Catholic social doctrine

Posted on July 23, 2011 by


The Catholic Church defines its social doctrine according to four main principles. These principles are considered universal (i.e. Natural Law), as they are the way in which a virtuous and prosperous society is always structured. They are:

  • the dignity of the human person,
  • the common good,
  • subsidiarity (the devolving of power),
  • and solidarity (the integration of society).

Pope Benedict explained the principles thusly:

How can solidarity and subsidiarity work together in the pursuit of the common good in a way that not only respects human dignity, but allows it to flourish? This is the heart of the matter which concerns you. As your preliminary discussions have already revealed, a satisfactory answer can only surface after careful examination of the meaning of the terms. Human dignity is the intrinsic value of a person created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ. The totality of social conditions allowing persons to achieve their communal and individual fulfillment is known as the common good. Solidarity refers to the virtue enabling the human family to share fully the treasure of material and spiritual goods, and subsidiarity is the coordination of society’s activities in a way that supports the internal life of the local communities…

When we examine the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity in the light of the Gospel, we realize that they are not simply “horizontal”: they both have an essentially vertical dimension. Jesus commands us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us; to love our neighbor as ourselves. These laws are inscribed by the Creator in man’s very nature. Jesus teaches that this love calls us to lay down our lives for the good of others. In this sense, true solidarity – though it begins with an acknowledgment of the equal worth of the other – comes to fulfillment only when I willingly place my life at the service of the other. Herein lies the “vertical” dimension of solidarity: I am moved to make myself less than the other so as to minister to his or her needs, just as Jesus “humbled himself” so as to give men and women a share in his divine life with the Father and the Spirit.

Similarly, subsidiarity – insofar as it encourages men and women to enter freely into life-giving relationships with those to whom they are most closely connected and upon whom they most immediately depend, and demands of higher authorities respect for these relationships – manifests a “vertical” dimension pointing towards the Creator of the social order. A society that honors the principle of subsidiarity liberates people from a sense of despondency and hopelessness, granting them the freedom to engage with one another in the spheres of commerce, politics and culture. When those responsible for the public good attune themselves to the natural human desire for self-governance based on subsidiarity, they leave space for individual responsibility and initiative, but most importantly, they leave space for love, which always remains “the most excellent way”.

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