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Catholic Social Teaching an Introduction

What is Catholic Social Teaching?

Catholic Social Teaching sums up the teachings of the Church on issues of justice between groups in society, and with creation. It shines the light of the Gospel on the social justice issues that arise in the complex network of relationships in which we live. These teachings make use of reason, tradition and experience as well as Scripture to respond to social justice issues.

Catholic Social Teaching’s vision of a just society is grounded in biblical revelation, the teachings of the leaders of the early church, and in the wisdom gathered from experience by the Christian community as it has tried to respond to social justice issues through history.

There have been Catholic social justice teachings since the very beginning of the Church. Since the nineteenth century, a systematic, formal body of international teachings for the modern era has developed.

Learn more:
5 Ways of Getting to Know Catholic Social Teaching Better

Sources of Catholic Social Teaching

Scripture, tradition, reason and experience are the major sources of Catholic Social Teaching. Find out more: Sources of Catholic Social Teaching

Three Elements of Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic Social Teaching has three distinct elements: principles for reflection; criteria for judgment; and guidelines for action. Each has a different level of authority. You may find one, two or all three of these elements in a Catholic Social Teaching document.

The key principles for reflection are sometimes called perennial principles because they apply across every time and place. They are highly authoritative, but also rather abstract and general. Guidelines for action, on the other hand, can vary for different times and places. Because societies are very different from one another, and they are always changing, uniform guidelines for action are rarely possible. Guidelines for action always depend on judgments made with the information available at the time, so there is often scope for legitimate differences of opinion. Criteria for judgment help us to connect general principles and the need for action guidelines in specific situations. They are less authoritative than the principles for reflection but more so than the guidelines for action.

Key Principles

The four key principles of Catholic Social Teaching are: human dignity; the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity. The teachings also include other principles, criteria for judgement, and guidelines for action.

Find out more:
One page handout on the four key principles

Presentation on Catholic Social Teaching and its key principles

Search under the category Principles for more reflections.

Themes in Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic Social Teaching themes bring together principles for reflection, criteria for judgement and guidelines for action. Often they address issues or particular areas of concern, such as work or the rights of indigenous peoples. They may also develop from the Church’s reflection on key concepts in the light of experience over time. For example, Catholic Social Teaching’s understanding of the role of structures in injustice or of the role of the state.

Some examples of Catholic Social Teaching themes are:
A Preferential Option for the Poor
Civil Society & the State
People on the Move
Social Sin – Structures of Sin, Structures of Grace
The Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Find out more here.

For tips on how to find out what Catholic Social Teaching has to say about a topic, check out this podcast.


Contemporary Catholic Social Teaching places what is going on in our society in dialogue with Scripture, tradition, reason and human experience. The teachings help us to respond to matters of justice in our societies by providing inspiration to act, suggesting approaches to action, and proposing priorities and positions on issues. They ground the vision, mission, approach and priorities of Catholic social justice efforts.

Throughout the modern period there have a number of shifts in the theological and ethical methodology of the teaching documents. For example, the Cardjin method of see-judge-act is used in some Catholic Social Teaching documents. The Pastoral Circle, or Pastoral Spiral, builds on and deepens the Cardjin method. The Pastoral Spiral can be used in a range of settings from teaching and research to pastoral work and social action. It is widely used in the local churches of Asia.

Both of these methods ask us to do more than simply apply principles deductively to actual situations. They invite us to discern the signs of the times and to draw on wisdom from our faith sources to respond.

Find out more about the Pastoral Spiral from the presentation below.

Major International Documents

Catholic Social Teaching is not just a collection of documents, but the social justice tradition is often communicated through Catholic Social Teaching documents from Popes, and from local Bishops.

For tips on how to make sense of Catholic Social Teaching documents, click here.

You will find links to the full text of the major international Catholic Social Teaching Documents, an introduction to each one, and resources here.

Asia Pacific Catholic Social Teaching

Local Bishops share with the Popes in the task of teaching on issues of social justice. The international and local teachings inform one another. It is not just a matter of applying international teaching to local situations. By examining the local and particular, universal Catholic Social Teaching principles may be understood more deeply and expressed in different ways. Experiences and insights from particular places can draw attention to matters that are important for the whole church.

Find out more about the social justice teachings of Bishops from the Asia Pacific region here.

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Catholic Social Teaching An Introduction by Sandie Cornish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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