What is Catholic Social Thought?

Presentation to the USD Board of Trustees by María Pilar Aquino, Faculty University of San Diego College of Arts and Sciences December 9, 2005.

When discussing the approach of Roman Catholicism to social morality, various terms have been used to characterize the contribution of the Church in response to the concerns and challenges arising out of social life: thoughtteaching, and doctrine. The phrase Catholic Social Thought refers to the reflection of the whole Church on the order of social life.

It has developed not only through the insights formulated by the Church councils, papal encyclicals, and bishops' documents and letters, but also is fashioned by the contributions and insights of the broader Catholic community around the world. Catholic thinkers, social activists, theologians and other scholars contribute greatly to enrich this tradition of social thought and action.

The phrases social teaching and social doctrine refer specifically to the reflection on social matters formulated by the hierarchy of the Church in response to the changing circumstances of the times. The social teaching of the Church “is the expression of the way that the Church understands society and of her position regarding social structures and changes” (CSDC, n. 79).

Nature of Catholic Social Teaching

“The Church's social teaching comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ ... The Church's social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action” (CCC, nn. 2422-2423).

“The Church's social teaching is a rich treasure of wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society. It offers moral principles and coherent values that are badly needed in our time. In this time of widespread violence and diminished respect for human life and dignity in our country and around the world, the Gospel of life and the biblical call to justice need to be proclaimed and shared with new clarity, urgency, and energy. Modern Catholic social teaching has been articulated through a tradition of papal, conciliar, and episcopal documents that explore and express the social demands of our faith ” (SCST, p. 4).

“The way people live together in society often determines the quality of life and therefore the conditions in which every man and woman understand themselves and make decisions concerning themselves and their vocation. For this reason, the Church is not indifferent to what is decided, brought about or experienced in society; she is attentive to the moral quality–that is, the authentically human and humanizing aspects–of social life. Society–and with it, politics, the economy, labor, law, culture–is not simply a secular and worldly reality, and therefore outside or foreign to the message and economy of salvation” (CSDC, n. 62).

A Creative Conversation with the Human Sciences

Catholic Social Teaching is characterized by its interdisciplinary dimension. The social teaching of the Church is open to all branches of knowledge and its moral insights are influenced by the “human sciences and the social sciences. In view of that particular part of the truth that it may reveal, no branch of knowledge is excluded. The Church recognizes and receives everything that contributes to the understanding of man and women in the ever broader, more fluid and more complex network of their social relationships ... This interdisciplinary dialogue also challenges the sciences to grasp the perspectives of meaning, value and commitment that the Church's social doctrine reveals” (CSDC, n. 78).

Purpose of Catholic Social Teaching: For a Society Reconciled in Justice and Love

“By means of her social doctrine, the Church shows her concern for human life in society, aware that the quality of social life–that is, of the relationships of justice and love that form the fabric of society– depends in a decisive manner on the protection and promotion of the human person, for whom every community comes into existence. In fact, at play in society are the dignity and rights of the person, and peace in the relationships between persons and between communities of persons. These are goods that the social community must pursue and guarantee” (CSDC, n. 81).

Audience: A Message for the Sons and Daughters of the Church and for Humanity

The primary and specific recipient of Catholic Social Teaching “is the Church community in its entire membership, because everyone has social responsibilities that must be fulfilled. The conscience is called by this social teaching to recognize and fulfil the obligations of justice and charity in society. This doctrine is a light of moral truth that inspires appropriate responses according to the vocation and ministry of each Christian.”

Catholic Social Teaching is also directed to the whole of humanity because “the light of the Gospel that the Church's social doctrine shines on society illuminates all men and women, and every conscience and mind is in a position to grasp the human depths of meaning and values expressed in it and the potential of humanity and humanization contained in its norms of action.” This is a social teaching “explicitly addressed to all people of good will ” (CSDC, nn. 83-84).

Catholic Social Teaching: Continuity and Renewal

Guided by the perennial light of the Gospel and ever attentive to evolution of society, the Church's social doctrine is characterized by continuity and renewal . It shows above all the continuity of a teaching that refers to the universal values drawn from Revelation and human nature... On the other hand, in its constant turning to history and in engaging the events taking place, the Church's social doctrine shows a capacity for continuous renewal . Standing firm in its principles does not make it a rigid teaching system, but a Magisterium capable of opening itself to new things, without having its nature altered by them.” Catholic Social Teaching understands itself as a work “always in progress, where perennial truth penetrates and permeates new circumstances, indicating paths of justice and peace” (CSDC, nn. 85-86).


Note: This is a summary composition based on the following sources:

CSDC: Pontifical Council For Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005).

CCC: Catechism of the Catholic Church , Second edition, Published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, available from; Internet (accessed: Dec 7, 2005).

SCST: United States Catholic Conference, Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions. Reflections of the U.S. Catholic Bishops (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1998).

Contact Information

Catholic Social Thought
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110

Phone: (619) 260-4600