Friday, March 11, 2011

Catholic Social Teaching

Concern for the poor

A comment from a blog follower has prompted this post. The individual wondered why Catholicism is less renowned for poverty reduction type work than some other denominations.

A common misconception about the Catholic Church is that it sits on the sidelines of social justice efforts. It is often said that the Catholic Church’s teaching on social justice is the Church’s “best kept secret.” The Church has done a poor job disseminating its extensive teachings on social justice, and an even poorer job of publicizing its good works. The Church, it seems, prefers to quietly do goods works, rather than seek publicity for them.

Historical Background:

From the earliest days of Christianity, Christians were concerned about the welfare of the poor.

The early Christian community practiced a spontaneous form of charity, responding to needs as they became obvious. The community viewed ministry to the poor as an extension of the love of Jesus. The community also looked upon charity as a spiritual practice; acts of charity helped individuals detach themselves from earthly possessions.

In the 4th century, the Emperor Julian commented on the unusual generosity of Christians.  Christians not only looked after the poor members of their own communities, they also responded to the needs of poor outsiders. This was rare in antiquity.

It seems that the Catholic response to the poor was largely confined to works of charity until about the mid 1800’s. The mid 1800’s saw the birth of “social Catholicism.” By the end of the century, the Catholic Church had formulated its first official piece of social justice teaching.

Pioneers of “social Catholicism” included  Archbishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler in Germany, Charles de Montalembert, Albert de Mun and Frederick Ozanam (founder of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society) in France, and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning in England. These men recognized that changes in the social fabric of Europe following the Industrial Revolution threatened the well being of an increasing number of people. Employers required factory workers to work long hours in unsafe work conditions for little pay. "Social Catholicism" challenged the institutional Church as well as individual Catholics to respond to the needs of the poor.

Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor) and the "living wage"  

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), an encyclical that addressed the plight of workers. In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII called for a living wage. In Leo’s definition, a living wage would
Leo XIII 1810-1903
  1. allow a worker to maintain his family with dignity,
  2. permit ownership of property - a home and perhaps a little land to grow food, and
  3. enable modest savings.
Pope Leo XIII knew that without pressure from the state, the living wage was only a dream. He urged the state to intervene on behalf of the poorer classes. The state had a moral obligation for without the worker, the state too would be improvished.

Leo XIII believed that poverty could be overcome “in truth and justice.” He decried the plight of workingmen, the greed and heartlessness of employers, and the disastrous effects of “rapacious usury.” He warned against the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few men.

Some of Leo’s insights sound eerily familiar. Today, the working poor struggle to put food on the table. Some large corporations are more concerned with the bottom line than with the welfare and morale of their employees. Easy credit and the exorbitant interest  of credit cards have proven disastrous for many individuals and families. Wealth remains concentrated in a relatively small portion of the world's population.

One hundred and ten years after Rerum Novarum, Canada struggles with the concept of a living wage. 

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives defines the living wage as “the hourly rate of pay at which a household can meet its expenses once government transfers have been added and government deductions have been subtracted.”  The living wage does not cover savings, home ownership, or a cushion for emergencies. 

The Preferential Option for the Poor: One response to poverty

The preferential option for the poor calls Christians to “follow Jesus by identifying with the victims of injustice, by analyzing the dominant attitudes and structures that cause human suffering and by actively supporting the poor and the oppressed in their struggles to transform society” (from Do Justice! The Social Teaching of the Canadian Catholic Bishops, 1987, p.399).

Charity: Another response to poverty

Charitable acts are those that seek to bring some immediate relief to those in need. Charitable acts include things like providing food, shelter, and clothing to the poor. 

There are numerous organizations in the Catholic Church that provide immediate relief to the poor. One example is the Saint Vincent de Paul Society  ( which is active in thousands of parishes worldwide.  All parishes do some sort of outreach in their community. Most large dioceses have a Catholic Charities branch.                                                        

The Catholic Church in action: Working for systemic change and reaching out to those in need

Development and Peace, an initiative of the Canadian Bishops begun in 1967, works to address the root causes of poverty around the world.

The Catholic Women’s League advocates for changes in government policy and legislation here in Canada.

Many religious orders advocate for systemic change and are actively engaged with acts of charity. Below are three examples.

Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns)
Sisters of Charity of Halifax

The Church does not segregate advocacy and charity. Poverty reduction requires both responses. The two go hand in hand.

Jesus came to show us a kinder, gentler way to live. Through the Holy Spirit, he invites us  to participate in the kingdom of God.   This is a kingdom of equality, justice and freedom for all people. Charity and advocacy are a significant part of the mission of the Catholic Church.


The Catholic Church does not publicize its many good deeds, but it is actively engaged in poverty reduction in Canada and abroad. Let us not forget that the Church, even if it seems like a monolithic institution, is made up of individuals. Thousands of individual Catholics are advocating and doing works of charity daily.

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