Catholic Social Teaching is rooted in the values and principles of Judeo-Christian religious experience, reflected in the Christian scriptures, the Church’s lived tradition, and in various Church documents. It has evolved as each generation has attempted to live in society with reflective fidelity to those values and that religious vision. An active commitment to social justice is an essential to authentic Catholic faith.
For an extensive list of Papal and Conciliar documents that form the foundation of Catholic social teaching as well as the list of United States Catholic Bishops Documents, go to:
Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor)—Pope Leo XIII, 1891*
In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII examines the situation of the poor people and workers in industrialized countries. He states several important principles that should guide the response to these people. He then articulates the role of the Church, workers and employers, and the law and public authorities in working together to build a just society. Employers are given the major role as agents for change.
The terrible exploitation and poverty of European and North American workers at the end of the nineteenth century prompted the writing of Rerum Novarum. The document was inspired by the work of the Fribourg Union, a Catholic Social Action movement in Germany, and by request form the hierarchy in England, Ireland, and the United States.
Quadragesimo Anno (After Forty Years)—Pope Pius XI, 1931*
Pope Pius XI covers three major areas in his encyclical. First, he describes the impact of Leo XIII’s The Condition of Labor on the Church, civil authorities, and other concerned parties. Secondly, Pius clarifies and develops the social and economic doctrine contained in The Condition of Labor. He articulates a positive role for the Church in economic and social affairs and affirms the social responsibility of ownership. He advocates a unity between capital and labor and urges the uplifting of the poor and a reform of the social order based on a reestablishment of vocational groups. Finally, Pius treats the abuses of capitalism and socialism and calls for the moral renovation of society coupled with action for justice based on love.
The Reconstruction of the Social Order commemorates the fortieth anniversary of The Condition of Labor. Pius wrote and issued this encyclical during a time when major depression was shaking the economic and social foundations in society worldwide. He strongly criticized the abuses of both capitalism and communism and attempted to update Catholic social teaching to reflect changed conditions. He broadened the Church’s concern for poor workers to encompass the structures which oppress them.
Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress)—St. John XXIII, 1961*
Pope John XXIII begins this encyclical by reviewing the major points of The Condition of Labor and The Reconstruction of the Social Order. He notes that new political, social, and economic developments have necessitated Christianity and Social Progress. He confirms previous papal teaching on the value of private initiative, just remuneration for work, and the social function of private property. John XXIII then treats the questions of agriculture and aid to developing countries. He urges a reconstruction of social relationships according to the principles of Catholic social teaching and states the responsibility of individual Christians to work for a more just world.
Pope John XXIII issued Christianity and Social Progress in response to the severe imbalances between the rich and the poor which exist in the world. The encyclical commemorates the seventieth anniversary of Leo XIII’s The Condition of Labor. John XXIII “internationalizes” the Catholic social teaching by treating, for the first time, the situation of countries which are not fully industrialized. He articulates an important role for the laity in applying the Church’s social teachings in the world.
Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth)—St. John XXIII, 1963*
In Peace on Earth, Pope John XXIII contends that peace can be established only if the social order set down by God is fully observed. Relying extensively on reason and the natural law tradition, John XXIII sketches a list of rights and duties to be followed by individuals, public authorities, national governments, and the world community. Peace needs to be based on an order “founded on truth, built according to justice, vivified and integrated by charity, and put into practice in freedom.”
Written during the first year of Vatican II, Peace on Earth was the first encyclical addressed to “all people of goodwill.” Issued shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the erection of the Berlin Wall, this document spoke to a world aware of the dangers of nuclear war. Its optimistic tone and development of a philosophy of rights made a significant impression on Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life)—Blessed Paul VI, 1968
In Humanae Vitae, and in response to the increase in global population, “a new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society, of the value of conjugal love in marriage and the relationship of conjugal acts to this love,” and “man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature,” Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching on birth control and abortion. Pope Paul VI knew that Humanae Vitae would be controversial. But, he declared, the Church “does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.” Not usually thought of as one of the Church’s social encyclicals, Humanae Vitae is very much concerned with the human dignity.
Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples)—Blessed Paul VI, 1967
Calling attention to the worsening marginalization of the poor, Paul VI presents the various dimensionof an integral human development and the necessary conditions for growth in the solidarity of peoples. Only with an accompanying theological reflection on liberation from injustice and genuine human values can there be true development towards a more human condition. Yet, Populorum Progressio’s warned that human development can’t be reduced to material progress. Care must be taken in reading this encyclical since it contains many now-discredited economic ideas.
