Principles, Values, & Virtues of Catholic Social Thought

Contents                                                                                                   

  1. Introduction
  2. The Permanent Principles of Catholic Social Teaching
    1. Life & Dignity of the Human Person
    2. The Common Good
    3. Subsidiarity
    4. Solidarity
  3. The Fundamental Values of Catholic Social Teaching
    1. Truth
    2. Freedom
    3. Justice
    4. Love (Charity)
  4. Christian Social Virtues
    1. Prudence
    2. Proper Stewardship
    3. Humility
    4. Wisdom
    5. Beatitudes of the Politician 
1. Introduction

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church sets out a comprehensive framework for participation by Catholics in the life of the world, both as individuals and as the Church, based on the Gospels and other sources.  This includes voting and political participation as well as broader participation in civic life.

Drawn from both the New and Old Testaments, and particularly the Gospels, as well as the Catechism and the writings of the Popes and our Bishops, the Compendium speaks in terms of four Permanent Principles and four Fundamental Values, which are informed by traditional Christian virtues such as prudence, wisdom, and humility.

An over-riding concept is proper stewardship, which Christ taught us to apply to every aspect of our lives, both as individuals and as societies.  His parable of the talents and comments on the judgment of nations are fundamental.

The Church’s social doctrine must become an integral part of the ongoing formation of the lay faithful.

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [549]                                    

As Catholics, we must be familiar with each of these concepts, and strive constantly to put them into practice in our personal and civic lives.

This means that we should always consider at least the following issues while making voting choices and other public decisions.

2. The Permanent Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

As taught by the Compendium, the permanent principles of Catholic Social teaching are:

  • The Life & Dignity of the Human Person
  • The Common Good
  • Subsidiarity
  • Solidarity 
  1.  The Life & Dignity of the Human Person

The dignity of the human individual derives from the source and nature of this life, and our primary, universal mission within it: to seek truth, which for Catholics is God, and to grow as close to God as we are able.  The purpose of this life is to seek to return to God.

If this is our life’s work, and if it is the life’s work of everyone around us, then it follows that we can neither take part in nor acquiesce in any activity that might hinder it, either as individuals or society.

For these reasons the dignity of the human person intimately involves questions of:

  • The sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death: God made us, God still owns us. As affirmed by the 5th Commandment, it is for God, not us, to decide when we, or others, will die.
  • Human rights & duties, which arise immediately from the dignity God has granted each of us. “The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator.”  Compendium [153]  With our natural rights come corresponding duties: to love God, and to love one another as God has loved us.
  • Reduction of Poverty & the dignity of work: it requires effort for human beings to survive on this planet, as we seek our way back to God. It is incumbent upon each of us to do what we can, seeing to our own needs while helping those around us who may need assistance.  In doing so we grow closer to God: we increase our dignity.  Compendium [270]It is incumbent on society to ensure that all be encouraged to practice good stewardship and proper charity by working, and that opportunities for adequately-compensated, spiritually fulfilling work be made justly available to all who seek it.
  • Citizenship and participation in society. It is up to each of God’s children to use the gifts God has given us, including our social nature, to increase our dignity by seeking to grow closer to God.  To those living in democracies or other forms of participative society this carries a duty to use our voices not solely to benefit ourselves, but with due consideration of the needs and the good of others: to protect the common good.

Participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of the democratic system. Democratic government, in fact, is defined first of all by the assignment of powers and functions on the part of the people, exercised in their name, in their regard and on their behalf. It is therefore clearly evident that every democracy must be participative. This means that the different subjects of civil community at every level must be informed, listened to and involved in the exercise of the carried-out functions.  Compendium [190]

     2. The Common Good

To the Church, the “common good” means:

the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily…  These demands concern above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom. Nor must one forget the contribution that every nation is required in duty to make towards a true worldwide cooperation for the common good of the whole of humanity and for future generations also. 

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [164, 166]

Again, this view is rooted firmly in the conclusion that the purpose of life is for every individual to seek her or his return to God:

The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it. 

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [170]

“Fulfilment,” in this sense, means progress in the individual’s return to God.  Society must do nothing to interfere with the ability of the individuals to seek her or his way toward God.

Examples of issues touching the common good include:

  • Freedom of religion and of conscience. Each individual is required to seek her or his own way.
  • Economic justice & sustainability. “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity… the original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits. God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone.”  Compendium [171]
  • Care for the environment & environmental sustainability. To misuse and wrongfully benefit from nature’s bounty is necessarily to interfere with rights of others, now living and in future generations, and to hinder them in their search for the Creator. Carried far enough, such behavior threatens the very survival of everyone.  We must work to ensure that we leave others at last the same opportunities that were given to us.
  • Commitment to peace. War, violence, and aggression fundamentally disrupt the rights of people to seek God in their own way. We must encourage each other, individually and through our governments, to emphasize peacekeeping, peace building, the peaceful resolution of conflict, safety, and defense, rather than aggression and violence.

