What Catholic Social Teaching is About

It is sometimes easy to forget that the Church’s social teaching isn’t primarily about politics and economics, though it clearly has something to say about both. There’s a great deal more to human society than government and markets. Human beings are naturally social—none of us exists in total isolation—so a Church concerned for the human person must be concerned, too, for the social dimension of that personhood. Still, we could fairly say that the Church’s social teaching is only secondarily about the organization of our common life.

So what is Catholic social teaching about? To answer that, we have to look at why the Church has a social teaching to begin with. In the final section of his encyclical, Centesimus Annus—a section titled “Man is the way of the Church”—John Paul II explains why the Church presumes to speak on worldly affairs and declares her purpose in doing so. He writes:

[The Church’s] sole purpose has been care and responsibility for man, who has been entrusted to her by Christ himself: for this man, whom, as the Second Vatican Council recalls, is the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake, and for which God has his plan, that is, a share in eternal salvation. We are not dealing here with man in the “abstract”, but with the real, “concrete”, “historical” man. We are dealing with each individual, since each one is included in the mystery of Redemption, and through this mystery Christ has united himself with each one forever. It follows that the Church cannot abandon man, and that “this man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission … the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption”.

“This, and this alone,” the pope insists, “is the principle which inspires the Church’s social doctrine.” Man is the way of the Church, not just because the Church follows Christ, but because it is through the Church that we come to share in His suffering, death, and resurrection. We have been baptized into Christ’s death and partake of His Paschal Mystery in every Eucharistic celebration. The sacraments are a privileged place of encounter with the Risen One.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote (and as Pope Francis often quotes), an encounter with the Risen Christ, “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” It is against the new horizon of Easter that the Church can look upon the things of this world and find, in even the most mundane of human activities, eternal significance.

Pope Leo XIII

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,” St. Paul writes, “we are the most pitiable people of all.” But if He is risen, if eternal life is open to us, then the stakes of discipleship have been raised: how we live this life matters—not just for today, but for all eternity. Because of Easter, our social, political, economic, and cultural commitments become more important, not less.

Easter makes all the difference.

The light of Easter not only infuses this life with eternal significance, but as Pope Leo XIII, pointed out beautifully in Rerum Novarum, it also allows us to see worldly goods properly, as  ordered toward eternal ends. Only in the light of Easter do we come to understand our own true end—a share in the divine life won for us by the Lord’s victory over sin and death—as the good for the sake of which all the rest has been given to us. Pope Leo writes:

The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery. The great truth which we learn from nature herself is also the grand Christian dogma on which religion rests as on its foundation—that, when we have given up this present life, then shall we really begin to live. God has not created us for the perishable and transitory things of earth, but for things heavenly and everlasting; He has given us this world as a place of exile, and not as our abiding place. As for riches and the other things which men call good and desirable, whether we have them in abundance, or are lacking in them—so far as eternal happiness is concerned—it makes no difference; the only important thing is to use them aright.

Easter is at the heart of the Church’s social teaching because Easter opens the way to a new life—both in the here-and-now, and in the ever-after. Easter is at the heart of the Church’s social teaching because Easter makes all the difference.

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