The importance of Catholic social teaching at this time

A man carries a sign during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Interfaith Peace Walk Jan. 18 in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City. The theme of this year's event was "Hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor," from Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si'." Organizers aimed to draw attention to peace and justice issues, particularly climate change, poverty and income inequality. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Why is everyone talking about Catholic Social Teaching these days?

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is a term we appear to hear more frequently since Francis became Pope in March, 2013. Why is this so? It is not that previous popes did not talk or write about it, they did. However, Pope Francis appears to say the phrase in both words and actions.

What is Catholic Social Teaching?

It is not something that is easy to define as the social teaching of the Church comes in many forms:

• written documents of the Vatican, popes, bishops,

• verbal teaching of the Vatican, popes, bishops,

• the actions of people in answering the call of Matthew 25:31-46: The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

CST principles have been part of our tradition since the time of scripture so it is a fluid term as it belongs to a living, dynamic tradition which is constantly being added to by the Church. CST has been expressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’ when he says, “It is my hope that this encyclical letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.” (LS15) He has also demonstrated CST by his actions, such as opening a laundrette for the homeless in the Vatican.

CST is about being relational, with God, others, self and creation. Each of these areas need to be working in harmony for us to be followers of the Gospel call “to repent and believe in the Good News” (Mark 1:15). CST is about hearing the cry of the poor or marginalised and then being “righteous” doing something about the “cry” we have heard. We are, in CST, to be as God is, active in human history; we too are to active in the world in which we live.

CST is a huge part of the history of the Church. It is full of biblical insights, especially in the books of the prophets, who constantly challenged the status quo and in the life and actions of Jesus. The great writers of the Church have also written widely about CST. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century wrote of a Christian as one who was with God by following the example of Christ through righteousness. Today CST is also seen not just through the experiences of the Church writers but also in our own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Each of us must decide how we are going to personally respond to the word of Jesus, “…whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it to me!” (Matthew 25:40).

CST rests upon four permanent principles out of which the other principles are derived. Various scholars propound other such principles. But these four permanent principles are: “the dignity of the human person, which is the foundation of all other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine; the common good; subsidiarity and solidarity” (The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, # 160).

 The Principle of Human Dignity:

We are all made in the image and likeness of God and so are sacred. We all possess an inalienable dignity regardless of gender, race, class, or other human categorisations. As community, we recognise and protect human dignity and this should enable us to ask fundamental questions about the social development of all people. This is the principle from which all others flow. By acknowledging that we are made in the image and likeness of God also means we must recognise that in ourselves and in others, those we encounter personally and those we do not.

This principle helps us to protect human dignity when we recognise God in others and helps us to respect life in all its forms and asks us to acknowledge God as the giver of life. It means we need to speak out when life is threatened in any way — through abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty or simply in the way people can live.

Pope Francis in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013), says “we become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being” (EG 8).

In relation to justice issues we need to ask ourselves the question — what is happening to people:

• when interest rates go up?

• when wages are low?

• when benefits are cut?

• when parole conditions are so hard people are bound to break them?

 The Principle of the Common Good:

The common good is the total of all those conditions of social living, including political, economic and cultural that means humanity can achieve their full potential in all aspects of their lives. The common good is central to the way in which we should live in and as a community. What is the best outcome for humanity in any decision that is being made, rather than what is best for the majority. The common good helps us to see God in the decisions we make. Our rights are only acceptable if they do not disrespect others or block all love from being transformative.

Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ says “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (LS 23).

In relation to justice issues we need to ask ourselves the question — where do I stand in relation to what is best for all and not just a specific group?

 The Principle of Solidarity:

We belong to one human family and because of this we have mutual obligations that should promote the rights and development of all people throughout the world. Solidarity helps people to stop becoming indifferent and so often isolationist when faced with our responsibilities or overwhelming situations. Solidarity expects us to put away thoughts that relate to gender, race, national boundaries and to see ourselves and others as made in the image and likeness of God. We are individuals but we are always in relation with God, self, others and creation. Solidarity gives us the opportunity to become one with the other and see ourselves in them.

Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ says “all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together forms [a] kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred affectionate and humble respect” (LS 89).

In relation to justice issues we need to ask ourselves the questions:

• how do I reflect Christ to others?

• what of Christ do I see in others?

• how do I encounter the other in my words and actions?

• how do my lack of words and actions impact upon others? n

The Principle of Subsidiarity:

Subsidiarity can be a principle that is not well understand. It states that all responsibilities and decisions should be attended to as close as possible to the level of the individuals who will be affected by the decision being made. The local and immediate individuals and or groups who are affected should be promoted and protected, without completely diminishing the responsibilities of government structures that are needed to coordinate and regulate the greater social community.

Pope Francis, when discussing dialogue and transparency regarding decision making about environmental issues says, “the local population should have a special place at the table: they are concerned about their own future and that of their children and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest” (Laudato Si’ 183).

In relation to justice issues we need to ask ourselves the questions:

• how does your local community work?

• how involved are you in the decision making that will affect you?

The principles of CST are clear guidelines for us to follow to help bring about the reign of God. They are addresses to all peoples and not just Catholics to help us form and sustain right relationships with God, self, others and creation. CST should motivate us to get involved; using our hearts to cry with compassion, our heads to understand what is asked of us in the “cry” of the poor and our hands to put our actions into practice. The question we should all ask ourselves is “am I listening?”

Lyn Smith is the Head of RE/ NCRS Projects Auckland at The Catholic Institute.

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