What is Catholic Social Thought (CST)?

It is time we reminded ourselves that in the spirit of good citizenship all members of the Catholic Church must accept their full share of responsibility for the welfare of society. We should regard the discharge of those responsibilities as no less important than fulfilling our religious duties and indeed as part of them.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW)

Because this commitment to social justice is at the heart of who we are and what we believe, it must be shared more effectively . . . If Catholic education and formation fail to communicate our social tradition, they are not fully Catholic.’

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

This concept map grows out of a survey of dozens of introductions to, books about, and websites explaining CST, see a full bibliography from the Flourishing Inside project here. Click on each item to learn more about it.

According to David Matzko McCarthy, in The Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology,

‘Catholic social teaching is a tradition of commentary on economic, social, and political life—from the just wage, to the need for local, civic organizations, to human rights, and war and peace. Teachings on these matters can be traced back to Mosaic law, the prophets of Israel, and, of course, to Jesus. Jesus evokes a long history of prophetic witness to God’s justice and mercy in his inaugural proclamation, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand … ’ (Mark 1:15) and his instructions to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness … ’ (Matt. 6:33). Jesus puts the call of Israel in terms of the two great commands, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … [And] you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:29–31). Following these biblical mandates, ancient and medieval writers, such as John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, establish a continuous tradition of commentary on justice and love. These biblical teachings and tradition of commentary are the roots of Catholic social teaching (CST).’

Although Catholic Social Teaching has these roots deep in Jewish and Christian history, the official body of Catholic Social Teaching is usually said to begin with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum (1891). Encyclicals are letters from the Pope containing official teaching, and they are named by the first few words of the letter in Latin. An introduction to each of the papal social encyclicals, along with links to their full texts, can be found here.

Other official documents are included in this tradition as well: papal documents, documents of the Second Vatican Council, and those from conferences and synods of bishops. The broader tradition surrounding official Catholic Social Teaching is called ‘Catholic Social Thought’, and includes wider social thought and social movements within Catholicism. This includes the writings of theologians, philosophers, and social scientists as well as the thought and work of lay, ordained, and religious people in society, politics, and activism. As the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales put it, ‘Many Catholics whose lives are dedicated to the service and welfare of others make this teaching present by their very activity, even if they have never read a social encyclical’ (CBCEW, The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching, 1996).

CST is not separate and apart from Catholic theology, instead CST grows from Christian understandings of God. God is triune, inherently social, having a social interrelationship in which humanity is invited to participate. And CST flows from Christian beliefs about creation, salvation, and eschatology:

  • Creation: CST is rooted in the goodness of all God’s creation, and the creation of humans as social beings, in the image of God.
  • Salvation: CST reminds us that God’s salvation is for the entirety of each human being and the entirety of creation. Social work seeks to participate in and point towards God’s salvation, evangelising both individuals and social realities. ‘Evangelisation means bringing the Good News of the Gospel into every stratum of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new’ (CBCEW, The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching).
  • Eschatology: CST is about the coming of the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, and how we can participate in the coming of the kingdom as we look forward to the day when God’s reign on earth is fully realised. We work for social justice not because we can make the kingdom come – the kingdom is the work of God – but because we seek to live now in light of ultimate realities to come.

However, CST is not meant only for Catholics. It is meant to appeal to all people, whether Catholic or of other faiths or none, as it addresses our shared human sociality. CST has drawn on the sources of scripture and Christian tradition as well as from philosophy, science, and social movements outside Christianity.

Catholic social thought is a dynamic, living tradition, which grows and shifts over time. Many of these shifts have simply to do with the fact that teaching and thought has been responsive to current events. Much of early CST relates to the industrial revolution, whereas the newest social encyclical from Pope Frances responds to crises of the COVID era. In some eras social teaching has been primarily focused on economics and labour, more recently there has been more focus on politics and social justice.

Other shifts have to do with seeking to correct mistaken uses of the tradition. As the CBCEW put it, ‘The development of Catholic teaching in the past has inevitably reflected particular historical circumstances, and this needs to be kept in mind in interpreting it today. At certain times it has even been wrongly invoked in support of oppressive regimes or governments perpetrating social injustice. One of the reasons for the progressive evolution of Catholic Social Teaching over the years has been the need to correct these misinterpretations’ (The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching, 1996).

Many shifts in the tradition surrounded the Second Vatican Council. From this time, the method of CST shifted from primarily deductive, universal, natural law approaches to more inductive, particular, and theological approaches. These shifts allowed for more influence from social movements such as Liberation Theology in Latin America and the Catholic Worker Movement in the United States. The focus of CST also became slightly less Eurocentric; both in its sources and its intended relevance.

However, we should be clear that there is no unbroken trajectory of ‘progress’ or ‘development’ in CST. Shifts in one direction in a given era sometimes have been overturned in the following era, and steps taken in a given direction have been reversed and re-traversed by subsequent thought and practice.

Several significant critiques of official Social Teaching have been raised, some from outside Catholicism but some from within broader Catholic Social Thought. Some of the key weaknesses noted have included:

  • there is not enough attention to conflict and uses/abuses of power;
  • it has sometimes aligned itself with ideologies;
  • the thought world is too Eurocentric (especially before Vatican II);
  • justice for women has been seriously neglected;
  • racial justice has also been neglected;
  • there is not adequate analysis of the causes of injustice and oppression;
  • its own teachings on society have not been applied to the internal institutional workings of the church itself.

Nevertheless, there are several clear principles, concepts, or themes in CST which are widely acknowledged to be central aspects of the tradition. As one introduction to CST noted, these ‘should be viewed as a cluster or a cohort rather than a list’ (J. Milburn Thompson, Introducing Catholic Social Thought) as they are a network of independent ideas and practices, as seen in the graphic above.