To understand Catholicism it is necessary to realise that it is not a purely private matter between the individual and God. Catholicism is a community faith that lives by shared worship and attempts to express itself in the public world by creating a society according to God's lines. Catholicism therefore has a political expression. The Catholic Church has therefore developed a body of social teachings that prescribe how society ought to be run. These teachings are found mainly in encyclicals, letters from various popes to the whole church, and the teachings of church councils, such as Vatican Two. [Councils are numbered according to whether they were first,second, etc councils in that location.]
Encyclicals are named according to their first few words. So one of the main social encyclicals in Rerum Novarum [of new things] and another is Quadraegesimo Anno [in the fortieth year, after Rerum Novarum. A more recent one is the Church in the Modern World.
The sacredness of the person
Catholic thinking emphasises the dignity of every individual whatever their social class, physical condition and so on. It regards each person as being made in God's image and likeness and as having God-given destiny unique to his./herself. Every indvidual has a right to liberty to seek that destiny, which is why the church has always rejected slavery. Furthermore, the person is not to be reduced to a mere worker or consumer, as he or she has a humanity which transcends these limited social roles. The individual is always greater then the role that they occupy. All social systems must actively work to respect the person, and any social systems that reduce people to roles are to be rejected. It is insufficient for a social and political system to say that it does nothing to prevent people from expressing their dignity, it must actively foster dignity.
The common good
This is a key Catholic concept, though it is difficult to define precisely. It is basically the idea that society as whole should benefit form economic and social activity. So for Catholics the private pursuit of personal gain at the expense of others transgresses the common good. Ideally, all should benefit from economic and social activities performed by individuals. Implicit in the notion of the common good is the idea that we find our dignity in communion with others rather than as an isolated individual or a member of a closed and limited group. The common good extends beyond the boundaries of the nation state to the whole human community.
For Catholicism there is such a thing as society, but it should not swallow up individuality. The state and society are not the same. For Catholics the state is one of the institutions in society, but not the only one
Option for the poor.
A key biblical theme found in prophets such as Amos and Isaiah is the care of the poor. This means that poverty in a society is an affront and therefore society should rectify it by making positive programmes to alleviate it. These may be performed by state or by charities. Catholicism values the state, but does not idolise it.
Rights and Responsibilities
Human rights are an important Catholic concept, although Catholicism opposes the present trend to invent rights as and when it is convenient to do so, There is a core of basic human rights, at the head of which is the right to life. This right is possessed by everyone, including the unborn foetus. No life may be taken without the gravest of reasons. War is allowed a last resort under strict conditions. Not only must society not disprespect life, it must actively respect it by life-friendly social programmes.
Yet along with rights comes responsibilities. Catholic social teaching rejects the situation in which individuals demand their rights but give nothing back. Rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin.
This important concept has entered into European social thought. It is the principle that nothing should be enacted at a higher political level if it can be performed further down the scale. For example, the state should not take decisions out of the hands of individuals and families if they can be performed at the individual and family level. Central government should not usurp the rights of more local governments. Subsidiarity is a means of protecting aganst the tyranny of the centre and the majority. Catholicism has always rejected tyranny, just as it rejects anarchy.
Catholicism accepts that there is activity proper to the state and activity proper to indivdiuals. Between them lies civil society, voluntary associaton in which individuals seek a goal consistent with the common good. These include trades unions, friendly societies, co-operatves and so on. All these meet the approval of Catholic social thought, though it insists that they act ethically
Catholic social thought relies on the principle of justice, which is the first virtue of social institutions. Without justice society is hellish for some. The Catholic view of justice is that all social groups are entitled to rights. Thus it rejects the extreme captialist view that workers do not matter, in favour of the view that workers, employers and consumers have rights and responsibilities. Thus Catholicism believes in the principle of fair wages and rejects the idea that the market should be the sole determinant of prices and wages in all cases. However, it realizes that markets have an important role, but that they are not to be idolised.They may need political moderation.
Genesis is often translated as be fruitful, multiply and be masters of the earth, but this is a bad translation. The better term is be stewards of the earth. This means that humans do not absolutely own the world's resources. They belong to God and are given for the beenfit of all. So no individual or group may monopolise or make special claims upon natural resources. All must have equal shares. Care for future generations is a moral obligation incumbent on everyone.
A key idea is that no individual is entitled to excessive wealth if another is suffering. Every individual is entitled to a share of the world's resources sufficient to meet their needs.
As far as possible every person is entitled to the dignity of work, as work enables them to express their sacred status as beings made in the image and likeness of God. Work should be a positive experience for all persons, and workers should operate in conditions befitting their human dignity. Everyone has their own talents, and so as far as possible all should be given an opportunity to express their talents. This means that education for all is a moral necessity. Economic systems that reliy on unemployment or the threat of it to force down wages and conditions are unacceptable to Catholicism.
Furthermore, all should be able to participate in the governance of society. This means that various forms of democracy are the preferred political systems,as democracy is the social system that best reflects the dignity of all persons.
The global dimension
Catholic social thinking does not like the idea that the world is divided into competing nations. While it sees the need for national boundaries based on geographical and cultural divisions as being necessary for the administration of the world, it realises that society extends beyond national boundaries.There is one global human community under God. so nationalism, whose moral horizon is limited to its own borders, is rejected by Catholic thinking. Nations should care for each other and repsect each other's rights and property. For this reason Catholic social teaching supportstransnational institutions, though it realises that they can have their faults and should not exercise overmuch power. Similarly, Catholicism rejects class war, as all classes belong to the one human community.
In the hundredth yeat
The Church in the Modern World
Documents of Vatical Two