The roots of this call to justice and charity are in the Scriptures, especially in the Hebrew prophets and the life and words of Jesus. Parish social ministry has clear biblical roots.
In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus began his public life by reading a passage from Isaiah that introduced his ministry and the mission of every parish. The parish must proclaim the transcendent message of the gospel and help:
- bring "good news to the poor" in a society where millions lack the necessities of life;
- bring "liberty to captives" when so many are enslaved by poverty, addiction, ignorance, violence, or disabling conditions;
- bring "new sight to the blind" in a culture where the excessive pursuit of power or pleasure can spiritually blind us to the dignity and rights of others; and
- "set the downtrodden free" in communities where crime, racism, family disintegration, and economic and moral forces leave people without real hope (cf. Lk 4:18).
Our parish communities are measured by how they serve "the least of these" in our parish and beyond its boundaries—the hungry, the homeless, the sick, those in prison, the stranger (cf. Mt 25:31). Our local families of faith are called to "hunger and thirst for justice" and to be "peacemakers" in our own communities (cf. Mt 5:6, 9). A parish cannot really proclaim the gospel if its message is not reflected in its own community life. The biblical call to charity, justice, and peace claims not only each believer, but also each community where believers gather for worship, formation, and pastoral care.
Over the last century, these biblical mandates have been explored and expressed in a special way in Catholic social teaching. The central message is simple: our faith is profoundly social. We cannot be called truly "Catholic" unless we hear and heed the Church's call to serve those in need and work for justice and peace. We cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus unless we take up his mission of bringing "good news to the poor, liberty to captives, and new sight to the blind" (cf. Lk 4:18).
The Church teaches that social justice is an integral part of evangelization, a constitutive dimension of preaching the gospel, and an essential part of the Church's mission. The links between justice and evangelization are strong and vital. We cannot proclaim a gospel we do not live, and we cannot carry out a real social ministry without knowing the Lord and hearing his call to justice and peace. Parish communities must show by their deeds of love and justice that the gospel they proclaim is fulfilled in their actions. This tradition is not empty theory; it challenges our priorities as a nation, our choices as a Church, our values as parishes. It has led the Church to stand with the poor and vulnerable against the strong and powerful. It brings occasional controversy and conflict, but it also brings life and vitality to the People of God. It is a sign of our faithfulness to the gospel.
The center of the Church's social teaching is the life, dignity, and rights of the human person. We are called in a special way to serve the poor and vulnerable; to build bridges of solidarity among peoples of differing races and nations, language and ability, gender and culture. Family life and work have special places in Catholic social teaching; the rights of the unborn, families, workers, immigrants, and the poor deserve special protection. Our tradition also calls us to show our respect for the Creator by our care for creation and our commitment to work for environmental justice. This vital tradition is an essential resource for parish life. It offers a framework and direction for our social ministry, calling us to concrete works of charity, justice, and peacemaking.
Ten Building Blocks of Catholic Social Teaching
The Principle of Human Dignity - “Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family” (Reflections, p. 1).
This is the bedrock principle of Catholic social teaching. Every person—regardless of race, sex, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, employment or economic status, health, intelligence, achievement or any other differentiating characteristic—is worthy of respect. It is not what you do or what you have that gives you a claim on respect; it is simply being human that establishes your dignity. Given that dignity, the human person is, in the Catholic view, never a means, always an end.
The Principle of Respect for Human Life – “Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity” (Reflections, pp 1-2).
Human life at every stage of development and decline is precious and therefore worthy of protection and respect. It is always wrong directly to attack innocent human life. The Catholic tradition sees the sacredness of human life as part of any moral vision for a just and good society.
The Principle of Association – “Our tradition proclaims that the person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society—in economics and politics, in law and policy—directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community” (Reflections, p. 4).
The centerpiece of society is the family; family stability must always be protected and never undermined. By association with others—in families and in other social institutions that foster growth, protect dignity and promote the common good—human persons achieve their fulfillment.
The Principle of Participation – “We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable” (Reflections, p. 5). This principle applies in a special way to conditions associated with work. “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected—the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative” (Reflections, p. 5).
Without participation, the benefits available to an individual through a social institution cannot be realized. The human person has a right not to be shut out from participating in those institutions that are necessary for human fulfillment.
The Principle of Preferential Protection for the Poor and Vulnerable – In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the last judgment (Mt. 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first” (Reflections, p. 5).
Why is this so? Because the common good—the good of society as a whole—requires it. The opposite of rich and powerful is poor and powerless. If the good of all, the common good, is to prevail, preferential protection must move toward those affected adversely by the absence of power and the presence of privation. Otherwise the balance needed to keep society in one piece will be broken to the detriment of the whole.
The Principle of Solidarity – “Catholic social teaching proclaims that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they live. We are one human family….Learning to practice the virtue of solidarity means learning that ‘loving our neighbor’ has global dimensions in an interdependent world” (Reflections, p. 5)
The principle of solidarity functions as a moral category that leads to choices that will promote and protect the common good.
The Principle of Stewardship – “The Catholic tradition insists that we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation” (Reflections, p. 6)
The steward is a manager, not an owner. In an era of rising consciousness about our physical environment, our tradition is calling us to a sense of more responsibility for the protection of the environment—croplands, grasslands, woodlands, air, water, minerals and other natural deposits. Stewardship responsibilities also look toward our use of our personal talents, our attention to personal health and our use of personal property.
The Principle of Subsidiarity – This principle deals chiefly with “the responsibilities and limits of government, and the essential roles of voluntary associations” (Reflections, p. 6).
The principle of subsidiarity puts a proper limit on government by insisting that no higher level of organization should perform any function that can be handled efficiently and effectively at a lower level of organization by human persons who, individually or in groups, are closer to the problems and closer to the ground. Oppressive governments are always in violation of the principle of subsidiarity; overactive governments frequently violate this principle.
The Principle of Human Equality – “Equality of all persons comes from their essential dignity….While differences in talents are a part of God’s plan, social and cultural discrimination in fundamental rights…are not compatible with God’s design” (Summary, pp. 23-4)
Treating equals equally is one way of defining justice, also understood classically as rendering to each person his or her due. Underlying the notion of equality is the simple principle of fairness; one of the earliest ethical stirrings felt in the developing human person is a sense of what is “fair” and what is not.
The Principle of the Common Good - “The common good is understood as the social conditions that allow people to reach their full human potential and to realize their human dignity” (Summary, p.25)
The social conditions the bishops have in mind presuppose “respect for the person,” “the social well-being and development of the group” and the maintenance by public authority of “peace and security.” Today, “in an age of global interdependence,” the principle of the common good points to the “need for international structures that can promote the just development of the human family across regional and national lines.”
What constitutes the common good is always going to be a matter for debate. The absence of any concern for or sensitivity to the common good is a sure sign of a society in need of help. As a sense of community is eroded, concern for the common good declines. A proper communitarian concern is the antidote to unbridled individualism, which, like unrestrained selfishness in personal relations, can destroy balance, harmony and peace within and among groups, neighborhoods, regions and nations.
Excerpts from an article by William J. Byron, S.J., with references to Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions—Reflections of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and a companion document Summary Report of the Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education.