1.2.4 The Bible as a source of CST

Back to 1.2.3

Unit 1 Contents


The main title for section 2 of this unit is: ‘Where does Catholic Social Teaching come from?’ The first three pages in this section have begun to answer that question.

• 1.2.1: CST comes out of Christian faith in God, who is love.

• 1.2.2: CST arises from the gospel – it comes from addressing what the gospel means for societies here and now.

• 1.2.3: CST is what we find in the encyclicals and similar documents listed on that page.

All these are true, and I hope that you are beginning to build up a picture of the sources of CST.

But there is another really important issue to look at. We learn of the gospel through the Bible, but does the Church really need to depend so directly on the Bible for its Social Teaching? A lot of people don’t believe in the Bible – I mean people who are not Christians. They think it is, at best, an interesting set of ancient writings and don’t believe it comes in any sense from God. But CST is about all of society, so if CST is to communicate to everyone, does it need to depend on the Bible?

This is a big issue. In one respect, that question is very wrong-headed. If people don’t believe in the Bible, why ever would they accept what the Church teaches, whether on social issues or anything else? After all, the Christian faith certainly is based on what we learn from the Bible.

Second, if the Church doesn’t draw on the main source of what it proclaims about God, namely the Bible, for what it has to say about social issues, how could it possibly say anything that’s distinct or different from what other people might have to say? If it can’t say anything distinctive, can it have anything worth contributing?

Third, just because the Church says things based on the Bible doesn’t mean that people won’t understand those things. If people speaking on behalf of the Church explain what they have to say well, others will understand what they say, whatever its sources.

This third point brings us to the crux of the issue: if God really has revealed things which are true through the Bible, those things matter very much – they come from God! The point of God revealing them is so that people can know them, which means that the fact that they are from the Bible is not at all a reason for not proclaiming them in the world. On the contrary, they need to be announced and explained as well as possible.

All that said, up to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, CST documents tended not to be based very explicitly on Scripture. This was partly because of the Catholic Church’s own belief that everyone can know some of the content of the ‘natural law’ even without depending on Scripture.

This needs a bit more explaining – but it’s important to get the point here. The brief definition of ‘natural law’ on screen 1.1.6 said that this term refers to

the longstanding affirmation in Christianity that for human beings 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). (Quotation from 1.1.6)

If what is good and bad for us has been built into us by God our creator, then it follows that we ought to be able, if we can understand humanness well, to work out what those things are, and therefore what it is right and wrong for us to do. In other words, we should be able to learn the content of the ‘natural law’ by reflecting on our nature as human persons. Some kinds of action lead people towards human fulfilment, and other kinds don’t. This is the natural law – and in principle we can discover its requirements by using our brains to reflect critically on being human, so we don’t need the Bible to learn them.

Here are some examples of statements of what we ought and ought not to do that we plausibly could come to by thinking about what enables us to flourish in line with our God-given human nature.

• Get enough sleep!
• Speak the truth! (This fits with our capacity for rationality.)
• Do not murder! (This enables us to live well with other people.)
• Do not treat other human beings, e.g. your employees, as mere things! (If we deny others’ humanity, we are in effect denying our own too.)

Well, maybe. There’s a problem with this line of argument. The trouble is that, in fact, especially in modern Western societies, people simply don’t agree that using human reason to reflect on human nature can generate agreement on even these examples.

Many, many people think that there are lots of sets of circumstances in which lying is acceptable, and they believe that this fits with their overall view of human nature – e.g., that humans are not more than driven by their genes in the ruthless competition of survival of the fittest. As will become clear in Units 2, 4 and 5 of this module, the discipline of economics – which understands itself to be highly rational – is premised basically on seeing human beings, at least when they are working, as things, ‘factors of production’.

What the Catholic Church teaches about ‘natural law’ is, more or less, circular – although in a way that makes it none the worse for that. It goes like this.

