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The four basic principles of Catholic social teaching

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The principles of Catholic social teaching specify the demands of justice as it pertains to the social, political and economic order. Therefore, while many of the principles are factual states of affairs, such as a fair wage or the universal destination of goods, implicit in them is a practical norm — a directive claim — about what persons ought to do, such as paying employees fairly or treating one’s private property as ordained for the good of all. While over a dozen such principles — for example, the preferential option for the poor — may be discerned within the body of Catholic social teaching, the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (160) lists four foundational principles: (1) the dignity of the human person, (2) the common good, (3) solidarity and (4) subsidiarity. Of these four, the first two — in stated order — are the most pivotal.

 The dignity of the human person consists in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God. Endowed with an immortal, spiritual soul, the human is a person capable of rational, reflective knowledge, and self-determination. Capable of giving themselves and entering into communion with others, human persons are the only creatures God has willed for their own sake (“Gaudium et spes,” 24) and reflect the triune God who created them. Human persons are called to communion with God himself (“Gaudium et spes,” 22) and are capable by their spiritual nature of becoming members of God’s family — sharing in his divine life — through the grace of baptism. Consequently, human persons must be treated according to the immense dignity and inviolability that their nature and ultimate possibilities imply. One respects the dignity of the human person by protecting his goods (“Veritatis splendor,” 13).  

A common good is that end for the sake of which persons coordinate their actions and are thereby constituted as a group. Ultimately, the common good of the human race is that for the sake of which human persons — and the rest of creation for their sake — were created: the kingdom of God, and centrally, the communion of human persons with God. For, human persons seek happiness as their ultimate end in acting, but their happiness truly lies in the kingdom of God. In the context of Catholic social teaching, “the common good” has a narrower sense, though still rooted in the more comprehensive definition just outlined. In Catholic social teaching, “the common good” typically refers to the political common good, namely, that total set of social conditions which enables people to more readily achieve their own greater perfection (“Mater et magistra,” 65). These conditions are the end for which persons act as a socio-political unit. One ought to pursue the political common good because it is conducive to the ultimate flourishing of human persons. Because the political common good is the good of persons, it is never opposed to the good of individuals as such. The violation of the good of individuals must never be accepted as the cost of pursuing some amorphous collective good, as though individual persons were dispensable cogs in some vast, impersonal state or corporate machine. At the same time, concern for the common good enjoins that persons not pursue goods individualistically, lacking concern for their neighbors.

Concern for the common good out of respect for one’s neighbor and his goods is embodied in the virtue of solidarity. Solidarity is that disposition whereby one shares one’s goods with one’s neighbor, treating him or her with fairness and generosity as equal in dignity to oneself. Ultimately, solidarity means placing one’s very life at the service of one’s neighbor. It encompasses even the willingness to make oneself less than one’s neighbor in order to serve him or her, as Pope Benedict XVI taught (“A Reason Open to God,” 192). Solidarity overcomes the vicious tendencies toward selfishness, greed and indifference.

Finally, subsidiarity is the principle that larger, higher-level institutions (such as the state) should not supplant intermediate institutions (such as local governments, civic organizations, charities, parishes and especially, families) when the common good can be adequately preserved and promoted by the intermediate institution. When it cannot, institutions at a further remove from the individual person should, because of their vaster resources and capacities for organization, support rather than supplant mediating institutions. That is because the needs of the individual persons whose welfare is at stake are typically better understood and more effectively fulfilled by institutions nearer to them. By empowering institutions that mediate between the individual and higher-level institutions, subsidiarity checks the power of higher-level institutions and channels it toward the common good, thereby safeguarding human dignity.

Matava is associate professor and dean of Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria. Graduate.christendom.edu.

Find out more

Christendom Graduate School will offer a course on Catholic social teaching this spring. To learn more about the class and for more resources, go to graduate.christendom.edu/socialteaching.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020