The Seven Themes of Catholic Social Justice

Life and Dignity of the Human Person, and Call to Family, Community and Participation, are among the seven themes of Catholic social teaching, according to the U.S. bishops.

By Stephanie Block

Having laid the preliminary foundation of its 30-week program – namely introducing participants to its structure and the need for a “tender,” compassionate spirit – JustFaith introduces the USCCB’s “Seven Themes from Catholic Social Teaching.”

The “themes” under discussion have been promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as a pedagogical tool for introducing Catholic social teaching to a broader audience. JustFaith introduces them in the early sessions of its program and has participants watch the video “In the Footsteps of Jesus: Catholic Social Teaching at Work Today,” which according to the USCCB description “presents a comprehensive overview of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching, along with a summary of the scriptural and historical context for their development.”[i]

For those who aren’t already familiar with these themes, in their bare form they are:

1. Life and Dignity of the Human Person
2. Call to Family, Community, and Participation
3. Rights and Responsibilities
4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
6. Solidarity
7. Care for God’s Creation

A more fleshed out version can be read at the USCCB website.[ii] Whichever version one examines, there are two primary criticisms to be leveled against this list. One is that theme 7 is not humanly possible. The other is that the list presents only a very anemic reflection of the body of Catholic thought about social justice. A third concern is how JustFaith intends to use this list in contrast to how the Church has intended its body of social teaching to be used.

“Who has measured the waters…?” [Is 40:12]

Theme 7, as explicated in the fuller version, “We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation,” proposes a preposterous task. There’s no such mandate in Catholic social teaching or in the Scriptures. Stewardship of the galaxies and management of angels, to name a few elements of creation, is an awfully grand enterprise that’s completely out of our league.

The humble responsibility to which Catholic social teachings does exhort the human race to attend is outlined in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: humans must safeguard their environment, far as they can. It doesn’t have quite the lofty ring to it as “care of creation” but, at least, it’s doable.


The seven themes give a dangerously too small impression of the Church’s social doctrine.

Consider the following analogy. A teacher of scripture, wanting to give students a handle on a complex topic, develops the Biblical theme that the Bible is concerned with the historical information about a particular Semitic tribe.

There’s nothing inherently untrue about this theme; the scriptures do contain considerable information about this.

However, this isn’t all that the scriptures contain. There are many other “themes” and many other ways of organizing the material contained in scripture for teaching purposes. Furthermore, any theme, if not presented in a proper context, is distorted, leading a student to mistakenly conclude perhaps that the Bible is only concerned about this tribe and nothing else.

The teacher’s choice of emphasis is meaningful. In this analogy, we understand that the teacher wishes to leave students with a relationship to the scriptures that is quite different from that of a teacher whose Biblical theme is, say, that the Bible describes God’s intervention in the history of fallen mankind.

We find a similar problem with the “Seven Themes from Catholic Social Teaching.” It isn’t that they aren’t present within the body of Catholic social teaching but that they aren’t all that’s there. Further, stripped of the context that elevates the information they convey, they lose much of their importance. In a Godless world, human dignity is difficult to uphold.

Therefore, in the understated language of the Church, we might say that the effort to present Catholic Social Teaching via these seven “themes” is deficient. They don’t take us far enough – to where we really need to go to be compassionate Christians.

The praxis-oriented activist, impatient with words and anxious for deeds, is likely to dismiss this criticism as niggling. He wants to get on with the doing…but in that case, has failed to absorb Nouwen’s warning, read by JustFaith participants in a previous session: “Here we are touching the profound spiritual truth that service is an expression of the search for God and not just of the desire to bring about individual or social change.”[iii]

So we must observe what Catholic social teaching says about itself – that “social action is an integral part of her evangelizing ministry” and is an “instrument of evangelization.” [iv] The compassion we bring of our own selves into this broken world is too small. No matter how brilliant the organization, how scientific the systemic restructuring, they aren’t large enough band aids to cover such wounds.

What is required is more radical “good news” – a potential for healing – that can only be procured from God.

“Aw, come on,” says the activist, “just give your cup of water to the thirsty and shut up about it, already.”

We can do that, of course…and we must. But then, we’re not discussing Catholic Social teaching but a simple, corporal work of mercy. They are related but not the same.

Corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead – are what the social justice crowd calls acts of “direct service.”

Catholic Social teaching encourages such acts, of course, but is concerned about other things, as well. Its defense of the human person and, therefore, its defense of doing acts of mercy in response to that person, is predicated on God’s liberating action in history. Human solidarity, rights, and responsibilities make scant, if any, sense outside this context.

Unlike the “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Justice” document, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church – which JustFaith also references throughout the course – grounds social action in God’s bosom rather than man’s. It concerns something more than merely peaceful, prosperous human coexistence and mere human compassion.

Of themselves, in other words, the themes fail to address salient – foundational – concepts, such as the grounding of any social action in authentic Catholic formation (how can one make social judgments about war and peace or economic well-being if one has no understanding of how Christ and his Church understand these issues?) or the evangelical mission intrinsic to it or the fact that the Church’s mission is religious, not political or, most significant of all, that social justice can never be built on human consensus but must be positioned on moral truth. These concepts don’t sit well at the secular table. They are fundamental, however, to a just society.


One of the most confusing aspects of studying Catholic social doctrine is sorting between principles and practical solutions. The Compendium puts it nicely, explaining that it serves “as an instrument for the moral and pastoral discernment of the complex events that mark our time; as a guide to inspire, at the individual and collective levels, attitudes and choices that will permit all people to look to the future with greater hope and trust.”

Catholic social doctrine doesn’t endorse particular programs or organizations; it defines genuine human welfare and then provides principles to discern which programs and organizations serve it. These are quite different functions which are important to keep distinct or the Church (actually, not the Church, per se, but people speaking as if they were representatives of the Church) runs the danger of dictatorially imposing flawed human designs as if they were divine.

The note to co-facilitators in week four’s program materials seems to confuse the matter. It states: “Catholic social teaching is part of the Church’s effort to translate a tradition of God’s love and justice into a blueprint for practical action. Catholic social teaching attempts to speak to how God’s reign expresses itself, for example, in human rights or workplace values or legal responses to human deprivation or injustice. And it wades into the entire human arena of decision-making: neighborhood, politics, economics, international relations, corporate behavior, personal finances, etc. Suddenly, faith can look very earthy – and risky, controversial, politicized, challenging, and even dangerous (note this week’s reading on Dom Helder Camara). And so it is.”[v]

At best, we can say this is an ambiguous statement – though reference to the liberationist Dom Helder Camara suggests otherwise. At worst, it appears to suggest that if the JustFaith program ends up concluding (which it does) that something like, oh say, Alinskyian organizing is the logical conclusion of its 30-week efforts, this is the mind of the Church (which it isn’t). Yes, that is dangerous.

JustFaith participants are given “Excerpts of Social Teaching” cards, with the “Seven Themes” printed on them, and instructed to carry the card with them to all future session. “We will refer to these principles throughout the remainder of the program.”[vi] The facilitator notes explain that “Each theme will be covered in a reading” from the Compendium…meaning that the Compendium will used as a support for elaborating the “Seven Themes.”

Which “lens” will it be? Will JustFaith tout secularized “justice” – which is often unjust – or teach with the mind of the Church? Much will depend on what individual facilitators and participants are able to bring to the discussion. If they read the entire Compendium, rather than isolated passages, the deficiencies of working from the “Excerpts of Social Teaching” cards could be surmounted. If they read only isolated passages from the Compendium, along with liberationist materials, the result will be profoundly distorted.

Preparative reading for week four includes excerpts from The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching (revised edition) by Marvin L. Krier Mich. The first except concerns the “Seven Themes.” Mich explains that while “the bishops term these seven themes of Catholic social teaching as ‘starting points,’ this text [The Challenge…] recommends that we start with our own experience.” (p. 9. emphasis in original)

The novice student, in other words, is not encouraged to first understand Church principles before applying them to his own life and the world at large, but to first think of his own emotional reactions. “This methodology reverses the order of theory and practice. Earlier understandings emphasized theory as knowledge and practice as the application of the knowledge. Following this older approach, social ministry was considered merely a matter of applying Church teaching to the situation at hand. The new understanding of the theory-practice relationship gives new status and higher priority to our lived experience.” (p. 9-10)

To be able to posit such a position – to place experience against doctrinal teachings – is to miss that doctrinal teachings are not just any theories, subject to continual reconsideration. Doctrinal theories are true and cannot be contradicted by individual experience, any more than individual experience contradicts that two and two equal four.

However, by saying that lived experience has a “higher priority” than the mere “theory” of Church social teachings, participants are subtly encouraged to consider if Church teaching isn’t largely irrelevant. Does failure to avoid pregnancy using Natural Family Planning methods trump the Church’s injunction against artificial contraception? In the minds of many Catholics, trained in the “new theory” of social analysis, it does. Clearly, this is not a valid way to introduce Catholic social teaching.

Works swell for teaching liberationism, however.

[i] Product explanation:
[iii] Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, (Doubleday Image Books) 1982, p. 29 – from the assigned reading for the JustFaith program.
[iv] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004, # 66 -67, referencing John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 5.
[v] “JustFaith Catholic Version, week 4, 2011-12,” p. 4.

This article was taken from Spero News, December 06, 2011.

Stephanie Block edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and is founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.

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