This article looks at the history of the Church’s social teachings and explains how the Church helps Catholics respond to relevant social issues of the day.

IN RECENT years, several Church leaders around the world, including Archbishop Nicholas Chia, have called the Catholic Social Teachings one of the best kept secrets of the Church. Why is this so? After all, our social teachings which tell how Catholics should relate to our fellow men, emanate from the Bible. Jesus had asked all of us “to love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Well, the challenge is how do we realise and live this commandment of Jesus, especially in today’s society?

Indeed, Catholic social teachings as we currently call and understand them, are the result of the “original social sin” of modern times – the excesses of the industrial revolution and liberal capitalism, which led to the Communist Manifesto.

The Church was caught between the tragedy of the sins of the industrial revolution (poor working conditions in factories, harsh employment of children and young people, uprisings of the unhappy working class, etc) and the proposed sinful solution of socialism (all are poor, but some are more poor than others).

In response, Pope Leo XIII released his encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labour), in 1891. In it, he expressed the Church’s concerns for the exploitation and dire poverty of workers and the concentration of privilege and wealth in the hands of a few. He argued for:
The recognition of human dignity;
? The right to just wages;
? The right to organise associations to defend just claims and the common good; and
? The right to have private possessions.

Since 1891, the Church has continued to reflect on the social questions of the day in the light of our faith from scripture and the tradition of the Church. These collections of Church documents have come to be collectively known as the Social Doctrine of the Church or Catholic Social Teaching. (See box for further examples of key documents).

In 2004, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The Compendium consolidates in one volume an overview of all the Church’s social teachings to date.

Looking at the list of encyclicals and documents throughout history, we can see that the Church has never failed to speak out in response to injustice and concerns of humanity. It has been consistent in its stand for the poor and marginalised.

The social teachings have developed in an organic way, with each new encyclical and document building upon the tradition andadding new realities, but never contradicting its tradition and faith. In a sense, this rich source of teachings is indeed a treasure of the Church.

However, rich as these teachings are, they have largely remained a “secret” because their scholarly language has not been easy for many laymen to access. So there have been efforts and more literature in recent years to help make the social teachings more accessible. That is also a key focus of Caritas Singapore’s formation programmes. At the same time, we all wait in anticipation for the new addition to the treasure trove by Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) which will discuss issues of poverty, peace, war, international cooperation, energy sources and globalisation.

Some texts of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Labour, by Pope Leo XII, addresses issues of the industrial revolution and the threat of communism.

Quadragesimo Anno: On Reconstructing the Social Order, by Pope Pius XI. Faced with the challenge of the great depression and communism, the Church stresses again on social order, the right of possession of personal property and the support of workers and their families.

Mater Et Magistra: Mother and Teacher, by Pope John XXIII, raises concerns about the arms race, economic growth, and calls on Christians to work for a more just world.

Pacem In Terris: Peace on Earth, by Pope John XXIII, encourages the resolution of international conflicts and the need of a worldwide institution to promote and safeguard the universal common good.

Gaudium et Spes: The Church in the Modern World, by the Vatican II Council, recognises that the Church is immersed in the modern world, condemns poverty, warns of the threat of nuclear war and calls for cooperation between rich and developing countries, fostering solidarity and peace.

Populorium Progressio: On the Development of Peoples, by Pope Paul VI, focuses on human development in search of peace and progress. It highlights the unchecked capitalism leading to a widening wealth gap and unequal distribution of resources. It stresses that every person has a right to make use of the goods of the earth.

Octogesima Adveniens: A Call to Action, by Pope Paul VI, describes the role of individual local churches in acting for justice and draws attention to the problem of distribution of population and goods.

Laborem Exercens: On Human Work, by Pope John Paul II, calls for workplace justice, gives the Christian vision of work and affirms the dignity of work and the rights of labour.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: Social Concerns of the Church, by Pope John Paul II, emphasises the “Option for the poor” as a central tenet of social teaching and the importance of solidarity.

Centesimus Annus: One hundred years, by Pope John Paul II, describes working towards the common good guided by justice, solidarity and subsidiarity. It warns of the new threats of consumerism, terrorism, abortion, drug addiction, atheism and destruction of the environment.

Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life , by Pope John Paul II, appeals to all to be concerned for the great multitude of weak and defenceless human beings, unborn children in particular, whose fundamental right to life is being trampled upon.

Deus Caritas Est: God is Love, by Pope Benedict XVI, emphasises the Church as a community of love and charity.2008

Caritas in Veritate: Love in Truth, by Pope Benedict XVI, focuses on international issues.


Programmes on Catholic Social Teachings Briefings on Salt of the Earth:

A Group Study Guide on the Basic Principles of Catholic Social Teachings
- 11 February 2009
- 16 April 2009
- 10 June 2009
- 13 August 2009
- 14 October 2009
- 10 December 2009

Catholic News - “Our Social Mission” page
Fortnightly series on reflections on current issues based on our social teachings.

Publications for the Liturgical Year

- Lenten reflection booklet(1 March 2009)
- Lay Apostolate Sunday reflection(16 August 2009)
- Advent reflection booklet(29 November 2009)

Walking the Social Talk
3 sessions by Fr David Garcia, OP on Catholic Social Teachings (3 Friday evenings from 16 October 2009

Other Catholic social teachingmaterials to be developed in 2009:
- Mandarin version of Salt of the Earth
- Salt and Pepper: Readings on the Basic Principles of Catholic Social Teachings
- Labourers of the Harvest: A Group Study Guide on Catholic Social Teachings for Working CatholicsSocial Mission Alive!

An evening of reflection, testimonies and prayer(22 August 2009)

For more information go to:

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