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4 Tips for Choosing Among Lists of Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

Dr Sandie Cornish addresses the vexed question of just how many Catholic Social Teaching principles there are. She offers four tips for choosing from amongst the various lists of principles or key themes of Catholic Social Teaching that exist.

Across my work introducing people to Catholic Social Teaching in mission integration and adult faith formation settings, facilitating reflection and planning by Catholic social justice groups, and teaching the tradition of Catholic social thought and action at university level, I often encounter people who are concerned, or even agitated, about the number of Catholic Social Teaching principles.

They really want to know:

  • How many principles are there?
  • What are they?
  • Why are there so many different lists of principles?

And ultimately:

  • Which list should I use?

Different Lists of Principles

It is true that there are lots of different lists of principles or themes of Catholic Social Teaching. 

The 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (now part of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Development) lists four perennial principles.

Since 1998, the United States Catholic Conference have stressed seven themes – and updated one of them in the light of Pope Francis’ social teaching.

Meanwhile, the Australian Bishops, in their landmark social justice statement of 1992, Common Wealth for the Common Good, emphasized ten principles and themes of Catholic Social Teaching.

Scholars in the field have a variety of views too.  Massaro identifies nine themes, Opongo and Orobator identify eight principles, and Holland and Henriot list fourteen major lessons from Catholic Social Teaching.

So, which list is right?

The good news is that none of them are wrong. They are all valid lists of principles and themes in Catholic Social Teaching. They all present important core concepts of the tradition.

To understand how this can be so, and which list might be most appropriate for you to use, it is helpful to recall what Catholic Social Teaching is, and how it develops.

So, let’s revisit some basics.

Back to Basics

Catholic Social Teaching develops over time through a dialogue between the sources of Catholic faith, other sources of human wisdom, and the actual experience of people and communities. In fact, it draws on the same sources as the rest of theological ethics – Scripture, tradition (wisdom expressed through the community of faith’s previous theological reflection), reason and experience. 

The places and events of history are not just contexts in which people and communities apply principles, instead they are where and how we encounter God’s action in the world.

Scripture and tradition can throw light on current social, economic and ecological issues. At the same time, our reflection on how God is communicating through emerging issues and situations can also help us to understand our faith sources more deeply.

It is not as though the Church already has all the wisdom needed neatly packaged in a systematic and comprehensive set of principles that simply need to be applied. As the great Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes spelled out, the Church learns from the world, as well as having something to offer.

We can say then that Catholic Social Teaching reflects the journey of the pilgrim people of God seeking to discern and respond to God’s ongoing action in the world. The core insights of the Catholic social justice tradition are the fruit of this effort. New teachings, like Pope Francis’ teaching on integral ecology, may arise from this dynamic.

There are also some core concepts that have already stood the test of time. These may be expressed differently in different times and places to communicate effectively with particular communities, and to connect with the pressing needs of the world. Different lists might say the same things a bit differently.

Furthermore, what needs to be emphasised may depend on the context. St John Paul II described this dynamic using the Scriptural image of the householder bringing out of the storeroom things both old and new.

Which are the most important core concepts to include in list of Catholic Social Teaching principles addressed to a materially prosperous, highly individualistic, democratically governed community? Would you emphasise the same parts of the Catholic social justice tradition in a list for a materially poor community with a strongly communitarian culture, governed by a totalitarian regime?

It makes sense then that different lists that attempt to communicate the core ideas of Catholic Social Teaching for different times and places might use different language and emphasise different things.

So, my first tip is to ask yourself if the list of Catholic Social Teaching principles or themes that you are looking at comes from a time and place very different from or very similar to your own.

More than Applying Principles

The ethical methodology of Catholic Social Teaching has also developed through time. The early modern teachings reasoned from universal principles, such as human dignity and the common good, to deduce courses of action in specific cases. This approach tended to reduce Catholic Social Teaching to being essentially a set of principles to be applied to reality. It minimized the role of the other two elements of Catholic Social Teaching – criteria for judgement and guidelines for action. Even more seriously, it left little room for grace or God’s ongoing self-revelation in the world.

An intense preoccupation with determining the ‘correct list’ of Catholic Social Teaching principles can reflect an unconsciously pre-Vatican II understanding of Catholic Social Teaching that theological ethicists would describe as essentialist. Such an approach reduces a rich and sophisticated tradition to just one of its elements and identified that element as the essence of the tradition.

If we understand the criteria or norms for judgement, and guidelines for action as important elements of Catholic Social Teaching too, we won’t be so obsessed with trying to identify ‘canonical’ lists of principles. We might also be less inclined to try to shoehorn things that are important, but are not really principles, into lists of principles. We’ll leave the discussion of distinguishing between principles, criteria, and themes of Catholic Social Teaching for another time.

Did you notice that the influential US Bishops list is a list of themes, not principles, and the Australian Bishops list in Common Wealth for the Common Good was titled ‘Relevant Principles and Themes in the Church’s Social Teaching’?

Relevant Principles and Themes. Why would our Bishops use the qualifier relevant? Are some principles and themes irrelevant? This example points us to the importance of the purpose for which one wants a list of principles or themes.

If you are conducing an inquiry into the distribution of wealth in Australia, some principles and themes from Catholic Social Teaching will be more relevant than others. If you are running a Catholic school or a healthcare facility you might find that a different collection of principles and themes will be the most relevant for your mission and activities.

So, my second tip is to pay attention to the purpose or sector for which the list of principles that you are looking at was constructed. How similar or different from this is your purpose or sector?

An Incarnational Approach

Since Vatican II, the ethical methodology of Catholic Social Teaching has been much more historically conscious and inductive. This is often summed up in the phrase ‘reading the signs of the times.’ We start not from abstract ideas, or principles, but from actual experience. We ask what there is in our faith sources that can help us to understand and respond to this experience. At the same time, we are mindful that by reflecting on this experience we may understand more deeply and respond more fully to God’s call to us, both as people and as communities.

Catholic Social Teaching is not just a matter of social analysis, but also of social discernment. There are universal principles and enduring truths, but we discover and understand them more and more deeply by examining life in the world through time in the light of our faith sources.

This too is a way in which Catholic Social Teaching continues to develop. Over time the teachings gain nuance, take into account previously neglected perspectives and experiences, and are refined. Sometimes the teachings let go of positions that were based on knowledge available at the time and are not borne out as knowledge expands. As this happens, the way the teachings are expressed, their tone, and emphasis may shift.

I mentioned that the US Bishops adjusted one of their seven themes in the light of Pope Francis’ teaching. They updated ‘stewardship’ to ‘care for God’s creation’. The change of expression reflects a deepening and development of the social teachings since 1998. Laudato Si’ de-emphasises stewardship and reminds us that we are God’s creatures in a sublime communion with all of God’s other creatures. The virtue ethic of care and kinship that Francis employs is far more mutual and reciprocal than the top-down duty ethic of stewardship that previously dominated papal teaching on ecology.

So, a third tip is to pay attention to when the list of principles that you are looking at was constructed. Is it an accurate reflection of current social teaching?

The Universal and the Particular

If we are starting from lived experience rather than ideas, it makes sense then that our lists of principles and themes will be constructed from specific experiences and for particular purposes. This also raises the role of local Catholic Social Teaching and its relationship to the international or universal teachings.

One of the roles of our Bishops is to teach in communion with the Pope on justice, ecology, and peace issues for the Church in Australia. It is up to them to read the signs of the times here in Australia, and so there are local social teachings that address our reality specifically as well as universal teachings. The local teachings will be consistent with the teaching of the Pope, but they are also likely to emphasize what is most important here, and to be more concrete and detailed than teachings that are addressing the entire world.

The Bishops Conferences of other places don’t have teaching authority over the Church in Australia and their teaching authority isn’t the same as the Pope’s. That might seem obvious, but I often have students confusing the teaching of the US Bishops with the universal or international social teaching.

So, my fourth tip is to pay attention to whether the list of principles or themes that you are looking at is consistent with the local social teachings of the Bishops Conference of your own place.

Four Tips for Choosing Among Lists of Principles

Let’s circle back to the question we started with – which list of principles or themes you should use?

My four tips suggest choosing a list that is:

  1. From a time and place similar to, or at least not dramatically different from, your own.
  2. Constructed for a purpose and / or sector that is similar to your own purpose and / or sector.
  3. Up to date and accurately reflects current universal social teaching.
  4. Consistent with the local social teachings of the Bishops Conference of your own place.

Often the best list to use is the one that you have constructed yourself, bringing out from the storeroom of Catholic Social Teaching those principles and themes that are the most relevant to your context and purpose.