Catholic social teaching is a body of thought on social issues that has been developed by the Church over the past hundred years.

It reflects Gospel values of love, peace, justice, compassion, reconciliation, service and community in the context of modern social problems.

Living your Faith

Catholic social teaching is continually developed through observation, analysis and action, and is there to guide us in the responses we make to the social problems of our ever-changing world.

We can trace the beginnings of Catholic social teaching back to 1891 when Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical Rerum Novarum. In this document, Pope Leo set out some basic guiding principles and Christian values that should influence the way societies and countries operate. It talked about the right, for example, to work, to own private property, to receive a just wage, and to organise into workers’ associations.

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

Human Dignity

Every single person is created in the image of God. Therefore they are invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family. The dignity of the person grants them inalienable rights – political, legal, social, and economic rights. This is the most important principle because it is from our dignity as human persons that all other rights and responsibilities flow.

Human Equality

Equality of all people comes from their inherent human dignity. Differences in talents are part of God’s plan, but social, cultural, and economic discrimination is not.

Respect for Human Life

All people, through every stage of life, have inherent dignity and a right to life that is consistent with that dignity. Human life at every stage is precious and therefore worthy of protection and respect.

The Principle of Association

The human person is not only sacred but also social. The way we organise society directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to develop. People achieve fulfilment by association with others – in families and other social institutions. As the centrepiece of society, the family must be protected, and its stability never undermined.

The Principle of Participation

People have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the well being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. Everyone has the right not to be shut out from participating in those institutions necessary for human fulfilment, such as work, education, and political participation.

The Principle of the Common Good

Individual rights are always experienced within the context of promotion of the common good. The common good is about respecting the rights and responsibilities of all people. The individual does not have unfettered rights at the expense of others, but nor are individual rights to be subordinated to the needs of the group.

The Principle of Solidarity

We are one human family. Our responsibilities to each other transcend national, racial, economic and ideological differences. We are called to work globally for justice. The principle of solidarity requires of us that we not concern ourselves solely with our own individual lives. We need to be aware of what is going on in the world around us.

Preferential Protection for the Poor and Vulnerable

Our Catholic tradition instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. The good of society as a whole requires it. It is especially important we look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.

The Principle of Stewardship

We have a responsibility to care for the gifts God has given us. This includes the environment, our personal talents and other resources.

The Universal Destination of Goods

The earth and all it produces is intended for every person. Private ownership is acceptable, but there is also a responsibility to ensure all have enough to live in dignity. If we have more than we need, there is a social mortgage to pay to ensure others do not go without.

The Principle of Subsidiarity

No higher level of organisation (such as government) should perform any function that can best be handled at a lower level (such as families and local communities) by those who are closer to the issues or problems.

Social Encyclicals

An "encyclical" in Latin refers to a "circulating letter". The following list of encyclicals has become the widely accepted, though unofficial body of documents commonly referred to as "Catholic Social Teaching."

Laudato Si' (Praise Be to You)

24 May 2015 | Pope Francis

With the theme of ‘care for our common home’, Pope Francis addresses this message to everyone in the world. He describes us as one human family and acknowledges all those who have advocated for addressing these issues and as such have contributed to this body of thought. Full text

Caritas In Veritate (Charity in Truth)

2009 | Pope Benedict XVI

This encyclical builds on the themes of Populorum Progressio, expanding on the “many overlapping layers” of development. Inequality, respect for life, the right to religious freedom, the use of technology and environmental protection are among the many “layers” addressed in the encyclical. Full text

Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)

2005 | Pope Benedict XVI

Part I of this encyclical is a reflection on the forms of "love" - eros, philia, agape, emphasising God's love for human beings and the intrinsic connection between God’s love and human love. Part II deals with the practical requirement to love one's neighbour, and the application of this in the Church’s charitable activity. Full text

Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)

1995 | Pope John Paul II

This encyclical presents the Church’s teaching on the sanctity and inviolability of human life, from conception to natural death, dealing specifically with abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. It also covers the proper use of sex and stresses the importance of the family. It also emphasises the need to care for the sick and the poor. Full text

Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year)

1991 | Pope John Paul II

Written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, this encyclical addresses in a modern context the issues in Rerum Novarum. It emphasises the injustice which prevails in the sharing of the goods of the earth between rich and poor nations, and within nations. Environmental protection is mentioned, and the encyclical affirms the right to private property, rejecting communism and socialism. Full text

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern)

1987 | Pope John Paul II

This encyclical commemorated the 20th anniversary of Populorum Progressio, expanding on and nuancing the concept of authentic human development and its implementation. It surveys contemporary problems and attitudes and “structures of sin” as impediments to development. Full text

Laborem Exercens (On Human Work)

1981 | Pope John Paul II

This encyclical commemorates the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, revisiting the rights and dignity of workers. It examines the opposition between those who contribute capital to the production process and those who contribute labour. Pope John Paul II develops a spirituality of work, considering work to be “a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question.” Full text


Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples)

1967 | Pope Paul VI

This encyclical proposes a Christian approach to development, emphasising that economies should serve all people not just the few, based on the principle of the universal destination of goods. It addresses the right of workers to a just wage and security of employment, fair and reasonable working conditions and the right to unionise. Full text


Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth)

1963 | Pope John XXIII

This encyclical is the first to be addressed to "all men of good will," instead of just the world's Catholics. It focuses on what is needed for peace in the world, at a time when the Cold War was at its height. The encyclical emphasises relationships, including the rights and duties of individuals, relationships between individuals and the state, relationships between states, and the need for global oversight of developments. Full text


Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher)

1961 | Pope John XXIII

The Church’s mission is the salvation of souls and the transformation of the society. This encyclical addresses the socio-economic conditions and the responsibility of individual Catholics and the Church to work to overcome excessive inequalities. Wealthier nations should assist poorer nations. Advances in science and technology need to be critiqued because they have the power to improve the human condition, but may also pose dangers to life and to human rights. Full text


Quadragesimo Anno (After Forty Years)

1931 | Pope Pius XI

Forty years after Rerum Novarum this encyclical further develops the Church’s teaching on labour and industrialisation, and includes strong critiques of unrestrained capitalism, communism and classism. Full text


Rerum Novarum (Of New Things)

1891 | Pope Leo XIII

This encyclical is acknowledged as the first to address social issues. It is in response to the conditions faced by workers following the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Issues it addresses include unbridled capitalism, socialism, the relationship between worker and employer, a living wage, the relationship between classes and the preferential option for the poor. Full text