A war of aggression is intrinsically immoral… To be licit, the use of force must correspond to certain strict conditions: the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition… If this responsibility justifies the possession of sufficient means to exercise this right to defense, States still have the obligation to do everything possible “to ensure that the conditions of peace exist, not only within their own territory but throughout the world.

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [500]

      3.  Subsidiarity: Things should be done, and decided, in such ways as to ensure that individuals and “lower-order” elements of society are empowered to make as many of their own decisions as is responsibly possible

In order to ensure that individuals, and smaller cells of society – smaller groups and communities – are free to seek God in their own ways, they must be empowered to make their own decisions, and chart their own courses.  This means that all things should be decided and done at the lowest level responsibly possible.

It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities; in short, for that aggregate of economic, social, cultural, sports-oriented, recreational, professional and political expressions to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth. 

Subsidiarity is among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church’s social doctrine and has been present since the first great social encyclical. 

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [185]

Governments, corporations, and other social entities should not be bigger or more powerful than they need to be in order to accomplish their legitimate purposes; and no higher authority should make any decision on behalf of a lower authority than the lower entity can responsibly make for itself.

  • International organizations should not make decisions that can responsibly be left to national governments.
  • National governments should not make decisions that can responsibly be left to provincial or local governments.
  • No government should take on work that can responsibly be left to private individuals and organizations. Such interference deprives individuals and organizations of opportunities to practice charity and the dignity of work, and often turns love into resented duty.

    4.  Solidarity: The loving interdependence of all peoples and all societies

Solidarity consists in the acknowledgement that all humans are interdependent: that we are all unique parts of one body, the one body of Christ.

Solidarity is an authentic moral virtue, not a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is 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.”   

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [193]

Solidarity must be seen above all in its value as a moral virtue that determines the order of institutions. On the basis of this principle the “structures of sin” [i.e., social sins – see below] that dominate relationships between individuals and peoples must be overcome. They must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems.

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [193]

  • Forced Migration

The problem of refugees [and other migrants] must be confronted at its roots, that is, at the level of the very causes of exile. The first point of reference should not be the interests of the State, or national security but the human person, so that the need to live in community, a basic requirement of the very nature of human beings, will be safeguarded.

Progress in the capacity to live together within the universal human family is closely linked to the growth of a mentality of hospitality. Any person in danger who appears at a frontier has a right to protection. In order to make it easier to determine why such people have abandoned their country, as well as to adopt lasting solutions, a renewed commitment is needed to produce internationally acceptable norms for territorial asylum.”

Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, “Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity.”

  • Climate Change
  • Oppression and economic exploitation; slavery and human trafficking
  • Citizenship and participation in society
  • Politics of fear, hate, force, and divisiveness.
3. The Fundamental Values of Catholic Social Teaching

As taught by the Compendium, the fundamental values of Catholic Social teaching are:

  • Truth
  • Freedom
  • Justice
  • Love (Charity)

     1. Truth

Men and women have the specific duty to move always towards the truth, to respect it and bear responsible witness to it. Living in the truth has special significance in social relationships. In fact, when the coexistence of human beings within a community is founded on truth, it is ordered and fruitful, and it corresponds to their dignity as persons.

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [198]

 Modern times call for an intensive educational effort and a corresponding commitment on the part of all so that the quest for truth cannot be ascribed to the sum of different opinions, nor to one or another of these opinions.

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [198]

     2. Freedom

Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person… Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person.

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [199]

 

    3. Justice

According to its most classic formulation, justice consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor… The Church’s social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. 

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [201]

    4. Love

Among the virtues… there exists a deep bond that must be ever more fully recognized. Love, often restricted to relationships of physical closeness or limited to merely subjective aspects of action on behalf of others, must be reconsidered in its authentic value as the highest and universal criterion of the whole of social ethics… It is from the inner wellspring of love that the values of truth, freedom and justice are born and grow. Human life in society is ordered, bears fruits of goodness and responds to human dignity when it is founded on truth; when it is lived in justice, that is, in the effective respect of rights and in the faithful carrying out of corresponding duties; when it is animated by selflessness, which makes the needs and requirements of others seem as one’s own and intensifies the communion of spiritual values and the concern for material necessities; when it is brought about in the freedom that befits the dignity of men and women, prompted by their rational nature to accept responsibility for their actions. These values constitute the pillars which give strength and consistency to the edifice of life and deeds: they are values that determine the quality of every social action and institution.

Love presupposes and transcends justice, which must find its fulfilment in charity.

                                                                                                                                                          Compendium [204-206]

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