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of Faith

 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinMay 16, 2008 Issue 

Catholic social teaching: Based in Gospel, lived today

The church exists in the modern world

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

As we approach the presidential elections, we hear about "caring for the poor," "concern for the common good" and rights of workers.

Some call this campaign rhetoric, but they are also terms that can be found in Catholic Social Teaching.

Just a century ago, the church forged into social teaching when, on May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

Entitled "The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor," the encyclical is considered the Magna Carta of social teaching because it put forth teaching that led the church through the 20th century and into the 21st. Also, it firmly injected the Church into the concerns of the everyday world.

Rerum Novarum was issued just as major upheavals were changing world politics. Imperial powers, like Russia and Britain, were on the way out. Colonialism was fading and the nationalism that contributed to World War I was gaining strength. Socialism loomed - Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital in 1867 - and freewheeling capitalism had hit its stride. Huge companies dominated industry and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1891 was passed to break up monopoly. Labor unions formed.

Pope Leo, addressing "the momentous seriousness of the present state of things," gave an overview of what has remained the basic intent behind Catholic social teaching: "(T)he Church uses its efforts not only to enlighten the mind, but to direct by its precepts the life and conduct of people; the Church improves and ameliorates the condition of the working person by numerous useful organizations; does its best to enlist the services of all ranks in discussing and endeavoring to meet, in the most practical way, the claims of the working classes ..." (par. 13).

Pope Leo also laid out bedrock principles for social teaching, including sharing natural resources, caring for the poor, and protecting the common good.

Since then, other popes have added to the store of social teachings, including Pope John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. In Mater et Magistra, Pope John noted that "although Holy Church has the special task of sanctifying souls and of making them sharers of heavenly blessings, she is also solicitous for the requirements of people in their daily lives" (par. 3).

The church is in the world, but not of it, the popes maintained, and must connect the eternal Kingdom to the present world. Therefore, the church must speak out on social issues and seek to bring the Good News to everyday life.

It is good to remember that, at the time of Rerum Novarum, most Catholics were working class and often poor. Therefore, when Pope Leo spoke of the poor and workers' rights, he was speaking of most members of the church. This is not as true today - at least in First World nations where Catholics have moved into the middle class. However, the economy remains a concern to all and we realize we are a global society, where many are poor and natural resources are limited.

Various issues have fallen under the venue of Catholic social teaching over the 117 years since Rerum Novarum. However, according to the U.S. bishops, it includes these points:

Dignity of the human person

Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, each individual is worthy of honor. The themes of the sanctity of life, avoidance of war and opposition to the death penalty all have their roots in this principle.

Family and community

The importance of married life and of recognizing the family as the most basic unit of the church exists in this principle. In the family, children learn to become members of society. Here we also find the basics of "subsidiarity," a principle that teaches that problems should be solved at the level closest to those involved - not by disinterested, distant groups. This, in turn, shapes laws that govern society.

Rights and responsibilities

This presents a form of checks and balances - human dignity gives us inherent rights, but community members also have responsibilities to each other. Likewise, those who possess more, have a responsibility to share with those who have less.

Option for the poor

The U.S. bishops note that, "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." While this principle does not mean that the poor are always put first, it does mean that the health of a society is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable and cares for their needs.

Dignity of work and the rights of workers

God himself worked, as did Jesus. Created in the divine image, humans are also graced with the dignity of work and a share in maintaining creation. From this come the rights of workers. Those who produce have the right to enjoy the benefits of their work. As Jesus said to his disciples, "the laborer is worth his keep" (Lk 10:7).


Our shared human dignity, work and community life all shape the principle of solidarity. Social teaching reminds us that, when we work together for good, the world is drawn closer to the Kingdom of God.

Care for God's creation

When God created Adam and Eve, he made them stewards of creation. As we see the effects of global warming and shortages of food and natural resources, we realize that care for the earth is the right and responsibility of all.

Looking at these seven principles of Catholic social teaching shows us how each supports and builds on the others. Caring for creation draws us closer into community - whether in a weekend park clean-up or a law supporting alternative fuels. An option for the poor helps insure health care for poor children and brings the health insurance crisis into the public spotlight.

We understand, even better than Pope Leo, that our world is a web of life. One area of concern cannot be addressed without touching upon another - as long as we are on earth.

As Pope Leo said, "The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery." (RN, 21)

Sources: Rerum Novarum; Mater et Magistra; U.S. bishops' social teaching at; and Catholic Social Thought, The Documentary Heritage


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