An Overview of Catholic Social Teaching

 Our “Best Kept Secret” –  An Overview of Catholic Social Teaching


The social implications of the Gospel are very strongly referenced in the words and actions of Jesus himself. The sermon of Jesus on the Last Judgement (Mt. 25) makes it very clear that right relationship with God cannot be separated from right relationship with one another, and especially with the most disadvantaged. This theme continues in the life of the early Christian community (Acts 2), in many of the letters of St. Paul and especially in the Letter of St. James.

There have been periods in history when the Church seems to have withdrawn somewhat from the public space and the focus was primarily on what might be described as personal virtue or private morality. There were various reasons for this depending on the time and the place. After the French Revolution, there was a period when the civil authorities in many emerging states seemed unwilling to recognise the right to religious freedom. In the face of growing secularism, people of faith became suspicious of the language of rights and the Church withdrew into itself, adopting a defensive posture.

The collection of material known as The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church had its beginning with the encyclical Rerum Novarum, of Pope Leo XIII, in 1891. In various encyclicals and other documents since that time, the Popes have reflected on the social challenge of the Gospel, in the light of the particular needs of the time. While they would probably have wanted to address these issues anyway, they found the opportunity to do so, quite frequently, by celebrating various anniversaries of Leo’s encyclical.

The focus of Catholic Social Teaching is the common good, rather than simply the good of individuals. The common good is the ultimate purpose of economics and politics. What is unique about Catholic Social Teaching is not its subject matter, but the fact that questions which touch on the common good are explored through the lens of the Gospel.


  1. Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891)

This encyclical letter was written against the background of the industrial revolution, and the social unrest which surfaced as a result of the oppression of workers. Pope Leo XIII deals with the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers and of the state. He explores questions such as the ownership and use of property, and the right to association. He is critical of states for their failure to engage constructively with the crisis brought about by the tension between labour and capital.

  1. Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI, 1931)

Pope Pius XI wrote this document to commemorate the fortieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum. The context was quite different. Quadragesimo Anno was written around the time that Europe experienced the first rumblings of National Socialism. It reaffirms the right to property and to local enterprise. Pope Pius develops the principle of Subsidiarity, insisting that the state must not take to itself decisions that could be just as effectively made at local level. He outlines the obligations of the State with regard to the use of power, and condemns totalitarianism.

  1. Mater et Magistra (John XXIII, 1961)

Pope John XIII wrote this document about the mission of the Church as “Mother and Teacher”. It celebrates the seventieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum and recognises a clear role for the State. John XIII was the first Pope to specifically raise the issue of Development Aid and in so doing, he points to a social structure which must transcend national boundaries.

  1. Pacem in Terris (John XXIII, 1963)

The publication of this document coincides closely with significant global crises such as the Cuban missile crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall. The context against which the document appears is a world becoming increasingly polarised between East and West. A major focus of the document is the common good. The emphasis on human rights, and the acknowledgement of the role of the United Nations, ends a long period of suspicion of movements for rights, which began with the French Revolution.

  1. Gaudium et SpesPastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Vat.II, 1965)

The first ever gathering of Bishops from all the continents, at the Second Vatican Council, wished to outline a new vision of the Church’s role in the modern world. This role is, among other things, to offer a gospel vision for the development of a just and peaceful society, which is the “kingdom of God already among us.” The document, which more or less marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, proposes that the Church should abdicate the privileged position which it held in certain countries (notably Spain). The document proposes co-operative action for justice and peace between the Church and civil authorities.

  1. Populorum Progressio (Paul VI, 1967)

Very shortly after Gaudium et Spes. Pope Paul VI, the first pope in modern times to travel outside Italy, promotes the ideal of international co-operation in the work of development. He makes the case that authentic development is more than mere progress. Authentic development is integral (i.e.; of the whole person). This document more or less marks the seventy fifth anniversary of Rerum Novarum.

