Contact Us

Companion to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

30 November, 1999

This is an excellent and user-friendly guide to the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”. It is also an invaluable reource for anyone searching for direction from the Church’s social teaching on many of the social and ethical problems facing the modern world. The author, Pádraig Corkery, is a priest of Cork and Ross diocese and lectures in moral theology at the Pontifical University, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

pp 123. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie



Part 1: Why social teaching?
Chapter One: Why social teaching? The Church’s self-understanding

Part 2: Solid foundations: The Christian world-view
Chapter Two: Creation as a gift to all of humanity from a loving God
Chapter Three: The human person
I: Christian anthropology
II: The significance of work

Part 3: The basic tools for a critical evaluation of the social, political and economic spheres
Chapter Four: Catholic social teaching: Central principles
I:   The universal destination of the world’s goods
II:  The common good of society and humanity
III: The principle of subsidiarity
IV: The importance of participation
V:  The principle and virtue of solidarity
VI: The fundamental values of social life: Truth, freedom, justice and love

Part 4: The application of the principles of Catholic social doctrine to the economic, political and social spheres
Chapter Five: Economic life
Chapter Six: Political life
Chapter Seven: The reality of global conflict and the challenge of peace

Part 5: The Church’s social doctrine and Irish society 
Chapter Eight: The Irish context: Challenges and opportunities

General Index




The Church’s self-understanding
(Compendium Chapters 1, 2, 12 )

Since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891 the Catholic Church has consistently and explicitly addressed issues of social justice. This has been done both at a global and local level. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church brings together in a systematic way the central insights and developments in the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

Some may ask why this is so? Should the Church not leave questions pertaining to justice, economic systems and human rights to politicians and governments? Should the Church concern itself only with prayer and worship?

The Church’s involvement in social action and teaching flows from its self-understanding as a community centred on the person of Christ and the call of the Gospel to ‘do likewise’. The Christ of the Gospels was concerned for the welfare of those he met and he encouraged his disciples to imitate his ways. In his lifestyle and preaching he highlighted values such as justice, respect for people, solidarity and peace. He constantly emphasised that love of God and love of our brothers and sisters are linked. For the Christian community the promotion and defence of the human person is a sign of its fidelity to the person of Christ and the Gospel vision.

In a more theological way the Christian community understands itself as a community called to Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxis; right belief and right living. This is succinctly summed up in the Gospel call to love of God and love of neighbour. This consistent Gospel call has lead to a strong rejection of a dualism that would reduce love of God to acts of worship only; that would in a sense leave the Gospel ‘in the sanctuary’. Consistently over the centuries the Christian community has taught that our response to the invitation of Christ is to be seen in our attitudes and actions towards our fellow human beings. Furthermore, as disciples of Christ we are called to contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom by bringing the spirit and values of the Gospel into daily life. As disciples we are both challenged and enabled to let the spirit and values of the Gospel shape our personal lives and the structures of our communities and societies. We are a ‘new creation’ (41-4) called and enabled to renew relationships with others and called to love our neighbour as ourselves ‘because we are really responsible for everyone’ (43). In the words of the Gospel we are called to be ‘the salt of the earth and the light of the world’, challenged to transform our lives and communities so that they more adequately reflect the ways of God (53).
The commitment of the Catholic tradition to issues of social justice and human well-being flows readily then from our understanding of the Gospel and the person of Christ. The Gospel challenges us not to be indifferent or hostile to the world we inhabit but to take it seriously and to take responsibility for it. As women and men of faith, who strive to shape our lives around the Gospel, our presence in the world is meant to be a dynamic, engaging presence that contributes to the transformation of the world (55).

A broken world
Our everyday experiences tell us that the world we inhabit is a very broken and uneven world. Human
happiness and human pain and misery live side by side. As Christians how do we understand such negative realities as war, human cruelty and indifference, the deaths of millions through starvation in a world of plenty? How can they be squared with belief in a loving God and the ‘good news’ of the Gospel?

An important part of the Christian understanding of the world is a realism about human sinfulness. Christians are not naive; they are not utopians. The biblical story of Adam and Eve gives us a good insight into the human condition. There is a tendency in all of humanity to wander from God’s ways and become self-centred and unjust. The Gospel call is for a personal transformation so that we live more fully the values and spirit of the Gospel.

