Part 3: Four Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

The following is part three of a seven-part series summarizing Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States, a document originally issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2015 (USCCB). Part two addressed the complexities that often arise in assessing a candidate’s position. The following article addresses the four principles of Catholic social teaching.

Recent papal teaching has identified four major principles of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity. These four principles provide a moral framework for Catholic engagement in advancing a “consistent ethic of life” (Living the Gospel of Life). This framework helps Catholics examine a candidate’s position on all issues, helping Catholic voters to see beyond party politics, campaign rhetoric, and self-interest. 

Human Dignity
This first principle of Catholic social teaching upholds the truth that life is sacred. Direct attacks on innocent people are never morally acceptable, no matter what stage of life or condition the innocent people may be in. Pope Saint John Paul II said:

Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. ... If we understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" — the living house of God — then these issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation. (Living the Gospel of Life)

“Subsidiarity” means that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions, “yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs, and advance the common good” (Centesimus Annus and Dignitatis Humanae).

In other words, in order to uphold the dignity of the human person, we must show concern for the integrity of groups and associations. This means that we need to advocate for the rights and integrity of the family. Marriage between a man and a woman provides the fundamental unit for society, and it “should be defended and strengthened, not redefined, undermined, or further distorted” (46). Every policy and program ought to reflect respect for the family. 

The Common Good
The common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (Gaudium et Spes). Advocating for the common good begins with the protection of human dignity and includes society fulfilling its responsibilities and duties toward one another. Citizens have a right to access food, shelter, education, employment, healthcare, and housing, as well as the freedom of religion and the freedom to participate in family life. 

"Work" is defined more broadly than simply making a living. It's a “continuing participation in God’s creation" (50). Working toward the common good includes advocating for an economy that serves people, “not the other way around” (50). This means that we need to advocate for the rights of workers and recognize they have a right to just wages and adequate benefits, the choice to organize, access to owning private property, and the ability to achieve legal status (for immigrant workers).

Finally, in order to serve the common good, we must take proper care of creation. “We have a moral obligation to protect the planet on which we live — to respect God's creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for human beings, especially children at their most vulnerable stages of development” (51). Through our care for creation, we uphold our responsibility toward future generations. 

The principle of solidarity recognizes that we are one human family despite nationality, ethnicity, ideology, or status, and that we ought to love our neighbors as such. Solidarity seeks the eradication of racism, disease, and extreme poverty, and advocates for the proper treatment of migrants. As Blessed Paul VI taught, “If you want peace, work for justice” (World Day of Peace Message, Jan. 1, 1972).

Through solidarity, we recognize the Church’s preferential option for the poor, that those most in need deserve preferential concern. “A basic moral test for any society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable” (53). Pope Benedict XVI said that “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel” (Deus Caritas Est). This preferential option for the poor includes unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly, terminally ill, immigrants, and victims of injustice.

Catholic social teaching does not easily fit into left/right ideologies. These principles are nonpartisan and reflect fundamental ethics that ought to apply to every nation. 

In part four, we will address specific policy issues adopted by the bishops' conferences including: human life, promoting peace, marriage and family life, and religious freedom. 

Read the full text of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.


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