7 Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

According to Ann Clark, the seven principles are interconnected and overlapping.  “They hinge on one another. The first principle, Respect for Life and Human Dignity, and the seventh, Care for God’s Creation, are particularly under attack in our times,” she says.  “Looking at the problems that plague us, we see so many issues working against human dignity, including grave poverty, lack of access to clean water or nutritious foods, lack of quality education, the lack of respect for people of different cultures, etc.” 

Through love, we find God among and within us. It is a conscious choice to disarm one’s heart, to lay down one’s life, to care on purpose, and to be a presence offering an alternative vision in a world full of contradictions and violence.

#1 – Respect for the Life and Dignity of the Human Person

We are created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, every person has dignity and worth from the moment of conception in the womb, through all stages of life, until they draw their last breath.

Respecting human dignity calls us to work toward many goals, including providing a quality education for all, ending the cycle of generational poverty through worker training and fair wages, and providing life-saving political asylum, just to name a few.

Nations and individuals also have both the right and the obligation to protect innocent human life when it is threatened and to find peaceful solutions to disputes whenever possible. These are concepts deeply embedded throughout the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching.

Sister Marie Manning, SND, of Chardon, Ohio, says, “the Church urges Catholics to act in charity and justice to end offenses against life itself such as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, genocide, nuclear war, etc. It also addresses offenses against human dignity such as subhuman living conditions, racism, arbitrary imprisonment, human trafficking, and degrading working conditions.” (Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World #27)

#2 – The Call to Family, Community, and Participation

We are not simply an individual but a member of a community. We are made to be in community to support, guide and care for one another. This takes place in a family setting as well as in a group, in our local community, and in the wider society.

Social conditions can contribute to either the stabilization or destabilization of family structures. Destabilizing conditions include unreasonably long work hours, excessive taxation, and a social culture that denigrates fidelity. 

Our economics, politics, laws, policies, and social institutions must defend children, marriage, and family life.  They must uphold the responsibility to build and care for the common good of the society, including the teenager addicted to opioids; the homeless person on the streets with no place to rest at night; the pregnant, unwed woman with no emotional or financial support; the trafficked person who does not see a way out, or the person oppressed because of the color of his or her skin. 

#3 – Rights and Responsibilities

For communities to thrive, uphold and protect the dignity of human life, rights must be protected, and responsibilities met.

"Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own, he is deprived of the means of livelihood."
- Pope St John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 11

Every natural right begins with the right to life. The right to life must be protected above all else, for without life, there are no other rights. 

Catholic Social Teaching also defends the right to private property, which helps secure human freedom. A person’s ability to act freely is greatly hindered if he or she is not allowed to own anything.  To that end, meaningful work not only provides material benefits but also a sense of connection to the larger society.

We are all responsible to use our rights well in service of God and each other. One way to participate in protecting personal rights as well as the rights of the marginalized is through Voter Voice, a new program initiated by the National JPIC office.

Click here to learn more about Voter Voice

#4 – The Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

How the most vulnerable are faring in a society is an important indication of how healthy that society is overall. When we all do well, especially those who are poor and living on the margins, every other part of society is healthier and better able to be productive and peaceful. 

Catholic Social Teaching obligates us to work towards making the common good a greater reality for all. It encourages people to strive to create social conditions whereby all people can flourish. 

For instance, if a country does not have clean drinking water, nourishing food, and a non- toxic environment, its people are unable to achieve their full potential. People who do not have access to quality healthcare for themselves and their families are unable to fully participate in society.  Those at the poverty line are most at risk.

The sisters continue to believe that education is the surest path out of poverty.  

Sister Nancy Vance, SND, of Toledo, states, “The pandemic made us acutely aware of areas where the poor and vulnerable were not being served or were underserved. Children and young people in poor communities did not have access to technology and were left out of the virtual classroom when that was their only option. It was even more evident with children with disabilities who needed the one-to-one care. Poor families were challenged to find food for meals when the schools were closed. A number of families could not work from home due to the nature of their employment. I hope we have learned from the pandemic and will find solutions to better serve the poor.”

