What is Catholic social teaching? At first blush, it sounds like a topic for a high school thesis paper that Sr. Margaret would make you write during detention.
But wait! It’s a lot more interesting than you may think. In fact, it’s probably something you have already put into practice. As Sr. Margaret knew, it’s important to understand what the Church teaches on this topic. Because the more we learn, the more we’ll be inspired to reach out creatively to those in need.
The Church’s teaching on issues of justice, fairness, and human dignity makes up one of its most important cornerstones—and one of its great gifts to the whole world. As the U.S. Catholic bishops have said, “Catholic social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it succinctly: “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (1397).
However, if you want to boil down the social teachings of the Church to their essence, you only need this one sentence: “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
It’s just that simple—and just that challenging.
A Biblical Imperative. We tend to think of Catholic social teaching as something relatively new, beginning when Pope Leo XIII articulated the doctrine in his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. But its origins go much further back. As the U.S. bishops point out:
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” (Luke 4:18), and who identified himself with “the least of these,” the hungry and the stranger (cf. Matthew 25:45). Catholic social teaching is built on a commitment to the poor.
You can find all of this explained at greater length in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, released during the pontificate of St. John Paul II in 2004. And indeed, John Paul himself summed up Catholic social teaching in 1999 by noting that the foundation of social justice “rests on the threefold cornerstone of human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity” (Ecclesia in America, 55).
Is there a simpler way of understanding all this? I think so. And it begins close to home.
Concentric Circles. Years ago, in the wake of 9/11, a member of the local police precinct came to our parish in New York City to give a presentation about how to be best prepared for an emergency. He asked us to think of our responsibilities as a set of concentric circles. “First off,” he said, “there’s the smallest circle: your immediate family, the people in your house. Make sure your immediate family is safe. Then go to the next circle, just outside. Check on your neighbors. After that, widen the circle to look at those beyond your neighborhood. But your priority has to be that smallest circle, those closest to you. One person, or one family.”
I think that model can also help us look at Catholic social teaching as well. It starts with the person, just one solitary soul, and then expands to the community, and ultimately, it embraces the whole world. Let’s break it down.
1. Honor the dignity of every single person. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Every Catholic knows: life matters. Respect it. Embrace it. Cherish it. Fight for it, from conception until natural death. As the bishops explain, “We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.”
Out of this central idea flows our respect for the poor and vulnerable, our concern for the rights and dignity of workers, and our compassion for the poor and marginalized. We believe this in our bones: everyone, no matter his or her station in life, is made in the image and likeness of God—whether it’s the grocer in the supermarket or the homeless person on the street.
This also means that we are responsible for one another. Each of us realizes that, yes, I am my brother’s keeper. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. It begins when someone asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and concludes with Jesus tasking his listeners, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:29, 37). We are called to “do likewise” for those in need. Or to borrow the anthem from High School Musical, we’re all in this together!
2. Honor the family and the community. Marriage and family are central institutions that must be supported, strengthened, and encouraged. The same goes for local communities. This is really part of the concept of subsidiarity, which holds that decisions regarding care for one another are best handled at the lowest possible level, closest to the people affected by those decisions. This means that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (Catechism, 1883). Ultimately, that should lead us to an understanding of our place in the world—which is ultimately in connection with one another.
I saw a beautiful example of this some years back, when I was leaving work to take the subway home. I stopped at a local bakery to pick up a dozen bagels. Waiting just inside the subway station was an older homeless man rattling a cardboard cup, asking for any change. I offered him one of my bagels. He eagerly accepted it and thanked me. He disappeared down the platform. When my train came and I was about to board, I looked to see where he’d gone and noticed him at the end of the platform. He was breaking his bagel in two and giving half to another man sitting on the floor of the platform.
I was moved beyond words: a man who had next to nothing gave half of what he had to someone who had even less. Here was caring for the common good, measured as one small community of two homeless, hungry men living underground. Here too was something else vital to Catholic social teaching:
3. Expressing solidarity. We are one big family, and we need to work together for the common good. In a general audience last year, Pope Francis said the principle of solidarity is more necessary than ever because of the pandemic, which highlighted our need for one another. “To emerge from this crisis better than before,” he said, “we have to do so together; together, not alone. . . . Either it is done together, or it is not done” (September 2, 2020).
Solidarity goes beyond just helping others, the pope explained. “It is a matter of justice,” which requires us to care about the conditions under which many people are forced to live. It also means that we care for and respect the earth, “a common home which God has entrusted to us” (Laudato Si, 232).
Love One Another. So how does all this impact our lives as Catholic Christians? Can’t we just go to Mass, toss an envelope in the collection basket, and consider our work done?
Well, actually, no. A critically important part of Catholic social teaching is right in the middle of its name: social. We are called through our baptism not only to be people of faith and belief but also to be active in the world. To be engaged with the struggles and sufferings of those around us. By extension, that means we strive to live in imitation of Christ.
It is important to remember that the Gospels repeatedly show us that Jesus was not merely a teacher or a man of prayer. He was a doer, a man of action. He journeyed, healed, touched, blessed; he calmed storms and drove out demons and money changers. He engaged with the world. In particular, he engaged with those on the margins—the poor, the sick, the outcast, the despised. He cared for the smallest and weakest of God’s children—and, as we read in Matthew, he identified with them the most: “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
The tenets of Catholic social teaching are woven into the Gospels, into Christ’s teachings, and into the very fabric of our faith. They are not optional, and the reason they are not optional is because they ultimately come down to one simple word: love. Pope Benedict XVI said as much: “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine” (Caritas in Veritate, 2).
Which brings us back to Sr. Margaret. At some point, we might have noticed her writing on the blackboard, “God is love.” The secret has been hiding in plain sight all along. That is really at the heart of Catholic social teaching—and at the heart of our lives as Catholic Christians.
Love. For the vulnerable, the outcast, the forgotten. Class dismissed.
Quotations from the U.S. bishops come from their 1998 document, “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions,” available at usccb.org.