  1. Justice in the World (Synod of Bishops, 1971)

The Synod of Bishops was a new structure set up to ensure that the bishops of the world could meet on a regular basis to explore questions of pastoral importance. This document arising out of the second General Synod, marks the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. The bishops point out that justice, aimed at the liberation of all, is an essential expression of Christian love. They say that development, which is aimed at promoting justice, must be culturally sensitive. The option for Justice must be reflected in the life-style of the Church.

  1. Octagesimo Adveniens, (Pope Paul VI, 1971)

This letter, rather unusually, is addressed to the Archbishop of Quebec, to mark the 80th anniversary of Centesimus Annus. Following his experience at the meeting of Latin American bishops (CELAM) in Medellin, Colombia, Pope Paul recognises that different regions of the world have different problems, which need to be addressed appropriately. The need to pay attention to environmental questions is raised at a time when this was not often referred to in political circles. Pope Paul argues that ideologies should be treated with caution and not adopted uncritically. Christians have a role to play in politics, especially in promoting the kind of politics which serves the common good. The role of the Church is not to propose specific solutions, but to promote the authentic freedom and participation of all.

  1. Laborum Exercens (John Paul II, 1981)

This is the first of three social encyclical written by Pope John Paul II. It marks the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, and takes up the same theme, namely human work and the dignity of workers. The Marxist Socialist states had come into prominence in the intervening 90 years.  Pope John Paul discusses issues such as the relationship of labour and capital; the ownership and control of the means of production. The Pope reaffirms the right to private ownership but states that property brings with it a “social mortgage”. He is the first pope to do write from the perspective of his own personal experience of living and working under a marxist regime.

  1. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (John Paul, 1987)

This encyclical celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio. Pope John Paul is anxious to point out that there is a consistency and a continuity in the Church’s social teaching. He suggests that much real progress has been made since Pope Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio. He argues, however, that conflicting ideologies have contributed to the cold war, and have undermined the dynamic for peace. The arms race has absorbed a massive proportion of the world’s resources. Both conflicting ideologies are flawed and in need of conversion. For the first time, instead of promoting social change within existing structures, the Pope argues that the structures themselves are “sinful”, and in need of radical change. Development is far more than mere technological or economic progress.

  1. Centesimus Annus (John Paul II, 1991)

This document, which comes only a year after the fall of the iron curtain, marks the centenary of Rerum Novarum. Along with Rerum Novarum, it brackets the marxist period. Pope John Paul re-visits many of the issues treated by his predecessors, and once again outlines the continuity of Social Teaching. One of the key themes are the class struggle between Capital and Labour. Another is the opposition between Capitalism and Marxism, neither of which is endorsed, and neither of which is totally written off. Others include freedom, and the right to information.

  1. Laudato Si (Pope Francis, 2015)

Pope Francis is the first Pope in modern times to come from “the ends of the earth”. Having grown up in the third world, or in what is sometimes politely referred to as the developing world, Pope Francis has a particular take on justice and development. His encyclical is specifically dedicated to the environment and the protection of what Pope Francis describes as “our common home”.  Everything, for Pope Francis, is connected. In Laudato Si, he explores the essential connection between the ownership of natural resources, the regulation of banks, animal experimentation, unemployment, genetic modification, consumerism, abortion, poverty, prayer and politics.

  1. Other Papal Documents

Other papal documents published during this period, are not generally classified as belonging to the Social Magisterium, although they undeniably have an important social content. These include Familiaris ConsortioMulieris Dignitatem, and Evangelium Vitae.

  1. Documents of the Roman Curia

One of the most significant contributors to Catholic Social Teaching is the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which has published many key documents on themes such as Human Rights, Migration, Racism and International Debt


  1. Documents of the National Church

It is common practice for the Bishops of each country to publish documents which give local expression to the key teaching documents of the Popes. Over the past fifty years, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference has published a substantial number of these documents, which make a significant contribution to the social teaching of the Church. Among the most significant of these are:


  1. The Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching

In 2004, the Holy See published a Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which is a valuable reference work for all who wish to explore and understand “Our Best Kept Secret”

  1. On-line resources

One of the most useful on-line resources is the web-site of the Office for Social Justice of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-Saint Paul at

The site offers study guides, parish resources etc.