(Pope Leo XIII, author of the first social justice encyclical, Rerum novarum, Public Domain, U.S.A.)
“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5: 14)
Spiritually speaking, I think it is very useful to review Catholic social justice principles because – quite frankly – we have in our fallen human nature a strong tendency towards selfishness. These social justice principles help to remind us of our duties and obligations toward our neighbor based on the Christian virtues of justice and charity. We are under a profound obligation – as Christians – to love and care for our neighbor.
The social justice teachings of the Catholic Church are rooted in biblical principles and expounded most particularly in the encyclicals of the modern popes beginning with Leo XIII (1878-1903), continuing with Pius XI (1922-1939), John XXIII (1958-1963), Paul VI (1963-1978), John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005-2013) and through to Pope Francis (2013- ). The social doctrine of the Catholic Church developed in response to the rapidly changing economic conditions brought about during the last two hundred years by the advent of capitalism, communism and socialism. The Catholic Church does not appear to advocate, per se, any definite political-economic order (see, however, CCC 2425), but instead offers moral guidance in the form of doctrinal principles for the purpose of establishing a just economy.
Although my list is certainly not exhaustive (and there are many other principles no doubt applicable to a broader social context than economic justice), I believe the Catholic church in its tradition has formulated the following doctrinal or ethical principles relative to (or at least bearing upon) the formation of a just economy: the principle of the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life; the principle of the universal destination of goods; the principle of the common good; the principle of the priority of labor over capital; the principle of preferential option for the poor; the principle of subsidiarity; the principle of commutative justice; the principle of solidarity; and, most recently, the the duty to care for the environment/planet.
1. The Dignity of the Human Person and the Sanctity of Human Life
The Catholic Church has always taught that every person has a unique and special dignity in light of the fact that he or she was made “in the image and likeness of God.” Every person therefore bears the imprint and dignity of God. This truth has profound social implications, for to ignore one’s neighbor’s plight is essentially the equivalent of ignoring God. Jesus puts this concept in a positive light: “As you did it to one of these the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). In a social context, therefore, due to each person’s intrinsic dignity and sanctity, he or she is entitled to certain basic human rights which, in an economic context, would include, in the words of Pope John XXIII, “the means which are necessary and suitable for the proper development of life. These means are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services” (Pacem in Terris, 11, 1963).
Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI, in the encyclical, Charity in Truth, elaborates on the “strong links between life ethics and social ethics, ushering in a new area of magisterial teaching that has gradually been articulated in a series of documents, most recently John Paul II’s Encyclical Evangelium Vitae.” Pope Benedict further states: “The Church forcefully maintains this link between life ethics and social ethics, fully aware that ‘a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized’ “ (Caritas in Veritate, no. 15).
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adds: “The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching.” In conclusion, the dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, is the “bedrock” principle of Catholic social justice.
2. The Universal Destination of Goods
The doctrine of the universal destination of goods is rooted in the concept that God intended all people to share in the goods of this world. This is a basic concept and does not imply repeal of private property rights or the need for socialism. Nor does it imply that every person is entitled to an equal or identical amount of goods. It does imply, however, that it would be unjust to hold back from a person the basic necessities of life such as food, shelter and clothing. As stated by the Vatican II Council in the document Gaudium Et Spes, “We must never lose sight of this universal destination of earthly goods. In his use of things, man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. Therefore every man has the right to possess a sufficient amount of the earth’s goods for himself and his family” (Section 69). As the United States Catholic Bishops said: “Distributive justice requires that the allocation of income, wealth, and power in society be evaluated in light of its effects on persons whose basic material needs are unmet.” See CCC 2402.
3. The Principle of the Common Good
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation (Section 1879).” Thus, “in keeping with the social nature of man, the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good …. ” (Section 1905). Therefore, “the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Development is the epitome of all social duties. Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interest; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life:food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a ·family, and so on” (Section1908). The common good does not subordinate the importance of individuals; to the contrary, in the words of Vatican Council II, “the common good is always oriented to the progress of persons … not the other way around” (Gaudium et Specs, 25).
4. The Priority of Labor Over Capital
In his encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), Pope John Paul II sets forth the ethical statement that there is a “priority of labor over capital.” The Pope states: “We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of man over things [for] man alone is a person.”
Pope John Paul II views human work as an essential part of a person’s dignity and vocation. It is one of the primary means by which a person fulfills his or her potential and provides helpful activity to a community. In this regard “work, as a human issue, is at the very center of the social question.” Work in the objective sense refers to man subduing the earth and technologically taking control over nature. The temptation inherent in technology is to view it as a good greater than the laborer and therefore to make the laborer subservient to technology. In the subjective sense, “man [is] the subject of work.” Reflecting God’s own image, man is a person, “that is to say, a subjective being capable of acting in a planned and rational way, capable of deciding about himself and with the tendency to self-realization.” As such, “the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.”
