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Why do our Young People Need Catholic Social Teaching?

It is very common for Catholic schools and home-schooling families that are trying to provide an education faithful to the Magisterium to neglect Catholic social teaching. Such people follow the four pillars of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the four years of high school, and that seems, for most, task enough for limited time and resources. If social teaching is addressed, it is usually by way of additional material to the unit or units on moral teaching.

If we only have four years to teach our young people religion, why should one semester be devoted to Catholic social teaching? If we do not have one semester that addresses our social teaching in a clear and definite way, we have given our students an incomplete understanding of their faith. There are at least three important principles of Catholic social teaching they must grasp before they graduate from high school.

First, they must understand that Catholic social teaching flows from the moral law. In our culturally relativistic society, it is very hard for the young not to study the Ten Commandments, and interpret them as private commands for believers. Young Catholics find it hard to apply the moral law, in a consistent and conscious way, to the entire human race. They are always worried that some tribe in New Guinea steals and lies without any remorse of conscience. For them, "good" and "evil" is a personal matter. Their only framework for universal justice is "human rights," rights which, for them, are not clearly founded on the moral law.

Because they start all political discourse with "rights," consequently, they do not have a true notion of the relation of rights and duties. They believe that all duties arise because of rights if I have the right to private property, you have the corresponding duty to respect my property. They do not understand that rights flow from duties. It is because I have a duty to care for myself and my family, which flows from my nature as a man, that I have the corresponding right to private property to allow me to fulfill this responsibility. The moral law provides the basic obligations that arise from human nature, the basic "duties" which we must fulfill, which in turn provides our basic rights.

Second, our students should understand the need for authority; all laws, including the moral law, are based on due authority. Authority is harder for our young people to understand than you might think. It is not an exaggeration to say that, for them as for many Americans, democracy is not just the best form of government it is the only legitimate form of government.

As a result, they think all power comes from the people: Their tendency will be to believe that no law is just that does not involve, in some way, the consent of the people. This fits nicely with their confusions on the moral law they think of morality as a work of one's "culture," as if morality were a matter of consensus and discussion. The notion of an authoritative law that is binding on all men is harder for them to take in, especially in the face of disagreements about its precepts.

Authority lays down the law and enforces it. It is, as it were, the agent cause of the law. But every agent acts for a purpose. And the ultimate purpose of the law, whether the divine or human, is the common good. So our young people must also have some grasp of the common good. This is the third principle of Catholic teaching.

The common good, so basic to the political discourse of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, is a mere phrase to many Catholics. What is the common good? By the common good, we do not mean a good that applies to many, or to most, but to all. We distinguish just forms of government from unjust ones based on the common good. If a government acts for the good of the whole, it is just, whether that government is a king or an aristocracy or a parliament; if, on the other hand, a government works for the good of the few against the many, or the many against the few, it is a tyranny. One cannot understand the difference between just and unjust forms of government without referring to the common good.

What is the common good? The common good is one in which all may share, and do so without diminishing that good. Money, for example, cannot be a common, even if we distribute it the amount received diminishes as the recipients increase. On the contrary, when a community enjoys peace, it is not the peace of individuals all share in the peace, whether they will it or not. The larger the community, the more individuals share in the peace. Truth also is a common good, as St. Augustine teaches at the beginning of his book On Christian Doctrine. It is not my truth or yours. I do not lose it when I give it to you. These three principles, the moral law, due authority, and the common good, are the starting points that our young Catholics need to understand how their Catholic beliefs apply to the social and political questions of the day. Without these principles, our young people can keep their faith, but they will not know how to apply it to the larger issues around them. Indeed, they will probably reason from a set of liberal, secular assumptions that they do not even know they have. We cannot give our young people everything in four years of high school, or even 12 years of school (if we have them that long). But it is my belief that Catholic social teaching merits some time within the curriculum if we are to graduate students who have a solid grasp of Catholic teaching.

(Dr. Hippler is the director of the Office of Justice and Peace in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis. This column was excerpted from a talk that Dr. Hippler gave to the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools Conference last June; the complete talk is available at

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Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved