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Catholic Social Justice and Catholic Social Teaching   Tags: catholic_social_teaching, gdsj, global issues, ozinam_scholars, philosophy, religion, social justice, social_justice, theology  

Reviews tenets of Teachings on Catholic Social Justice, and provides examples of applications of Social Justice in different academic disciplines.
Last Updated: Jul 10, 2014 URL: http://campusguides.stjohns.edu/CSJ Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

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I welcome comments and suggested resources; please use either the links below, email me, or contact me directly:
Kathryn G. Shaughnessy
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CSJ Themes & Overviews


Questions from Catholics: Why talk about "Catholic" Social Justice? Why not just "Social Justice?

Why a LibGuide on Catholic Social Justice?   As a Vincentian University, St. John's mission statement encourages us to strive, where possible,  to "devote our intellectual and physical resources to search out the causes of poverty and social injustice, and to encourage solutions which are adaptable, effective and concrete."  To know a bit about the history of Catholic Social Justice, we should start by noting that enacting Social justice is one of the three "Constitutive Elements of Church" [1]

  • Scripture -- hearing the Good News                        WORD
  • Sacraments -- worship, prayer life, etc.                   WORSHIP
  • Social Mission -- action for social justice                   WORLD

In his recent Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate [2], Pope Benedict stresses the basis of the Church's Social Teachings and its relation to faith, reason and charity in action:

This dynamic of charity received and given is what gives rise to the Church's social teaching, which is caritas in veritate in re sociali: the proclamation of the truth of Christ's love in society. This doctrine is a service to charity, but its locus is truth. Truth preserves and expresses charity's power to liberate in the ever-changing events of history. It is at the same time the truth of faith and of reason, both in the distinction and also in the convergence of those two cognitive fields. Development, social well-being, the search for a satisfactory solution to the grave socio-economic problems besetting humanity, all need this truth.  (Para 5)

Caritas in veritate” is the principle around which the Church's social doctrine turns, a principle that takes on practical form in the criteria that govern moral action. I would like to consider two of these in particular, of special relevance to the commitment to development in an increasingly globalized society: justice and the common good. (Para 6)

How is Catholic Social Justice related to the History of the Church?  Is it just an addition to Church teachings from the Second Vatican Council? While there has been a growing emphasis on this third element of the Church since Vatican Council II, the social mission of the Church has deep biblical and magisterial roots.  Vatican II re-animated the social mission of the early church; especially noteworthy is the call for the inclusion of "Social Justice" courses in the curriculum of primary, secondary and higher Catholic education. "This is a call to action, an appeal especially to pastors, educators, and catechists to teach the Catholic social tradition in its fullness."  The more recent emphasis on teaching Catholic Social Theory was spurred on by the US bishop's task force on social justice  [3], which found that

  1. there was a general lack of knowledge about the basis of social justice among Catholics, 
  2. which in turn implied a need for leadership formation and faculty training
  3. which could then meet the need to be more explicit in teaching the principles of Catholic social thought and ...
  4. to help Catholics to go beyond volunteering/direct service to participating in social justice.

In keeping with the spirit of Vatican II, the U.S. Bishops re-inforced that participation in social justice is, in effect, a true participation in our personal faith as Catholics and a more full participation in our common vocation "to be a Church that is true to the demands of the Gospel" as part of the Body of Christ.  This call to "educating Catholics" and "forming leaders" who in turn help others particpate in Social Justice underscores St. John's commitment to (a) exposing students to Catholic Social Justice principles, not only in formal theology classes and the Three Things Series, but every discipline as appropriate   (b) helping students enact Social Justice principles by incorporating Service Learning into as many courses, clubs, and campus activities as possible, (c) supporting lectures and symposia through the Vincentian Center for Church and Society, presenting speakers from all disciplines who have overcome injustice, offered their "adaptable, effective and concrete" solutions, and urge us to do the same.

