Basic Principles Behind Social Doctrine

Compendium Explains Background

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ROME, NOV. 6, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Catholic social teaching often mentions the importance of the human person, or concepts such as the common good, but without going into much detail as to what they mean. After explaining the foundational elements underlying the Church's social doctrine the newly published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates a couple of chapters to the human person and to a series of principles.



"The Church sees in men and women, in every person, the living image of God himself," states No. 105. Christ, by means of his incarnation, has united himself with humanity, continues the paragraph, giving to us "an incomparable and inalienable dignity."

This is relevant to society, notes the Compendium, because the protagonist of social life is always the human person. In fact, the entire body of social teaching offered by the Church "develops from the principle that affirms the inviolable dignity of the human person" (No. 107).

The Book of Genesis speaks of the human person as being created in the image of God. The human creature is placed at the center and summit of all creation, and receives from God the breath of life. There is, therefore, in each person an intrinsic relationship with God, which, while it can be forgotten or ignored, can never be eliminated (Nos. 108-9). Genesis also relates how man and woman were created together, thus demonstrating that the human person is not a solitary creature, but has a social nature.

The biblical account also relates how sin affected human nature and is, "At the root of personal and social divisions" (No. 116). Sin, separation from God, also brings with it a separation from other persons and from the world around us. There are also sins that constitute a direct assault on our neighbors, notably those that affect matters of justice, the right to life, and freedom to believe in God.

But along with the ever-present reality of sin we must not forget "the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ," recalls the Compendium (No. 120). Moreover, the redemption obtained by Christ enables each person to share in the nature of God.

The Compendium also warns against some errors in ideas about the human person. We should avoid reductionist conceptions that portray individuals either as absolutely autonomous or as a mere cell within a larger organism. Another error is to lose sight of the unity between body and soul, a mistake that can lead to either a spiritualism that despises the body, or a materialism that ignores the spirit (Nos. 125-9).

A just society

Coming to the consequences of the Church's vision of the human person the Compendium states that there can only be a just society "when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person" (No. 132). The text also insists on the importance of freedom. Authorities should be careful of the restrictions they place on freedom (No. 133) and our human dignity demands that we act "according to a knowing and free choice" (No. 135).

This freedom is not unlimited, however, given that only God can determine what is good and evil. Moreover, freedom should be exercised by a conscience that is guided by the natural moral law (Nos. 136-43).

Other consequences are:

-- The equal dignity of all people, whether it be between male and female, or persons with disabilities (Nos. 144-48).

-- The social nature of all humans that means we grow and realize our vocation in relation to others (Nos. 149-51).

-- The existence of human rights, based on the dignity of the person (Nos. 152-55).

"The very heart"

After looking at the human person the Compendium then goes on to consider other basic principles that "constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching" (No. 160). The first of these is the common good.

The common good is more than just a simple sum of individual goods in society. It is the total of conditions that allow people to reach their fulfillment more fully and easily (No. 164). These conditions vary according to the concrete historical conditions, but include such elements as a commitment to peace, a sound juridical system and the provision of essential services.

The state has a responsibility to safeguard the common good, but individuals are also responsible for helping to develop it, according to the possibilities open to each one. The state is also charged with reconciling the particular goods of groups and individuals and the general common good. This is a delicate task, notes the Compendium, and in a democratic system authorities must be careful to interpret the common good not only according to the wishes of the majority, but also respecting the good of minorities.

Sharing goods

The next principle is that of the universal destination of goods (Nos. 171-84). God destined the earth and its goods for the benefit of all. This means that each person should have access to the level of well-being necessary for full development.

This principle, explains the Compendium, has to be put into practice according to the differing social and cultural contexts and does not mean that everything is at the disposal of all. A right to use the goods of the earth needs to be exercised in an equitable and orderly way, according to a specific juridical order. Nor does this principle exclude the right to private property. Nevertheless, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that property is only a means, not an end in itself.

What is important to keep in mind is that: "The principle of the universal destination of goods is an invitation to develop an economic vision inspired by moral values that permit people not to lose sight of the origin or purpose of these goods, so as to bring about a world of fairness and solidarity, in which the creation of wealth can take on a positive function" (No. 174).

The Compendium also insists on the principle of a preferential option for the poor, to be exercised by means of Christian charity and inspired in the poverty of Jesus and his attention to the poor.

Organizing society

Another principle underlying social doctrine is subsidiarity. Civil society is made up of many groups and the state should not only recognize their role and respect their liberty of action, but also offer the help they may need to carry out their functions.

Each person, family and group has something original to offer to the community, notes the Compendium (No. 187) and a denial of this role limits, or even destroys, the spirit of freedom and initiative.

The principle of subsidiarity is opposed, therefore, to "certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms."

An implication of subsidiarity is another principle -- participation. It is important that all cooperate in social, cultural and political life (No. 189). Participation, states the Compendium, is one of the pillars of a democratic system.

Another principle related to social life is solidarity. In modern times there is a greater awareness of the interdependence between individuals and peoples. Solidarity is both a principle of social life and a moral virtue (No. 193). By means of exercising solidarity each person makes a commitment to realizing the common good and to serving others.

Solidarity therefore means a willingness to give ourselves for the good of our neighbors. This, however, is not just a philanthropic concern. Our neighbor, says No. 196, is not just someone with rights "but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit."