1.1.6 Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

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Unit 1 Contents


You will have noticed that the learning outcomes for Module A and the synopsis of the curriculum on screen 1.1.3 refer to some of the main principles of CST.  Much of the module aims to enable you to learn what these mean, both in theory and practice.

To focus attention on them immediately, here are very brief explanations of the main principles of CST.

As mentioned in learning outcomes, this module will include study of the following:

  • The dignity of the human person This phrase refers essentially to the idea that each and every human being, created ‘in the image of God’, has intrinsic and incalculable worth, and must live and be treated by others accordingly – i.e. act responsibly and have a wide range of human rights respected.
  • The common good This term denotes the central claim of Christian moral teaching that we can experience human wellbeing only as we live in community with other people.  We are fully human together or not at all.  Most especially, governments are to act to the end of the common good, and therefore not, for example, for the selfish ends of those who rule, or for only one class, or merely to maximise economic growth/consumption.
  • Natural law This often hardly understood term refers principally to the longstanding affirmation in Christianity that for people to live well, to enjoy human wellbeing, as God the creator wishes, we should live in ways proper to, and fulfilling of, our created human nature in all its dimensions.  In other words, built into how God has made us, there are ways of doing things which are good for us as human persons (e.g. being truthful, and honouring our parents), and others which are not (e.g. exploiting people or being violent to them).  It is acting in line with the ‘natural law’ that enables humans to live life to the full.
  • The priority of labour over capital This principle is about working life.  People always matter more than things, and therefore more than material wealth.  The conditions in which people work – the conditions of ‘labour’ – must reflect this.  People should never be subjected to serving mere material wealth, ‘capital’. It should be the other way round: capital should be used to serve workers, because workers are persons.
  • The universal destination of material goods All private property must be used in a way which contributes in the end to the common good, not just its owner’s private good.

The twin CST module called ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’ gives more attention to some other principles of CST, although you will look at these in this module also.  They include:

  • The inherent connection between truth and human freedom The point here is that we cannot know what we should use freedom for unless we have a true understanding of what makes for human wellbeing.  Without such a true understanding of humanness, freedom is just arbitrary – what we do freely might or might not actually contribute to living well.
  • Integral human development/liberation’ This principle insists that all efforts to overcome poverty and other forms of deprivation must take into account all aspects of the human person – i.e. the whole truth about the human person – including his/her “openness to transcendence” (Compendium, #130).  They must be ‘integral’, rather than based only on e.g. material or economic factors.
  • The preferential option for the poor This principle insists that the policies, practices and institutional structures in any society should be made, quite deliberately, to benefit people who are poor or are marginalized in other ways.  This is for their sake and also for the sake of the common good, because the common good can’t exist if poverty or any other factor excludes some people from contributing to or benefiting from it.
  • Subsidiarity This has a less obvious meaning than some of the other principles.  It is about what governments must do and not do.  The principle of subsidiarity (from Latin subsidium,  ‘help’) holds that governments should play a subsidiary role in relation to all kinds of non-political communities/institutions and, therefore,

(i)  that government action must avoid taking over what people acting freely in civil society can do best, like bringing up children and running businesses (except in emergency circumstances)

(ii)  that political authority should be exercised at the most local level compatible with the common good.

  • Solidarity A good short definition of this was given by Pope John Paul II: solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.  On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual.”  (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #38, italics added)

This brief explanation of the main principles of CST is just an initial checklist.  You need have no concern at all if you know you are going to need to think through what some of those brief definitions really mean.  Unit 2 of this module will introduce these principles more fully, and each of units 3 to 7 will give special attention to one or two of them.

By the time you have finished the module, you will be able to think about whether the short definitions on this page are adequate, and you might well be able to improve them.


End of 1.1.6


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