In this first of ten articles on the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching, let me begin by remarking that principles, once internalized, lead to something. They prompt activity, impel motion, direct choices. A principled person always has a place to stand, knows where he or she is coming from and likely to end up. Principles lead the possessor somewhere—to some purpose, to some action, to a choice or lack thereof.
College students often confuse “principle” (ple) and “principal” (pal) in their written work. I always take a few minutes in class to explain the difference. In this series we are interested in principles—internalized convictions that lead to something, that puts legs under our values.
In 1998, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) issued Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions—Reflections of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, a document intended to call the attention of all U.S. Catholics to the existence of Catholic social principles—a body of doctrine with which, the bishops said, “far too many Catholics are not familiar.” In fact, they added, “many Catholics do not adequately understand that the social teaching of the Church is an essential part of Catholic faith.” Strong words.
A companion document, “Summary Report of the Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education,” is included in the same booklet that contains the bishops’ reflections on what they call this “serious challenge for all Catholics.”
The task force, of which I was a member, was convened in 1995 by the late Archbishop John R. Roach, and then retired archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Often during our periodic meetings over the course of two years, it occurred to me that one (admittedly only one) reason why the body of Catholic social teaching is underappreciated, undercommunicated and not sufficiently understood is that the principles on which the doctrine is based are not clearly articulated and conveniently condensed. They are not “packaged” for catechetical purposes like the Ten Commandments and the seven sacraments. While many Catholics can come up with the eight Beatitudes and some would be willing to take a stab at listing the four cardinal virtues, few, if any, have a ready reply to the catechetical question the bishops wanted to raise: What are those Catholic social principles that are to be accepted as an essential part of the faith? The next question, of course, looks to how they can best be personally appropriated—internalized—so that they can lead to action.
On the tenth anniversary of their 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” the bishops issued a summary of their teaching on the applicability of Catholic social principles to the economy. We on the task force had that summary in mind as we considered the broader issue of the applicability of Catholic social thought to a range of issues that go beyond the economic to include family, religious issues, social, political, technological, recreational and cultural considerations. It would be a mistake, of course, to confine Catholic social teaching to the economic sphere. Its applicability is far wider.
How many Catholic social vzxczxzxvzxvzvzxvprinciples are there? Combing through the documents mentioned above, I have come up with ten. There is nothing official about my count. Some future catechism of the Catholic Church may list more or fewer than ten, if compilers of that future teaching aid find that Catholic social teaching is suitable for framing in such a fashion. I offer my list of ten in this series in Liguorian for three reasons: (1) Some reasonably complete list is needed if the ignorance cited by the bishops is going to be addressed; (2) any list can serve to invite the hand of both editors and teachers to smooth out the sentences for clarity and ease of memorization; and (3) any widely circulated list will stimulate further thought on the part of scholars and activists as to what belongs in a set of principles that can serve as a table of contents for the larger body of Catholic social teaching.
So, I offer in this series ten principles of Catholic social thought in ten articles. The first is devoted to the principle of human dignity.
The thirty powerful words on human dignity printed in the photo above, which are from a 1998 document issued by the Catholic bishops of the United States, succinctly summarize the bedrock principle of Catholic social teaching. Every person—regardless of race, sex, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, employment or economic status, health, intelligence, achievement or any other differentiating characteristic—is worthy of respect. It is not what you do or what you have that gives you a claim on respect; it is simply being human that establishes your dignity. Given that dignity, the human person is, in the Catholic view, never a means, always an end.
In reflection of this principle of Catholic social teaching, and indeed of all personal and social ethics, let’s take a moment to think about the state of human dignity in today’s world. Think of world hunger, for example, think of the unemployed, the human beings who are mentally or physically ill, the illiterate, the homeless. Think of the condition of human dignity in your own country, state, or city.
zxvzxvzxvzvvzxvzvSubsequent articles in this series will explore the other nine principles on my list: human life, solidarity, preference for the poor, the principle of participation, human equality, stewardship, association, subsidiarity, and the common good.