Online Course Unit 13

Formal sources of Catholic social teaching

Andre Alves and Philip Booth ABOUT THE AUTHOR



The authors of this course have cited many sources in developing their arguments. In the annex, we list all the formal Church documents that have been cited as well as many of the addresses, homilies etc by various popes that have been mentioned. Prior to that, we briefly describe some of the formal sources of Catholic social teaching that have been published by the Catholic Church. These documents themselves rely on Holy Scripture. For example, Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato si, writes: “We read in the Gospel that Jesus says of the birds of the air that “not one of them is forgotten before God” (Lk 12:6) and asks, rhetorically, “how then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?” (221)

Chronologically, scripture is followed by the teaching of the early Church fathers or the patristics. They help develop and apply the teaching of scripture in the early Christian communities from which we can learn for the present day. So, we can observe how those communities lived, inspired by the teaching of Christ, and we can also observe the teaching of those communities and their learned fathers. The patristics include saints such as St Ambrose and St. John Chrysostom. Modern Church teaching documents cite the Church fathers, just as they quote from scripture. A nice example is this quotation from St. Gregory the Great in Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli tutti: “In the words of Saint Gregory the Great, ‘When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us’”. (119)

St. Thomas Aquinas’s great work Summa Theologica has informed a great deal of Catholic social teaching, especially the early social encyclicals. Pope Francis quotes St. Thomas at an important point in Laudato si, stating: “Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety ‘come from the intention of the first agent’ who willed that ‘what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another’, inasmuch as God’s goodness ‘could not be represented fittingly by any one creature’. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships.”

Following in what is often called a “Thomistic” intellectual framework, the late scholastics were an important group of, mainly Iberian, thinkers from the 15th and 16th centuries. They used a similar method to St. Thomas and applied that method to new social, economic and political problems, especially those arising from the new world. The late scholastics are often regarded as the first serious contributors to the development of modern economic theory. Contributions also included increasing our understanding of the morality (or otherwise) of inflation, as well as its causes, and the basis of human rights.

All these sources have been important influences on the tradition of Catholic social teaching. There are, of course, many other influences. Pope Francis has often referred to local Bishops’ Conferences. Aspects of liberation theology and other intellectual traditions have also been important. Indeed, there will often be a wide process of consultation with academics, not necessarily just Catholic academics, as the thinking behind a future social encyclical evolves and the popes are guided in their prudent judgement.

Social encyclicals

It is often assumed that the formal social teaching of the Catholic Church began in 1891 with the publication of Rerum novarum. In fact, the social teaching of the Church goes back to her origins. It would be more accurate to say that the modern encyclical tradition – that is the production of a series of authoritative documents on social concerns referring to the signs of the times and written within a general framework – began in 1891. In a sense, these present the formal social teaching of the Church, along with other categories of document. These letters, which are of varying length, have Latin names derived from the early part of the document. Many of them are published on anniversaries of Rerum novarum and many of their titles refer back to that document. There is some dispute about how their titles should be capitalised. In this course, only the first word is capitalised unless later words in the title refer to “God”, “Christ” or words of similar importance.

An encyclical is a letter addressed by the pope, usually to the other Catholic bishops of the world or, in the case of many social encyclicals, to all people of goodwill. An important reason for addressing encyclicals to a universal audience is the original mandate given by Jesus Christ to the apostles to make believers of all nations of the earth. Social teaching is, therefore, an integral part of the Church’s evangelical mission. All encyclicals are written in the pope’s name, regardless of whether the pope himself is the original author of the text or whether there have been other drafters involved.

The list of social encyclicals would normally be regarded as including:

  • Rerum novarum (On Capital and Labour) – Pope Leo XIII – May 15, 1891
  • Quadragesimo anno (After Forty Years – published to mark the 40th anniversary of Rerum novarum) – Pope Pius XI – May 15, 1931
  • Mater et magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress) – Pope John XXIII – May 15, 1961
  • Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth) – Pope John XXIII – April 11, 1963
  • Populorum progressio (On the Development of Peoples) – Pope Paul VI – March 27, 1967
  • Laborem exercens (On Human Work) – Pope John Paul II – September 14, 1981
  • Sollicitudo rei socialis (published in the anniversary year of Populorum progressio) – Pope John Paul II – December 30, 1987
  • Centesimus annus (The Hundredth Year – published to mark the 100th anniversary of Rerum novarum) – Pope John Paul II – May 1, 1991
  • Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) – Pope Benedict XVI – December 15, 2005
  • Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth – intended to be published in the anniversary year of Populorum progressio in 2007, but published following the financial crisis) – Pope Benedict XVI – June 29, 2009
  • Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home) – Pope Francis – May 24, 2015
  • Fratelli tutti (Brothers All) – Pope Francis – October 3, 2020

The themes of the encyclicals can be quite general in some cases. In others, they may have a strong focus. Whether an encyclical is a social encyclical is not always beyond doubt. There is a strong argument for including Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life on the inviolability of human life) and Familiaris consortio (on the role of the Christian family). Some commentators would not include Deus caritas est amongst the social encyclicals. This lack of definitional clarity is not surprising. Pope Francis has been keen to emphasise the inter-connectedness of different facets of our lives. There is an important link between life issues and the natural environment. Similar links can be drawn between the family and education, or between life issues and healthcare. Our need to love and care for others and design political systems that recognise the dignity of all arises from our creation in the image of God as children of God and therefore as brothers and sisters in Christ. Given this reality, it is natural that there is no clear categorisation of what is and what is not a “social” encyclical.

In addition to these encyclicals, Catholic social teaching is presented in apostolic exhortations and apostolic letters. These are generally regarded as less authoritative and the former do not define doctrine. Apostolic exhortations are often issued after synods and their themes can be more specific than those of encyclicals. Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic letter, Octogesima adveniens, rather than an encyclical, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the publication of Rerum novarum.