Furthermore the tradition of Catholic social teaching acknowledges that human sinfulness – greed, indifference, selfishness, hatred – can also become enshrined in the very structures and patterns of society. Consequently the tradition speaks about ‘structures of sin’ or ‘social sin’. A good example of such a sinful structure would be the institution of apartheid where the sin of racial hatred and discrimination became enshrined in the laws and structures of a society.

However, as we know from the history of apartheid in South Africa, societies can be transformed. All societies have laws, customs and structures that reflect human Choices and priorities. As such they can reflect both the best and worst of humanity; inclusiveness or exclusion, altruism or greed, concern or indifference. But societal structures and laws, since they are human constructs, can be changed for the better. Part of the Christian vocation is to engage the structures and laws of societies so that they better reflect the Gospel values of justice and respect for human dignity. Catholic social teaching has explicitly engaged in this ministry of critique and constructive proposal since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891.

Central insights of the Church’s social doctrine
The central demand of Catholic social teaching is that the dignity of the human person be affirmed and promoted in our personal lives and in the economic, social and political spheres both domestically and internationally. In the Christian community the dignity of the human person is central. The Christian claim that we are created in the ‘image of God’ is a very radical claim with far-reaching consequences for how we view the human person. Christian anthropology – how we understand the human person – argues that each person has a dignity that is intrinsic and inalienable. This dignity flows readily from our reality as children of God. It also claims that we are more than one-dimensional; there is a ‘Godly’ or spiritual dimension to each person that needs to be acknowledged and affirmed. Indeed the Church understands itself as called to be a ‘sign and defender of the transcendence of the human person’ (49).

The person then is the measuring stick that the Catholic tradition of social teaching uses to evaluate and critique the economic, political and legal structures of society. Whatever attacks, diminishes or denies the dignity of the human person is of concern to Christians. Whatever negatively impacts on the human person and makes human flourishing more difficult is of concern to followers of the Gospel. Poverty, exploitation, injustice and violence all cause hurt and pain to the person and call for a response from believers. Through the virtue of solidarity the church ‘stands with every man and woman of every time and place to bring them the good news of the
Kingdom of God’ (60). It makes the Gospel present in the ‘complex network of social relations’ and strives to create communities that are more human because they are ‘in greater conformity with the Kingdom of God’ (63).

Social concern as optional?
Because of its self-understanding the Church is quite clear that the creation of societies that more adequately serve and promote the human person is ‘an essential part of the Christian message … This is not a marginal interest or activity, or one that is tacked on to the Church’s mission, rather it is at the very heart of the Church’s ministry of service’ (67).

Because of this mission the Church has both a right and a duty to ‘develop a social doctrine of her own and to influence society and societal structures’ (69). A faith community gathered around the person of Christ and the Gospel ‘cannot remain indifferent to social matters’ (71) but must strive to transform them with Gospel values. The purpose of the Church’s social doctrine is to guide ‘peoples’ behaviour’ (73) so that their relationships respect the true nature of the human person and the purpose of creation as revealed through Revelation and reason.

Though the Church’s doctrine has been developed out of a faith context it does not exclude the role of reason. A consistent claim of Catholic teaching is that the central features of morality can be grasped by human reason. In the Christian vision God did not abandon humanity but, rather, endowed us with reason that enables us to grasp the meaning and purpose of life. Through this appeal to reason Catholic social teaching has a ‘universal applicability’ (75) and appeal. This is seen clearly in the fact that the texts of the Church’s social doctrine are addressed to ‘men and women of goodwill’ rather than simply to believers (84). The Church is firmly convinced that its social doctrines rooted in its understanding of the human person can be grasped by all who are sincerely looking for and open to the truth. For this reason too the Church engages in interdisciplinary dialogue with the human sciences and other branches of knowledge in her quest to create an ethos in society that is respectful of the human person (76-8).

The necessity of action
The Church by its very nature is called to proclaim the Gospel and to evangelise society. An essential part of this new evangelisation is a `proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine’ (523). However, this proclamation must be accompanied by a firm commitment to action. Hence its social doctrine must be the reference point for its ‘pastoral activity in the social field’ (524). In today’s world more than ever the Church’s ‘social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of action than as a result of its internal logic and consistency’ (525). Indeed the Church must not only proclaim and work for conditions in society that enable human flourishing but must enshrine those same conditions in its own life.

