CST1 What does it mean to be human?

Catholic Social Teaching is the name we give to all of the Church writings on how the world should be organised. Of course, put together this is quite a lot of documents and far too much for one student to read right now... Let’s simplify it.

 Over 120 years of Papal Catholic social teaching documents was synthesised into one book in 2004 and can be summarised in 4 guiding principles and 4 values which we then apply to a variety of areas. Put together and applied to life, this brings about a ‘Civilisation of Love’.

4 Principles
Dignity of the human person
Common Good

4 Values

Applied to: 

RERUM NOVARUM (THe first papal social encyclical 1891)

What did the Church think about unions? Communism? Capitalism?

Many Church thinkers developed responses to these questions but what was the official response of the Church?

In steps Pope Leo XIII with Rerum Novarum 1891,

Private property

“It is lawful,” says Thomas Aquinas, “for man to hold private property.  … Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty when others are in need.” (RN 19)

No Communism.

“Thus it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, the community of goods, must be utterly rejected; for it would injure those whom it is intended to benefit, it would be contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and it would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonwealth.” (RN 15)

Unions – yes

“The most important of all are workmen’s associations… they should multiply and become more effective.” (RN 36)

No Child Labor

“And in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently mature.”

Since then there have been other popes who have developed what is now known as CST which has been summarized into one volume by the Vatican called, “the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church”. We will go through this document.


At the heart of CST is a true vision of what it means to be human. The first principle of Catholic Social Teaching is the Dignity of the human person from which all other principles and values flow. It is essential to have a correct understanding of what it is to be human. The study of humanity itself is called ‘anthropology’.


Before we can even start to explore what it means to be human we must have a correct method worked out. We will touch upon four approaches will focusing in on the revelation approach which is the Catholic approach.

1)      Revelation: God reveals to us our true humanity.

2)      Natural law: Believes there is some universal truths about humanity and morality which we can discover from our nature. We will explore this in greater detail.

3)      Scientism: While science can teach us much about humanity, it tends to disregard the spiritual side and therefore has a deficient view of humanity which leads it to often ignore moral questions. When science tries to answer the deeper questions of humanity it is delving into philosophical and theological questions and is no longer true science, but scientism. True science is totally compatible with religion and true religion is compatible with science since God is the author of both. "This reductionistic conception views the natural world in mechanistic terms and sees development in terms of consumerism. Primacy is given to doing and having rather than to being, and this causes serious forms of human alienation.[972] Such attitudes do not arise from scientific and technological research but from scientism and technocratic ideologies that tend to condition such research. The advances of science and technology do not eliminate the need for transcendence and are not of themselves the cause of the exasperated secularization that leads to nihilism. " (CSDC 462)

4)      Relativism: There is no absolute truth, therefore my truth is as good as anyone else’s. There are many ‘isms’ as people come up with many ways of explaining humanity, some have some merit, others are very dangerous. “The Church's social doctrine sees ethical relativism, which maintains that there are no objective or universal criteria for establishing the foundations of a correct hierarchy of values, as one of the greatest threats to modern-day democracies." (CSDC 407)

We will be following a revelation approach and address some of the natural law concepts based on Church teaching. We will endeavour at times to provide reasons why we believe what we do about CST so others beyond the Church can more easily accept the truth.


We do not know ourselves nor fully our own dignity. Sin has alienated us from ourselves. This is our starting point. ““Know yourself”, …man …in his essence is oriented to knowing himself.” (CSDC 14) On our own, we are incapable of properly having self knowledge. Due to sin we are fractured. It is Christ who “reveals man to himself” (CSDC 67). Man cannot be properly understood in isolation. To understand man, we must first have an understanding of God, man’s creator, source, sustainer, Lord, friend and goal in life. So to understand man, we must first have a clearer understanding of God.


“It is the very mystery of God, Trinitarian Love, that is the basis of the meaning and value of the person, of social relations, of human activity in the world, insofar as humanity has received the revelation of this and a share in it through Christ in his Spirit.” (CSDC 54) But what is the revelation?

God is Love. God is mercy. God is a divine union of three divine persons, ie one God, three persons, who perfectly love each other, through perfectly giving themselves to each other. The Son proceeds from the Father and the love of the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This revelation of love has been gradually revealed to us. This is revelation of love is the basis for all reality, since God created our reality.

“The Face of God, progressively revealed in the history of salvation, shines in its fullness in the Face of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead. God is Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; truly distinct and truly one, because God is an infinite communion of love. God's gratuitous love for humanity is revealed, before anything else, as love springing from the Father, from whom everything draws its source; as the free communication that the Son makes of this love, giving himself anew to the Father and giving himself to mankind; as the ever new fruitfulness of divine love that the Holy Spirit pours forth into the hearts of men (cf. Rom 5:5)….It is for this reason that the Church firmly believes that “the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of man's history is to be found in her Lord and Master.”” (CSDC 30)

God is all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient) and all present (omnipresent). God has infinite happiness. Out of love God wants to share this with us. To share this, God invites us to act as he acts, ie to become a gift of self, not to live a selfish life. “Jesus Christ reveals to us that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8)” (CSDC 54)


 “We need to consider man “whole and entire, with body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will” (CSDC 13) “and also of his community and social being” (CSDC 126)

“Our freedom tainted by sin, betrays us. “Human freedom needs therefore to be liberated. Christ, by the power of his Paschal Mystery, frees man from his disordered love of self, which is the source of his contempt for his neighbour and of those relationships marked by domination of others. Christ shows us that freedom attains its fulfilment in the gift of self. By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus places man once more in communion with God and his neighbour.” (CSDC 143)

Human heart/ the core of his being

The human heart can only be totally satisfied in God. Saint Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”” ( cf CSDC 114)

A subject, a person:

The human person, this unrepeatable being, exists as a subject, an ‘I’ capable of self-undertanding, self-possession and self-determination is defined by his existence not by what he does. Were acts of intellect, consciousness and freedom lacking, the human person would still be a person. (cf CSDC 131, 114) “

In the image of God

“The commandment of mutual love, which represents the law of life for God's people[32], must inspire, purify and elevate all human relationships in society and in politics. “To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion”[33], because the image and the likeness of the Trinitarian God are the basis of the whole of “human ethos', which reaches its apex in the commandment of love”[34]. The modern cultural, social, economic and political phenomenon of interdependence, which intensifies and makes particularly evident the bonds that unite the human family, accentuates once more, in the light of Revelation, “a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity. This supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons, is what we Christians mean by the word 'communion'”[35].” (CSDC 33)

Love is the gift of self which is the image of Christ which expresses Trinitarian reality.

“Man and woman have the same dignity and are of equal value[211], not only because they are both, in their differences, created in the image of God, but even more profoundly because the dynamic of reciprocity that gives life to the “we” in the human couple, is an image of God[212]. In a relationship of mutual communion, man and woman fulfil themselves in a profound way, rediscovering themselves as persons through the sincere gift of themselves[213]. Their covenant of union is presented in Sacred Scripture as an image of the Covenant of God with man (cf. Hos 1-3; Is 54; Eph 5:21-33) and, at the same time, as a service to life[214]. Indeed, the human couple can participate in God's act of creation: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it' “ (Gen 1:28).” (CSDC 111) “The human being is made for love and cannot live without love. …This truth, a source of joy, hope and life, remains impenetrable and unattainable as long as people close themselves off in relativism and scepticism.” (CSDC 223)


Conscience is guided through “the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good, and also the act of seeing others as equal to oneself.” (CSDC 140) “Conscience is a judgement of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.” (CCC 1778) “Conscience must be informed and moral judgement enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgements according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” (CCC 1783) Maturity is aligning our understanding of truth with the truth of Jesus. (cf CSDC 139)


There are some who seek to establish a vision for human society based purely on the natural law. They may make use of such quotes as, “Moral values, founded on the natural law [are] written on every human conscience; every human conscience is hence obliged to recognize and respect this law.” (CSDC 3)

But the compendium of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church teaches:

The exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and unites all rights and duties[265]. The natural law “is nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God. Thanks to this, we know what must be done and what must be avoided. This light or this law has been given by God to creation”[266]. It consists in the participation in his eternal law, which is identified with God himself[267]. This law is called “natural” because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature. It is universal, it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason. In its principal precepts, the divine and natural law is presented in the Decalogue and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life[268]. Its central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good, and also the act of seeing others as equal to oneself. The natural law expresses the dignity of the person and lays the foundations of the person's fundamental duties[269].” (CSDC 140)

The natural law has its source in God and orients the person to God. There has been a particular natural law view that could be used by Christians and the rest of human society. Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) calls this view a ‘fiction’:

To their mind it took as its starting-point the fiction that it is possible to construct a rational philosophical picture of man intelligible to all and on which all men of goodwill can agree, the actual Christian doctrines being added to this as a sort of crowning conclusion. The latter then tends to appear as a sort of special possession of Christians, which others ought not to make a bone of contention but which at the bottom can be ignored.[1]

This particular project has proved disastrous for the Church since it has prevented the gospel for being preached and led to atheism becoming the default attitude of society. The Church must proclaim the full truth of humanity and this is essential for its mission and the right ordering of society.

