1. What is Catholic Social Teaching?
Catholic Social Teaching (often referred to as CST) has sometimes been called ‘The Church’s Best Kept Secret”. CST is the Church reflecting on its mission in the world today, helping us to think about how we relate to the world around us and the problems that we face. In fact it is one of the greatest treasures of our Catholic tradition.
Most would accept that CST in its current form began with the encyclical Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” in 1891 and has continued until the present with Caritas in Veritate– “Charity in Truth” in 2009. Drawing upon the Old and New Testaments, its traditions and its knowledge of social and economic traditions around the world, the Church has produced a formidable body of principles by which social and economic activity can be judged.
On this website we are highlighting a number of key themes found in CST and looking at ways to communicate and develop those themes. For more details read the Principles section of the website.
2. What is an encyclical?
An encyclical was originally a circular letter sent to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Catholic Church. The word comes from Latin encyclia meaning “general” or “encircling”.
For the modern Catholic Church a Papal encyclical is a letter, sent by the Pope and addressed either to the Catholic bishops or more usually to a much wider audience including “all of those of goodwill”. Papal encyclicals are so famous that the term encyclical is now used almost exclusively for those sent out by the Pope. The title of the encyclical was usually taken from its first few words in Latin. Some find the Latin pronunciation difficult so increasingly some documents are referred to in English. In Latin or English, the first few words do not give a great indication of the content of a papal document – but normally there will be a subheading in English which will give a much clearer idea of the content of a document.
3. How many social encyclicals have there been?
Ten encyclicals is the normal starting number beginning with Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things “up to the latest: Caritas in Veritate – “Charity in Truth”. Most people would however include Octagesima Adveniens – “On the Eightieth Year” which strictly speaking is an Apostolic Letter and Evangelii Nuntiandi – “Evangelisation in the Modern World” which is an Apostolic Exhortation. Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” is an Apostolic Constitution from the Second Vatican Council and is an important part of the list of CST documents. That brings the normally accepted list or “body” of papal documents up to thirteen.
The main social encyclicals and documents would usually include:
Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” (1891) On capital and labour
Quadragesimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year” (1931) Reconstruction of the social order
Mater et Magistra – “Mother & Teacher” (1961) On Christianity and social progress
Pacem in Terris – “Peace on Earth” (1963) Establishing peace in truth, justice, charity and liberty
Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” (1965) On the Church in the modern world
Populorum Progressio – “The Development of Peoples” (1967) Document primarily concerned with the relationship between rich and poor nations
Octogesima Adveniens – “On the Eightieth Year” (1971) A call to action requesting communities to reflect on the gospel and take action
Justicia in Mundo – “Justice in the World” (1971) The importance of education for justice
Evangelii Nuntiandi – “Evangelisation in the Modern World” (1975) Evangelising the mission of the church
Laborem Exercens – “On Human Work” (1981) Reflection on the nature of human work and the organisation of economic life
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – “The Social Concerns of the Church” (1987) The severity of the global economic situation at the end of 1980’s and its effects
Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year” (1991) Revisits Rerum Novarum and recognises the massive changes since then
Caritas in Veritate – “Charity in Truth” (2009) Integral human development in charity and truth
4. What other kinds of encyclical are there?
The social encyclicals form only a small part of the encyclicals of the church – there are dozens of other encyclicals on many matters ranging from marriage to the place of Mary within the Church.
5. How important are encyclicals in the life of the Church?
An encyclical is the result of an immense amount of prayer, study, thought, reflection and consultation over a long period of time. Catholics – and many others – find them of great value in shedding light on and summarising issues of great complexity. Many return to encyclicals time and again to reflect on the insights which they contain.
6. Are encyclicals the only social teaching of the Church?
There are many other ways in which the Church teaches about social matters. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace frequently produces papers about matters of social concern. The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences also undertakes a great deal of teaching in this area. The Bishops of a particular country often produce pastoral letters which address matters within that country.
It is also important to recognise that CST has not been formed simply by official bodies of the church. The laity, theologians and many organisations make immense contributions upon which the Church reflects before it teaches. The process is therefore more like a cycle than a top down exercise of authority.
7. Does the Church change its mind all of the time if there are so many encyclicals?
The two important words here are “development” and “continuity”. The Church is always looking at the signs of the times, so that it is able to apply its understanding to what is relevant in a changing world. Thus, a considerable amount of Caritas in Veritate – “Charity in Truth” was written with the economic and banking crisis of 2007 in mind. On the other hand there is an unbroken continuity in church teaching. Encyclicals therefore, will often start off by referring back to a previous encyclical (usually Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” or Populorum Progressio – “The Development of Peoples”).
8. Is this just for Catholics?
Not at all! All of the recent encyclicals are addressed to “all of goodwill”. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says: “the teachings are also for the brethren of other churches and ecclesial communities, to the followers of other religions, as well as to people of goodwill who are committed to serving the common good.” The teachings do though have special significance for Catholics for whom the pursuit of social justice has been stipulated as a faith commitment.
9. What’s in it for me?
There are times when we all feel overwhelmed by the issues of poverty, climate change and peace – or perhaps we just need a moral compass. Catholic Social Teaching is a very clear guide – often through some very difficult questions.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2423) gives three reasons for CST:
• To propose principles for reflection
• To provide criteria for judgement
• To give guidelines for action
10. Why haven’t I heard about this before?
Catholic Social Teaching isn’t well known (even in the Church!). It was not always taught because some considered it a bit too radical. When the first recent encyclical Rerum Novarum -“Of New Things” arrived in a European city in 1891, for example, it was locked in the Cathedral safe because it was thought to be too subversive! A second reason is that encyclicals are lengthy and complex – and many people just find them hard going. That’s where this website comes in. It allows you to look at the teaching in a variety of ways and also suggests ways in which the material can be more easily presented.
11. Are there any other things like Catholic Social Teaching that I might also not know about?
Most people are often pretty amazed about how forward looking the Church is when it comes to the significance of other religions. The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have just produced a superb teaching document on other religions. It is called “Meeting God in Friend and Stranger”.
12. How can I get involved?
By clicking on the link below which will take you through to the actions that you can be involved in:
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