Understanding Catholic social teachings

Catholic social teaching is at present a comprehensive body of theological positions of the Roman Catholic Church, intended to guide its faithful as well as “all people of goodwill” towards conscientious actions on an extensive variety of issues such as respect and the development of the human person; human rights; the common good; family life; human work; the economy; the political community; protection of the environment; and the promotion of peace. 

The Church has consistently sustained since its crude origins and haphazard orientations in the early Christian communities, the witnessing and the position that its members will have and should have a voice on social, political, economic and cultural concerns. 

At different points in its history, the focus of its theological positions has been primarily devoted to the development of its understanding and its relationship with divine realities. But it has not failed to be vigilant in developing its comprehension of disturbing human realities, its norms of ethical conduct, and its message of social “conscientization” in response to these realities, in accordance with its evolving beliefs and convictions on the person, teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ.

This continuing development of the Church’s response to these interpreted realities in the temporal spheres across two thousand years of different contexts, is the story of Catholic social teaching. 

Active Christian responses to social issues has since been reflected upon and formulated on the example of Jesus Christ; who he was in his time and who he is to us in our time as well as what he taught and did. He has not left us with an explicit message nor a plan or process for effective social action, only with his words and deeds, faithfully documented within the different theological positions of the evangelists.

Hence, though the Gospel may be interpreted in various ways, it has fortunately left us with the flexibility to apply the lessons of his life to specific contemporary contexts.

What may perhaps be generally agreeable across the broad spectrum of Christian thinking, is that Jesus totally engaged the social imperfections of his time. His unwritten social witness is otherwise vividly expressed in the stories of healing those who cannot heal themselves; of challenging the legalistic and inflexible ethical postures and hypocritical conduct of political and religious authorities towards the marginalized, with the preaching of an image of the God of love, mercy and compassion; and of the envisioning of a society of mutual caring and sharing that has already begun, but not yet achieved. 

It is this example of the mission of the Christ that we are called to comprehend in the vast compendium of Catholic social teaching, and to emulate in contextualized social actions.

Church facilities in the Philippine capital have been opened to house the homeless amid the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)

To comprehend the broader scope of contemporary Catholic social teaching as it now stands, a brief explanation of the key theses that can sufficiently though not fully characterize it, follows:

1. Love for God and for others is the key to intentions and deeds that will establish just social structures and systems and ensure the preservation of human dignity.

2. The dignity of the human person is derived from being created and redeemed by God, thus worthy of primacy in the social order, manifested through respect for its inalienable rights and duties and through assurance of opportunities for its growth and development.

3. Concerns about justice and peace in the secular sphere are caused by sinful intentions and deeds enacted through unjust social structures and systems, thus inextricably connecting them to concerns about “conscientization” and spiritual renewal of faith in the religious sphere.

4. Preferential attention and action should be given to those who have been marginalized and rendered economically disadvantaged as a result of unjust social structures and systems.

5. Concern for what will benefit the common good must ensure, and must not be done at the expense of the preservation of the dignity of each individual human person.

6. Empowering people to participate in political processes, to cooperate and to decide on the direction and goals they wish to set for themselves, through the just structure and systems of government and organizational management, will achieve the common good and hence, the dignity of each individual human person.

7. The equitable sharing of resources needed for the growth and development of each individual human person depends on ensuring its proper distribution through just social structures and systems; due consideration should be given for willful intent and capacity / incapacity to render the work or the value of work rendered, in order to determine its rightful share of said resources.

8. Love for God and consideration of the dignity of the human person, leads to an appreciation of the wealth of nature’s resources and as co-creators with God through work, to its proper utilization, development and replenishment; this inculcated mindset of stewardship — not ownership — of natural or co-created resources will support the promotion of the common good.

9. Cognizant of the dignity of all peoples, each human person therefore has the moral duty to be in solidarity with all those marginalized in different contexts throughout the world.

10. Peace and sustainability which will ensure the preservation of individual human dignity, can be achieved only when justice is obtained through just social structures and systems and through the equitable sharing of resources.

An objective evaluation of a document of Catholic social teaching must consider the tension of a Church that must remain balanced between a posture of maintaining doctrinal integrity and a consistent prophetic voice; and a posture of enacting flexible realism and relevant pastoral action. 

How much of each posture to adopt or that has been adopted within a document of social thought, or in an actual case of social involvement is a recurring dilemma that must be discerned in the writings of a theologian or in the actions of a pastoral minister.

However, what must be more fully contemplated is the potential synergy that both postures can contribute to the resolution of particular social issues.

Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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