5 – The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is a good thing for workers themselves and for all of humanity. Work is more than making a decent living. If the dignity of work is to be protected, basic rights of workers must be respected: the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiatives.

We also need to be aware of local, state, and national legislation that promotes or detracts from just labor practices and speak up on behalf of justice. No matter our role in the system – whether we are employers, employees, or those who receive the services – we all must be mindful that every service comes at a price.

SNDs’ global reach resulted in the sisters founding schools in Africa, India and Papua New Guinea, enabling children to reach beyond what they dreamed was achievable. Through those efforts, women and children from small, impoverished, and isolated communities are now teachers, lawyers, doctors, government leaders, business executives, and more.

#6 – Solidarity

“Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community” (Fratelli Tutti, 116). 

“Solidarity is action on behalf of the one human family, calling us to help overcome the divisions in our world. Solidarity binds the rich to the poor. It makes the free zealous for the cause of the oppressed. It drives the comfortable and secure to take risks for the victims of tyranny and war.  It calls those who are strong to care for those who are weak and vulnerable across the spectrum of human life. It opens homes and hearts to those in flight from terror, and to migrants whose daily toil supports affluent lifestyles. Peacemaking, as Pope John Paul II has told us, is the work of solidarity.”  (Called to Solidarity: International Challenges for U.S. Parishes, United States Catholic Conference, Nov. 12, 1997)

CST reminds us we are a single human family. At the core of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace.  As Pope Paul VI taught, “If you want peace, work for justice.” (Message of His Holiness Pope Paul VI for the Celebration of the Day of Peace, 1 January 1972)

Sister Betty Mae Bienlein, SND, of Thousand Oaks, California, says that solidarity means “to stand with, to stand next to, to support, to agree with a group, a person, a cause. To be there for others and to give others dignity and respect. Solidarity helps us recognize that what touches one of us, touches all of us. As religious women, our vowed lives lead us to live lives of solidarity with all creation. Science proves that everyone and everything on this planet/universe is connected in the web of life.”

There are many ways of practicing solidarity: through actively responding to injustices; by making those in our communities aware of common needs; by learning to live with less; and by taking a moment to greet and care for those who pass us by each day.

#7 – Care for God’s Creation

“The Book of Genesis tells us that God created man and woman entrusting them with the task of filling the earth and subduing it, which does not mean exploiting it, but nurturing and protecting it, caring for it through their work.” (Pope Francis, General Audience Wednesday, May 1 2013)

 The earth is not ours. It is God’s gift for everyone, and we have an obligation to those who come after us. Pope Francis cautions us that our relationship with the earth and creation is intricately woven into our relationship with others and that the earth is not just a resource for us to use but is rather a living breathing organism. Just as God advises us that we must rest, as He did on the seventh day, so also we must allow the earth to rest.

The Preferential Option for the Poor makes us aware that the poor suffer most directly from the changes of the earth. For instance, the poor are often the ones living closest to factories that spew harmful toxins which damage the air they breathe and the water they drink.

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “Environmental pollution is making particularly unsustainable the lives of the poor of the world. We must pledge ourselves to take care of creation and to share its resources in solidarity.” (Pope Benedict XVI during his Angelus address on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006.)

Sister Nancy MacDermott, SND of Chardon, Ohio, says, “For years, we have let progress dictate what we developed without always looking at consequences. We looked at nature as supplying unending resources for us even when science proved we were harming our waters, depleting our forests, and polluting our cities.”

The Vatican proposed a plan for the next seven years for the universal Church to learn and grow, taking action to care for each other and for the home we share. As a nation-wide province, the Sisters of Notre Dame of the United States will be working with Associates and partners across the country in Creation Care Teams to consider steps and actions to take within their communities and throughout their ministries and sponsored institutions.  They will focus on the work already being done, while also looking at ways to protect the climate, respect biodiversity, protect our waters and divest from fossil fuels.

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