Octogesima Adveniens (A Call to Action)—Blessed Pope Paul VI, 1971*
Pope Paul VI begins this letter by urging greater efforts for justice and noting the duties of local churches to respond to specific situations. The Pope then discusses a wide variety of new social problems which stem from urbanization. These issues include women, youth, and the “new poor.” Paul VI next treats modern aspirations and ideas, especially liberalism and Marxism. He stresses the need to ensure equality and the right of all to participate in society. He concludes this letter by encouraging all Christians to reflect on their contemporary situations, apply Gospel principles, and take political action when appropriate.
A Call to Action is an open, apostolic letter from Pope Paul VI to Cardinal Maurice Roy, president of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s The Condition of Labor. It breaks new ground by developing a theory of the role of individual Christians and local churches in responding to situations of injustices.
Justicia in Mundo (Justice in the World)—Statement of the Synod of Bishops, 1971*
The 1971 Synod of Bishops, in their reflection on “the mission of the People of God to further justice in the world,” affirms the right to a culturally-sensitive, personalized development. The Bishops teach that Gospel principles mandate justice for the liberation of all humanity as an essential expression of Christian love. The Church must witness for justice through its own lifestyle, educational activities, and international action. Structural sin is discussed.
This document illustrates the powerful influence of native leadership of the Churches of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is the first major example of post-Vatican II episcopal collegiality and reflects a forceful, concrete, and realistic refinement of previous papal pronouncements.
Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)—Second Vatican Council, 1965*
Gaudium et Spes, Second Vatican Council, 1965Vatican II’s The Church in the Modern World is seen by many to be the most important document in the Church’s social tradition. It announces the duty of the People of God to scrutinize the “signs of the times” in light of the Gospel. In doing so, it finds that change characterizes the world. These technological and social changes provide both wonderful opportunities and worrisome difficulties for the spread of the Gospel. The Church’s duty in the world is to work for the enhancement of human dignity and the common good.
This document represents the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the world’s Bishops. Originally, the material contained here was not scheduled to be considered separately by the Council. Cardinal Joseph Suenens of Belgium, however, intervened at the end of the first session to urge consideration of issues more “external” to the Church than the role of Bishops or the use of vernacular in the liturgy.
The document is the product of a commission and was altered by a 2,300 member deliberative assembly. In final form, it represents a significant break from the rigid traditionalism of the Council’s preparatory commission.
Laborem Exercens (On Human Work)—St. John Paul II, 1981*
Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, commemorates the ninetieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. John Paul II affirms the dignity of work and places work at the center of the social question. The encyclical states that human beings are the proper subject of work. Work expresses and increases human dignity. The Pope stresses the priority of labor over things while criticizing systems which do not embody these principles. He supports the rights of workers and unions. John Paul II concludes by outlining a spirituality of work.
Laborem Exercens represents a clear and succinct statement of John Paul II’s thoughts on the social question. Written almost entirely by the Pope himself, the encyclical reflects statements made while he was a Polish prelate and those made during the first years of his pontificate. Laborem Exercens develops and refines the Church’s teachings on property and its criticism of capitalism and Marxism.
Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love)—Pope Benedict XVI, 2005
“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (I Jn 4:16).
These words that begin the Encyclical express the core of the Christian faith. In a world in which God’s Name is sometimes linked with revenge or even with hatred and violence, the Christian message of God-Love is very timely. The Encyclical is divided into two main parts. Part I presents a theological and philosophical reflection on the different dimensions of “love” — eros, philia, agape — and explains certain essential facts concerning God’s love for man and the intrinsic connection of this love with human love. Part II deals with the actual practice of the commandment to love one’s neighbor.
Christian charitable activity, as well as being based on professional competence, must be based on the experience of a personal encounter with Christ, whose love has moved the heart of the believer, awakening within him love of neighbor.
Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. The Christian’s program — the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus — is “a heart which sees”. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.
Christian charitable activity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must, so to speak, leave God and Christ aside.
Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)—Pope Benedict XVI, 2009
Pope Benedict’s third encyclical, is a call to see the relationship between human and environmental ecologies and to link charity and truth in the pursuit of justice, the common good, and authentic human development. In doing so, the pope points out the responsibilities and limitations of government and the private market, challenges traditional ideologies of right and left, and calls all men and women to think and act anew.
Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home)—Pope Francis, 2015
On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’) is the new appeal from Pope Francis addressed to “every person living on this planet” for an inclusive dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. Pope Francis calls the Church and the world to acknowledge the urgency of our environmental challenges and to join him in embarking on a new path. This encyclical is written with both hope and resolve, looking to our common future with candor and humility.
* These summaries and Historical Notes come from Education for Justice: A Project of Center of Concern. Outlines of the documents and an alternative link to the complete document can be found at: