For many years people have said that Catholic Social Teaching is our best kept secret, but I don’t think this is true anymore. Lots of websites – including mine – now have basic explanations of key principles and links to the major Papal social justice documents. Today Catholic Social Teaching is widely, but superficially known – and that is the next challenge for those of us who are passionate about the Catholic social justice tradition. How can we each encourage one another to take our next steps in engaging more deeply with this beautiful and sophisticated body of thought and action?
Here are five suggestions.
5 Ways of Getting to Know Catholic Social Teaching Better
1. Learn more about how the Church understands social justice
Social justice is a nineteenth century expression – you won’t find it in the Bible – but from its very beginning the Church has been concerned about justice in society. The Catholic Church, like the rest of humanity, has come to understand the demands of justice between groups in society more deeply over time. Social justice is not only about how we related to one another as individuals. It is about fairness in the way in which different social groups are treated. It involves looking at how the structures, institutions and processes of our societies work.
Learn more about how the Church sees social justice by reading about the Catholic Social Teaching concept of structures of sin.
2. Think about how you understand what Catholic Social Teaching is
It may seem obvious, but it is helpful to reflect on what we think Catholic Social Teaching actually is because this will influence the ways in which we draw on the teachings and give them expression in our own action.
Do we think of Catholic Social Teaching as a set of universal principles that we apply deductively to life in society? Do we think of it as a collection of documents by successive Popes? Or do we think of it as a spiritual and ethical tradition that evolves through a dialogue between human experience in changing social and historical contexts and the sources of faith as we seek to discern God’s on-going action in the world?
You can start by reflecting on a basic explanation or go a bit further by considering a talk that I gave on for the Catholic Education Office of the Sydney Archdiocese.
3. Learn about how to read the documents - and read some!
Teaching documents like Papal encyclicals are often used to share Catholic Social Teaching. Their Latin names come from the first two words of the document, so they don’t always give a very clear indication of what the document is about, even if you understand Latin. Catholics approach the documents that are part of our tradition in a more literary than literal way. To make sense of them we need to think about when and why each one was written and how it relates to what went before it, and any developments that came after it.
From the site statistics for my website I know that people like to read the list of major international Catholic Social Teaching documents, but not so many actually click through to read the full text of those documents. Every summary – even mine – is an interpretation. There is no substitute for reading the primary sources if you want to understand a tradition deeply.
So another way of going deeper could be to choose one of the more recent social encyclicals and read the whole thing. The. Whole. Thing.
The Popes have a really important role in Catholic Social Teaching, but it isn’t all up to them. Local Bishops have a responsibility to be teachers of the faith – including on social justice issues – too. They don’t just apply Papal teaching to their own context, they teach in communion with the Pope. The teachings of the local Bishops inform the development of international teachings by the Popes and vice versa.
If you are looking for specific and concrete guidelines for action, you are more likely to find them in local teachings rather than the international teachings, which need to focus more on general principles.
5. Research what Catholic Social Teaching has to say about an issue
When we are thinking about how to respond to a social justice issue, we will want to know what, if anything, Catholic teaching has to say about it. The Vatican website is a good place to start, and remember to check the websites of your Bishops Conference and Diocese – maybe even given them a call – before concluding that they haven’t said anything.
So my last suggest on getting to know Catholic Social Teaching more deeply is to choose a social justice issue that concerns you, and seek out all the teachings on it that you can find.