Consequently, “the sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not the objective one.” The error of “early capitalism” was its reversal of the order that the worker takes priority over capital. This form of capitalism viewed the worker as a means to an end, as a mere “instrument” of the means of production. In essence, this form of capitalism failed to respect the subjective dignity of the worker. “This state of affairs was favored by the liberal socio-political systems which … safeguarded economic initiative by the possessors of capital alone, but did not pay sufficient attention to the rights of workers.”
According to Pope John Paul II, the “error of economism” is that of “considering human labor solely according to its economic purpose. ” To “overcome this error” there must be a definite conviction of the primacy of the person over things and of human labor over capital.” To accomplish this goal, the assumption of “rigid capitalism” which “defends the exclusive right to private ownership of the means of production as an untouchable dogma of economic life” must be viewed as “unacceptable.” As such, “the proper position of labor and the workers in the production process demands various adaptations in the sphere of the right to ownership of the means of production.”
5. Preferential Option for the Poor
This is a term which is associated with liberation theology; it was formulated by the Latin American bishops during a meeting in 1968. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the phrase is slightly modified and defined as follows: “Hence, those who are pressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere” ( Section 2448). There can be little doubt that some liberation theologians would object to this definition, since liberation theology represents an attempt to change the structural forces in society which oppress the poor, but no matter what the case, the phrase clearly calls Christians to be particularly concerned for the needs of the poor. See “Instructions on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation” by The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and approved by Pope John Paul II).
6. The Principle of Subsidiarity
“Subsidiarity,” according to one definition, “is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”
The principle of subsidiarity was formulate by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On The 40th Year) which was released in 1931. The principle was set forth and explained by the Pope in Sections 79 and 80 of the encyclical:
“It is indeed true, as history clearly shows, that owing to the change in social conditions, much that was formerly done by small bodies can now a days be accomplished only by large organizations. Nevertheless, it is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them. The state authority should leave to other bodies the care and expediting of business and activities of lesser moment….
Let those in power, therefore, be convinced that the more faithfully this principle of ‘subsidiarity’ is followed and a hierarchical order prevails among the various organizations, the more excellent will be the authority and efficiency of society, and the happier and more prosperous the condition of the commonwealth.”
See CCC 1883-1884.
7. The Principle of Commutative Justice
The principle of commutative justice requires a fair exchange of goods or services between contracting parties. In a social justice context, this means that unfair contracts, obtained by the unequal bargaining powers of the respective parties, have social implications. The principle of commutative justice therefore obligates an employer or a business owner to see how the business and financial agreements they enter into impact the community of people around them. A “good deal,” therefore, implies an arrangement that both benefits the business entity and the community. See CCC 2411.
8. The Principle of Solidarity
This principle recognizes the fact that we are all related to each other as children of God. In an economic context, this means that we have an obligation to help each other out and to be concerned with the economic welfare of all people and not just isolated groups of people or particular states or nations. Solidarity implies mutual interdependence among people in community and among the nations of the world. See CCC 1939-42.
9. The Duty to Care for the Environment/Planet
In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis spells out the duties and obligations of the human family to care for the planet in an environmentally sound way. Here are two important quotes from the document: “But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (#34). “Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity” (#211).
Hopefully, the enumeration of these nine principles provides a framework with which to better understand the Catholic Church’s vision of social justice for the world (especially, as in this note, with respect to the formation of a just economy). The reading of the encyclicals mentioned in this note will provide a much richer understanding of these principles. The Vatican, in fact, has put together a very useful “Compendium” of the social justice teachings of the Church which shows just how vast and comprehensive those teachings are compared to this limited note. You can access the Compendium at the following link:
Aware of the power of Christianity to renew even cultural and social realities, the Church offers the contribution of her teaching to the building up of the human community by bringing out the social significance of the Gospel. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Church’s Magisterium systematically addressed the pressing social questions of the time, creating “a lasting paradigm for the Church. The Church, in fact, has something to say about specific human situations, individual, and communal, national and international. She formulates a genuine doctrine for these situations, a corpus which enables her to analyze social realities, to make judgments about them and to indicate directions to be taken for the just resolution of the problems involved” (no. 521).
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A., J.D.
Note: Most of these Catholic social justice principles have a much broader application than the contexts, definitions, or examples used in this note. The Catholic Church recognizes three important rights in the context of economic activity: (1) the right to private property; (2) the right to make a just profit; and (3) the right to economic initiative (see CCC 2403, 2429 and 2432).
References: The quotes selected from Laudato Si were in Kevin Cotter’s summary of the encyclical.
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