Catholics tend to be hyper-aware of the standpoints their Church takes on very specific moral topics like abortion, homosexuality and contraception. However, the average person in the pew normally is unaware of the fact that Catholicism has a long history of strongly held beliefs about social, political and economic issues.
The Church believes that just as our interpersonal relations need to be governed by fundamental moral principles like honesty, mercy, love, courage and forgiveness, so too our social structures and relationships need a set of guiding principles in order to function as God intended.
These basic principles are: the common good, human dignity, preferential option for the poor, rights and responsibilities, solidarity, subsidiarity, economic justice, environmental stewardship, participation and peace. Let’s briefly take a look at the first three principles.
The common good is the belief that social, political and economic decision should be made with the good of everyone in mind, not just the good of an individual or specific group. It represents the highest and most general good that can be achieved by human beings in this world, and therefore, it should be the primary goal for every decision in the public realm.
The belief in the dignity of the human person is grounded in God’s creation of the human person in the divine image. As an image of God, human beings are the ultimate icons in all of creation. To treat humans as anything less than icons of perfection is to desecrate this divine image and to show great disrespect to God.
Catholic social teaching affirms that God regularly sides with the poor when there are conflicts between those who are powerful and those who are vulnerable. This option for the poor is first witnessed in scripture in the Exodus story where God surprisingly sides with the slaves rather than with the powerful and wealthy Egyptian Pharaoh. Most theologies assume that wealth, power and good fortune are signs of God’s favor. Catholic theology raises suspicions about these kinds of assumptions and instead believes that God has a special place in His heart for the poor and those on the margins.
Catholicism has a long history of actively seeking fairness and equity in our social relations, as well as in the organizations and structures that arise from those relationships. The Church regularly applies these principles and periodically updates its teaching on the relevant issues of the day.
Thomas O'Brien, Ph.D.
Center for Interreligious Engagement
DePaul University, Chicago, IL
Thomas is the author of A Place of Mercy: Finding God on the Street