Sometimes called the theology of the Holy Spirit in practice, the stated purpose of Catholic social thought is to build a civilisation of love
Catholic Social Thought
The body of thinking known as Catholic Social Teaching is not just for Catholics. It is intended to be a gift to all people of goodwill. Deeply rooted in Scripture, it is intended as a framework for good judgement, not a prescription, and emphatically does not propose a theocracy. An extraordinary resource, it is still not widely known, probably because its documents ("encyclicals") are too dense for the average reader. Yet its language is beautiful and its observations are practical. It offers probably the most coherent body of ideas for social and spiritual renewal, complementing biblical scholarship. Although it is clearly inspired, it is not intended to be seen as infallible, indeed it is an unfolding tradition and as such is incomplete. Explore the source material here - below you will find brief summaries of some of the key documents.
Click the pink hyperlinks to go to the original source material.
Fratelli tutti - Brothers and Sisters All (2020). Summary: drawing on the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, this encyclical focuses on fraternity and social friendship. It calls for a new world order, lamenting the indifference of the west, the state of politics and the hegemony of individualism. Attempting to hold a tension between the global and the local, it proposes a globalised migration policy while affirming the belonging of nationhood. It is seen as the third in a trilogy along with Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si and covers a wide range of topics, too many to summarise here.
Gaudete et Exsultate - Rejoice and Be Glad (2018). Summary: the universal call to holiness, with a focus "to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time". The document is arranged in five chapters: on the call to holiness; on the heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, described as "false forms of holiness"; on the Beatitudes and holiness in the Gospel; on five signs of holiness in the modern world and on spiritual combat against the Devil and discernment.
Amoris Laetitia - The Joy of Love (2016). Summary: a wide range of topics related to marriage and family life as well as the contemporary challenges faced by families throughout the world. It encourages both pastors and members of the laity to accompany and care for families and others in situations of particular need. It also includes an extended reflection on the meaning of love in the day-to-day reality of family life.
Laudato Si’ - On Care for Our Common Home (2015). Summary: a passionate call to all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action”, particularly in relation to the destruction of the environment. Pope Francis writes that while humanity has made incredible progress in science and technology, this has not been matched with moral, ethical and spiritual growth. This imbalance is causing our relationships with creation, with each other and with God to break down and our hearts to become hardened to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. We become arrogant and neglect creation and everyone that is part of it; forgetting what God has entrusted to our care.
Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel (2013). Summary: The first encyclical by Pope Francis which gives particular attention to the ‘social dimension of Evangelisation’. The first section, setting the context for sharing the Joy of the Gospel talks of a huge amount of social problems, characterised by Pope Francis as the ‘crisis of communal commitment’ and touches on the markets, the economy of exclusion, inner city life, spiritual worldliness and consumerism, among other things.
Caritas in Veritate - Charity in Truth (2009). Summary: In a significant response to the global economic and financial crisis, Benedict XVI focuses in detail on economic and social issues, including an attack on free market fundamentalism, though a simplistic polarization of the free market model versus interventionist big government solutions is rejected. He emphasises that charity and truth are fundamental parts of our development, both as individuals and for humanity as a whole. In this, his third and final encyclical, he emphasises the need for all economic actors to be informed by ethics. Other areas discussed include hunger, the environment, migration, sexual tourism, bioethics, cultural relativism, global poverty, injustice and the arms race.
Deus Caritas Est - God is Love (2005). Summary: Focusing on love and their relationship with the teaching of Jesus this was written by Benedict XVI and the second half was derived from uncompleted writings left by John Paul II. Jesus is the ultimate example of love. As believers it is our responsibility to show our love of neighbours grounded in love of God. The emphasis is that social justice is the primary responsibility of politics and the laity; while the church itself should inform the debate and its main social activity should be charity, as an expression of love. Charity workers should have a deep prayer life, and be uninfluenced by party and ideology. Marxist arguments that the poor "do not need charity but justice" are rejected, as are the merger of church and state functions.
Evangelium Vitae - The Gospel of Life (1995). Summary: Powerful underscoring of the dignity and value of life; John Paul II condemns the ‘culture of death’ where individual freedom is placed before the rights of others to life - hence the condemnation of the death penalty, abortion and euthanasia. With very moving words to women who have undergone abortion; ‘do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope’. The encyclical is particularly concerned about the development of individualism and its assertion of rights, across the West, and proposes the promotion of a ‘culture of life’ where human freedom finds its authentic meaning and a culture of the family is the ‘sanctuary of life’.
