Our Catholic social teaching is more than a set of documents. It is a living tradition of thought and action. The Church’s social vision has developed and grown over time, responding to changing circumstances and emerging problems - including developments in human work, new economic questions, war and peace in a nuclear age, and poverty and development in a shrinking world.
There are other significant values and principles that also shape and guide the Church’s traditional social teaching, but these themes are central parts of our tradition. They are a rich resource touching a wide variety of vital, complex, and sometimes controversial concerns.
Our Catholic Social Teaching does not offer an alternative social system. Instead, it offers fundamental values that test every system, every nation, and every community.
- It puts the needs of the poor first.
- It values persons over things.
- It emphasizes morality over technology, asking not simply what can we do, but what ought we do.
- It calls us to measure our lives not by what we have, but by who we are and how we love one another.
- It invites us to contribute to the common good, to justice in our community, and to peace in the world.
Need a speaker to address your parish or committee on Catholic Social Teaching? We're happy to present throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Contact Rob Shelledy, firstname.lastname@example.org or 414-758-2286.
Principles of Catholic Social Teaching
5 Part Video Series on Catholic Social Teaching
- Rights & Responsibilities (Time 3:30)
- Option for the Poor & Vulnerable (Time 4:77)
- Call to Family, Community & Participation (Time 3:44)
- Care for Creation (Time 3:05)
- Life and Dignity (Time 3:28)
Catholic social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God's special love for the poor and called God's people to a covenant of love and justice. It is a teaching founded on the life and words of Jesus Christ, who came "to bring glad tidings to the poor . . . liberty to captives . . . recovery of sight to the blind"(Lk 4:18-19), and who identified himself with "the least of these," the hungry and the stranger (cf. Mt 25:45). Catholic social teaching is built on a commitment to the poor. This commitment arises from our experiences of Christ in the Eucharist.
Catholic social teaching emerges from the truth of what God has revealed to us about himself. We believe in the triune God whose very nature is communal and social. God the Father sends his only Son Jesus Christ and shares the Holy Spirit as his gift of love. God reveals himself to us as one who is not alone, but rather as one who is relational, one who is Trinity. Therefore, we who are made in God's image share this communal, social nature. We are called to reach out and to build relationships of love and justice.
Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and 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. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment.
Our commitment to the Catholic social mission must be rooted in and strengthened by our spiritual lives. In our relationship with God we experience the conversion of heart that is necessary to truly love one another as God has loved us.
Each theme below is linked to additional resources from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The Life and Dignity of the Human Person
In the Catholic social vision, the human person is central, the clearest reflection of God among us. Each person possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender, age or economic status. The test of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human life and human dignity. We believe people are more important than things.
The Rights and Responsibilities of the Human Person
Flowing from our God-given dignity, each person has basic rights and responsibilities. These include the rights to freedom of conscience and religious liberty, to raise a family, to immigrate, to live free from unfair discrimination, and to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family. People have a fundamental right to life and to those things that make life truly human: food, clothing, housing, health care, education, security, social services, and employment. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities – to one another, to our families, and to the larger society, to respect the rights of others and to work for the common good.
The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
Poor and vulnerable people have a special place in Catholic social teaching. A basic moral test of a society is how its most vulnerable members are faring. This is not a new insight; it is the lesson of the parable of the Last Judgment (see Mt 25). Our tradition calls us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. As Christians, we are called to respond to the needs of all our sisters and brothers, but those with the greatest needs require the greatest response. We must seek creative ways to expand the emphasis of our nation’s founders on individual rights and freedom by extending democratic ideals to economic life and thus ensure that the basic requirements for life with dignity are accessible to all.
The Call to Family, Community, and Participation
The human person is not only sacred, but social. We realize our dignity and rights in relationship with others, in community. No community is more central than the family; it needs to be supported, not undermined. It is the basic cell of society, and the state has an obligation to support the family. The family has major contributions to make in addressing questions of social justice. It is where we learn and act on our values. What happens in the family is at the basis of a truly human social life. We also have the right and responsibility to participate in and contribute to the broader communities in society. The state and other institutions of political and economic life, with both their limitations and obligations, are instruments to protect the life, dignity, and rights of the person; promote the well-being of our families and communities; and pursue the common good. Catholic social teaching does offer clear guidance on the role of government. When basic human needs are not being met by private initiative, then people must work through their government, at appropriate levels, to meet those needs. A central test of political, legal, and economic institutions is what they do to people, what they do for people, and how people participate in them.
The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Work is more than a way to make a living; it is an expression of our dignity and a form of continuing participation in God's creation. People have the right to decent and productive work, to decent and fair wages, to private property and economic initiative. Workers have the strong support of the Church in forming and joining union and worker associations of their choosing in the exercise of their dignity and rights. These values are at the heart of Rerum Novarum and other encyclicals on economic justice. In Catholic teaching, the economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.
We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers (cf. Gn 4:9). In a linked and limited world, our responsibilities to one another cross national and other boundaries.
Violent conflict and the denial of dignity and rights to people anywhere on the globe diminish each of us. This emerging theme of solidarity, so strongly articulated by Pope John Paul II, expresses the core of the Church's concern for world peace, global development, environment, and international human rights. It is the contemporary expression of the traditional Catholic image of the Mystical Body. "Loving our neighbor" has global dimensions in an interdependent world.
Care for God's Creation
On a planet conflicted over environmental issues, the Catholic tradition insists that we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.