Best-kept secret and hidden treasure
Within the life of the Church the corpus of social doctrine provides an `extraordinary resource for formation … especially true of lay-persons who have responsibilities in various fields of social and public life’ (528). This resource could enable Christian lay-persons to be the yeast in society, bringing new life and inspiration into the world of work, politics and economics. However, experience indicates that ‘this doctrinal patrimony is neither taught nor known sufficiently, which is part of the reason for its failure to be suitably reflected in concrete action’ (528). In light of this reality the Compendium recommends that ‘the formative value of the Church’s social doctrine should receive more attention in catechesis’ (529). The purpose of this exposure to the richness of the Church’s social doctrine is to motivate action that will lead to the `humanisation of temporal realities’ (530). For this reason too exposure to social doctrine should feature prominently in institutes of Catholic education (532) and in the formation of candidates for the priesthood (533).

Cooperation with others
Because of its concern for the human person and community the social doctrine of the Church enables dialogue with civil and political leaders who are also called to serve the human family. It also, of course, enables dialogue and cooperation with other religious leaders and communities (534-7).

The unique role of the lay faithful
Though all Christians are called to be active subjects in bearing witness to the Church’s social doctrine, the role of the laity is both unique and indispensable. They are called to a ‘Christian discipleship which is carried out precisely in the world’ (541). They give witness to Christ through their efforts at transforming the world in light of Gospel values. Their primary challenge is to bring ‘faith and life together’ by integrating their faith into their everyday lives. For the Christian disciple there cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture. (546)
Indeed the Second Vatican Council judged the separation of Christian faith and daily life as one of the most serious errors of our day’ (554).

Decision making
In deciding what to do in the concrete situation believers are guided by the virtue of prudence – ‘the virtue that makes it possible to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means for achieving it. Thanks to this virtue moral principles are applied correctly in particular cases’ (547). The social doctrine of the Church suggests that three distinct stages be observed when deciding on concrete action: reflection and consultation, evaluation and decision.

Engaging culture and politics
Through their service of the Church’s social doctrine the laity can provide a unique service to the human person and to culture. There is a great need today to engage and enliven culture with the values of the Gospel, especially those of respect for human dignity and justice. We can say then that the ‘ethical dimension of culture’ must be a priority in the social action of the laity (556). The Church’s social doctrine insists that the criterion of the human person is the criterion for shedding light on and verifying every historical form of culture’ (558). Whatever diminishes or crushes the human person must be exposed and condemned. The denial of the religious dimension of the person is one example of a historic expression of culture that leads ultimately to the destruction of society (559).

Political involvement is a worthy and demanding expression of the Christian commitment to the service of others. Politicians inspired by their Christian faith can work towards the achievement of the common good and the creation of societal structures that are ‘more and more consistent with the dignity of the human person’ (566). Though Church social doctrine accepts the autonomy of the State it understands that `autonomy’ in a very precise way. In particular it argues that the State cannot be autonomous or free of the demands of the moral law. The state is bound – like all persons – to act in a way that respects the demands of the moral law discovered through reason and confirmed in Christian Revelation. The innate dignity and natural rights of the human person place real limits on the activities of the State (571).

How significant or weighty is Catholic social doctrine?
Though the Church is clear that the call to engage and transform society is a ‘constituent part of the Gospel’ questions still arise as to the exact ‘weight’ of Catholic social teaching. Are believers obliged to respond to it in their private and professional lives? Does it demand the same attention and respect as Catholic moral teaching on other subjects? Should it have an impact on choices and priorities pursued at home and in the workplace?

The Church is very clear on this important question:
Insofar as it is part of the Church’s moral teaching, the Church’s social doctrine has the same dignity and authority as her moral teaching. It is authentic Magisterium, which obligates the faithful to adhere to it. (80)

However, a distinction must be made between the articulation of fundamental principles (e.g. the right to strike, the right to fairness and justice in society) and the application of those same principles to complex situations. Hence the ‘doctrinal weight of the different teachings and the assent required are determined by the nature of the particular teachings, by their level of independence from contingent and variable elements, and by the frequency with which they are invoked’ (80). Faithful believers are obliged to assent to the core principles of Catholic social doctrine but may disagree on how best these principles are served in a particular economic or political strategy. Though united in their commitment to the common good, believers may, for example, legitimately disagree on its content and achievement.

