Matt C. Abbott
Catholic social teaching
By Matt C. Abbott
November 20, 2008

The following essay, written by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, is reprinted (with permission) from the summer 2008 issue of Catholic Men's Quarterly.

A Brief Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching

by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

In the semesters when I have taught Catholic Social Teaching (CST), one thing has always struck me: my students want to hear, at the very beginning, an explanation of why such a thing even exists. They want to know where it came from, or put more bluntly, why a religion centered on eternal life obtained through supernatural faith and divinely-empowered sacraments should be so passionately interested in questions of constitutions and laws, labor and wages, ownership and management, and so forth. In the following pages, I offer to you the kind of answer that should be given to such questions, with hopes that this may be an opportunity to think anew about the importance of CST in our lives as Catholics.

Why should the Church take an interest in man's social life?

It seems that we moderns are especially prone to think about religion as a "private" affair, something "between God and the soul," and so the Church has only the business of helping each soul to find its way toward God, the true eternal good, rising above a world of deceptive promises. In a sense, of course, this is true: it is God who creates each individual soul with an immortal destiny, and for that soul, Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. As the priest Caecilius in John Henry Newman's novel Callista beautifully says: "There is but one lover of souls . . . and he loves each one of us, as if there were no one else to love. He died for each one of us, as if there were no one else to die for . . . . The nearer we draw to him, the more triumphantly does he enter into us; the longer he dwells in us, the more intimately have we possession of him. It is an espousal for eternity."

But in another sense, the question posed is odd, if one appreciates the truth first formulated by Aristotle in the second chapter of his Politics, where the Philosopher explains that man is a social and political animal — one who is born into, grows up with, and matures only in, community: first and most naturally the family, but also the city or state comprising many families in one place that can assist one another in living well. Why should the Church take an interest in social life per se? Because the human person she teaches, rules, and sanctifies is social by nature, and Christ, true God and true man, came to save the whole man in his totality. More than that, Christ came to bring about an eternal and perfect society, the Kingdom of God, which would be as much greater than human society as the divine is greater than the human.

The preparation of man for this eternal polity (the City of God, the heavenly Jerusalem) involves his living a good and holy life here below, in the earthly city, along the ways of this world. Thus we speak of social ethics, since there are real questions of moral good and evil at stake. Because man's social life is not only not irrelevant to his salvation but deeply bound up with it, we say that social teaching belongs to moral theology: it belongs to that exercise of the Church's magisterium that addresses matters of morals, as distinct from the part that addresses matters of faith, though these do overlap in various ways. Put negatively, man cannot develop well as a child of God if his social nature is handicapped, or his social life is poisoned or paralyzed. John Paul II wrote:

    When, under the influence of the Paraclete, people discover this divine dimension of their being and life, both as individuals and as a community, they are able to free themselves from the various determinisms which derive mainly from the materialistic bases of thought, practice and related modes of action. In our age these factors have succeeded in penetrating into man's inmost being, into that sanctuary of the conscience where the Holy Spirit continuously radiates the light and strength of new life in the "freedom of the children of God." Man's growth in this life is hindered by the conditionings and pressures exerted upon him by dominating structures and mechanisms in the various spheres of society. It can be said that in many cases social factors, instead of fostering the development and expansion of the human spirit, ultimately deprive the human spirit of the genuine truth of its being and life — over which the Holy Spirit keeps vigil — in order to subject it to the "prince of this world." (Dominum et Vivificantem, §60)

Put positively, Jesus Christ came that men might have life, and have it abundantly. He does not want to save every good thing for heaven, even if he does reserve the best. The family, the neighborhood, friendships, cultures, even states — all these can be more or less sanctified, more or less imbued with divine truth, goodness, and beauty. This will make them more or less perfect occasions for experiencing the joy and peace of God.

On the other hand, there are countless "counterbalancing" remarks so characteristic of the Catholic faith, which always rightly relativizes earthly happiness. Our Lady said to St. Bernadette Soubirous: "I do not promise you happiness in this life, only in the next." St. Teresa of Avila had a famous bookmark in her prayerbook:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

This, then, is the ultimate setting or horizon for CST: while man is not created to be perfectly happy in this life, in this world, he is called to share even now in the superabundant life, yes, the joy, of Jesus Christ, through belonging ever more intimately to His Mystical Body, "the Church, or in other words, the Kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, [which] grows visibly through the power of God in the world" (Lumen Gentium, 3).

Because the mystery of Christ is truly present in this world in His Church, she has the permanent mission and imperative to make of human life in all its dimensions a gift that is worthy of God, and to foster a human environment that promotes in every way this gift of self to God and to one's fellow man. Society of all kinds — the family, the clan or tribe or ethnic community, the nation — is the ground in which the individual's response is rooted. This ground can be either a rich, moist, fertile soil or a poor, dry, and barren one. Usually, it is something in between.

What is meant by "the Church's social teaching"?

