What is Catholic Social Teaching? 

Pope John Paul II wrote, “The Church’s social teaching finds its source in Sacred Scripture, beginning with the Book of Genesis and especially in the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles. From the beginning, it was part of the Church’s teaching…[It was] developed by the teaching of the Popes on the modern “social question,” beginning with the encyclical, Rerum Novarum.”

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace explains that Catholic Social Teaching  “is the expression of the way that the Church understands society and of her position regarding social structures and changes. The whole of the Church community—priests, religious, and laity—participates in the formulation of this social doctrine.”

Catholic Social Teaching can be distilled into a few key principles. These should be our guiding way for all justice work.

The Life and Dignity of the Human Person

‘Individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution’. – Pope John XXIII

This is the very basis of all Catholic Social Teaching because it is based on the notion that we are each of God, for God and expressions of God. We have an inviolable dignity. Anything that is offensive to that dignity is unjust. This must be our continual reference point for identifying injustice and in determining the ways we respond.

The Common Good

The common good is the total sum of social conditions which allow people as groups and individuals to reach their fulfillment more fully or more easily. That is, the sum of our institutions, cultural practices, governance structures etc need to respect and allow human dignity to flourish to be just. A constant set of questions we need to ask ourselves about any of our justice work are: ‘where is human dignity being degraded?’ and ‘does our solution restore and respect human dignity’.

The Universal Destination of Goods

The foundation of the principle of ‘universal destination of goods’ is found in Genesis 1:28—29 in which we learn that the original source of all that is good and life-sustaining comes from God, and is intended for all humankind. Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 Encylical, Laborem Exercens, said that this principle is the ‘first principle of the whole ethical and social order’. The Church teaches that we each have a natural, or inherent, right to the material goods that allows us to sustain our physical lives but also that lets us to fulfil our potential, not merely subsist.  Further, because it is a natural right any human intervention in this regard must be subordinated to this primary right.


The word subsidiarity comes from the Latin word subsidium which means help, aid or support.

This principle is about returning or allowing decision making power to those most near or affected by the issue. That is, subsidiarity requires we defer to families, groups, local councils, schools, parishes etc when addressing or defining problems and solutions that affect that group or person. This is about preserving and permitting local lifeways to flourish and preventing unjustified intervention from above.


Pope Benedict XVI, quoting poet John Donne, wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse.”

This principle reflects that social and interdependent nature. It goes beyond compassion for each other and instead requires a deep sense of belonging to and being responsible for one another personally and socially. This means that not only do our personal relationships with one another need to be binding and truly loving but we need to make our social structures and relations this way also. For example, a market system that degrades humans by turning them into units of labour secondary to profit is not a system that reflects solidarity.

Preferential Option for the Poor

This principle reminds us that we must recall the Jesus’ teachings in putting first the needs of those who are most vulnerable in our society.  The poor (understood beyond only materially poor) must be considered above all and their needs addressed within any effort towards the common good – we are called to make them our first and most pressing priority. The United States’ Bishops put it well: “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximisation of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion.”

Stewardship/Care for God’s Creation

We show respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. We have a responsibility to care for the world’s goods as stewards and trustees, not primarily, let alone merely, as consumers. In the interests of planetary health we are all called to participate in respectful dialogue, to leave a lighter ecological footprint and firmer spiritual one, so that generations yet unborn will inherit a world, in the words of Pope Francis, ‘closer to the design of the Creator’. Connected with this Principle is the one of ‘Universal Destination of Goods’ which is the declaration that we are all each entitle to the Earth’s good equally. We each are to take what we need to live a modest, humble life, but no more. We cannot morally take more than our share.

We thank the Justice and Peace Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney for this information. 

If you would like to learn more about Catholic Social Teaching there is a printable guide Catholic Social Teaching in a Nutshell available on the website. 

Click here for their website.

Here are some handy youtube videos about Catholic Social Teaching:

Br Casey Cole OFM: "Catholic Social Teaching: Called to Charity and Justice": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGW7zxIbVIw

(Please do not be confused by the slightly different defination of  the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.)

Br Casey Cole OFM on “Complete History of Catholic Social Doctrine”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjKk1s0S1sI

Catholic Central: "Social Teaching": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SVDhKVfrm8 and this related video on the Corporal Works of Mercy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfWEUw0iwAQ&t=11s .