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A brief summary of Catholic Social Doctrine

Catholic social teaching is collected in a Compendium which is available on-line at the Vatican Web Site. See Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church." That social doctrine may be described as a core set of principles and values which operate as an integral unity, with the principles and values supporting each other synergistically. We can summarize the core principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church very briefly as follows1:

The core principles of Catholic Social Doctrine are approximately as follows:

  1. The Personalist Principle: Although this is not called out as a distinct principle in list of principles spelled out in chapter 4 ("Principles of the Church's Social Doctrine") it should be clear that the whole of the Church's social doctrine, in fact, develops from the principle that affirms the inviolable dignity of the human person. We are a unity of body and soul. We can never be considered as an object, but always as a subject, an acting and active person. Human beings are relational by nature. We cannot think of a human being as existing in isolation. "No man is an island, entirely unto himself," as the poet John Donne put it. At the same time, no human being can be regarded as a mere cell in a collective organism, as some ideologies do. This principle implies the fundamental right to life, from the moment of conception, as well as the right to be raised in a natural, nuclear family with one's own mother and father. In-vitro fertilization, artificial contraception, human cloning (whether for reproduction or for so-called therapeutic purposes), embryo-destructive research, abortion and euthanasia are all fundamental violations of this principle. In addition, wherever society itself can be protected from deadly law-breakers by other means, capital punishment loses its justification. The right of conscience, especially the right to religious freedom, is also implied by this principle. Along with rights, this principle implies duties in order to support these rights and to provide for reciprocity (understood as the just and proper mode of inter-subjectivity). One example of this reciprocity is the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue, "Honor your father and your mother." Yet, that reciprocity balances the fundamental rights of the child "to develop in the mother's womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child's personality; the right to develop one's intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth." Reciprocity further implies "the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth's material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one's dependents; and the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one's sexuality."
  2. The Principle of the Common Good: The common good indicates "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily." In other words, society should assist the natural development of the human person through just social and government structures, not impede that development through excessive or arbitrary road blocks, e.g. in government regulations or in social taboos (such as aparteid). In effect, the principle of the common good identifies the objective of the fundamental social contract that undergirds the rule of law. Balance is required here, as well, since a too zealous governmental policy can actually be counter-productive. That is the primary reason the Church recognizes the importance of the next principle, the principle of subsidiarity. The principle of the common good, however, is closer to being an end in itself, while the ultimate end, of course, is the fundamental dignity of the human person, or the "personalist principle." The principle of the common good implies both rights and duties. For example, we must not think only of our own pocket books when we go out to vote. We must make sure that our vote assists, wherever possible, the common good without otherwise violating the more fundamental rights of human dignity, especially the right to life.
  3. The Principle of the Universal Destination of Goods: While the name of this principle is a mouth full, it is based on the idea that God has given the earth to all human kind. No exceptions. Thus, no human being can have an inviolable lock on any given category of resources. All have an equal claim to access. We must, of course, understand this in a juridical sense. That is to say, no law can be in conformity with this principle and, at the same time, cordon off any category of resource to be the exclusive province of any individual, group of individuals, class, caste or ethnicity, nor any combination thereof. Reasonable provision can, of course, be made to manage access to and use of resources in order to ensure sustainability, responsible and appropriate use, and good stewardship. The principle described as "option for the poor" is largely subsumed under this principle and the principle of solidarity (described below), so that individuals and groups ought to work together to ensure that education, wealth, social status, or political power (or the lack thereof) do not, in effect, freeze out access or ensure access, especially access unrelated to need.
  4. The Principle of Subsidiarity: Concern for subsidiarity arises from the dignity of the human person in his or her natural family and social relationships. Governmental structure and law must be established to honor these relationships by according them priority in autonomy and responsibility. Thus, according to the principle of subsidiarity, "all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help ('subsidium') — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place." Violation of the principle of subsidiarity is the primary means by which society introduces moral hazard into its functioning. That is, when responsibility and authority (or autonomy) is removed from its rightful place, chaos follows. This is the main reason, for example, that the so-called "welfare state" is fundamentally counter-productive and why foreign aid that isn't sensitive to local needs and structures is also counter-productive. Above all, avoid the temptation to place responsibility in the hands of the federal government.
  5. The Principle of Participation: Viewing the activity of all the primary dimensions of society, including cultural, economic, political and social, as a resource to be shared, we may recognize that access to participation in these various dimensions of activity must be available to everyone. Thus, we may view Participation and the Universal Destination of Goods to be co-principles, one relating to shared activity, the other relating to shared resources. In both cases, such access implies shared responsibility in the context of the gifts and talents each individual contributes to responsible use in accordance with the principle of the Common Good. Thus, no one, no group of people, can legitimately be frozen out of participation in any significant role in society's function without regard to (i.e., for reasons unrelated to) the meaning and purpose of that activity. In balance, participation is both a right and a duty.
  6. The Principle of Solidarity: Concern that growing social and economic structures and relationships can easily result in creeping injustices, as real people get lost in the shuffle, has led the Church to recognize this principle. "On the basis of this principle the 'structures of sin' that dominate relationships between individuals and peoples must be overcome. They must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regulations, and juridical systems." The transformation of Russian society into revolutionary communism in 1919, for example, created numerous "structures of sin." The transformation of European society into the European Union created numerous "structures of sin." Even the initial creation of the United States of America as a single nation resulted in the creation of numerous "structures of sin." It is the task imposed by the principle of solidarity to ferret out these structures and to reform them. To take the last example to a more concrete level, the U.S. Constitution began with a census requirement that negro slaves could only be counted as 3/5 of a person for the purpose of allocating congressional representation. On its face, this stood as a sanction against slavery, since the southern slave owners had insisted on counting all persons, whether slave or free, but granting only free persons the right to vote! Even though this census requirement was a sanction, its long term effect was to stabilize slave structures (something that Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin actually abetted even more powerfully). It took 80 years to remove that most egregious "structures of sin," and 100 years more to remove the last vestiges of it. That long drawn out process would have happened much quicker under a moral regime of mutual solidarity. The revolution in Poland in the 1980s is a powerful demonstration of how it is supposed to work in practice. Many structues of sin have arisen in our law through neglect. The principle of solidarity challenges us to discover and reform them.

The core values of Catholic Social Doctrine flow from the basic personalist principle, identified above. The core values of Catholic Social Doctrine are as follows:

  • Truth: The core value of truth implies that we all have a duty to respect and to move toward truth in our relationships. Moving towards truth implies the duty to move toward it ourselves, and to share it with others insofar as they desire to move toward it authentically, for its own sake.
  • Freedom: The core value of freedom implies that we all have the right and the responsibility to exercise our will in pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful, while preserving justice and love. Furthermore, we all have the duty to respect and honor that right and responsibility in each other.
  • Justice: The core value of justice implies the duty to respect and honor the principles of justice in their application to ourselves and others. These principles of justice are, classically commutative justice (regarding the necessity of restoring what was wrongfully taken), distributive justice (regarding the necessity to honor universal access/distribution), and legal justice (regarding the necessity to operate under the rule of law, not political whim — "laws" not "men").
  • Love: The core value of love (understood as charity) implies that we all have a duty to cultivate the practice of charity to supplement justice (e.g., in accordance with the needs of those who would otherwise suffer without it even under the proper operation of justice).
  • 1. Please consider this summary to be a work in progress. Such a summary requires, at some level, both comprehensiveness and appropriate nuance to avoid misunderstanding or misuse.
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