There are many superficial notions of what CST means or involves. For some, it means vague sentiments in support of mutual goodwill among classes and nations; for others, it spells out dreamy ideals about economic prosperity for all. But all of these views (and others like them) are too narrow. As Leo XIII said in 1901:

    We have designedly made mention here of virtue and religion. For, it is the opinion of some, and the error is already very common, that the social question is merely an economic one, whereas in point of fact it is, above all, a moral and religious matter, and for that reason must be settled by the principles of morality and according to the dictates of religion. For, even though wages are doubled and the hours of labor are shortened and food is cheapened, yet, if the working man hearkens to the doctrines that are [typically] taught on this subject, as he is prone to do, and is prompted by the examples set before him to throw off respect for God and to enter upon a life of immorality, his labors and his gain will avail him nothing. (Graves de Communi Re [1901], §11)

Or again, the same pope writing in 1895:

    This question [viz., the social question] cannot be regarded from one standpoint only. It is indeed concerned with external goods, but it is preeminently concerned with religion and morals. It is also directly connected with the civil constitution of the laws, so that in the last analysis, it has a broad reference to the rights and duties of all classes. (Permoti Nos, §5).

St. Pius X commented on the above idea in an encyclical to the German bishops in 1912:

    These are fundamental principles: No matter what the Christian does, even in the realm of temporal goods, he cannot ignore the supernatural good. Rather, according to the dictates of Christian philosophy, he must order all things to the ultimate end, namely, the Highest Good. All his actions, insofar as they are morally either good or bad (that is to say, whether they agree or disagree with the natural and divine law), are subject to the judgment and judicial office of the Church. All who glory in the name of Christian, either individually or collectively, if they wish to remain true to their vocation, may not foster enmities and dissensions between the classes of civil society. On the contrary, they must promote mutual concord and charity. The social question and its associated controversies, such as the nature and duration of labor, the wages to be paid, and workingmen's strikes, are not simply economic in character. Therefore they cannot be numbered among those which can be settled apart from ecclesiastical authority. "The precise opposite is the truth. It is first of all moral and religious, and for that reason its solution is to be expected mainly from the moral law and the pronouncements of religion." (Singulari Quadam, §3, emphasis added, citing at the end Leo XIII's Graves de Communi)

The Church's well-refined body of social teaching addresses every fundamental question of social significance, both political (the origin, nature, and purpose of civil government; its relationship to the Church and her mission; its role in protecting persons, ensuring rights, fostering virtue) and economic (the generation of property, its ownership and distribution, the rightful place of material goods, international trade, monetary issues, and so on). In the final analysis, the Church's social doctrine is the articulation of what vital Christian witness to the Gospel and social action on its basis must be, with the goal of reforming the social order according to Catholic truth. It is the recognition that without grace, the life of individuals, as of societies, is, and cannot but be, deeply disordered, lacking mutual harmony, peace, joy, festivity, and meaning. In other words, CST is not any particular bit of doctrine or advice or warning about this or that social situation; it is a vision of reality emanating from Christ the King and embracing all human reality in communion with the Trinity.

Who inaugurated social teaching?

Jesus Christ, then the Apostles, the Fathers, the Schoolmen, St. Thomas and the Thomist tradition (especially in Renaissance Spain), but above all, the Popes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Catholic theologians and philosophers in the modern period have contributed in major ways as well. Most of the famous papal documents on social questions are from the "modern" period, which might be dated from the so-called age of Enlightenment, in truth an age of Revolutions (realized or threatened) against ecclesiastical and civil authority. It was during the eighteenth century that the Church was forced, by attacks against her, and for the good of souls, to speak out against new errors that had never been entertained before, such as the total derivation of political authority from "the consent of the governed" or "the will of the people."

Here is where some historical knowledge is crucial. For over one thousand years, the basic social reality of the world, the foundation of the entire social order including its political elements, was the visible Catholic Church — what Cardinal Journet dubbed "consecrational Christendom": a body of peoples, cities, states, united into an international federation by a common faith in Christ and obedience to the hierarchical Church, with an enormously complex and diversified network of "intermediate" institutions with genuine social power and position, such as guilds, religious orders, feudal domains, principalities, universities. It is a world in which to be a citizen and to be a Catholic are one and the same in practice, although not necessarily in theory.

As this order was challenged or repudiated in the wake of the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, we find a sudden surge of papal teaching on social and political ethics. And, as a reaction can take time to gain momentum, or put differently, as self-knowledge gains clarity only with long experience, we are not surprised to find that the first systematic papal response to Enlightenment political theory did not come until the early part of the nineteenth century, about forty years after the French Revolution (the time between 1789 and Pope Gregory XVI's Mirari Vos of 1832). With some reservations, we could date the modern social magisterium from the pontificate of Gregory XVI (1765–1846; pope from 1831–1846), for two reasons: first, he attempted a refutation, on doctrinal grounds, of certain trends of modern liberalism; second, his basic positions were adopted and built upon by subsequent popes. To pretend that modern social teaching began with Leo XIII is to ignore all the foundations he indicated for his own teaching.