If you accept at least the basics of a Christian understanding of human persons, then you can reflect on this to think through what is good and bad for us, and therefore what it is right and wrong to do. But that Christian understanding of human nature itself depends on what we learn from Scripture – it is distinctively Christian. It is not the same as everyone else’s view of human nature. Therefore it is only people who have a Christian or a similar religious world-view who have good reason to reflect in that way on human nature in order to learn the requirements of ‘natural law’. Others, many atheists for example, won’t accept the view of human nature on the basis of which ‘natural law’ thinking is possible, so might well not agree with what the Catholic Church teaches are its requirements.

That’s a complicated paragraph and you might want to read it again.

Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, CST has been articulated much more explicitly in terms of what we learn from Scripture than it was before then. This is especially obvious in the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Until Vatican II there continued to be much more optimism that there could be agreement on the content of the ‘natural law’ than there has been since then. The Church has become much more conscious, as many others have, of the extent and depth of moral disagreement, especially in Western societies. There is more recognition that appeal to reason alone will not overcome the differences. (This is part and parcel of the big cultural shift to so-called ‘post-modernity’.)

It must be emphasised that the point here is not at all that CST has abandoned the main affirmation it makes by talking of ‘natural law’.  This is about the existence of natural law, not about how we gain knowledge of it.  The main affirmation is that there really are good ways of being human, those that fit with our created human nature, and therefore that there are right and wrong actions that correspond with and fulfil this nature.  In other words, the natural law is built into the way God has made humans to be.1

What has shifted is that there is now a clearer recognition that to gain true knowledge of the natural law, we need to depend more on what God has revealed to us, through the Bible.  But it must be said that this is not at all a new point.  St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century pointed out that one benefit of God giving humans moral teaching in Scripture is to inform and correct our otherwise weak grasp of the natural law.2

Given all of which, we must recognize that contemporary CST does depend heavily on Scripture.  It really is inherently connected with what is distinctive in Christian beliefs about God’s self-revelation to us and God’s bringing of salvation.  CST does arise from the gospel.  It is not somehow independent of the rest of Christian teaching.

There now follows a reading that brings this out.  This is the first reading in the module from one of the documents in the list on the last screen.  As the title of this statement conveys, Social Teaching is part and parcel of the Church’s work for the gospel, its ‘evangelization’.

This is the most substantial reading you have been asked to do so far, and will take up to about 40 minutes.  So allow time for it before you start.  Much that Pope Paul VI refers to will be familiar in light of what we have covered in Unit 1 so far – the last four screens, since 1.2.1, can be seen as an introduction to this reading.

I suggest that, to begin, skim-read through to #31, and then go back to #6 and read more carefully.


Reading (12pp)

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi##6-31 (beginning from “The witness that the Lord gives of Himself…”)


This reading presents a similar perspective as a famous statement made in the 1971 CST document called Justitia in Mundo (listed in the box on the last screen). The Synod of Bishops which issued this document said: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel”. (Justitia in Mundo, #6)

In the encyclical that marked the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, in 1991, Pope John Paul II emphasised essentially the same point:

[T]o teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness to Christ the Saviour.”

(Centesimus Annus, #5)

In the last four screens, we have been addressing the question, ‘Where does CST come from?’ To follow this up, the last main part of Unit 1 will require you to give some time to reading some texts in the Bible itself.



What words would you use to describe the extract from Evangelii Nuntianti that you have just read?

At the beginning of this unit (1.1.1), I said that “Catholic Social Teaching is extremely interesting, indeed inspiring and uplifting.  At least many people find it to be these things, once they’ve got hold of the main elements of what it’s saying.”

From what you’ve worked through so far, does this description fit?




End of 1.2.4

Go to 1.2.5 Questions for mid-point discussion


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  1. This discussion assumes a distinction made by Jacques Maritain between the ontological and ‘gnoseological’ (i.e. epistemological) senses of natural law.  See Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 76-107. 

  2. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae 91.4