Principles of Catholic Social Teaching
Human DignityThemes of Catholic Social Teaching in the Public Square
Consistent Ethic of Life
The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues. It anchors the Catholic commitment to defend human life, from conception until natural death, in the fundamental moral obligation to respect the dignity of every person as a child of God. It unities us as a “people of life and for life” (Evangelium Vitae, 6) pledged to build what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of life” (ibid., 77). This culture of life begins with the pre-eminent obligation to protect innocent life from direct attack and extends to defending life whenever it is threatened or diminished.
Catholic voters should use the framework of Catholic teaching to examine candidates’ positions on issues affecting human life and dignity as well as issues of justice and peace, and they should consider candidates’ integrity, philosophy and performance. It is important for all citizens “to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest” (“Living the Gospel of Life,” 33).
As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.
As noted previously, the Catholic approach to faithful citizenship rests on moral principles found in Scripture and Catholic moral and social teaching as well as in the hearts of all people of good will. We now present central and enduring themes of the Catholic social tradition that can provide a moral framework for decisions in public life (6).
The Right to Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Human life is sacred. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Direct attacks on innocent persons are never morally acceptable at any stage or in any condition. In our society human life is especially under direct attack from abortion. Other direct threats to the sanctity of human life include euthanasia, human cloning and the destruction of human embryos for research.
Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture (7), unjust war and the use of the death penalty; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; and to overcome poverty and suffering.
Nations are called to protect the right of life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflicts except as a last resort, always seeking first to resolve disputes by peaceful means. We revere the lives of children in the womb, the lives of persons dying in war and from starvation, and indeed the lives of all human beings as children of God.Call to Family, Community and Participation
The human person is not only sacred but also social. Full human development takes place in relationship with others. The family – based on marriage between a man and a woman – is the first and fundamental unit of society and is a sanctuary for the creation and nurturing of children. It should be defended and strengthened, not redefined or undermined by permitting same-sex unions or other distortions of marriage.
Respect for the family should be reflected in every policy and program. It is important to uphold parents’ rights and responsibilities to care for their children, including the right to choose their children’s education.
How we organize our society – in economics and politics, in law and policy – directly affects the common good and the capacity of individuals to develop their full potential. Every person and association has a right and a duty to participate actively in shaping society and to promote the well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.
The principle of subsidiarity reminds us that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions, yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs and advance common good.
Rights and Responsibilities
Human dignity is respected and the common good is fostered only if human rights are protected and basic responsibilities are met. Every human being has a right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right to access to those things required for human decency – food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life.
The right to exercise religious freedom publicly and privately by individuals and institutions along with freedom of conscience need to be constantly defended. In a fundamental way the right to free expression of religious beliefs protects all other rights. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities – to one another, to our families and to the larger society. Rights should be understood and exercised in a moral framework rooted in the dignity of the human person.Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst. In a society marred by deepening disparities between rich and poor, Scripture gives us the story of the Last Judgment (see Mt. 25:31 – 46) and reminds us that we will be judged by our response to the “least among us.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“Those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has no ceased to work for their relief, defense and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere” (No. 2448).
Pope Benedict XVI has taught that “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to [the church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel” (Deus Caritas Est, 22). This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in our nation and beyond – unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression.Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. Employers contribute to the common good through the services or products they provide and by creating jobs that uphold the dignity and rights of workers – to productive work, to decent and just wages, to adequate benefits and security in their old age, to the choice of whether to organize and join unions, to the opportunity for legal status for immigrant workers, to private property and to economic initiatives.
Workers also have responsibilities – to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, to treat employers and co-workers with respect, and to carry out their work is ways that contribute to the common good. Workers, employers and unions should not only advance their own interests but also work together to advance economic justice and the well-being of all.
We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions and requires us to eradicate racism and address the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world.
Solidarity also includes the scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us – including immigrants seeking work, a safe home, education for their children and a decent life for their families. In light of the Gospel’s invitation to be peacemakers, our commitment to solidarity with our neighbors – at home and abroad – also demands that we promote peace and pursue justice in a world marred by terrible violence and conflict.
Decisions on the use of force should be guided by traditional moral criteria and undertaken only as a last resort. As Pope Paul VI taught, “If you want peace, work for justice” (World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 1972).Global Solidarity
A more just world will likely be a more peaceful world, a world less vulnerable to terrorism and other violence. The United States has the responsibility to take the lead in addressing the scandal of poverty and underdevelopment. Our nation should help to humanize globalization, addressing its negative consequences and spreading its benefits, especially among the world’s poor. The United States also has a unique opportunity to use its power in partnership with others to build a more just and peaceful world.Caring for God’s Creation
We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of God’s creation. Care for the earth is a duty of our faith and a sign of our concern for all people. We should strive to live simply to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
We have a moral obligation to protect the planet on which we live – to respect God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for human beings, especially children at their most vulnerable stages of development. As stewards called by God to share the responsibility for the future of the earth, we should work for a world in which people respect and protect all of creation and seek to live simply in harmony with it for the sake of future generations.
Building a world of respect for human life and dignity where justice and peace prevail requires more than just political commitment. Individuals, families, businesses, community organizations and governments all have a role to play. Participation in political life in light of fundamental moral principles is an essential duty for every Catholic and all people of good will.
Toward a More Just Public Policy
In the light of these considerations, public policy should be marked by a focus on moral principles rather than the latest polls, more on the needs of the weak than on benefits for the strong, more on the pursuit of the common good than on the demands of narrow interests.