Veritatis Splendor - The Splendor of the Truth" (1993). Summary: Here, Pope John Paul II speaks to humanity’s ability to understand and know moral truth, with a focus on moral philosophy and ethics. There is a direct rebuttal of moral relativism (which proposes that there is no absolute and definitive truth, but that good and evil are fluid concepts) and an assertion that the Catholic Church, and the global church at large, have a duty and authority to speak out on moral issues. Humans have been granted freedom and reason to explore and grow—that is, to mature them so they can grow in their understanding of truth and grow closer to God. However, this freedom and reason is subject to God's law. There is a discussion of sin, salvation, good and evil. Truth is absolute and objective, and that we as humans can know what is objectively right through studying scripture.
Centesimus Annus – The One Hundredth Year (1991) Summary: With the recent collapse of communism, arms expenditure reaching unprecented levels and the emergence of the super rich individual, John Paul II counsels that to safeguard democracy, the excesses of capitalism must be condemned, as well as the ‘idolatry of the market’ and the ‘insanity of the arms race’. Private property is deemed acceptable but for the first time the world’s goods (including intellectual property) are stated as having a ‘universal destination’.
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – The Social Concern of the Church (1987). Summary: John Paul II, who had now been Pope for over fifteen years, writes this very thoughtful letter in which the terms ‘structures of sin’ and ‘option for the poor’ strongly emerge (from liberation theology). He goes onto condemn the gap between the rich and poor which can be partially linked to the arms trade. This was written against the backdrop of the mid 1980s recession, the rise of ‘turbo capitalism’, the continuing Cold War (with the collapse of the Berlin Wall coming in 1989) and the widening gap between the rich and poor.
Laborem Exercens – Through Work (1981). Summary: work is intended to be a way in which people can be fulfilled and participate in God’s creative plan; the human person should never be dehumanised as a unit of labour in a spreadsheet. Both Marxism and capitalism are critiqued here. John Paul II had lived through Soviet Communism and Nazism, both of which treated the worker as an expendable resource in the interests of the state. He was also aware of widespread exploitation of workers and the commodification of labour in free markets, especially in poorer countries. New concepts of solidarity and ‘indirect employer’ emerge strongly in this encyclical.
Octogesima Adveniens - On the Eightieth Year (1971). Summary: This is strictly an ‘apostolic letter’ rather than an encyclical. The focus here is on ‘The Condition of Labour’, and Paul VI lists approximately fifteen key issues presenting problems, together with a variety of responses proposed. Christians are called to involve themselves in building a just world by analysing the situation in their own contexts and devising responses in light of the Gospel. The South American bishops had met at Medellin three years earlier and their themes of structural injustice, the option for the poor, conscientisation and liberation permeate the thinking in this document.
Populorum Progressio - The Progress of Peoples (1967). Summary: Pope Paul VI most famously stated that ‘development is the new name for peace’ and he goes onto express dangers of conflict if inequalities grew. The whole area of human development is examined from an integral and holistic viewpoint rather than development just being based on economic factors. During this period Paul VI had travelled widely and international communications were bringing issues such as global poverty into closer proximity due to newer technologies such as television.
Gaudium et Spes - The Joys and Hopes (1965). Summary: led by Paul VI, this document argued that the Church should not only focus on theological and spiritual matters but be completely immersed in human affairs, share the joys and hopes of people and should ‘interpret the signs of the times’. Although this was a document by the Second Vatican Council rather than an encyclical, it was nonetheless significant. Vatican II sought to promote the engagement of the Church in the world, and this was effectively a ‘constitution’ - voted for by a majority of the bishops, it was hugely important for Catholic Social Teaching.
Dignitatis Humanae - Human Dignity (1965). Summary: Another Vatican II document, this was essentially a declaration of religious freedom and a call for all Christians to respect religious freedom, a freedom which must also be permitted by states. The Church must be allowed to work freely, but compulsion or force must play no part in a person’s response to God. This was one of the most contentious of all of the Vatican II documents with much of the challenge coming from the American Church which favoured the separation of Church and state. As a result this was opposed (and still is today) by many conservatives who favour the involvement of the Church in the state.
