Throughout history, and in particular, over the last hundred years, the Church has had much to say on questions concerning life in society. Catholic Social Teaching (CST), Catholic Social Thought or the social doctrine of the Church as it is sometimes called, is also an instrument of evangelisation (cf. Centesimus Annus 54) because it shines the light of the Gospel on the human person and society as a whole.

Drawing inspiration from the needs of the world, and profoundly rooted in Scripture, CST invites all men and women to discover themselves as transcendent beings, in every dimension of their lives, including those related to the social, economic and political spheres. Faith sheds light on all matters that concern humanity, and men and women, faithful to Jesus Christ, are tasked and challenged to transform social realities with the power of the Gospel.

God grants us dignity and the human person who fully lives his or her dignity gives glory to God.

Principles of Catholic Social Thought

Modern Catholic social teaching is said to have originated in 1891 with the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum. Since then, a wealth of teaching has been offered to the world in matters relating to the environment, human dignity, the peaceful coexistence of nations to name but a few. Different organisations and Church bodies have attempted to distil this teaching into a set of core principles (often seven, occasionally more). Here we offer 10 principles that are drawn from CST and inspire the work of Caritas Southwark and charitable work across the diocese:

  1. The Dignity of the Human Person
  2. The Common Good
  3. Solidarity
  4. Preferential Option for the Poor
  5. Stewardship of Creation
  6. Subsidiarity and the Role of Government
  7. The Dignity of Work and Participation
  8. Rights and Responsibilities
  9. Economic Justice
  10. Peace


1.  Dignity of the Human Person 

       (Genesis 1:26-31; Romans 12:9-18)

The foundation of all Catholic Social Teaching is the inherent and sacred dignity of the human person, as created in the image and likeness of God. It is a gift we share with all our fellow human beings, loved by our Creator. The Church, therefore, calls for integral human development, which concerns the well-being of each person in every dimension: economic, political, social, ecological, and spiritual. We stand for the value of human life which is threatened by cloning, euthanasia, the death penalty and abortion. We believe that every person is precious in the sight of God.

"A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person. The person represents the ultimate end of society. The social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person… not the other way around."

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 132

2.  The Common Good 

       (Zechariah 8:16; 1 John 3:16-18)

Human dignity can only be realised and protected where the good of the whole human family is considered. We must love our neighbour, locally and globally, and prioritise the good of the human family over commercial interests.

"God intended the Earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner.’"

Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes 69

3.  Solidarity 

       (Psalm 72; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26)

Each of us is part of the human family and we are all interconnected and interdependent. We must see ourselves in others, as belonging to each other and collaborate towards solutions together. Solidarity is a commitment to strengthen community and promote a just society.

"[Solidarity] is a word that means much more than some acts of sporadic generosity. It is to think and to act in terms of community, of the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few. It is also to fight against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, lack of work, land and housing, the denial of social and labour rights. It is to confront the destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacements, painful emigrations, the traffic of persons, drugs, war, violence and all those realities that many of you suffer and that we are all called to transform.’"

Pope Francis, World Meeting of Popular Movements 2014

4.  Preferential Option for the Poor 

       (Proverbs 31:8-9; Matthew 25:34-40)

It is said that the true measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. This principle does not ask that we should focus on the poor to the exclusion of others, but rather that we are called to prioritise those who are in most need of our support.

"Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice."

St John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 58

5.  Stewardship of Creation 

       (Daniel 3:56-58; Romans 1:20)

The Earth and all that is in it are gifts from God to be cherished and protected. Creation has its own intrinsic value. We have a responsibility to the Earth’s ecological diversity, beauty and life-sustaining properties. Together, we must steward it for the benefit of future generations. 

"The family needs a home, a fit environment in which to develop its proper relationships. For the human family, this home is the earth, the environment that God the Creator has given us to inhabit with creativity and responsibility. We need to care for the environment: it has been entrusted to men and women to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom, with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion."

Pope Benedict XVI, World Day of Peace 2008

6.  Subsidiarity & the Role of Government 

       (Jeremiah 22:13-16; James 2:14-18)

The state is an instrument to promote human dignity, protect human rights, and develop the common good. Subsidiarity holds that such functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. When they cannot, higher levels of government must intervene. All, too, have a right to participate in the economic, political and cultural life of society, and in the decisions that affect their community.

"It is clearly laid down that the paramount task assigned to government officials is that of recognising, respecting, reconciling, protecting and promoting the rights and duties of citizens."

St John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 77

7.  Community and Participation 

       Micah 6:6-8; Acts 2:42-47)

Human beings are social, and how we live together affects the dignity of the individual and the progress of society. Marriage and the family are the vital and central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, and not undermined. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

"The existence of each individual is deeply tied to that of others: life is not simply time that passes; life is a time for interactions."

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti 66

8.  Rights & Responsibilities 

       (Isaiah 1:16-17; Luke 16:19-31)

We all have a right to those things which are required by human dignity. Rights arise from what we need to live as God intended us to. These are intrinsically linked with our responsibility to ensure the rights of others, that is to say that we do not take more than is needed to fulfil our rights at the expense of another.

"A well-ordered human society requires that people recognise and observe their mutual rights and duties. It also demands that each contribute generously to the establishment of a civic order in which rights and duties are more sincerely and effectively acknowledged and fulfilled."

St John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 31

9.  Economic Justice and the Dignity of Work

       (Sirach 34:26-27; Luke 3:10-14)

Pope Leo XIII shone a light on injustice and exploitation of workers in Rerum Novarum (1891), advocating that the human person should come before profit. Work is more than a way to make a living but is a way of participating in God’s creation. The economy must serve people, and not the other way around. All persons have a right to fair wages and working conditions.

"Global interconnectedness has led to the emergence of a new political power, that of consumers and their associations… It is good for people to realise that purchasing is always a moral - and not simply economic - act. Hence the consumer has a specific social responsibility, which goes hand-in- hand with the social responsibility of the enterprise."

Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 66

10.  Peace 

        (Psalm 122; Colossians 3:9-17)

Conflict and war are the fruits of human disobedience, pride and the desire for power. Peace is not, as the Second Vatican Council said, merely the absence of war but the consequence of a right relationship with God and with each other. Peace is the fruit of love and the consequence of justice. It is the sign of caritas in action.

"Peace is not merely an absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice."

Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 78

For further reading

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church


Refugees at Napier Barracks, Kent