Catholic Social Teaching

If you want to learn the details of the Church's social doctrine, you will eventually need to consult official Church documents. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church summarizes and explains the official Church teaching in all areas of her social doctrine — hence the term "compendium." You should also consult major encyclicals, such as papal encyclicals. I highly recommend the following:

  • Pope Leo XIII encyclical, Rerum Novarum ("New Things") which, published in 1891, explored the dignity of human labor.
  • Pope St. John Paul II encyclical, Centessimus Annus ("One Hundred Years"), published in 1991, and written in homage and continuity with Pope Leo XIII's ground breaking encyclical.
  • Pope Benedict XVI encyclical, Caritas in Veritate ("Charity in Truth") which gives a broad vision of integral human development.

If, however, you would like a good place to start, just to get a conceptual overview, I recommend the videos I've linked to in the menus (under Being Catholic/Catholic Social Teaching). There is, as far as I can tell, no single resource for explanatory videos on Catholic social teaching that adequately covers all of the main principles defined in the Compendium.

One of the more difficult principles to understand and apply is, in principle, easily stated. That is the Principle of Subsidiarity. It is, perhaps, the most misunderstood principle, particularly among both Catholic progressives and Catholic libertarians, who tend to see it through their own prejudices. The term is introduced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 1883.

¶ 1883: Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

This paragraph incorporates a number of elements that must blend harmoniously together if actual subsidiarity is to be followed. Unfortunately, in most social and governmental frameworks, this is simply not happening.

An essay written in 1996 by David A. Bosnich (largely in critique of a predominating view among American Catholic bishops of that time) gets at some of the major issues regarding subsidiarity and its misconstrual. His is a straightforward conservative position on the meaning and purpose of subsidiarity. See "The Principle of Subsidiarity". A somewhat different position, taken by Robert G. Christian at CRUX, assumes that government is essential to providing a "safety net" when that is not fully (or even, perhaps, adequately) provided by lower level institutions. See "Subsidiarity: Turning solidarity into social justice". In my humble opinion, it is not at all clear that greater government power necessarily contributes to solving what can be intractable problems. Part of the difficulty with his position is that he fails to define what he means by a "safety net" nor to account for the natural human tendency to sloth that only genuine need can serve to overcome. Or to put this in more technical terms, he fails to account for the phenomenon of "moral hazard" that inevitably ensues when government intervenes to alter natural risks.

Mr. Christian cites an exposition of Catholic Social Teaching by a group of Dominicans (at http;//op.org — see "Major themes from Catholic Social Teaching"). This paper claims…

The principle of subsidiarity holds that the functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. When the needs in question cannot adequately be met at the lower level, then it is not only necessary, but imperative that higher levels of government intervene.

This "imperative" should be tempered by a recognition that not all government intervention, even with the best of motives, is productive of the common good! The tendency of of government is to treat government authority and funding as "a hammer in search of a nail." Just as the Church has enunciated a "just war doctrine" weighing intervention according to biblical and natural law principles, so, too, should the Church recognize the need to temper government intervention in the social arena. It clearly already does so in paragraphs such as the following, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

¶ 1885: The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

The principle of subsidiarity ultimately derives from Jesus' teaching on servant leadership. (See, for example Matthew 20:25-28.)

For a good overview of Catholic social teaching, but without videos, I recommend Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching, by Christopher Kaczor, who writes for Catholic Answers.

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