Catholic 101: Catholic Social Teaching

by | Mar 21, 2022 | Catholic 101, Faith & Politics

What does faith in Jesus Christ have to do with politics? 

Our faith is deeply linked to justice. We know that the Kingdom of God is already among us and that its final fulfillment will come about through God. In other words, our work in the world is our cooperation with a God who loved us first, and who draws us into the abundant life of the Trinity through the resurrection of His Son and the grace of the Holy Spirit. God is Lord, not us, and yet He invites us into His service.

What is CST?

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) refers to the official teachings of the Catholic Church on matters of public life, including politics, society, and economics. CST, like every aspect of the life of the Church, is rooted in discipleship with Christ. Through CST, the Church seeks to leaven society, inspiring justice and peace through faith in Jesus. CST proclaims the good news for the poor and the captive, and so speaks to the deepest desires of humans today: both their material and spiritual development as human persons.

Beyond this general definition, CST tends to be explained in terms of principles. These sets of principles can be very useful for making CST more concrete and applicable. But it is important to see that these lists all seek to analyze (break down) something we also need to synthesize (build up): the image of God shining through human community. While it can be tempting to reduce CST to a set of bullet points, it is so much more than that. It is God’s plan for humanity. 

Why is CST important?

Catholic Social Teaching shares the witness of the Gospel in a special way: with respect to the basic questions of how humans are to live their lives in common. CST took on special significance in the late 19th century, when industrialization and urbanization in Europe raised questions about the dignity of labor, just wages, good working conditions, private property and the common good precisely at a time when the social fabric of many societies was being stretched thin.

CST considers two of the most important features of political life: change and continuity. Today we accept constant change as a part of life: the iPhone I buy today is going to be out of date tomorrow, the pressing international crisis that grabbed our attention last week has been replaced by something else this week. But modern CST arose at a time when people were just getting used to the idea of change, nevermind constant change. Events like the French Revolution, industrialization and the many revolutions and conflicts in 1848 made more and more people aware that the world is not a static, changeless order, but is always in flux. The world is always changing. That constant change means that we always have to pay attention to what is changing, why it is changing, and what that change says about the world. Pope Francis, for example, in Laudato si’, explains not only how the world is moving toward an ecological crisis, but what it means for how we live together and how we treat the earth. 

For all of this change, however, CST also considers what is permanent. Christians have been dealing with political life since the Pharisees asked Jesus whether they should pay taxes to the emperor. And that quest involves engaging with what changes least in the world: the nature of the human person and what makes human beings truly happy. The world changes a lot, but what does not change is what makes humans happy.

For this reason, CST often considers change and flux in the world not to focus exclusively on what is unique about our world today, but also to bring out what remains true across history.

What is the goal of CST?

CST sees humans as rational, spiritual and social. It sees their fulfillment in God and with other people. For that reason, justice and peace are not reducible to economic progress, but the full and authentic development of the full human person, and the full human community. CST means imitating Jesus, including in the difficult public roles we play as citizens, consumers and members of society.

CST is often articulated in terms of principles. Four of the most foundational are the common good, the dignity of the human person, solidarity and subsidiarity. You could easily expand this list, as many do, into seven themes, ten principles, and so on, which can be useful for different purposes. It is important, however, to see the forest for the trees. CST offers more than principles or policy recommendations. At its best, it offers a vision of human happiness and flourishing. 

Because the principles of CST are meant to highlight key aspects of a healthy community, any good set of principles are going to be overlapping, and they will all point toward justice: right relationships among people. 

Indeed, this orientation toward justice must remain key. Any system of thought can be abused by social groups against others, which might make some people suspicious of CST. Isn’t it just another ideology to justify power grabs? But CST by its very nature is meant to liberate and empower every person to fulfill his or her destiny as a child of God. It thus challenges politicians, policymakers, citizens, Christians and all persons of good will to try to reckon with the full reality of their society – even if it risks their own social position.

What are the practical challenges for trying to live out CST?

There are a number of practical challenges for a believer trying to live out CST. 

1. There is the simple problem of the obscurity of CST: most of us know very little about it. When we start to wade into it, we find that a lot of the terms and concepts are unfamiliar to us. It takes time to start to understand it! 

2. The challenge of motivation. Many of us are entrenched in our political beliefs. Others doubt that politics is even worth the bother. But when we encounter Christ, do we allow him to shape us in every part of our lives, including in our public interactions with other persons? 

Another way to think about this: we don’t come to CST as a blank slate, but with identities, values and preferences that already shape what and how we think about politics. 

The believer wanting to take CST seriously in her mind and heart, then, needs some humility: a belief that the traditions of the Church might really have something to teach her, and that her political beliefs, as important as they are, may not be all that she needs to know. Indeed, those beliefs might not do justice to her experiences of who she really is as a full human person. 

That humility can motivate curiosity: what excites you about CST? What draws you in? Then go from there.

3. The challenge of connecting values to policy. As we begin to learn about CST, we can struggle to see how it relates concretely to policy. The principles of CST do not translate automatically into particular policies. Solidarity is important, for instance, but what does that mean for workers whose unions are disappearing and whose jobs are being replaced by robots? Solidarity should motivate good policy, but it cannot offer detailed recipes for solving a society’s problems.

4. The challenge of being supported in living it out. It is human for our communities to support us in our most fundamental values, for instance in the family, neighborhoods and political parties. But who supports the believer trying to live out and promote the vision of CST? Many believers find that their fellow Catholics are suspicious of the parts of CST that conflict with their ideological or partisan preferences. They might also encounter non-Catholics who are intrigued but unsure of its implications. Building a community around the vision of CST, then, involves both struggle and joy of sharing the gifts of CST. 

5. Finally, the challenge of sustaining our political life through prayer. CST arises out of our friendship with Jesus. We have to constantly return to that friendship for sustenance. We pray for wisdom, for patience, for peace, and above all to be anchored in the love of God that allows us to do His will in the world – not our own. That’s how we know we are serving all of God’s children.


To ever follow Jesus is the form of Christian life. When we step into our roles as citizens, we do not step out of that discipleship. Rather, that discipleship takes on a new intensity.

CST finally depends upon prayer. Jesus is the Son of God in our midst, the Crucified Creator made visible. If we wish to serve and follow Him in the service of His people, we must bend our knee before Him, asking Him to make us meek and humble of heart.


Bill McCormick, SJ   /   All posts by Bill