The following are excerpts from the U.S. Bishops' findings in "Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions" [3], where they reflect on the need to re-emphasize social justice in catholic education in general and in the life of Catholics in particular:

  • Catholic social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God's special love for the poor and called God's people to a covenant of love and justice. It is a teaching founded on the life and words of Jesus Christ, who came "to bring glad tidings to the poor . . . liberty to captives . . . recovery of sight to the blind"(Lk 4:18-19), and who identified himself with "the least of these," the hungry and the stranger (cf. Mt 25:45). Catholic social teaching is built on a commitment to the poor. This commitment arises from our experiences of Christ in the eucharist....
  • Catholic social teaching emerges from the truth of what God has revealed to us about himself. We believe in the triune God whose very nature is communal and social. God the Father sends his only Son Jesus Christ and shares the Holy Spirit as his gift of love. God reveals himself to us as one who is not alone, but rather as one who is relational, one who is Trinity. Therefore, we who are made in God's image share this communal, social nature. We are called to reach out and to build relationships of love and justice.
  • Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and human dignity. Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment.
     [1] "Catholic Social Teaching: A Key to Catholic Identity"  PPT presentation developed by the Office for Social Justice,
              Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, original PPT available at  http://www.osjspm.org/cst.htm
     [2] Pope Benedict XVI. Caritas in Veritate (2009); available through the Vatican website in many languages  
     [3] U.S. Bishops' findings in "Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Direction" (June 19, 1998), available at

Questions from Non-Catholics: Is this notion of Catholic Social Justice exclusionary?

Below are listed some Priniciples of Social Justice as based in Catholic Social Teaching.  You might note that these principles are not so narrow as to only apply to Catholics, on the contrary, while they are based on Catholic teachings, they are also catholic in the universal sense -- they are often consistent with, and complementary to, a number of moral and behavioral codes from various societies, institutions, religions, and international organizations. 

  • Respect for Dignity of the Human Person
  • Call to Participation based on the Social Nature of Humanity
  • Rights and Responsibilities - benefit of the Common Good
  • Protection for the Poor and Vulnerable
  • Respect for Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  • Subsidiarity in Government - problems should be effectively handled at the lowest possible level of governance
  • Solidarity
  • Care for the Environment - Stewardship of Creation

These priniciples serve as a criteria for Catholic actions -- but you don't have to be Catholic to use them! Ideally, people of all faiths, philosophies and cultures, can use them to work together to overcome social problems in a way that promotes human flourishing, and in ways which are consistent with all of these guiding principles. 


Practical Question: Is enacting Social Justice this way possible?

It is worthwhile noting that Catholic Relief Services (CRS) -- the official international Catholic relief and development agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops-- is a success story when it comes to planning and executing broad-scale, and effective action while working within the framework of these explicitly-espoused principles. CRS also uses these Principles as their assessment process, in figuring out whether they are actually achieving their goals of ENACTING Social Justice.  

CRS' Guiding Priniciples draw from "a rich tradition of Scripture and Catholic social teaching,...[and act]  as a guide to what a just world might look like, these Principles are shared across religious and cultural boundaries and articulate values that are common among people who seek to promote and work towards true justice and lasting peace."  It is also worth noting that CRS has approximately 5000 staff, a majority of whom are non-Catholics (primarily since operations are mainly in Africa and the Middle East) and who work within CRS’ philosophy to build up capacity within a country (in keeping with the priniciple of subsidiarity).

For this reason, many of the resources listed in the "Social Justice by Discipline" tab include CRS resources, these are agencies that are on the ground, and creating programs that are having a positive impact. 


Inside Vatican Council: Episode 7: Gaudium et Spes

The whole Vatican II series produced by Net.tv is very helpful for understanding the various documents that came out of Vatican II ... Episode 7 below is on Gaudium et Spes is particularly apt for our understanding the role of Social Justice in the Church. The episode covers the Social justice mission of the church, how it is enacted -- with the example of the Sant'Egidio -- and the Initiative of the laity... Note: episode 6 is on ecumenicism, all episodes are visible by clicking on the word "playlist" in the top left-hand corner of the player.

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