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A Short Introduction

A Short Introduction to Catholic Social Thought

The Catholic social tradition is grounded in the values and principles of Judeo-Christian religious experience which are reflected in the Christian scriptures and the church’s lived tradition. It has evolved as each generation has attempted to live in society with reflective fidelity to those values and that religious vision. An active commitment to social justice is now recognized as essential to authentic Catholic faith.

As an intellectual tradition, Catholic Social Thought includes the work of great patristic and classical theologians, such as Augustine, Suarez and Thomas Aquinas, as well as the continuing reflection of individuals and contemporary schools addressing the issues and institutions of social living, such as Liberation Theology, African Theology, Asian Theology, Eco-theology and Feminist Theology.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII began a tradition of official Catholic Social Teaching with his encyclical letter On the Condition of Labour. A second social encyclical was issued by Pope Pius XI on the 40th anniversary of Leo’s in 1931, The Reconstruction of the Social Order.

Thirty years later, the third encyclical in the series, Pope John XXIII’s Christianity and Social Progress, however, initiated an explosion of social teaching, with major official teaching statements being issued every two or three years since. They represent the rising social consciousness and concern in the church as it searches for more just and sustainable ways for the peoples of the earth to live together in peace.

The heart of both Catholic social thought is simple and forceful: the sacred dignity of every individual as a member of the community of creation. This grounds the full panoply of human rights and responsibilities, a special option for those in poverty and on the margins of society, the call to stewardship and global solidarity.

The huge body of Catholic social thought and Catholic Social Teaching has been summarized in various ways. The U.S. Catholic bishops have highlighted 7 key themes:

  • Life and Dignity of the Human Person
  • Call to Family, Community, and Participation
  • Rights and Responsibilities
  • Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  • The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  • Solidarity
  • Care for God’s Creation

In a useful outline summary of the major documents, Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret, available from the Center of Concern in Washington DC, USA (, fourteen major lessons are identified:

  • Link of Religious and Social Dimensions of Life
  • Dignity of the Human Person
  • Political and Economic Rights
  • Option for the Poor
  • Link of Love and Justice
  • Promotion of the Common Good
  • Subsidiarity
  • Political Participation
  • Economic Justice
  • Stewardship
  • Solidarity
  • Promotion of Peace
  • Work
  • Liberation

Both of these lists make useful clusters of the concerns, values and principles that are the heart of Catholic social thought and official Catholic Social Teaching.