Static or dynamic?
The Christian family is a living and dynamic family called to live the Gospel in a changing world. Over the centuries in response to changing landscapes it has teased out ever more completely the demands of the Gospel. In the same way the social doctrine of the Church is not static or complete but is, rather, a dynamic entity that engages with new situations.

Because it is always attentive to the changing nature of society the Church’s social doctrine is characterised by continuity and renewal’ (85). It draws universal values and principles from its reasoned reflections on the reality of the human condition. These are clarified and confirmed in the message of the Gospel. In this way its foundational principles do ‘not depend on the different cultures, ideologies or opinions; it is a constant teaching’ (85). On the other hand, the Church’s social doctrine is open to continuous renewal and development as it applies these same principles to new circumstances. In this sense it can be understood as a ‘work site’ where work is always in progress; `perennial truth penetrates and permeates new circumstances, indicating new paths of justice and peace’ (86).

Brief historical sketch of Catholic social doctrine
The history of the Church’s social doctrine shows development and clarification over the centuries. This can be seen in the following brief historical sketch beginning with the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891.
Though the Church community always showed an interest in justice issues in society, the publication of Rerum Novarum marks the beginning of a new path’ (87). The encyclical often appears under the English title ‘The Condition of the Working Classes’ or ‘The Workers Charter’. These titles reveal clearly its focus.

This encyclical has inspired ‘Christian activity in the social sphere’ over the decades and has been a consistent point of reference for this activity (89). Subsequent social encyclicals ‘can be seen as an updating, a deeper analysis and an expansion of the original nucleus of principles presented in Rerum Novarum’ (90). In this great encyclical Pope Leo XIII confronted the ills of his time: the plight of the industrial worker in the newly industrialised cities of Europe. He strongly defended the rights of the workers to conditions that were in harmony with their dignity as persons. He clearly rejected a philosophy that reduced the worker to a ‘cog in the wheel’. In the course of the encyclical he established principles that were developed and clarified in later Church documents: private property as a natural but non-absolute right; the right to a just wage; the natural right to form unions; the right to strike; the dignity of the human person as the fundamental criterion for evaluating economic and labour policies.

Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 addressed a very different world; a world of economic depression where the ability of the capitalist system to serve the common good and the demands of justice was seriously questioned. Pope Pius XI advocated a new social order based on justice and charity. He advocated a ‘third way’ – different from rigid capitalism and socialism –which was called ‘vocationalism’. It placed a heavy emphasis on solidarity and cooperation and promoted the principle of subsidiarity. This encyclical was widely studied in Ireland and had an impact on several aspects of Irish life including the make-up of the Seanad and the development of the cooperative movement.

Dignitatis humanae, one of the most keenly debated documents of the Second Vatican Council, established the right to religious freedom as a fundamental right in society that should be recognised and promoted by the State. This right flows from the nature of the human person and the nature of religious truth; the human person must be free to search for religious truth and to embrace that truth in freedom. This development brought to an end centuries of Church hostility to the recognition of such a right.

Pope Paul VI in Populorum progressio addressed the justice issues surrounding the ‘developing nations’. The document works out of a broad canvas and takes a more global view of issues of justice and peace. Though many new nations had gained political independence from their colonial masters they were still economically dependent and underdeveloped. He called for a model of ‘integral’ development that would include the development of the whole person and the community. This encyclical also called for solidarity between the First World and the developing world. In a memorable phrase, Pope Paul noted the link between underdevelopment, injustice and conflict: ‘Development is the new name for peace’ (98). If we are serious about the promotion of peaceful co-existence we must make international justice and solidarity a priority.

The Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax was ‘established in 1967 to stimulate the Catholic community to promote progress in needy regions and international social justice’ (99). It marked a significant development in the mission of the Church to bring the values of the Gospel to bear on the economic, social and political structures of our time. The establishment of local ‘Justice and Peace Groups’ was a natural and necessary development of the original initiative.

Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem exercens, published in 1981, reflected on the significance of work for the human person. The letter often appears with the English title The Priority of Labour over Capital, which sums up a central insight of this weighty work. The human person is more important than economic systems, wealth or profit. Indeed the document goes further and argues that all such systems are there to serve the human person and community. Another important point made in this encyclical is that human labour has a value primarily because it is a human person that is doing the work. This ‘subjective’ dimension of human work cannot be neglected but must rather be highlighted (101).

The encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis in 1988 returned to the theme of development. Pope John Paul II critically reflected on the failed development of the Third World and outlined his understanding of authentic human development (102). Such human development is concerned with the whole person and cannot be achieved by mere possessions. Consequently, he argued that models of development that are built on an inadequate understanding of the human person – excluding the transcendent – are doomed to failure. The oneness of humanity and the need for solidarity among peoples and nations is strongly emphasised. In a development of Pope Paul VI’s memorable phrase, peace is presented as the fruit of such solidarity: ‘opus solidaritatis pax.’

The encyclical letter Centesimus annus was written at a time of great change in the world. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc had occurred and the encyclical’s reflections on that momentous event were eagerly awaited. It argued that the collapse of the Soviet Bloc was in part a consequence of its faulty anthropology; in denying the God-dimension of humanity the whole system was built on a faulty foundation that was unsustainable. While Pope John Paul II showed appreciation for democracy and the free economy, his understanding of both is quite nuanced. Both the free market and democracy are only acceptable if they are exercised within the limits set by the moral law. Consequently both must respect the dignity of the human person and the demands of justice and solidarity.

This brief overview indicates that over the past one hundred years the Church in its social teaching has
explicitly brought the light of the Gospel to bear on the social, economic and political structures of our world. It has identified central principles and values that are necessary for the flourishing of the individual and society. It has affirmed structures and practices that recognise and promote the dignity of the person. It has identified and condemned structures and attitudes that assault human dignity and promote injustice. It has proposed ways in which attitudes and structures can be transformed to better reflect and promote the dignity and oneness of the human family.


This first part of the Companion has outlined the reasons why the Christian family is concerned with social matters. It is an essential and undeniable consequence of the nature of the Church; a community of persons gathered around the person of Christ and responding to his call to ‘do likewise’. This section also highlighted the decisive role of the laity as bearers of the social doctrine tradition. As Christian disciples they are called in a special way to engage and transform the structures of society so that they are in harmony with the values and insights of the Gospel.

Part 2 will now look at some of the decisive features of the Christian world-view that have an impact on the formation and content of Catholic Social Doctrine. The Christian family looks at and understands the world in a unique way; it has a particular faith-stance that influences its actions and priorities. It has a particular way of understanding and valuing the gift of creation and the significance of the human person. These will now be explored in Part 2.

Pointers for further discussion
1. ‘[O]n the one hand, religion must not be restricted to “the purely private sphere”, on the other, the Christian message must not be relegated to a purely other-worldly salvation incapable of shedding light on our earthly existence’ (71).

  • In your experience who understands religion as ‘purely private’ or as something to be shared in society?
  • What might be the dangers for society if religion is understood as ‘purely private’?
  • What is the challenge for us Christians, called as we are to participate in society?

2. ‘Fostering a social and political culture inspired by the Gospel must be an area of particular importance for the lay faithful’ (555).

  • Discuss the phrase ‘social and political culture inspired by the Gospel’. What does it mean?
  • In the context of your own parish or community group explore concrete ways in which you could work to foster or build such a ‘culture’.
  • What are the Gospel values or insights that seem different to some of the values or ideas pursued in society today?

3. ‘This doctrinal patrimony [the Church’s social doctrine] is neither taught nor known sufficiently, which is part of the reason for its failure to be suitably reflected in concrete behaviour’ (528).

  • Do you agree that Catholic Social Doctrine is ‘neither taught nor known’? What has contributed to this situation?
  • Do you think that the Church’s teaching on social matters is difficult to communicate?
  • Is there a concrete action that you can take, individually or as a group, to develop your understanding of Catholic Social Doctrine?

Tags: ,