…there is need, right from the start, to learn gradually and prudently to see all things in the light of faith, to judge and act always in its light. Pope Paul VI, Apostolicam Actuositatem 29

Our call to act for justice comes from Jesus. In His greatest command – ‘love one another as I have loved you’, we hear the call to love as Jesus did. That means to bring everyone but especially the poor, ill, frail, unwanted and outcast near to us and show the kind of love that witnesses their innate dignity, the kind of love that shows that people are not alone or unwanted, the kind that says ‘I will stand with you and not standby while others run roughshod over your humanity’. It must be the kind that says ‘I will love you as Jesus does and for as long as He does’. Jesus showed his love on the Cross – imperfect though our attempts will be we are called to love that greatly, that deeply, that sacrificially!

So, what is Catholic Social Teaching? 

Pope John Paul II wrote, “The Church’s social teaching finds its source in Sacred Scripture, beginning with the Book of Genesis and especially in the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles. From the beginning, it was part of the Church’s teaching…[It was] developed by the teaching of the Popes on the modern “social question,” beginning with the encyclical, Rerum Novarum.”

This first great social teaching came in 1891 from Pope Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum or ‘Capital and Labour’ raises issues such as the dignity of the human being and the importance of work being at the service of people and not the other way around. Pope Leo also presented the decidedly Catholic principle of preferential option for the poor. We have since had many other teachings right up to Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, ‘On the Care of our Common Home’. Collectively, the Church has developed these teachings into a rich body of doctrine called Catholic Social Teaching.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace explains that CST “is the expression of the way that the Church understands society and of her position regarding social structures and changes. The whole of the Church community—priests, religious, and laity—participates in the formulation of this social doctrine.”

We can distill the detail and specific issues of CST into a few key principles. These should be our guiding way for all justice work.

The Life and Dignity of the Human Person

‘Individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution’. – Pope John XXIII

This is the very basis of all Catholic Social Teaching because it is based on the notion that we are each of God, for God and expressions of God. We have an inviolable dignity. Anything that is offensive to that dignity is unjust. This must be our continual reference point for identifying injustice and in determining the ways we respond.

The Common Good

The common good is the total sum of social conditions which allow people as groups and individuals to reach their fulfillment more fully or more easily. That is, the sum of our institutions, cultural practices, governance structures etc need to respect and allow human dignity to flourish to be just. A constant set of questions we need to ask ourselves about any of our justice work are: ‘where is human dignity being degraded?’ and ‘does our solution restore and respect human dignity’.

The Universal Destination of Goods

The foundation of the principle of ‘universal destination of goods’ is found in Genesis 1:28—29 in which we learn that the original source of all that is good and life-sustaining comes from God, and is intended for all humankind. Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 Encylical, Laborem Exercens, said that this principle is the ‘first principle of the whole ethical and social order’. The Church teaches that we each have a natural, or inherent, right to the material goods that allows us to sustain our physical lives but also that lets us to fulfil our potential, not merely subsist.  Further, because it is a natural right any human intervention in this regard must be subordinated to this primary right.


The word subsidiarity comes from the Latin word subsidium which means help, aid or support.

This principle is about returning or allowing decision making power to those most near or affected by the issue. That is, subsidiarity requires we defer to families, groups, local councils, schools, parishes etc when addressing or defining problems and solutions that affect that group or person. This is about preserving and permitting local lifeways to flourish and preventing unjustified intervention from above.


Pope Benedict XVI, quoting poet John Donne, wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse.”

This principle reflects that social and interdependent nature. It goes beyond compassion for each other and instead requires a deep sense of belonging to and being responsible for one another personally and socially. This means that not only do our personal relationships with one another need to be binding and truly loving but we need to make our social structures and relations this way also. For example, a market system that degrades humans by turning them into units of labour secondary to profit is not a system that reflects solidarity.

Preferential Option for the Poor

This principle reminds us that we must recall the Jesus’ teachings in putting first the needs of those who are most vulnerable in our society.  The poor (understood beyond only materially poor) must be considered above all and their needs addressed within any effort towards the common good – we are called to make them our first and most pressing priority. The United States’ Bishops put it well: “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximisation of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion.”

