Let Justice Flow Like a River

The Historical and Doctrinal Roots of Catholic Social Teaching

Rev Dr Neil Vaney
Issue 28, August 2009


Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is always hard pressed to respond to the innovations of technology or the rapidly changing economic climate. Current examples of this occur in the debate over the experimental use of cells from human zygotes, and the responsibility for the collapse of huge financial institutions in the United States of America over the last two years. The technical nature of such discussions causes non-experts to lose sight that at the base of such disputes are values - such as the dignity and call of each human being by God - that go back to the earliest biblical passages. The aim of this essay is to show how the massive corpus of CST of roughly the last one hundred and twenty years is firmly rooted in the earliest biblical writings which were then elaborated upon in patristic and medieval teaching.

A. Classical CST Sources

CST is often regarded as consisting of four elements: key papal social encyclicals from 1891 to 2009; some other encyclicals that contain important sections on social questions; certain critical social commentaries by diverse episcopal bodies; and finally, the body of commentaries on the former by theologians and lay experts. In the first category we find the following documents:

  • Rerum Novarum, (On the condition of labour), Leo XIII, 1891
  • Quadregesimo Anno (The reconstruction of the social order), Pius XI, 1931
  • Mater et Magistra (Christianity and social progress), John XXIII, 1961
  • Pacem in Terris (Peace on earth), John XXIII, 1963
  • Gaudium et Spes (The pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world), Second Vatican Council/Paul VI, 1965
  • Popolorum Progressio (The development of peoples), Paul VI, 1967
  • Octagesimo Adveniens (A call to action), Paul VI, 1971
  • Iustitia in Mundo (Justice in the world), Synod of bishops/Paul VI, 1971
  • Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelisation in the modern world), Paul VI, 1975
  • Laborem Exercens (On human work), John Paul II, 1981
  • Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On social concern), John Paul II, 1987
  • Centesimus Annus (The hundredth year), John Paul II, 1991
  • Caritas in Veritate (Love in truth), Benedict XVI, 2009

Encyclicals not specifically focused on social teaching but containing much content relevant to CST are:

  • Redemptor Hominis (The redeemer of mankind), John Paul II, 1979
  • Evangelium Vitae (The gospel of life), John Paul II, 1995
  • Deus Caritas Est (God is love), Benedict XVI, 2006
  • Spe Salvi (Hope of Salvation), Benedict XVI, 2007

This great body of writings covers numerous topics but we can divide the leading themes into two broad areas. The first concerns social and environmental ethics, while the second covers principles of political economy. In the first category we find the following themes:

  • Human dignity, personalism and development
  • Freedom, rights and reciprocal responsibility
  • The family as the foundation of society
  • The common good and solidarity
  • Social justice and equality
  • The preferential option for the poor
  • Respect for cultural autonomy and diversity
  • Stewardship of creation and sustainability

The second category includes themes such as:

  • Economic justice
  • The universal destination of goods
  • The dignity of work, fair wages and workers' rights
  • Subsidiarity, supplementation and the role of government
  • Participation in civil and political processes
  • Global development and peace

B. The Biblical Bases of These Teachings

It is to the Hebrew Bible that we first turn to uncover the foundations on which the edifice of CST has been constructed. The relevant sections include the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, the account of God's self-revelation to Moses in Ex 3.13-15, and the various covenants concluded with Noah in Gen 9.8-17, Moses in Ex 19.16-20.21 and then with King David in 2 Sam 7.1-29.

Irrespective of whatever source theory we follow in our reading of the first two chapters of Genesis, the following truths stand out. First and most importantly, that all God's creation is good and a gift of his love (cf Gen 1.31). The second element is the human response to these gifts – that the creatures formed out of this earth must cultivate and care for the soil from which they were taken (2.16). The third consideration is that though men and women come from earth, they have a special role in the earth's economy because they have been formed by the breath of God and in the divine image (1.27, 2.7). From these insights flow several important considerations; first, that though humans cannot be understood without seeing them in the planetary ecosystem, they cannot be reduced to any one physical niche because they have a particular dignity and importance in God's universal vision and purpose. Secondly, caring for the earth is humanity's responsibility and fulfillment.

God's self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3.13-15) is numinous and mysterious, as is the name God gives to himself – I AM. In contrast to the particular gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt, gods of fertility, crops, marriage, etc, we can detect a new sense of universality. Nor is I AM associated with a particular place or shrine. A later theology would stress the profound ontology implicit in the name, the God who is the ever existent being and reality. But in Moses' situation it would be more, "the God who will be for, who will redeem you out of slavery." Here clearly is the drive toward a passion for freedom and justice that is seminal to CST.

The first of the Old Testament covenants to consider is that with Noah (Gen 9.8-17). Here we are in a more familiar world, one of ecological devastation and human heedlessness. In this situation God pledges never to allow all life to be destroyed again. A new element intervenes; a solemn covenant is made with all of creation, not just the human animal, but with all living creatures. Here we are pointed to a moral gamut which includes the profound interdependence of all creatures for and with one another, some as prey, some as predators, but all needing one another.

It is commonly understood that the Ten Commandments given to Moses contain many moral precepts akin to those accepted right throughout the ancient near Middle East cf Ex 19.16-20.21. The context and significance of the Decalogue, however, show marked differences. The book of Deuteronomy, offering us a theological reflection on the commandments, sees their observance as a response of gratitude for God's choice of the descendants of Abraham to be an elect and privileged people, called to serve the one true God cf Dt 4.13, 10.4. Accordingly, the detailed cultic, dietary and social mores laid down in Ex 20.22-31.18 and throughout the book of Leviticus, tedious and archaic as they may seem to us, are to create a culture and civilization based on this unique call. Negatively, they can also be seen as a blueprint to sustain a community and common life utterly contrary to the state of slavery that the Jews knew in Egypt. The Davidic covenant that we find in 2 Sam 7.1-29 reframes this moral vision as the once nomadic groups move into the structure of a monarchy. The prophet reminds David that God's blessing will remain with his chosen people as long as the king continues to be the shepherd of his people according to the covenant and laws that have been handed down.

C. Later Biblical Strands of the CST Tradition

As we know, the nation of Israel was not faithful to these covenants. Under Solomon the worship of Astarte and other deities crept in. Solomon's numerous wives and their offspring vied for power and the nation split into a southern and northern kingdom. Prosperous merchants and large landowners began to emerge. Prophets such as Amos (3.13-4.3, 5.7-13) and Micah (3.5-12) reviled the new wealth and idolatry that accompanied these developments because the sense of common values and social solidarity that had accompanied the resettlement of the lands had given way to selfish opportunism and profiteering with the consequent evils of bribery, injustice and the degradation of the poor. It is in this context that we can understand the reform legislation that framed the sabbatical and jubilee years (Lev 25.8-19). It is almost impossible to verify if this dramatic legislation on the freeing of slaves, remission of debt and repatriation of debts was ever carried out, but what we do see in such measures is a brave attempt to restore once again the sense of common values and community solidarity that had marked the first generations to settle the promised land. Jesus inherited and understood these traditions and enlarged on them with his proclamation of the Kingdom of God. We see this clearly in the allusions to the redemption and holiness traditions that Luke underlines in his account of Jesus' inaugural discourse in his home town of Nazareth (Lk 4.16-22). Matthew's way of highlighting this continuity is to portray Jesus as the new Moses where, on his own mountain, he delivers a new law and a new covenant to the crowds (Mt 5.1-7.29).

D. The Roots of CST in the Fathers and Scholastic Theology

It seems very glib to pass over almost nineteen centuries of development of CST in just a few paragraphs given the numerous monographs and studies devoted to topics such as usury, slavery and the growth of trade and industry from the early Middle Ages onwards. The aim of this short essay, however, is simply to show how today's corpus of CST has grown organically from the earliest biblical writings. Accordingly, I have selected just a few key figures and themes during these long centuries to show how the same values and questions about dignity, justice and care of the physical world keep on turning up.

Among the early Church fathers Augustine is usually noted for disputes with heretics over questions such as original sin, marriage and sexuality. However, incursions into Europe by the Goths and Vandals and widespread famine in Northern Africa made him also turn his pen to issues such as care for the poor, hunger and making peace. In this last field his theory of the just war was the first systematic teaching on war and peace and was to have a major influence on many later theologians. St Thomas Aquinas was one such. Among Thomas' voluminous writings we find substantial teaching on property ownership, church/state relations and the role of government. Of course, much of this was heavily influenced by the recently recovered writings of Aristotle. Aquinas' work is an excellent example of the way in which natural law approaches, derived from Greek philosophy, were to be increasingly integrated into medieval Catholic thought and applied to contemporary moral and social issues.

A prominent example of such work comes with Francisco di Vitoria (1483-1546) and Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Great voyages of exploration by adventurers like Magellan and Columbus had opened up a new world of trade, navigation and potential conflict for the Portuguese, Spanish and later English mariners. The need for some sort of international law spurred on these scholars to draw up international codes of law. In the University of Salamanca, di Vitoria and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) took part in the annual presentation of a topic of national importance in which imperial theologians and the university dons discussed and debated some of the hottest issues of the day such as royal divorces, the slavery of the Indians, usury and even inflation. The latter had arisen because the huge amount of gold brought back from the New World had depressed the value of local currencies. This in turn led to unemployment – not only a modern issue!

E. Antecedents of Modern CST Writings

Commentators often remark on the time it took the papacy to respond to the challenge of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto (1848). It should be remembered that Pius IX was facing immense internal struggles with the onset of the Risorgimento and the incipient demise of the Papal States. It was really Leo XIII who began to turn outwards towards the world through a series of encyclicals that would mark the later communication style of the 20th century popes. Nonetheless, during the latter part of the 19th century, various Catholic leaders and intellectuals were striving to come to terms with emerging currents such as socialism and communism. When Leo did issue his great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891, it drew from these lines of European Catholic socialism. For instance, there is the strong influence of Archbishop von Ketteler's ideas on the dislocation of families from rural settings and the impact of this upon family life, as well as his attacks on child labour and unsanitary conditions, and his insistence that workers needed sufficient rest. Into this mix Leo added his own ideas on justice and charity, the need for a family wage, and the right of workers to own property and to form labour unions. He also had much to say on the role of government and the right of the Church to speak out on social issues.

F. Key Themes from Quadregesimo Anno (1931) Onwards

When we peruse the principal themes of the social encyclicals of the last eighty years or so we see many of these previously mentioned themes re-occurring. It is interesting to see a return to the creation accounts as the two most recent pontiffs, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, try to come to terms with the problems of over-consumption and destruction of the physical environment that have beset contemporary society. Here are some of those key themes:

  • Defence of and key place of the family
  • The common good and solidarity of peoples
  • Social justice and equality
  • Respect for cultural autonomy and diversity
  • The global impact of 'structures of sin'
  • Stewardship of creation and sustainability

In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus John Paul II set a programme that will continue to shape magisterial teaching in the years ahead. Within it he insisted on the central role of his 'integral human personalism', the vision that refuses to see humans as principally consumers or economic units but demands that ruling authorities embrace peoples' full humanity, that is, intellectual, emotional, physical and moral. Legitimate economic and technological growth can occur only within this vision. Nor will global ecology be achieved without it being accompanied by a new ecology of the person. While acknowledging the potential of new technologies to transform the planet the pope strongly critiques the first- world materialism, consumerism and self-absorption that ignore the spiritual and moral core of every human being, seeing these as purely private and personal options. Only when men and women heal the scars of sin that reside in their hearts will they begin to heal the scars that mark our planet. Many of these themes are recapitulated in Benedict XVI's new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Among new stresses, however, are the inability of purely technical or economic instruments to bring about justice and a decent standard of living for all nations. That is because they often ignore that all human beings emerge out of love, are co-dependents in love, and flower only when the truth of God's presence and dignity is respected in each from the moment of conception to that of their natural death.


Neil Vaney SM, Principal, Catholic Discipleship College, Takapuna, Auckland.

This article is developed from a PowerPoint presentation given by Rev Neil Vaney SM on the occasion of the Holy Father's Day in Auckland, 22 February 2009