1.2.4 Sources of CST: the Bible, reason, tradition and experience

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 the 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 where CST comes from.

But in looking at CST’s sources, there is more that we need to bring in.  We learn of the Christian gospel through the Bible, but how does this relate to our capacity to use our brains, our capacity to reason, in order to gain knowledge and to understand things?  And how do both of these relate to the teaching that the Church has articulated during its long history, since the documents that make up the Bible were written? The Church’s teaching, such as the Catechism (from which you read earlier), together with the discussions about its interpretation that enable us to understand it, form what is called ‘tradition’.  This word comes from the Latin, traditio.  This means something that is handed over by someone to someone else, or something handed down from one generation to the next.

In short, how are Scripture, reason and tradition related?  This is a very real question for the study of CST – because the encyclicals listed on the last screen are now part of the Church’s tradition.  They have been written in light of both Scripture (this is more obvious in some than others) and earlier Church teaching.  Their writers used reason to think through the issues they address.  Now, in the 2010s, they are in effect handed down to us.  We need to re-read them if we are to interpret their significance in our own circumstances, which are always partly different from those in which they were written.

As well as Scripture, reason and tradition, there is also our own experience, which of course shapes our attitudes, beliefs and practices very deeply.  How can we learn from experience on the issues that CST addresses?

Experience has shaped the documents of CST themselves.  For example, the leader of the Catholic Church in England in the 1870s and 1880s, Cardinal Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, became deeply engaged with dock-workers in the East End of London.  He supported their calls for just working conditions during the Great Dock Strike in 1889.  Cardinal Manning was close to the Pope of that time, Leo XIII, and Manning’s experience was an important influence on the Pope during the writing of what is now seen as the founding document of modern CST, Rerum Novarum.

To assist us to understand how each of these four, Scripture, reason, tradition and experience, helps to shape CST, we turn to a chapter in a book called Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action, by Thomas Massaro SJ (Rowman & Littlefield, 2nd ed., 2012).  This is the first reading from the Electronic Module Reader.

Massaro says that CST is “one example of a tradition of ethics” (p. 55).  He is unusual among writers about CST in using the word ‘ethics’ in describing CST.  But this is very appropriate.  ‘Ethics’ is about how it is good to live and what it is right to do, and CST is certainly about these things.  When we are thinking about ethics in the light of Christian faith, we are doing ‘Christian ethics’ or, to use the traditional Catholic term, ‘moral theology’.  Massaro writes,

As is the case in all of Christian ethics, whether Catholic, Protestant… or Orthodox, the social teachings of the Catholic Church draw upon four major sources of insight that contribute to their authority and shape their conclusions: (1) revelation, (2) reason, (3) tradition, and (4) experience (p. 57).

He then discusses each of these in turn.  On this screen we look at what he says about the first three.  We shall save ‘experience’ for a later point in the module.  You are now asked to do short readings on ‘revelation’, ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’, after each of which are brief comments that aim to bring out especially important points.


The first is Massaro’s chapter introduction and his section on Scripture.


Reading (7pp)

In Electronic Reader: Thomas Massaro, Living Justice (2012 edition), chapter 4, pp. 55-61


Massaro emphasizes the primacy of Scripture for Christian ethics – it is its “starting point” (p.  58).   He sums up its significance in this way:

Ultimately, scripture shapes Catholic thought and practice in ways that go well beyond the occasional quote or reference in official documents such as encyclicals.  The biblical witness to God’s saving love permeates all church activities, including worship and service work as well as doctrine.  Indeed, a strong case may be made that the greatest contribution of scripture to moral theology and social ethics is not in specific biblical injunctions or commands, as important as they might be, but rather in the overall shape of the narrative of God’s relationship to the faithful. (p. 61)

Some of the ways in which this is true will be evident from our looking at the fundamentals of Christian faith earlier (1.2.1 and 1.2.2).  These shape Christianity’s whole approach to how we should live.  What he says will become much clearer from our study of biblical sources of CST in Unit 2.

