How the Church has not exploited its social teaching in development

By Eddy Kalonga*

Catholic social teaching is the Catholic doctrines on matters of human dignity and common good in society. The ideas address oppression, the role of the state, subsidiarity, social organization, concern for social justice, and issues of wealth distribution. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has a long and rich story. It is both old, in that it presents timeless values within the Church’s two thousand years of history, and new, as it constantly reflects on the world around us—as it is.

The Church has done much reflection on macro social issues, i.e., what form of government and economic system is best for promoting human freedom; why must faith be part of the public square; what are the pathologies destroying our culture and how to address them; how should business provide for the dignity of work; what are the dangers of a “welfare state”; among many other vexing issues facing modern societies.

Catholic Social Teaching (CST), a branch of moral theology, addresses contemporary issues within the political, economic, and cultural structures of society. The threefold cornerstone of CST contains the principles of human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity. It is the foundation on which to form our conscience in order to evaluate the framework of society, the Catholic criteria for prudential judgment and direction in developing current policy-making.

The Church should fight for respect for human dignity

With knowledge of these social principles, in combination with the faith, the faithful are armed and informed as to articulate the Catholic vision of reality, the truthful nature of the human person and society, to apply and integrate the social teachings in our everyday administrative and clinical encounters. On the other hand, the Church’s social teachings, especially in the clear articulation given by recent popes and the Second Vatican Council, are not peripheral to the faith, not something purely optional, as if the essence of Catholicism were a matter of spirituality to the exclusion of morality.

Like the rest of Catholic moral theology, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has roots both in revelation and reason, and anyone interested in making CST better known and understood should become thoroughly acquainted with both the philosophical and theological aspects of this body of thought.

In fact, Catholicism has a fantastically well-developed and still growing-body of teaching about social justice and the proper ordering of society that flows directly from the encounter of the Gospel and its morality with the problems of living in society.

It is precisely by reason of expertise about human nature that the Church, in light of what has been revealed by Christ, claims to be justified in speaking authoritatively about social questions.  The ethical principles relevant for social morality transcend utilitarian calculations of a technical nature.

The distinctly theological dimensions of CST include the vision of the human being as made in the image of God, the special obligations in charity incumbent on Christians to act as brothers and sisters of Christ that they have become by baptism and the need to love one’s neighbor as oneself, according to the understanding of neighbor made clear by the parable of the Good Samaritan. Once one recognizes that one’s life is not for storing up earthly goods but heavenly ones.

It was in this spirit that the Second Vatican Council and the encyclicals of Pope Paul VI so firmly asserted the connection between working for development of underdeveloped peoples and credibility in evangelization. Not everyone is likely to share identical religious, biblical, or ecclesial commitments concerning questions of social justice and social order.

Hence, there will frequently be need to make arguments for sound social policies based on principles that do not require a specific religious faith to be compelling in practical matters.

It will be enough for the sake of common action if these principles are recognized as true by people of goodwill because of our common humanity. The ethical principles that are fundamental for good social order are rational in nature, and in the public square it may be helpful to articulate and defend them on philosophical grounds, even if one’s deepest reason for holding them is religious in character.

Human dignity

Respect for human dignity is the foundation of CST’s more specific principles. The treatment given to this subject in all the major documents exemplifies the stereophonic approach to philosophy and theology typical of Catholic thought.

When asked how to best make the case for a social order that respects the dignity of each human person, the strongest reason may be that each human being is made in the image of God. Therefore, human beings, taken individually and societally, ought to be respected out of reverence for the God in whose image we are made and who has commanded this respect.

To appreciate the meaning of human dignity and its ethical implications philosophically may require considerable patience in making a sustained rational argument for the human person as different in kind from any other animal, as irreducible to our biochemical constituents or our biologically-based psychological drives and impulses, and as something more important than an anonymous element within mass culture. In the division of labors within a philosophy curriculum, this is the province of a sound course on the philosophy of the human person-one that explores the distinctive features of human life that simply cannot be explained by facile reductionism.

The possible approaches are many; human language, for instance, is not just different in degree of sophistication from even the most complicated forms of animal communication, but different in kind. The specifically human forms of commitment and promise-keeping that are indispensable to any social order are not merely instinctive or emotional bonds but the results of free choices and thus matters of moral responsibility.

Unlike the animal world, human sexuality is not merely a matter of estrus and biochemical stimulation; it involves persons, and the sexual relations of persons need to be mediated by words if the persons are to mean what the actions by their very natures are saying and if the actions are sincerely to say what the persons involved really mean.

By considering the objectivity of truth, for instance, and the criteria for assessing truth-claims in the practical order; in ethics, the norms of justice and the responsibility that flow from free choice; in political philosophy, the distinction between authority and the power at its disposal as well as the procedures for the detection of ideological efforts to reduce questions of principle to questions of mere power by the deconstructive techniques of such masters of suspicion as Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.

The main principles of Catholic Social thought

The series of papal and conciliar statements of the past century, from Rerum Nova rum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 through Pope John Paul II’s 1991 Centesimus Annus, has articulated a number of such principles, including the right to private property, and concomitantly, the universal destination of the goods of this world; the duty of obedience to legitimate authority, and with it, the double-edged principle of subsidiarity; the duty of governments to work for the common good,  and correlatively the principle of solidarity and the right to authentic human development.

The tradition of natural law morality has its roots in ancient Stoicism and Roman law and has seen contemporary applications in the civil rights movement and the Nuremberg Trials, but it’s most prominent exposition comes from Thomas Aquinas, whose thought has been an indispensable support for the modern articulation of CST. Personalism is the name for a movement in contemporary philosophy that Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have used extensively in their contributions to Catholic thought about the great social questions. If only because one appears to carry less metaphysical baggage (such as detailed investigation of teleology and natural function).

More needs to be done in the area of protecting the environment

Especially when one is working in the realm of international law, or operating politically in a pluralistic society where there is little patience for metaphysics, it may prove fruitful to make one’s arguments about distributive justice and the social order on the tenet that all persons are moral subjects, each with certain inalienable rights.

But despite the apparent rhetorical advantages of this approach, the popes appear to have chosen wisely not to let their case rest on personalism alone but always to develop it in tandem with natural law considerations. It is easy to see the reason for this when one considers the problem of precisely how one should properly define “person.” On a wide range of social issues, including the protection of the unborn from abortion, of defective children from infanticide, of immigrants from racists, and of the senile and the comatose from deprivation of care.


The Catholic Church does not propose particular ways of organizing society and claims to exhibit no preference for economic and social systems provided that such systems respect human dignity and allow the church to carry out her ministry in the world. That is not to say that the church at various times, has not been critical of the organization of society. Both unrestricted competition in the liberal sense and the Marxist creed of class welfare have been criticized as contrary to Catholic teaching and the nature of man.

While all Papal encyclicals have respected some of the fundamental principles of liberal capitalism particularly the indispensable right of private property, they have at the same time, resisted the baser implications of naked individualism.

*Kalonga is a regular contributor to The Lamp magazine