Stewardship/Care for God’s Creation

We show respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. We have a responsibility to care for the world’s goods as stewards and trustees, not primarily, let alone merely, as consumers. In the interests of planetary health we are all called to participate in respectful dialogue, to leave a lighter ecological footprint and firmer spiritual one, so that generations yet unborn will inherit a world, in the words of Pope Francis, ‘closer to the design of the Creator’. Connected with this Principle is the one of ‘Universal Destination of Goods’ which is the declaration that we are all each entitle to the Earth’s good equally. We each are to take what we need to live a modest, humble life, but no more. We cannot morally take more than our share.

Key Papal Teachings

1891 Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” – Leo XIII

The Condition of Labour examines working conditions in industrialised countries and insists on workers’ rights. The Church, employers & workers should work together to build a just society.

1931 Quadragesimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year” – Pius X

The Reconstruction of the Social Order at the time of major economic depression: QA criticises abuses of capitalism & communism. Unity between capital & labour. Ownership brings social responsibilities. Subsidiarity.

1961 Mater et Magistra – “Mother & Teacher” – John XXIII

Christianity & Social Progress: Updates earlier teaching and applies to agriculture and aid to developing countries, thus ‘internationalising’ CST. Role of laity in applying social teaching as an integral part of Christian life.

1963 Pacem in Terris – “Peace on Earth” – John XXIII

Peace on Earth: With the imminent threat of nuclear war this is a plea for peace based on the social order from a framework of rights and duties applying to individuals, public authorities and the world community.

1965 Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” Vatican II

The Church in the Modern World: Church’s duty is discernment of the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. Principles of cultural development and justice, enhancing human dignity and the common good. Work for peace.

1967 Populorum Progressio – “The Development of Peoples” Paul VI

The Development of Peoples Charter for development – ‘the new name for peace’:  Deals with structural poverty, aid and trade. Limits put on profit motive and the right to private property. Christians to strive for international justice.

1971 Octogesima Adveniens – “On the Eightieth Year” – Paul VI

A Call to Action Rome doesn’t necessarily have the answer: Need for local church to respond to specific situations. Urbanisation has brought new injustices. We are called to political action.

1971 Justicia in Mundo – “Justice in the World” – Synod

‘Justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel…’ The Church must examine its conscience about its lifestyle and so witness to the Gospel. Importance of Education for Justice.

1975 Evangelii Nuntiandi – “Evangelisation in the Modern World”- Paul VI

Profound links between evangelization and development and liberation. Only the kingdom is absolute; everything else is relative. All levels of society are to be transformed by the power of the good news.

1981 Laborem Exercens – “On Human Work” – John Paul II

On Human Work For JPII work is the central social issue. Work increases human dignity. Priority of labour over capital. Rights of workers (especially women) and unions. Critique of capitalism as well as Marxism.

1987 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – “The Social Concern of the Church” – John Paul II

Social Concern Updates Populorum Progressio with analysis of global development: North/South divide blamed on confrontation between capitalism and Marxism. Conversion from ‘Structures of sin’ towards solidarity and option for the poor.

1991 Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year” – John Paul II

One Hundred Years Review of CST and major events of the last century, constantly affirming human dignity and human rights, justice and peace. The fall of Marxism does not signify a victory for capitalism.

1995 Evangelium Vitae – “The Gospel of Life ” – John Paul II

John Paul II reiterates Catholic teaching on the importance of protecting the sanctity of human life and dignity right from conception until natural death, paying particular attention to the growing threats against human life from abortion and euthanasia.

2009 Caritas in Veritate – “Charity in Truth” – BenedictXVI

Charity in Truth Updates Populorum Progressio with a comprehensive review of development and some reflection on the economic crisis and business ethics. Provides a theological framework for CST.

2013 Evangelii Gaudium – “The Joy of the Gospel” – First Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Francis

The Pope speaks on numerous themes, including evangelization, peace, homiletics, social justice, the family, respect for creation, faith and politics, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and the role of women and of the laity in the Church.

2015 Laudato Si’“Praised Be to You” – Encyclical Letter on the Care for Our Common Home  – Pope Francis

Laudato Si’ is a letter to all people about our our global family and our common home, which encourages us to “acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.”   It speaks to our need to enter into dialogue with each other, share our resources and be responsible stewards of creation.

2020 Fratelli Tutti – “On Fraternity and Social Friendship” – Pope Francis

Fratelli Tutti emphasizes that we are all brothers and sisters who are part of the same human family and calls for a love that transcends geographic boundaries and distance especially during the extremely difficult times of pandemic.

Further Resources

Below are resources which provide further information about Catholic Social Teaching and organisations working in this field from across Australia and the world.