrinal sources as he gains a basic overview of Catholic social teaching.

An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching
is just the sort of volume that can and should be used to good effect in parish adult faith formation. It presupposes only the rudiments of Catholic theology. It is written in straightforward, explanatory prose. And it covers the terrain very well. Furthermore, unlike many other volumes that purport to give us Catholic social teaching, this book presents the real thing—authentic Catholic teaching, not modish theories and dubious mixtures of Catholicism and radical political ideologies of either the right or the left.

Catholic social teaching is about at least two things–personal morality and social morality or ethics. Personal morality concerns how I act with respect to moral norms, including how I act toward you and toward others. Some personal moral acts may have little or no social impact. In other cases, they can have tremendous impact. For example, if I were the head of a major corporation that employed hundreds of thousands of people and I arbitrarily decided to relocate the corporation in another country and hire all new workers, my personal moral act would have far-reaching social implications, especially on the workers and their dependents.

Social ethics or social morality, on the other hand, isn’t primarily concerned with my personal morality or ethical choices–although it is concerned with that indirectly. Rather, it concerns the ordering of society as such, not merely my individual moral actions, however great a social impact they may have. Social ethics tackles the question, How should society be structured to protect the dignity and rights of the human person, to foster justice and to limit or eliminate injustice, to encourage and promote the common good? The answer involves not only my individual moral choices; it also involves you and everyone else in our society.

An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching
is relevant to both personal morality and social ethics. The focus of the book is, as it should be, primarily on social ethics–on what kind of society ought to exist. But the conscientious reader will ask himself about his own role in fostering a good and just society. He will consider how his own personal, moral choices either help or hinder realizing such a society. The book’s final chapter aids the reader to discern his personal responsibilities in that regard.

Father Charles begins by mapping out three regions of common life that Catholic social teaching addresses: civil society, political society and economic society. Civil society is the larger, less formalized society, including social units such as the family or cultural groups and institutions. Political society refers specifically to the state and the government of a society, which exist to serve civil society. Finally, economic society refers to organization of human economic life–the society that results from man’s efforts to earn a living and develop his material conditions of life by agriculture, industry, trade, etc. We will examine Father Charles’ treatment of each of these three areas. But first let us look at his summary of general principles.

Starting with Principles

Father Charles identifies a number of fundamental ethical principles that should govern the ordering of any human society, including civil, political and economic society. First, the human person is the end and purpose of every social organization. In other words, societies exist to serve the people who comprise them, not the other way around. This principle is based on the fact that man is made in the image of God. He is, in other words, a person, and therefore the subject of rights.

The second basic social principle, according to Father Charles, "is that human beings are by nature social, and that they need to live in an organized society with others so that they can develop socially, intellectually, economically and spiritually." With few exceptions, human beings need others to thrive and to develop fully their basic human potentialities.

Related to human beings’ social nature is the family, which Father Charles calls "the first society." Here the author explains that this once seemingly self-evident notion is under attack today. What’s more, people are no longer clear about what, in fact, constitutes a family. He argues that a stable society needs the model of family based on monogamous marriage and the family needs the recognition of its unique status as the foundation of society in order to flourish. Later, Father Charles explores the impact of sexual permissiveness and contraception on the family, but more on that in a moment.

The third principle of social organization, writes Father Charles, "is that man is born into freedom and for freedom." He links this basic human freedom to man’s obligation to obey God’s law. Because man is obliged to obey God, he must have the political and economic freedom by which he may do so. Thus, according to Father Charles, political and economic freedom rest ultimately on what might be called a primordial religious freedom, the freedom (and therefore the responsibility) to obey God.

That brings us to Father Charles’ fourth principle of social organization: the idea that freedom must be lived according to God’s law as known to man through his conscience. It is not enough that man is free; he must use his freedom properly. In this regard, Father Charles distinguishes between the objective and subjective aspects of conscience. In his earlier work The Social Teaching of Vatican II, he more precisely referred to "the ultimate and objective ethical norm," which is the law of God, and the "proximate and subjective ethical norm," which is the judgment of man’s conscience. In his more popular treatment here, he refers to the "objective, true conscience," which reflects in one’s conscience the law of God, and the "subjective conscience," which, "is the faculty, the power of the intellect and will, which enables man to apply the objective law of God to particular circumstances."

