by Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J.,
Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs
Catholics have always held that there is a deep connection between the spiritual and the social dimensions of life. The ways we conceptualize social structures, the ways we judge social structures, and the ways we act to change social structures are all based upon norms and principles that derive from our Catholic faith.
The word “Catholic” comes from the Greek kata holos, “by way of the whole.” The early Christians chose this designation to describe the growing Church — not only because they needed to hold in unity the diverse communities of believers being established in cities and towns across and beyond the Roman Empire — but also because their faith in Jesus Christ touched every aspect of life. Christians wished to live in peace with their neighbors, yet they were critical of social behaviors that they deemed to be sinful and imperial social structures that they deemed to be evil. Christians would not serve in Caesar’s army, nor would they offer sacrifice to Caesar’s image.
This pattern of non-violent opposition led to violent state persecution, yet many Christians accepted martyrdom rather than betray their faith in the God made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, who affirmed and sealed the ancient revelation that every human person is image and likeness of God and that the path to salvation necessarily involves love of neighbor, a love made concrete in mindful acts of justice and mercy.
After the conversion of Constantine (Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 C.E.), the Catholic Church became a force for social improvement within the established order, teaching values and practicing charity that contributed to the common good. What did not change was the Catholic sense that the Church’s mission unfolded within history but had a goal that was beyond history, located in the ultimate triumph of God’s will to make all things new in Christ.
With the fall of the empire (c. 476 C.E.) and the collapse of civil authority in the West, the Church took on even more responsibility for public order and civil justice. Various versions of the alliance between altar and throne came and went over the next thousand years, and there were notable missteps in the promotion of “tranquil order” along the way.
The nature and extent of Church responsibilities in the secular sphere began to change in the seventeenth century with the rise of the nation-state, and the partnership between church and state was severely challenged by the great social transformations culminating in the French Revolution. During the century that followed, the Catholic Church generally stood aloof in opposition to industrialization, urbanization, and political liberalization.
It was the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions of the laboring classes that prompted Pope Leo XIII (from 1878 to 1903) to reengage the Church in constructive rather than merely condemnatory social, political, and economic criticism toward the end of the nineteenth century.
When he published the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Pope simultaneously defended the right to private property and the social duty of employers to respect the dignity of workers by paying fair wages, establishing safe and reasonable working conditions, and in every other way doing what was just by treating workers as whole persons.
Workers had a corresponding set of rights and responsibilities, including the right to organize and bargain collectively and the duty to respect the person and property of the employer. The encyclical eschewed class conflict and suggested a vision of social reality that was corporatist, that is, that recognized the organic nature of human community. It inextricably linked the respect for the dignity of each person with the shared responsibility of all to work for the good of all. This is captured in the phrase, “the Common Good,” which entails the full development of each and every person, encompassing physical, social, spiritual, and intellectual development.
During the past 120 years in which this tradition has since unfolded, seven Popes have written numerous encyclical letters, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) issued Constitutions and Decrees, regional conferences of bishops have written pastoral letters, and academic theologians have contributed to the development of this rich tradition.
Core philosophical and theological themes have emerged over time and continue to be updated to meet new or evolving social conditions.
Catholic Social Teaching has long underlined the importance of the political participation of the faithful. Indeed, through their active engagement as citizens, the faithful have the opportunity to “evangelize the cultural milieu” of the countries in which they live, seeking to fashion more just and humane social structures, establish and advance laws that respect the dignity of human persons, and in every way make it possible for people to live lives of tranquil order wherein they are free and able to pursue their vocation and develop a graced relationship with God.
To balance out this call for a healthy and constructive engagement in one’s own country’s political systems, the Church also stresses the universality of human dignity and recommends an international solidarity. The obligation to protect the innocent and to help those in need does not end at national boundaries.
One of the most important forms of participation in the common good is in the form of work. As mentioned above, Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum dealt with the most flagrant abuses of the Industrial Revolution: child labor, starvation wages, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, and the violent suppression of workers’ attempts to form labor unions. Leo’s positive vision was drawn from a deeply theological source — God laboring to create and hold in being all that it, the Father creating through the Son, in the Spirit.
Pope John Paul II (from 1978 to 2005) made perhaps the greatest contributions to this theological vision of human work as cooperation and collaboration with God. All legitimate human labor is an expression of our calling to be instruments of God’s will, and as we work with and for God, we are active in the Kingdom that God is moving toward perfection. With this high view of the dignity of the vocation of work, it follows that societies ought to order themselves so that all who can work and want to work ought to be able to find work, and all work ought to be compensated at a level that allows workers and their families to live decently.
Just as the Church eschewed conflict among social classes, so too did the Church promote peace among the nations. In the later Roman Empire, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (c. 390 C.E.) coined the phrase, si vis pacem, para bellum — if you want peace, prepare for war. Countless politicians have echoed this adage to gain support for arms expenditures. Pope Paul VI turned the phrase inside out when he said, “if you want peace, work for justice.” In his encyclical letter Populorum Progressio (1967), Paul VI pointed out that the roots of war often lie in injustice within and among societies. Social structures that are just within nations, and just relationships among nations, are the conditions for the possibility of holistic economic development. Peace is therefore both the necessary condition and also the fruit of social justice.
At the very heart of Catholic Social Teaching is the “option for the poor.” In brief, this notion holds that the moral rectitude of any given society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members, from conception to natural death. The belief that the most vulnerable members of any society deserve special attention stretches back to ancient Israel, where the prophets judged the people’s degree of faithfulness to the covenant with God by how they treated “the widow, the orphan and the foreigner sojourning among you.” Those who had no one to take care of them were called children of God, and since the King was God’s viceroy, the monarchy, and by extension the whole of society, had a moral obligation to care for the poor and defenseless.
Jesus of Nazareth took this ancient teaching — more often honored in the breach than the observance — and made it a central aspect of both his preaching and his works. Jesus gave the poor a startling priority in the Reign of God: the poor and vulnerable were uniquely positioned to experience and accept God’s grace. Jesus invited all those who believe in him to become “poor in spirit,” to stand in solidarity with those who are truly poor and from that vantage point to see the saving actions of God. The Church seeks to live out this option for the poor not only in its many agencies of social service but also in its prophetic witness to the sanctity of life.
Read Them Yourself
Among the central documents critical to the development of Catholic Social Teaching include:
Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum
Pope Pius XI , Quadragesimo Anno
Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in Terris
Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae (available at www.vatican.va)
The Center for Faith and Public Life
The Center for Faith and Public Life was founded at Fairfield University in 2005 as a forum committed to advancing the Common Good, which is the creation of the social conditions that allow for the full flourishing of the human person. It seeks to apply the fundamental principles of Catholic Social Teaching in multi-disciplinary academic research, events, publications, teaching, and initiatives. Among its current work includes housing and promoting the University’s service-learning programs; research into the current practices of Jesuit centers of higher education in the United States with regards to undocumented students; and leadership of the Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Network, which works to educate and prepare students to engage in humanitarian work at home and abroad.
The Center has the following goals:
• To create interdisciplinary support for faculty research and teaching that relates to Catholic Social Teaching
• To offer a public forum for discussion and dialogue on religion and politics
• To encourage civic engagement and service-learning opportunities for students
• To develop strategic ways for the University to assist the local community through partnering with faith-based and community-based organizations
• To act as a central point of information for University-wide civic engagement with the local and international communities
• To make Fairfield a leader in migration research, teaching, and outreach by engaging with faculty, students, and community organizations involved in migration work.