There is a wide range of other documents, homilies and addresses that help us understand and interpret Catholic social teaching. The statements on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees and those issued on the World Day of Peace are referred to by a number of authors. Pope Pius XII did not write a social encyclical but his collection of addresses, Christmas messages, and so on, reflect a strong understanding of economic and social concerns. In addition, a vast range of documents are published by the various offices of the Vatican. One such document, “Considerations for an ethical discernment regarding some aspects of the present economic-financial system” is mentioned by authors. This was published in 2018 jointly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Vatican II and other documents

Also, amongst the formal publications of the Catholic Church, are the documents from Church Councils. Authors here have referred to various publications arising from the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), some of which are important in presenting the teaching of the Church on social and economic issues. Key documents which are connected with social teaching are: Gravissimum educationis on Christian education; Dignitatis Humanae on human dignity and the much longer document, Gaudium et spes – the pastoral constitution of the Church in the modern world. These documents, especially the last of those three, obviously have special significance, arising, as they do, from a Church Council following a vote by the world’s bishops.

The Catholic Church has also published foundational documents that summarise her teaching. Two of these are especially relevant to Catholic social teaching: the Catechism (which has substantial sections on social, political and economic life) and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. These will often quote papal documents as important sources (as well as scripture and the patristics). In turn, papal letters will quote these sources, especially the Catechism. The Catechism carries particular authority and is only revised infrequently.

All the Church’s publications of this nature are divided into numbered paragraphs which should always be used in quotations. The paragraph numbers remain the same between translations whereas page numbers do not. Nearly all Vatican documents are translated into a number of different languages, though there can be anomalies in the translations.

Questions for discussion

Discuss how 1891 was a landmark in terms of the development of the tradition of Catholic social teaching?

How do reason, scripture and tradition contribute to the development of modern Catholic social teaching?

What can we learn from the teaching and practice of the early Church for modern Catholic social teaching?

What are the different Catholic Church documents that contribute to the corpus of Catholic social teaching?

Annex – Catholic Church documents referred to

Below is a list of the Church documents referred to throughout this work, excluding the Catechism and the Compendium. All the documents, in addition to the Catechism and Compendium, can be found online at the Vatican’s website.

Francis (2023) Laudate deum, apostolic exhortation

Francis (2020) Fratelli tutti, encyclical letter

Francis (2019) Message for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promot­ing Integral Human Development (2018) Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones (Considerations for an ethical discernment regarding some aspects of the present economic-financial system)

Francis (2018) Message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Congregation for Catholic Education (2017) Educating to Fraternal Humanism: Building a Civilisation of Love 50 Years after ‘Populorum Pro­gressio’

Francis (2016) Amoris laetitia, apostolic exhortation

Francis (2015) Message for 101st World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Francis (2015) Laudato si’, encyclical letter

Francis (2014) Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Francis (2013) Evangelii gaudium, apostolic exhortation

Congregation for Catholic Education (2013) Educating to Intercultural Dia­logue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilisation of Love

Benedict XVI (2013) Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Benedict XVI (2011) Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2011) Towards reforming the inter­national and financial monetary systems in the context of global public authority

Benedict XVI (2009) Caritas in veritate, encyclical letter

Congregation for Catholic Education (2009) Circular Letter to Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools

Benedict XVI (2005) Deus Caritas est, encyclical letter

John Paul II (2004) Message for 90th World Day of Migrants and Refugees

John Paul II (2001) Message for the 87th World Day of Migration

John Paul II (1999) Ecclesia in America, apostolic exhortation

John Paul II (1998) Message for World Day of Migration

John Paul II (1998) Fides et racio, encyclical letter

John Paul II (1993) Message for World Day of Migration

John Paul II (1991) Centesimus annus, encyclical letter

Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School

John Paul II (1987) Sollicitudo rei socialis, encyclical letter

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1986) Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (1986) At the Service of the Human Community: An Ethical Approach to the International Debt Question–an-ethical-approach-to-th.html

John Paul II (1981) Laborem exercens, encyclical letter

John Paul II (1979) Redemptor hominis, encyclical letter

John Paul II (1978) Letter ‘To the People of Poland’

Paul VI (1971) Octogesima adveniens, apostolic letter

Paul VI (1967) Populorum progressio, encyclical letter

Vatican II (1965) Gaudium et spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World

Vatican II (1965) Dignitatis humanae, Declaration on Religious Freedom

Vatican II (1965) Gravissimum educationis, Declaration on Christian Educa­tion .

Vatican II (1964) Lumen gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

John XXIII (1963) Pacem in terris, encyclical letter

John XXIII (1961) Mater et magistra, encyclical letter

Pius XII (1942) Con Sempre Nuova Freschezza, radio message

Pius XI (1937) Divini redemptoris, encyclical letter

Pius XI (1931) Quadragesimo anno, encyclical letter

Pope Pius XI (1929) Divini illius magistri, encyclical letter

Leo XIII (1891) Rerum novarum, encyclical letter

Pope Leo XIII (1890) Sapientiae Christianae, encyclical letter

Leo XIII (1878) Aeterni Patris, encyclical letter

Third Lateran Council (1179)

About the authors

Andre Alves is Director of Research at the Catholic University of Portugal’s Institute for Political Studies and Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University. He was Visiting Professor at Rio de Janeiro State University in November 2011 and at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) in October 2012. He is co-author of the book “The Salamanca School”.

Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He is also Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s University and is Director of Policy and Research at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He has previously held positions at the University of Buckingham, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Cass Business School and the Bank of England. He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries.

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