Failure to distinguish the objective and subjective aspects of conscience in discussions of the obligation to follow one’s conscience has led to enormous problems in the modern world as well as the contemporary Church. Why? Because the subjective conscience is fallible, hence liable to error. It can, as Father Charles points out, "err through ignorance or through conditioning in evil by outside influences. It can also err by the decision to close the mind to a moral truth that could be know if the individual so wished." That is why the conscience operates soundly—people make sound moral judgments—only when the conscience is properly formed. And conscience is properly formed only when it is informed by knowledge of God’s law, the objective norm on the basis of which we should make our subjective judgments about right and wrong.

Dimensions of Social Life: Civic, Political and Economic

Three Having outlined these basic principles of social ethics, Father Charles then applies them to each of the three dimensions of social life–civil society, political society and economic society. He begins his treatment of civil society with a discussion of, "the family as the foundation of Church and Society."

In this respect, Father Charles is not timid; he states at the outset, "The family is the most important and basic of human societies, and it is founded on the sexual love between man and woman from which love new human life is born." Sexual love must be

  1. between a man and a woman, which rules out so-called "same-sex unions";

  2. monogamous, which means exclusive and faithful;

  3. lifelong, which means permanent and therefore excludes divorce and remarriage.

Furthermore, marriage is ordered to procreation and the education of children. "Through marriage new life comes into being: with children raised by loving parents, who educate them with the support of society, to live by the standards that make good citizens, that society can be assured of a healthy future," writes Father Charles.

He then spells out how any other form of sexual activity, besides marital sex, violates the moral law. Genuinely marital sex for couples means, "using their sexual faculties in a way which is worthy; in particular, both the unitive and procreative aspects if the sexual act must be preserved in each and every act . . . Sex in marriage which deliberately denies conception at a time when conception is possible (approximately one week in four) denies the Creator’s procreative plan."

While that last point may seem perfunctory, even mundane, to orthodox Catholics, many treatments of what purports to be Catholic social teaching ignore, obscure, or simply reject Catholic teaching on contraception and family planning. It is refreshing that a popular book about Catholic social teaching regards that doctrine as essential to stable, healthy family life, even as stable, healthy family life is essential to a stable, healthy society.

The Middle Ground

After the family, Catholic social teaching is concerned with what are often called "intermediate organizations" or "mediating structures." Intermediate and mediating between what, we might ask. The answer: between the individual and the state or between the basic unit of society, the family, and the state. Intermediate organizations are groups, associations or organizations privately founded and perpetuated. Examples of such organizations include your bowling club or, more prosaically, businesses, trade unions and employer associations, educational and charitable institutions, cultural or professional associations, political parties, entertainment and sports activities, etc. From one perspective, churches are "intermediate organizations."

Such organizations serve important purposes in civil society, writes Father Charles. Ordinarily, they should be given maximal freedom to operate and to fulfill their purposes, being aided by the state, where appropriate, to further public ends and to promote the common good. The principle that regulates state involvement with "intermediate organizations" is known as subsidiarity. Father Charles quotes the classic statement of the principle, found in Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:

"It is an injustice and at the same time a great evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy or absorb them" (no. 79).

Some formulations of the principle of subsidiarity suggest only the negative aspect of that definition, i.e., that greater and higher associations–usually government–should leave lesser and subordinate organizations and individuals alone. Often that is taken in the libertarian sense of maximizing freedom from restraint for its own sake. But in such a scenario the rationale for the principle of subsidiarity often goes unstated, even ignored. It is that rationale that provides the positive principle behind subsidiarity, one contained in the Latin derivation of the word itself. Subsidiarity comes from subsidium, which means "help" or "subsidy," to use an English derivation.

Father Charles’ discussion makes clear that subsidiarity means that greater organizations or social units should help lesser ones, not merely be indifferent to them. The form which that help should take, according to the principle of subsidiarity, is to allow the lesser organization or social unit the maximal liberty to pursue its purpose. But the underling notion is to aid, not to avoid or ignore.

Thus, the principle of subsidiarity is tied to another central theme of Catholic social teaching, the principle of solidarity. In his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II described solidarity as "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all" (no. 38). Put more colloquially, solidarity is the recognition that "we’re all in this together." Consequently, where we can, we are obliged to help one another, especially when others are in need and cannot help themselves. The extent of our obligation to help others is defined by fundamental human dignity and basic human rights and responsibilities, which are in turn rooted in man’s being created in the image and likeness of God.

Because man has an inherent dignity and value and needs to act according to that dignity and value, the principle of solidarity implies that people in need should be helped in such a way that, if possible, they will eventually be able to help themselves. Solidarity involves helping others, but subsidiarity specifies an important aspect of how they should be helped. As Father Charles writes, subsidiarity "states that persons, families and smaller organizations who need help in overcoming the problems which prevent them from fulfilling their potential, must be given it; the help given, and the manner in which it is given, should have the aim of making those who receive the help independent again as soon as possible." The greatest help, then, is to enable another to function without our help.

Not Politics as Usual

From civil society Father Charles moves to political society, where informal conventions become formalized into laws and mechanisms for enforcing them. A number of points bear mentioning here. First, according to Catholic teaching, the purpose of civil society is to promote and secure the common good which "embraces the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families and organizations to achieve complete and efficacious fulfillment," to quote Vatican II’s constitution Gaudium et spes (no. 74). The common good, so defined, includes all basic human rights of citizens. By that measure, a so-called political society governed for the benefit of the few who govern, rather than for the good of those who are governed, is invalid and unjust. For it fails to pursue the end for which political society exists–the good of all the people, not the few. And that good is secured only when the rights of all are secured.

A second point Father Charles stresses regarding political society is that genuine political society gets its authority from God. In that sense, it isn’t a purely human authority. Disobeying that authority without just cause amounts to disobeying God, while obeying that authority is an act of submission to God. On this point Father Charles quotes Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris:

"Political authorities derive their authority from God. Is every ruler appointed by God? No, but his authority as such is. That a ruling authority should come about is a provision of divine wisdom" (no. 46) . . . "Representatives of the state have no power to bind men in conscience unless their own authority is tied to God’s. Obedience to civil authority is in reality an act of homage paid to God. We do not demean ourselves in showing due reverence to God; we are lifted up and ennobled, for to serve God is to reign" (nos. 49-50).

Even so, the divine authority to govern comes to the ruler or rulers through the people, not directly from God. Some traditionalist Catholics of a certain brand and many non-Catholics may be surprised by that notion, thinking perhaps that Catholic teaching favors the "divine right of kings" or similar ideas–or at least that that represents the ideal political order. But in fact this is not so. On this point, Father Charles quotes St. Robert Bellarmine in his work De Membris Ecclesiae: "The political power rests immediately, as in its subject, in the whole multitude of the people, for the power comes from God, and God, having assigned it to no particular man, must have given it to the multitude."

Thus, the ruler rules, in this sense, by the consent of the governed (otherwise known as "popular sovereignty"). Moreover, not only the particular ruler but even the particular form of government is determined by the governed: "It is obvious that it rests with the people as a whole to decide whether they should have a king, or consuls, or other magistrates. Furthermore, the people can change their government from a monarchy to an aristocracy or democracy or the other way round. It is quite true that all power comes from God, but that of temporal princes is derived from God, not immediately but through the consent of human wills" (as quoted in James Brodrick S.J., The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Bellarmine, 1542-1621, vol. 1).

Vatican II also teaches that rulers govern with the consent of the governed: "The political community and the public authority are based on human nature and so belong to an order established by God; nevertheless, the choice of political regimes and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens" (Gaudium et spes, no. 76).

Father Charles’ treatment of the political order covers other terrain we can mention only briefly here, including the value and dangers of the "social assistant state," the grounds for a "just war" (he prefers the term "justified war"), and international relations. Two things that we must look at in more detail here, though, are 1) the relationship of Church and state, and 2) the extent to which there is a specifically Catholic political agenda.

On the first point—the relationship of Church and state–Father Charles presents what is called the Gelasian view. This view is based on the ideas of the fifth century Pope Gelasius, who held that God had established two powers on earth, the temporal power of the state and the sacred power of the hierarchy of the Church. Each had a relative independence and autonomy, under God. The Church has a certain primacy, of course, because she deals with the things of grace and the Age to Come. But that doesn’t mean she "calls the shots" in the secular realm or that she doesn’t have to submit to secular authority in its own domain.

Father Charles contrasts the Gelasian view with a society in which the Church and state are fused, whether in theory, in practice or both. Invariably, one or the other is distorted, usually the Church. That, in fact, is what eventually happened in a number of Catholic countries, argues Father Charles: "[A]fter the Protestant reformation, the need to obtain the co-operation of the Church monarchs for the evangelization of the new worlds being discovered, and to secure the faith in Europe from its enemies, put the Church and the Papacy in the thrall of [certain] monarchs."

The French Revolution brought the end of that thralldom, contends Father Charles, only to threaten another one—secular or anti-religious states seeking to subordinate the Church. At first, the Church had trouble distinguishing genuinely democratic states open to, if not socially and culturally built upon, religious institutions and churches, from sheer secularism, religious indifferentism or anti-religious governments cloaking themselves in democratic garb. Only in the 1940s, writes Father Charles, did the Church become convinced that democratic countries could operate with the context of the natural and revealed moral law. Vatican II acknowledged the relative autonomy of the two spheres, the temporal power of the state and the spiritual authority of the Church’s hierarchy. Father Charles writes:

"So it was that the second Vatican Council could confidently reaffirm both the Church’s ancient belief in popular sovereignty and her own freedom in dealing with the political authorities, they respecting its autonomy and the Church respecting that of the secular order. Thus she could teach her children accordingly."

A Political Agenda?

Vatican II clearly distinguishes between the purpose of the Church and the purpose of the state. That distinction brings us to a second important issue in the political realm–whether the Church has a specific political agenda. By "special political agenda," I don’t mean general principles or ideals to be pursued, but concrete political objectives and policies. In this regard, Father Charles quotes a number of conciliar texts, two of the most important coming from Gaudium et Spes no. 74:

"The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person."

"The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. Yet both are concerned with the personal and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster healthier cooperation, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all."

To these, we could add Gaudium et spes no 42: "Christ did not bequeath to the Church a mission in the political, economic or social order; the purpose he assigned to it was a religious one."

An important corollary to these texts is the idea that bishops and priests should avoid partisan politics. "Members of the Church’s hierarchy do not have any direct authority over secular society," writes Father Charles, "the role of popes, bishops and priests is to guide the laity through the moral problems involved in social living, not to play an active part themselves in solving them . . . The clergy are entitled to their political opinions as private citizens, but they must not be politically partisan in exercising their office."

Thus, it seems that the Church, as such, has no specific political agenda in the sense of concrete political objectives or policies. For the Church is not a political party, with a political platform. Nor are members of her hierarchical leadership ordinarily to participate in party politics or hold political office. The Code of Canon Law states, "Clerics are not to have an active role in political parties and in the direction of labor unions unless the need to protect the rights of the Church or to promote the common good requires it in the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority" (CIC 287 § 2). (CIC 288 exempts permanent deacons from this restriction.)

Yet should we conclude that Catholicism has nothing to say to the temporal order? Not at all. For, as we have seen, the Church proclaims the principles that promote the dignity and rights of the human person and the common good of society. Furthermore, according to Gaudium et spes, lay Catholics are specifically called "to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city" (no. 43). The idea here is that laity, properly formed in the faith by the Church’s Magisterium, will apply the Gospel to the problems of the world and work for solutions compatible with God’s law. While it isn’t usually the business of the Church’s hierarchy to get involved in specific political proposals, it is very much the right and the duty of the laity to do so.

There is another way to consider the fact that the Church has no specific political agenda–from the diversity of political views among her members. To be sure, the Church’s social teaching gives us some essential principles for a just political community, principles that every Catholic should accept; nevertheless, there is no elaborate schema of the one and only Catholic official political order every Catholic should embrace. Catholics can and do often differ about how best to apply their principles to the concrete political order. Again, Father Charles quotes Vatican II and then Pope Paul VI on the point:

"Christians must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods" (Gaudium et spes, no. 75).

"In concrete situations, and taking account of the solidarity in each person’s life, one must recognize a legitimate variety of possible options. The same Christian faith can lead to different commitments. The Church asks an effort at mutual understanding of the other’s position and motives: a loyal examination of one’s behavior and its correctness will suggest to each one an attitude of profound charity" (Octogesima Adveniens, no. 50).