The next reading is Massaro’s section on ‘reason’.


Reading (6pp)

In Electronic Reader: Thomas Massaro, Living Justice (2012 edition), chapter 4, pp. 61-67


In looking at reason as a source of CST, Massaro quickly brings in the concept of ‘natural law’.  These two, reason and natural law, are connected simply because we can use our reason to think about what is good for us – in the sense of what will enable us to use our abilities and fulfil our potentials, and thereby be more fully human.  On screen 1.1.6, I defined the controversial idea of natural law like this:

This… 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.

Here are two of the main things Massaro says in explaining this term:

God… created humans with enough intelligence that they can use their reason to observe the natural world and make reliable judgments about God’s purposes.  Humans are fully capable of figuring out how their behaviour may cooperate with God’s plans; they can also conspire to frustrate the clear purposes of their creator. (p. 62)

A key claim of natural law theory is that nature is another path by which people may learn God’s will, albeit in a less direct way than through revelation.  By closely observing the structures of [human] nature… [we] gain reliable knowledge of the natural order God intends.  For example… [t]he natural human desire to live peacefully in society is… evidence to justify… the rules of social order… that contribute to social stability and harmony. (p. 65)

In the first of those statements, it is surprising that Massaro says that humans are “fully” capable of using reason to understand the natural law, because elsewhere he recognizes its limitations (p. 65).  Ever since St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century (if not before), Catholic teaching has held that one benefit of God giving humans moral teaching in Scripture is to inform and correct our otherwise weak grasp of the natural law.1



Does my brief definition of ‘natural law’, cited above, correspond with what you have read in Massaro, and in particular with the quotations I’ve just given?


Massaro makes a very significant point at the end of his discussion of natural law.  This is that understanding what the natural law requires can lead to radical demands for social reform.  (Some people think that appealing to ‘natural law’ always favours sticking to the status quo – but there is no reason for believing this will be the case.)  The first two main documents of modern CST, Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), both largely reflected natural law thinking.  Massaro writes:

[Their authors’] employment of natural law compelled them to advocate… sweeping changes in the free-market capitalist order… Although the actual civil laws of most countries at that time did not require better treatment for workers, the natural law, as these popes interpreted it, mandated reforms.  Change was necessary because God’s higher law… demanded the preservation of life and greater respect for the aspirations of working families… In a similar way, natural law reasoning is a… powerful tool in the hand of anyone seeking [to] bring conditions in the actual world into closer conformity with the order of justice God intends for all people. (p. 67)

This is a really important point to keep in mind.

The twin VPlater module, Living Life to the Full, gives more opportunity to study ‘natural law’ than this module, so if you would like to explore this further please see Module A 6.2.1-6.2.4.

We now look at what Massaro says about ‘tradition’.


Reading (4pp)

In Electronic Reader: Thomas Massaro, Living Justice (2012 edition), chapter 4, pp. 67-71


Massaro defines ‘tradition’ as it relates to CST as “all the previous reflection on social issues that has gone on within Christian theology” (p. 67).  As this implies, the Christian tradition is immense in sheer volume of material!

Massaro refers to the great contributors to it from the Patristic period of Church history (roughly, the first 600 years) and to those writers called Scholastics from the medieval period (especially between 1100 and 1400).  The greatest Patristic figure was St Augustine of Hippo and Massaro notes that he was the main originator of Christian thinking about whether war can be just – a topic you will have the chance to study in Unit 7.  The most influential Scholastic theologian was St Thomas Aquinas and Massaro points out his significance for Catholic teaching about property ownership – this can be studied in Module A (see A Unit 5).

I hope these readings have given you a much better sense of what is meant by ‘Scripture’, ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’ as sources of modern CST.  In Unit 2, we shall look in more detail at the background both in the Bible and in the Church’s tradition of what we find in CST.


End of 1.2.4

Go to 1.2.5 ‘A just and free society’: the parts of CST covered in this module

Module B outline

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