Pope Pius XII said in a message for Italian Catholic Action Family Day on March 23, 1952:

    The divine assistance, which is intended to preserve Revelation from error and deformation, was promised to the Church and not to individuals. This also was a wise provision, because the Church, as a living organism, can thus with certainty and ease either explain or examine deeply into moral truths along with others; or, while maintaining their substance intact, can apply them to the changing conditions of places and times. As an example, we might cite the social doctrine of the Church which, having arisen in answer to new needs, is basically nothing more than the application of undying Christian morality to present-day economic and social circumstances.

Pope Leo XIII does, however, enjoy a place of special honor within the tradition, for he simply towers above all other pontiffs in the breadth, depth, and originality of his contributions to social doctrine. For this reason, his encyclicals — rich in wisdom, forceful in analysis, sparkling with insight, flowing with unction — deserve a certain pride of place. In the opinion of many, he is the greatest teacher of the fundamentals of social ethics. A sign of this fact is the frequency with which his encyclicals are quoted by later pontiffs. In Mater et Magistra (1961), Bd. John XXIII testifies to the deep roots of the social teaching as well as the special position of Leo XIII as a teacher thereof. Unfortunately, apart from Rerum Novarum — and even then, in a one-sided way — the directives and appeals of Leo have indeed sunk into oblivion. It is part of our task as faithful Catholics at the start of the third millennium to rescue his teaching in order to demonstrate that, far from being antiquated or irrelevant, it is more timely and more urgent than ever.

After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in the late eighties, John Paul II, in his final book Memory and Identity, noted that we are faced with the very same questions faced by Leo XIII:

    Catholic social teaching owes much to Aristotle's Politics and has acquired particular prominence in modern times, thanks to the issue of labor. . . . At the heart of all these magisterial documents lies the theme of human freedom. Freedom is given to man by the Creator as a gift and at the same time as a task. Through freedom, man is called to accept and to implement the truth regarding the good. In choosing and bringing about a genuine good in personal and family life, in the economic and political sphere, in national and international arenas, man brings about his own freedom in the truth. This allows him to escape or to overcome possible deviations recorded by history. One of these was certainly Renaissance Machiavellianism. Others include various forms of social utilitarianism, based on class (Marxism) or nationalism (national socialism, fascism). Once these two systems had fallen in Europe, the societies affected, especially in the former Soviet bloc, faced the problem of liberalism. This was treated at length in the encyclical Centesimus Annus [1991] and, from another angle, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor [1993]. In these debates the age-old questions return, which had already been treated at the end of the nineteenth century by Leo XIII, who devoted a number of encyclicals to the issue of freedom.

From this rapid outline of the history of thought on this topic, it is clear that the issue of human freedom is fundamental. Freedom is properly so-called to the extent that it implements the truth regarding the good. Only then does it become a good in itself. If freedom ceases to be linked with truth and begins to make truth dependent on freedom, it sets the premises for dangerous moral consequences, which can assume incalculable dimensions. When this happens, the abuse of freedom provokes a reaction which takes the form of one totalitarian system or another. This is another form of the corruption of freedom, the consequences of which we have experienced in the twentieth century, and beyond.

Finally: Where do we find Catholic Social Teaching?

Apart from a section of the Catechism and some portions of the documents of Vatican II, the main concentration of CST is to be found in papal documents, especially the type of universal letter called encyclicals. It has been the Roman Pontiffs who, for the last two hundred years, have pursued social questions and given guidance to the world with a truly heroic determination, wisdom, and clarity. Many of the key insights of CST have found their way into the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which is highly commendable, albeit not quite the same as going straight to the papal sources themselves. As for the latter, the following sequence of encyclicals may be recommended without hesitation as a coherent and comprehensive self-study course in CST:

  • Leo XIII's Diuturnum Illud (1881) on the origin of civil power, Immortale Dei (1885) on the Christian constitution of States, Libertas Praestantissimum (1888) on the nature of human freedom, Sapientiae Christianae (1890) on the duties of Christians as citizens, and Rerum Novarum (1891) on capital and labor;

  • Pius XI's Quas Primas (1925) on the kingship of Christ, Quadragesimo Anno (1931) on the reconstruction of the social order, Mit Brennender Sorge (1937) on the German Reich, and Divini Redemptoris (1937) on atheistic communism;

  • Ven. Pius XII's addresses "The Internal Order of States and People" (1942), "True and False Democracy" (1944), "The Modern State" (1950), and most importantly, "On Religious Tolerance" [Ci Riesce] (1953);

  • Bd. John XXIII's Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963);

  • Paul VI's Populorum Progressio (1967) and Octogesima Adveniens (1971);

  • John Paul II's Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), Centesimus Annus (1991), and, more broadly, Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995).

That's a lot of reading — and the list might well be quite a bit longer! But take the encyclicals one at a time, and you will soon discover that they are some of the most rewarding study you have ever done, not to mention some of the best kindling for prayer and action. Start with Leo XIII and you may find yourself wondering before long how it was possible to think as a Catholic without his wisdom informing your thoughts and judgments.

(Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology and Instructor in Music at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming.)

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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