Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and its Principles

Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church and its Principles

When talking about the Social Doctrine of the Church , it refers to all the guidelines and principles that the church recommends using to help others, mainly the neighbor. This is one of the most important teachings that Jesus Christ transmitted to us during his life: to work for the well-being of others. During this article we will learn more about it, exploring what exactly it is, what these principles are and much more.

What is the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church?

In order to explain in depth what it is, we must first deny what it is not, so here are some popular misconceptions that have been permeating people’s minds about the social doctrines of the Catholic Church:

  • It is not a utopia. With this we deny two things, first of all: it does not mean that it is an impossible goal to achieve. It is not an ideal, the objectives that said doctrine proposes are of course attainable. Second, it does not refer to the creation of a paradise on earth where humans can obtain their perfect fulfillment.
  • It is not a political and socio-economic approach like capitalism, liberalism or communism. It is not an alternative system, despite the fact that within its guidelines various political, economic and social systems are criticized. Rather, it can be understood as an ethical and moral system that is born from the Christian conception of man and his vocation to love and eternal life, which can be implemented or incorporated into these socio-economic models.
  • It is not a pragmatic position at all. That is to say, an alternate route in the face of the failure of the dominant paradigms or those that have failed in the past. It simply seeks to promote in the human being the contrast between the realities that are appreciated today with the ideals and teachings of the gospel, so that true solutions arise to the problems that dignify man.
  • It is not a fixed, static doctrine that has remained unchanged over time. On the contrary, it refers to a dynamic doctrine that has seen the need to adapt to the changes that have occurred in humanity over the years. Although of course; This does not mean that its basic foundations have changed, since these are linked to human nature that, regardless of the time and place, has always been the same.

Once we have clarified what it is not, we can explain in detail what its definition is. This social doctrine of the Catholic Church belongs to the field of theology, in the area of ​​moral theology. The magisterium defines it as the product of the reflection that occurs when contrasting the different realities that man and society in general live, already lived, with the ecclesiastical teachings of the Catholic Church.

In other words, it can be understood as a whole series of reflexive postulates, guidelines on how to act and directives, whose purpose is to make a critical analysis of the different realities that we can find today, using as a basis or guide the teachings of the gospel to guide the actions to be carried out in the future. Where it seeks to transmit these teachings to the whole society (evangelize).

History of the Social Doctrine of the Church

One of the first roots can be found in Father Luigi Taparelli’s book entitled “Saggio Teoretico Di Dritto Naturale, Appoggiato Sul Fatto, which translated into Spanish means “The Theoretical Essay on Natural Law Supported by Facts”, which was published in Italy in the year 1843. In this book the term “Social Justice” is used for the first time to indicate that all people should have the same number of rights and opportunities. With this, this priest becomes one of the first within the Catholic Church to speak of social doctrine.

In any case, the term social doctrine is defined in the book of Encyclical Quadragésima Anno written by Pius XI. Although in this document he shares the credit with Leo XIII and they mention that the concern for socio-economic problems is not something new, but goes back long before the “Rerum Novarum”.

Later, with the arrival of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the growth and dominance of the large monopolies, they would give way to a deep distancing of social classes, where on the one hand we have a small percentage of the population monopolizing the majority of the wealth while the vast majority of the people struggle to get enough to survive under arduous and long hours of work on minimal soil. From here there is that division known as wage earners and workers or proletariats.

For the year 1864, Pope Pius IX writes his encyclical “Quanta Cura”, where he strongly criticizes the socialist and liberalist systems, then makes a series of suggestions using the writings made by Leo XIII as a theoretical basis. Among the most notable aspects, socialism is condemned for devaluing and wanting to supplant divine providence on the part of the state, along with the materialistic character of economic liberalism that distances the moral issues that occur between capital and work.

Pope Leo XIII was a great activist for human and workers’ rights. He openly promoted the creation of unions and frequently conveyed the message of union of workers and citizens against the big monopolies and the control of big business. Although at the same time, this does not mean that he was against private property, since he also recognized the individual effort of people and the right to have more resources if they worked harder than the rest. The real problem occurs when people take advantage of their beneficial situation of power to exploit others for their convenience.

Another aspect that Pope Leo touches on is the relationship between the state, companies, employees or workers, and the church. Based on the interaction that occurs between these edges, he planets a socio-economic system which he calls «Corporatism». Later in the year of 1901, he would write his encyclical “Graves de Communi Re” where he expresses his disagreement with the unions that have class struggle as their objective.

For the year 1931 Pope Pius XI writes his “Quadragesimo Anno”. In this publication he develops in detail the most relevant aspects of communitarianism and proposes situations and examples of how it can be used in the historical context of the moment. He also talks about the exponential growth of some companies that have become international empires. Finally, he returns to address the issue of socialism and liberalism, making multiple criticisms of both systems. On the one hand he describes socialism as a failed and inefficient system, while on the other; he mentions that liberalism is not enough, since it has some flaws that prevent it from being a successful system.

During this period the Second World War broke out. Pope Pius XII would set aside his writing on socioeconomic systems to focus on humanitarian work. His criticism of these systems would now take place more locally through broadcasting. Where the relationship between morality and positive law stands out at all times, and like all those who have studies and are professionals, they have an intrinsic responsibility inherent in their profession. In other words, having knowledge does not free us from our social responsibility, on the contrary, it increases our obligation to contribute to society to improve the quality of life of all those who live there.

Father Juan XXIII, contributes with two publications related to the subject:

  • Mater Et Magistra: This document highlights the responsibility of the church to act as a guide and promoter of the dignity of man, using communion as a basis.
  • Pacem In Terris: This book is written during the height of the cold war and the arms race between the world powers of Russia and the United States. So he launches strong criticism about it, mainly the development of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it addresses social rights using Christian teachings as a magnifying glass.

An important step in the social doctrine is taken during the Second Vatican Council, where the “Gaudium Et Spes” is sought to be instituted and specified. Which links pastoral issues with socio-economic aspects that are taking place today. For example: the weakening of the institution of marriage, since in recent years the number of divorces has increased alarmingly. Also the theme of the cold war, among others.

Another figure to play an important role is Father Paul IV, who in multiple texts (including his encyclical “Populorum Progressio”) introduces the importance of development both in the individual and in society in general. Another of the important actions that he carries out is the creation of the “Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace”.

A little closer to the present, we find the contributions made by Pope John Paul II, who publishes multiple encyclicals addressing social issues resulting from the difficult experiences he had to live in Poland. Some of the most prominent are:

  • Laborem Exercens: Details how all Christians should live and work following a moral and spirituality consistent with the teachings of the church and of Christ.
  • Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: The central theme of this work is how to achieve progress and development while maintaining our integrity as Christians.
  • Centesimus Annus: Highlights the relationship between solidarity and the social teachings given by the church. But from a different approach than his predecessors, who commented on the subject as an orientation or suggestion for philosophy and social ethics. John Paul II, on the other hand, develops a social doctrine that is born from the church and that follows moral theological principles, to be used as a discipline that must be instilled in the different members of the church.

Finally, Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 issued his encyclical with the title of “Caritas In Veritate”. In this publication he emphasizes the relationship between charity and truth, and mentions that humanity requires a global political authority that is capable of solving the problems that we as a society must face.

Content of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

As we can see, the Catholic doctrine does not arise spontaneously, but germinates and develops through the feedback it obtains from the problems that afflict humanity over the years, nurturing itself with each change, each new social conflict. and every famine, etc. In this way, its content is classified in three dimensions that are related to each other:

  1. Fundamental Principles and Values : The social doctrine has obtained its theoretical and moral pillars from the theological and philosophical principles together with contributions obtained from the humanities and social sciences. Thus highlighting aspects such as: peace, the dignity of each person, justice, the common good, solidarity, private property, participation, freedom, among many others.
  2. Judgment Criteria : It implies the position that is taken based on the socio-economic systems, different institutions, structures, etc. Using for it; the theoretical and moral elements and principles mentioned in the previous point, supported by empirical data. The latter is a fact of vital importance, because it means that people who share the social doctrine of the Catholic Church do not take positions towards a phenomenon, problem or conflict based on a simple value judgment. It is not about: “it seems to me that this works well or badly”, it consists of carrying out an in-depth study that allows a decision to be made with both theoretical and empirical foundations. It involves a process of investigation and analysis.
  3. Orientation for Action : This point can be divided into two central aspects:
    • As the name suggests, it is not just about taking a stand on a situation, conflict or problem. It implies carrying out work actively to generate a positive change in people and in society in general. To improve the quality of life of human beings, spread the word of God and encourage people to reach their full potential by following the teachings of the gospel.
    • On the other hand, and in accordance with point number two. The decisions and positions that the church has taken over the years are not a mere logical deduction, it is the result of a discernment process that occurs after an analysis and pastoral experience of the Catholic Church. It is these moments of change that have inclined the work of the church to focus on the poor, on dialogue, equal economic and social opportunities for people, etc.

Foundations of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

When we talk about the basic foundations of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, a distinction must be made between the elementary foundation and the basic principles. Where this main foundation can be understood as the origin or starting point and in turn, as the ultimate goal of any action. That is, it must be present in everything we do. This general principle is none other than the commandment of love: «Love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself».

As Christians, there is not much to add on this subject, since it is the basis of the teachings of Christ and, therefore, of the social doctrine of the church. It is the moral basis that must govern all our actions and must be the first of our motivations. For something the Lord Jesus comments that this double commandment of love is not only the main and most important of all the commandments. But it also represents a synthesis of the law of God and the message that the prophets were told to convey.

Taking into account the above, the social doctrine of the Catholic Church makes the distinction that the type of love that is expected of us as Christians is not that passive and static that is limited to going to church every week, praying frequently and contribute with money or resources from time to time. Although it is a start, it is not enough. Since the best way to show love towards others is through actions as dictated by the gospel.

As has been mentioned on several occasions since the beginning of the article, we must be active and dynamic entities that seek to work for change, to improve the quality of life of others and to always do our bit for the prosperity of humanity. . All this, following the teachings that the gospel transmits to us.

Today this elementary principle gains much relevance when we observe how current economic, social and political positions disqualify and denigrate man, by lowering him morally to an object, a vote or a disposable resource.

Now that we know that the commandment of love is fundamental in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. We proceed to mention and explain the four specific fundamentals:

Dignity of Every Person

It is also known as the “Dignity of the Human Person” and is based on human rights. But to understand what this principle consists of, we must be able to answer the question: what is a person? what makes it good? The answer can be found through the gospel. Since God created us all in the image and likeness of him. This means that if he possesses a dignity inherent to his person, so do we.

For this reason, we all must be treated and we must treat others with an inalienable dignity. Also; Our actions must have the purpose of dignifying. This element cannot be used to achieve another selfish or personal goal, because there is a risk of belittling people and treating them as objects.

Jesus teaches us in his story of the lost sheep that God does not have a vision of men as a whole, not as simple numbers or percentages. For him, each person is precious and unique with much to offer. For this reason, each life is valuable and irreplaceable.

In summary, the social doctrine of the Catholic Church values ​​each human life, understanding that it is unique and irreplaceable. This means that the aim of its guidelines is always aimed at improving the well-being of man or the family and not the state or third-party institutions.

The Common Good

It is known as the principle of the common good. It was defined during the Second Vatican Council as the conglomerate of conditions of the social environment that allow communities and their members to achieve the simplest objective or achievement of their own perfection. But what does this mean?

When speaking of the common good, it does not refer only to carrying out the action that best benefits everyone. Rather, to the fact of participating in community, to teamwork and to the notion of helping the other. For the social doctrine of the church, perfection is not achieved by isolating yourself from the rest of the world and worrying only about your personal interest in a selfish way. The common good is then, community work. Only in this way can we achieve the common good that will benefit everyone and not just a few people.

Being able to act thinking of others, in the common good of all. It requires putting into practice all the teachings that the church and the gospel propose to us. Since we must be able to think beyond personal interests or only help our families to think about the common good. This principle is seduced and corrupted by power. Since the more power you have, the more difficult it is to think about the common good. This is why many corrupt politicians stray from the right path as their careers prosper.

Thinking of us and not of me is a difficult task that requires commitment and courage in people. But also open to teamwork. It involves being able to listen to other people, be empathetic, give up space, control and power; at times when our decisions are not the best path. Therefore, it implies that we must also be humble.

Another important aspect of the common good is that it goes against utilitarianism, which means achieving the maximum happiness for the greatest number of people. This approach leads to the path of the subordination of the few against the many, since it is a system designed to support some, but not all. Making it an imperfect system.


It is commonly known as the Subsidiarity Principle. It was first introduced by Pope Pius XI through his encyclical letter “Quadragesimo Anno”. There he explains that the decisions that are made in a society must be as accessible as possible to the people who directly affect them or who will suffer from the consequences of said decision. This in order to avoid being a victim of totalitarian doctrines that do not take into account the individual, that act for the benefit of a few or that, on many occasions, treat them without dignity. The idea is that people have the ability to make decisions that directly affect them. In this way, the creation of fair laws can be guaranteed.

Pope Leo XIII was another figure of the church who condemned many state interventions mentioning the need to have limits, otherwise there is a risk of considering the state as a system of greater importance than that of the individual, the family or the community. community that includes them.


The Principle of Solidarity is not a new aspect for the church, it is a concept that has been very clear since its inception. Although in recent decades, the one who best speaks about it on the subject is Pope John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical letter «Sollicitudo Rei Socialis». The notion is very simple, every day the world trend is globalization, the interconnection and communication of all peoples and cultures. The gaps that physical distance generated centuries ago (the seas, the mountains, the continents), today are shortened thanks to technology. This allows us to realize that all human beings regardless of the site or place where we are as one people, one family. If we are able to understand that we are all linked and related,

Sensitivity implies being empathic towards the suffering of the other. Understand that just like us, the rest of the people who inhabit this planet suffer, have problems and are unable to face and overcome many of them on their own. On the other hand, sensitivity invites us to open our eyes to the multiple realities that exist in the world, in different communities, in different families and in each person.

In the gospel sensitivity is not a feeling, it is a virtue where; where we commit to taking responsibility for others. It goes beyond compassion or tenderness, since it requires a firm character and perseverance to work for the other… For the common good.

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