Thus, two Catholics, equally committed to the Church’s social teaching, might arrive at very different conclusions about how best to implement that teaching and what sort of laws and public policies will do so. Unless a law or situation is itself the embodiment of a Catholic principle or a violation of it—as, say, in the case of legalized abortion–or unless the solution to a problem is obvious and without room for legitimate differing judgments of fact, there will not be a single Catholic position on a political issue. Thus, as Gaudium et Spes stated:

"Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good" (no. 43).

Make no mistake. The hierarchy of the Church has the right and responsibility to denounce particular evils—even particular laws and public policies that promote evil–when fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls requires it (GS 76 § 5; CCC 2420). For example, the U.S. bishops are well within their rights, as a matter of church law as well as civil law, to criticize laws permitting abortion or euthanasia. Moreover, there is nothing in church law or in the nature of the episcopal office that forbids a bishop from denouncing a particular public policy, even a particular politician or party, when a grave evil is being promoted. Indeed, one can argue that, all other things being equal, a bishop is obliged to do so in such a circumstance.

What Catholic social teaching rejects is the idea that there is an elaborate platform on the wide range of social issues which represents "the" Catholic position on all important social and political matters or that the hierarchy, as such, is competent to provide specific policy solutions to all of those issues. It is the provenance of the laity, not the clergy, to develop and propose such solutions, and at times members of the laity may differ about what constitutes the best solution, even though they agree about the principles the correct solution should rest upon.

Imposing Religion?

But does Christian involvement—whether by the hierarchy or the laity–violate the relative autonomy of political society? Does it amount to an unjust imposition of a particular religious point of view on others who don’t share that religious perspective? The answer to both questions is "no" for the following reason.

As Father Charles makes clear, the principles of Catholic social teaching are, by and large, accessible to non-Catholics. They are found in the natural law, inscribed in the human heart. When the Catholic Church presents social principles or when well-formed Catholic laymen espouse certain public policies, they do so in terms that are at least, in principle, public. That is, capable of being understood and agreed upon, without prior commitment to articles of a particular religious faith. Consequently, it is sheer nonsense when a so-called Catholic politician says, for example, "I accept the Church’s social teaching. And I am personally opposed to abortion. But I can’t impose my religious views on others."

First, because one doesn’t have to be a Catholic or accept the teaching authority of the Church to see that abortion is wrong. People of other religious traditions or no religion at all oppose abortion. Second, because if someone truly accepts Catholic social teaching, then he also accepts the idea that unborn children are human persons with a natural right to life that the state is obliged to protect. For the genuine Catholic politician, then, opposition to legalized abortion can’t be merely a matter of personal religiosity or private faith; it must also be a matter of public policy and natural human rights—the right to life for all human beings. That is something a truly Catholic politician can no more ignore than he can ignore the basic human equality of the races or of men and women.

It’s the Economy

Controversies regarding Catholic teaching on civil and political society often pale compared to disputes about the economic sphere. The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of liberation theology, which tried to synthesize Marxism and Christianity. About the same time and at the other end of the ideological spectrum, some proponents of economic liberalism or free market capitalism attempted to reconcile Catholicism and their economic views. The collapse of Communism, in 1989, sounded the death knell for liberation theology, already gravely wounded by the Magisterium’s staunch opposition through the 1980s. The effort to harmonize free market capitalism and Catholicism, however, persists. While some see Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus as vindication of that enterprise, others reject the claim, arguing against the idea that there have been any radical revisions of Catholic teaching by the Polish Pope in favor of free market capitalism.

An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching avoids taking explicit sides in the finer points of that debate, although it is certainly sensitive to the problems big government and the "social welfare state" can cause. Instead, it focuses on what the Magisterium has actually said about the economic sphere and the social principles that ought to operate therein. Father Charles begins by explaining the purpose of the economy, quoting a 1952 address by Pope Pius XII:

      The purpose of the economic and social organization is to provide its members and their families with all the goods which the resources of nature and of industry, with the social organization of economic life, can produce for them. And, as is made clear in Quadragesimo Anno, these goods ought to be plentiful enough to satisfy all reasonable needs and to raise them to that level of comfort which, if used wisely, is far from being an obstacle to virtue but rather a valuable help to it.

Thus, Catholicism is not pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by-when-you-die religion. Catholics should not be embarrassed by the fact the economy exists for people to make money and to tend to their material needs. Nor should we be bashful about advocating that everyone should have a basic level of material wealth sufficient to meet his fundamental human needs. Christians aren’t supposed to be "heavenly minded" in such a way that we’re "no earthly good." Our Lord’s words, "Blessed are the poor," don’t mean that human poverty and want are inherently good or that the Church ought not to seek to encourage social conditions that alleviate them. Neither do they mean that charity and charity alone is to be the mechanism by which man’s material needs are met.

The Church’s economic teaching begins with man and his work. Writes Father Charles, "If the end of the economy is to satisfy the human need for the goods required for decent existence, then the essential means to that end is labour." He goes on to note, "Work has a spiritual as well as an economic significance. It is man, made in God’s image, who works and so shares in the creative activity of his maker, who is depicted in the scriptures as working in the creation of his world."

Thus, work is man’s way of collaborating with God in creation. In Christ, it has been elevated to a participation in the new creation. But work also has a punitive element, observes Father Charles. The toil aspect of work is the result of man’s Fall, and work remains liable to inflicting hardship on man. When such hardship can’t be eliminated, it can be united to the work of Christ and thereby can become redemptive.

Father Charles stresses the Church’s teaching on priority of the laborer over his labor, the producer over his production. This runs against materialism of any form, whether Marxism or free-market consumerism. At the same time, the Church affirms the right to own property and to make a profit in business. Although God gave the whole world to man for common use, this "universal purpose of created goods," as it is sometimes called, doesn’t preclude private ownership and profit making. Indeed, private ownership of goods is a natural right and businesses need to make a profit in order support the owner and to ensure the stability of employment for workers.

Yet when private business arrangements and the free market do not ensure people that basic standard of material existence which every man should have, there is a role for the state to intervene. As John Paul II has taught, "The market must be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state so that the basic needs of the whole society are satisfied" (Centesimus Annus, no. 35). The twin principles that we have already considered, solidarity and subsidiarity, both require that, and regulate how, the state should intervene. As we have seen, the principle of subsidiary aims at aiding people in such a way that they eventually cease to need assistance. But that doesn’t relegate such assistance to the private sphere alone. Where necessary, the state can and must intervene.

Father Charles also stresses the importance of freedom in the economic order. While no neo-liberal or economic libertarian, he nonetheless asserts, "Economic society must be based on responsible freedom if it is to do its job of meeting the material needs of the people in a manner which respects the human needs of those who work within it. Individuals must have the freedom to choose what work they do, and the freedom to own productive goods and work them for profit."

While the economy of a nation is important, economic issues aren’t restricted to the market within a country; they also arise on the international level. There are issues of poverty and economic underdevelopment in specific countries, and there is also the issue of wealthier countries’ responsibilities with respect to helping poor nations to develop. With respect to development, the question of overpopulation is often raised.

Father Charles debunks the myth of global overpopulation, but also addresses the reality of underdevelopment, especially in Third World countries. He doesn’t ignore the impact of population on the standard of living, but he argues, "Every country needs a population policy, some to check decline, others to control growth, according to different circumstances –but the means must always be worthy of human dignity and not contrary to it." That proviso excludes abortion and contraception as legitimate means to control population growth in a country.


Thus, Catholic social teaching has much to say to the three dimensions of social life–the civic, the political and the economic. We have only considered the highlights of that teaching, contained in Father Charles’ slim volume. We have seen that the teaching of the Church doesn’t provide a blueprint for the perfect society, nor a detailed political agenda to be implemented through the ballot box. What it does provide are concrete principles that should operate in any society, based on the fact that societies are composed of people, made in the image of God and persons, the subjects of rights and responsibilities. And we have also seen that Catholic principles apply to civil, political and economic societies.

This essay began by noting a gross ignorance of Catholic social teaching among typical, Mass-going Catholics. An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching is one effort to reduce that ignorance. In addition to such introductory works, magisterial documents on Catholic social teaching should also be read. Two good places to begin are the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the newly released Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching. If Catholics use such valuable resources Catholicism's "best kept secret" will be secret no longer.




Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved