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Tips for Reading Catholic Social Teaching Documents

Teaching documents like Papal encyclicals are often used to share Catholic Social Teaching. The Latin names of social justice encyclicals 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 things like when and why each one was written and how it relates to what went before it, and any developments that came after it. Here are my tips for making sense of Catholic Social Teaching documents.

Happy reading!

Sandie Cornish


  • Consider when the document was written and what was going on in society, culture, politics and different fields of knowledge.

  • Judge documents as though they were written today.


  • Ask why the document was written, and what its purpose was.

  • Assess documents in terms of objectives that they were not attempting to address.


  • Consider to whom the document was addressed and whom it sought to influence.

  • Expect every document to speak in the same way to the same audience.


  • Read the whole document.
  • Read particular statements in the context of their place in the document
  • Use quotes to illustrate the key points being made in the document.
  • Consider the scope and concerns of the document.

  • Pay attention only to the parts of the document that you like, or rely on summaries or simplified versions.
  • Take particular statements out of their context.
  • Use quotes out of context as ‘proof texts’ to make a predetermined point.
  • Expect any document to cover everything.


  • Pay attention to the sources used, the amount of emphasis given to each, the theological method and the approach to ethics used.

  • Presume that all documents approach theology and social ethics in the same way.

Formal Authority

  • Notice who the author of the document is and the form that the document takes. What level of formal authority is attached to this document?
  • Distinguish between different elements within a document and the level of authority attached to each. For example, a statement of principle is more authoritative than a practical judgment that relies on the state of knowledge available at the time or a particular historical context.

  • treat all documents as though they carried equal weight.
  • Treat every statement within a document as though it had equal authority.


  • Ask what came before and what was added to that by this document?
  • Notice how the teachings developed after this document, building on it, developing it, or changing directions?

  • Treat any document as though it were the last word, failing to take into account more recent teachings on the same matters.
  • Treat individual documents as though they stand alone outside the context of the body of Catholic Social Teaching.

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