Catholic Social Thought

The sources of Catholic Social Thought (CST) are many and varied: the Bible, the tradition of the Church Fathers/Mothers, Papal, Conciliar and Synodal documents, local, national and regional groupings of bishops, other faith traditions and ecumenical movements, and theologians. One of the most important elements to reflect upon is the level of social analysis present in the documents at their particular moment in history.

The principles of Catholic Social Thought have developed and deepened over the years. Many would recognize several of these principles as including:

  • The Dignity of the Human Person
  • Responsibilities of the person, and the corresponding right to participation
  • Primacy of the Common Good (over private good)
  • The Dignity of Human Work; the priority of labour over capital
  • The Global Dimension of the social question (especially after the 1960s)
  • Preferential option for the poor (especially after the 1970s)
  • Care for creation (especially after the 1990s)

The Encyclicals (or "circular letters" from the Popes)

Catholic Social Teaching is often described as the body of writings that have emerged on social themes from the Roman Pontiffs over contemporary times.

Many authors refer to the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, (translated as "On Capital and Labour") in 1891, as the first encyclical on economic and social themes. This Pope argued that workers had the right to form unions, and he established the concept of the "just wage." The encyclical indicated a response to the changing demographics of Western Europe, from a rural society to urban industrial liberal democracies.

The next major social encyclical was released 40 year later, in 1931. Pope Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno (translated as "On the Reconstruction of the Social Order") when the world wallowed in the throes of the Great Depression. Its rather radical language can perhaps be explained by the upheavals of the day. The encyclical introduced the concept of the "family wage" and defended private property, but insisted on its social character. It also introduced the concept of "subsidiarity" or the idea that economic and social decisions should best be made at the level nearest those who will be affected by them.

While in the "Leonine period" that is described as the first 70 years of modern Catholic Social Teaching there were only two social encyclicals, in the decade of the 1960s, there were at least a half dozen! The Second Vatican Council was an indication of this aggiornamento, or "catching up."

Pope John wrote two social encyclicals, Mater et Magistra (the church as "Mother and Teacher" in 1961). This program for world peace was released in the charged context of the Cold War, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it called for nuclear weapons to be banned. As well, it included a notable reflection on human rights 15 years after the U.N.'s Universal Declaration on Human Rights was released.

From Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (or "The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," released in 1965) could be described as the most influential social document.

In 1967, Pope Paul VI addressed international development issues in an entire encyclical, where he described "development as the new name for peace." Populorum Progressio ("On the Development of Peoples") had a lasting effect in our country, since the Canadian bishops in that same year established a development agency called The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, led by lay experts.

Although Pope Paul also wrote an encyclical letter in 1971 to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum (called Octogesima Adveniens), that year is best remembered for the release of a document summarizing a Synod of Bishops on the topic of Justice in the World. From this document we read the tremendously important statement that, "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation."

Pope John Paul II was responsible for three major social encyclicals. In 1981 he released Laborem Exercens ("On Human Work") , followed in 1987 by Sollicitudo Rei Socialis ("On Social Concern") x which includes a wonderful reflection on the "virtue" of solidarity. In 1991, the centenary of Rerum Novarum, his major encyclical Centesimus Annus described the church's thinking after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Cold War.

An important section of the 1971 Octogesima Adveniens stated that, "It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country." The Canadian bishops took this call to heart during this decade, and began an important tradition of Labour Day statements and declarations on social themes of importance in our country.

Social Teaching from the Canadian Bishops

Calling Out the Prophetic TraditionThere is an amazing history and body of documentation of social teaching emanating from the Canadian bishops ever since they established their Bishops' Conference after the Second World War. Some of this history, specifically the first fifty years, is recalled in the booklet shown above, Calling Out the Prophetic Tradition, co-authored by Monica Lambton and Joe Gunn. Copies are available in English and French from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

Some of the documents released by the Canadian bishops include:


  • 1960 Poverty
  • 1974 Sharing Daily Bread
  • 1975 Northern Development: At What Cost?
  • 1976 From Words to Action
  • 1980 Unemployment
  • 1983 Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis
  • 1993 Widening Unemployment
  • 1995 Must the Poor Have the Most to Fear?
  • 1996 The Struggle Against Poverty
  • 2001 Let None Be Excluded…
  • 2001 The Common Good or Exclusion?
  • 2002 That We All Might Have Life in Abundance
  • 2003 "You Love All That Exists"…on ecology
  • 2006 Immigration and the Protection of Refugees


Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the ChurchAny document produced after the mid-1990s can be accessed on the CCCB website, under the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs. For access to earlier documents contact the CCCB Archives.

Finally, for those interested in the Vatican's compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine, the book shown beside can be ordered from CCCB Publications.