Since man is by nature religious and God is operative within every human life there is a natural law at work through humanity and culture. Just as God works in every human life, so too the collective effects of God’s work can be seen in every culture.

“In the diversity of cultures, the natural law … remains immutable “under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress ... Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies”[271].Its precepts, however, are not clearly and immediately perceived by everyone. Religious and moral truths can be known “by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and without the admixture of error”[272] only with the help of Grace and Revelation. The natural law offers a foundation prepared by God for the revealed law and Grace, in full harmony with the work of the Spirit[273].” (CSDC 141) “The natural law, which is the law of God, cannot be annulled by human sinfulness[274]. It lays the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community and for establishing the civil law that draws its consequences of a concrete and contingent nature from the principles of the natural law[275].” (CSDC 142)


 “God did not create man as a ‘solitary being' but wished him to be a 'social being'. Social life therefore is not exterior to man: he can only grow and realize his vocation in relation with others”.” (CSDC 149)

“Endowed with a rational nature, the human person is responsible for his own choices and able to pursue projects that give meaning to life at the individual and social level. Being open both to the Transcendent and to others is his characteristic and distinguishing trait. Only in relation to the Transcendent and to others does the human person reach the total and complete fulfilment of himself. This means that for the human person, a naturally social and political being, “social life is not something added on” [776] but is part of an essential and indelible dimension.” (CSDC 384)

Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society. The human person should never be treated as an object, but always a subject. “the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around”. … Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society.” (CSDC 132)“The person cannot be a means for carrying out economic, social or political projects…” (CSDC 133) But is always the end of such projects.


The human person is prior to human society, but man finds his fulfilment in the gift of self to other persons. …every expression of society must be directed towards the human person. " (CSDC 106)  “Man cannot give himself to a purely human plan for reality, to an abstract ideal or to a false utopia. As a person, he can give himself to another person or to other persons, and ultimately to God, who is the author of his being and who alone can fully accept his gift”[52]. For this reason, “a man is alienated if he refuses to transcend himself and to live the experience of self-giving and of the formation of an authentic human community oriented towards his final destiny, which is God. A society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people.”” (CSDC 47) Every human and social accomplishment is transitory upon this earth since only in heaven is human society fulfilled. (cf CSDC 48)

The human person, in fact, although participating actively in projects designed to satisfy his needs within the family and within civil and political society, does not find complete self-fulfilment until he moves beyond the mentality of needs and enters into that of gratuitousness and gift, which fully corresponds to his essence and community vocation." (CSDC 391)


"Love must be present in and permeate every social relationship[1220]. “If justice is in itself suitable for ‘arbitration' between people concerning the reciprocal distribution of objective goods in an equitable manner, love and only love (including that kindly love we call ‘mercy') is capable of restoring man to himself”[1226]. … Love must thus enliven every sector of human life and extend to the international order. Only a humanity in which there reigns the ‘civilization of love' will be able to enjoy authentic and lasting peace”[1227]." (CSDC 582) "Only love can completely transform the human person[1229]." (CSDC 583)


Human rights are an effective recognition of human dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, are defined as “a true milestone on the path of humanity's moral progress” by Pope John Paul II [304]. (cf CSDC 152). “The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings[307], in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator. These rights are “universal, inviolable, inalienable”[308]. Universal because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject. Inviolable insofar as “they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity”[309] and because “it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people”[310]. Inalienable insofar as “no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature”[311].” (CSDC 153)

“The teachings of Pope John XXIII,[314] the Second Vatican Council,[315] and Pope Paul VI [316] have given abundant indication of the concept of human rights as articulated by the Magisterium. Pope John Paul II has drawn up a list of them in the Encyclical Centesimus Annus: “the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother's womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child's personality; the right to develop one's intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth; the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth's material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one's dependents; and the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one's sexuality. In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one's faith and in conformity with one's transcendent dignity as a person”[317].

The first right presented in this list is the right to life, from conception to its natural end,[318] which is the condition for the exercise of all other rights and, in particular, implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and of euthanasia.[319] Emphasis is given to the paramount value of the right to religious freedom.” (CSDC 155)


With every right comes the incumbent duty to respect the rights of others (cf CSDC 156). “ “This pastoral commitment develops in a twofold direction: in the proclamation of the Christian foundations of human rights and in the denunciation of the violations of these rights.[338] … “proclamation is always more important than denunciation…”(CSDC 159),

[1] J. Ratzinger, ‘The Dignity of the Human Person’ Commentary on Chapter I: Part I of Gaudium et Spes, in Vorgrimler, H (ed); Commentary on the Documents of the Second Vatican Council (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969). 119.


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Submitted by rjzaar on May 8, 2017 - 10:57am
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catholic social teaching

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