Pacem in Terris - Peace on Earth (1963). Summary: first addressed to ‘all people of goodwill’, Pope John XXIII underlines the rights and responsibilities of individuals. This document also condemns the arms race and racism and advocates that resources should be shared in the common endeavour for development. It was written in the context of the American civil rights movement and the heightened threat of nuclear war with the recent construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Mater et Magistra - Mother and Teacher (1961). Summary: Pope John XXIII argues for balance in state intervention. Intervention is needed to curb injustices and to assist socialisation, but excessive intervention is unacceptable. The document goes on to advocate worker participation and ownership, and adopts an international view of poverty, where previous encyclicals concentrated on industrialised countries. Communism was still a major threat and since World War II there was an increasing concern for poorer nations and a focus on international inequalities.
Quadragesimo Anno - On the Fortieth Year (1931). Summary: Dictatorship is condemned as fascism and communism are on the rise. In this document Pope Pius XI also addresses child exploitation in the context of the Great Depression. This was a time when the growth of systematic atheism had increased, the modernist crisis arose and there were huge developments in thought. Germany was economically devastated and the Soviet Union had allowed many of its own people to die.
Rerum Novarum - Of New Things (1891). Summary: this was the first of the modern wave of social encyclicals, forming the body of thinking later known as Catholic Social Teaching. Intended as a response to the effects of the industrial revolution on human beings, Pope Leo XIII highlights the principles necessary to bring about a just society. Aware of the poverty among workers and of the growing power of socialist movements, the principles he proposes include ‘just wage theory’, protection of workers' rights and private property, and the defence by the state of free association.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is a major body of work spanning over 130 years. It is essentially a set of guidelines for good judgement, to help people discern for themselves how to put the social values of the Gospel into practice. Correctly understood, it is non partisan and is not intended to constitute an ideology, a political third way or a model.
It began as the Catholic Church's response to the impact of the industrial revolution on the human person. Rooted in the Gospel, it is informed by expert reflection on Scripture, lived experience and deep learning about the human condition in the modern world. CST draws not only from Roman Catholic sources but also from across the Christian traditions, and from different historical, political and social contexts across the world.
Often said to be the Church's 'best kept secret', CST is intended as a ‘gift to all people of goodwill’. It has also been described as the 'theology of the Holy Spirit in practice.'
CST is often distilled into a set of principles, to be used as tools for reflection, criteria for good judgment and guidelines for action. These principles are helpful in the process of discerning what is 'the common good' in any given context. Although there are numerous different versions of these principles circulating, most versions include: human dignity, respect for life, participation, care for creation, dignity in work, peace and reconciliation, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the preferential option for the poor. Our simple scheme of these principles can be found here
To explore further, take a look at some helpful books and documents...
- The Common Good This seminal document was published in 1996 just before the 1997 election, by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.
- Counsels of Imperfection: Thinking Through Catholic Social Teaching (Edward Hadas, 2020)
- Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching: A Guide for Christians in the World Today (Martin Schlag, 2017)
- Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret (Edward P De Berri and James E Hug, 2003)
- Explore CST from an Anglican perspective in Anglican Social Theology (Ed Malcolm Brown, London, 2014)
- Explore the articles in our Leading Thinkers pages
- Explore the work of Jenny Sinclair
- Read about the Great Dock Strike of 1889 and the beginnings of Catholic Social Teaching here
Explore the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Produced in 2004 to consolidate and organize the doctrine of the Church up to that point, it is described as follows: "The Church… intends with this document on her social doctrine to propose to all men and women a humanism that is up to the standards of God's plan of love in history, an integral and solidary humanism capable of creating a new social, economic and political order, founded on the dignity and freedom of every human person, to be brought about in peace, justice and solidarity." The compendium's audience includes bishops, priests, men and women religious (e.g., nuns, deacons), catechists, lay faithful, and all people of good will committed to the common good. Catholic social doctrine is Magisterium, which obligates Catholics to adhere to it.
- Study Catholic Social Teaching at an academic level in self-guided online modules at the Virtual Plater website
- Gain a postgraduate qualification in Catholic Social Teaching at St Mary's University Twickenham, UK. Explore their taster course of online modules here
For most people, this body of thinking is too dense to access. To make the spirit of the teaching more accessible, Together for the Common Good has developed an accessible framework for a broader audience: Common Good Thinking