What are the Sources of Catholic Social Teaching?
In one sense we can say that Catholic Social Teaching comes from popes and bishops – they are the source of the formal teaching documents. Catholic Social Teaching sources may be papal, conciliar or episcopal. For example, Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, Gaudium et Spes is a document of the Second Vatican Council, and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference wrote Common Wealth for the Common Good.
The deeper question about Catholic Social Teaching sources is ‘what do the popes and bishops draw on when they teach about social justice?’
Four Catholic Social Teaching Sources
Catholic ethics commonly draws on four major sources. They are Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. When popes and bishops teach on social justice issues they will typically draw on some, or all of these sources. Scripture and Catholic tradition are faith sources while reason and experience are sources that others also use in their ethics. They are all important in the development of the Catholic Social Teaching tradition.
Scripture plays an important role in any Christian effort to discern what is right and good, and how to live justly together in society. Catholics draw on Scripture in a more literary than literal way. We don’t look to the Bible for a detailed set of rules to guide just behaviour in contemporary societies. There are however, lots of parts of the Bible that teach us about living justly. Scripture has played a stronger role in Catholic Social Teaching since the Second Vatican Council.
The presentation below provides some stimulus material on social justice in the Bible. It is not a comprehensive treatment of the call to justice in Scripture. In fact some famous passages concerning the call to live justly have been left out. You can use this resource to generate discussion by asking what other passages could be included.
Tradition doesn’t mean simply doing what was done in the past. It is about drawing on the previous reflection and teaching of the Church. Tradition is often passed on through formal teaching documents. Sometimes people mistake the documents for the tradition that they communicate! Catholic Social Teaching is not just a series of Papal documents. Tradition also includes the lived witness and writings of the saints, doctors of the Church and the leaders of the early church. The wisdom that comes from the experience of ordinary Christian communities trying to live the Gospel in different times and places is part of tradition too.
Natural law has played a strong role in Catholic social ethics. It argues that we can understand God’s will by using our reason to examine the world. The use of human reason and rational analysis helps Catholic Social Teaching to enter ethical conversation with people of different beliefs. The formal philosophical language linked with natural law is less common in post Vatican II teachings.
Catholic Social Teaching draws on experience because we believe that God continues to communicate with us through the people, places and events of human history. The social sciences and other sources of human wisdom can help us to understand and make use of experience to guide action.
For a general introduction to Catholic Social Teaching visit this page.