Working with Christ: The Catechism’s Social Teaching

“Des conception, elle [la personne humaine] est destinee a la beatitude eternelle” [1703].

“Il n’y a pas de solution a la question sociale en dehors de l’Evangile” [1896].

To emphasize the central social teaching in the Catechism, I will leave in their French original two brief statements that undergird everything contained within this teaching. The first statement grounds the particular, incredible dignity of every existing human person, a dignity little recognized in practice either by our interpreted Constitution, our public policies, or our private theories about ourselves. Every person, it affirms, begins at conception and is, from this beginning, destined to the happiness of eternal life. This reality is what we deal with when we encounter any human being, be he in our time, in past time, or in future time, and be he an unborn child, a rich woman, a poor Brazilian, a sick adolescent, a young football star, an old philosopher, or a prosperous Japanese industrialist. No other religion, philosophy, or hypothesis about mankind surpasses this teaching in truth or in dignity. Already, here is found the reason why we cannot deal with any human being as a mere means. The theoretic and practical disorder of soul of everything, including abortion, Marxism, relativism, or Buddhism, is implicitly here.

The second citation deals with the only real rival to God in the modern world. This rival is human social life in this world, conceived as independent of God and accountable only to itself. This reality alone, it is implicitly held, gives human life its meaning. The Catechism affirms, boldly and directly, that however well we construct a social or a political order by our own admittedly vast powers—also duly acknowledged in the Catechism—even in this world, in its own valid purposes, no real solution to any of mankind’s major disorders will occur without first understanding the eternal destiny of each conceived human person. This position is not a subsumption of politics into theology. Rather, it is a simple, experiential and doctrinal observation that, as a matter of fact, no social order will be able to complete its own worldly purposes without the influence of the Gospel in its own order, even though this achievement is not what the Gospel primarily is for (2820).

To understand anything means to grasp the order or place in which the thing exists in the scheme of all things. While it is quite legitimate in logic to concentrate on one particular aspect of reality to the exclusion of other aspects, it becomes a danger if this concentration excludes a proper relation to other things.

The social doctrine of the General Catechism falls in Part Three of the Catechism, that is, in the part having to do with what we do in our lives after having understood in the first part what the faith teaches about God, and in the second part about the sacramental life as it relates to God. In other words, no discussion of human society will be adequate without having first an accurate knowledge of God and the revelational means to Him seen in relation to the kind of limited beings we are. We are beings who, as we see in the fourth part of the Catechism, also are to converse with and pray to this God of Three Persons. This spiritual life, too, is intrinsic to the social teaching of the Catechism.

The discussion of human action insofar as it is human and free—the general subject matter of the political and ethical sciences—is of course presupposed before any complete understanding of the faith itself can be had. Revelation cannot be addressed to rational beings who know nothing about themselves, or who know nothing about the kind of unique beings they are in the universe. We cannot understand the faith simply by itself, even though it has its own intrinsic intelligibility. We need to have the intellectual tools and the moral confidence to realize what we can and cannot know by our own intellectual powers. Christianity is a religion of intellect and makes complete and coherent sense only when we have pursued to its limits what we can know by ourselves, by our own powers, themselves open to the reality that is not ourselves.

The Catechism does not, however, begin with this natural reasoning and proceed to supernatural reflection. It does not deny that one can approach the faith from this angle, but that is not the purpose of precisely a catechism. A catechism is a carefully worked out and complete explication of what the faith holds about itself from its own revelational resources, which sometimes include things that can be known from reason, such as the very existence of God (31-35). A catechism is designed to set forth in intelligible terms the positions about what faith means, positions that have been hammered out by the Church in controversies and experiences lasting over the centuries (11). Without claiming that we have either divine or angelic intellects, it is the mark of Catholicism to insist that the human mind hold itself to explain this faith in all its aspects in the most clear and intelligible terms possible. We do not praise God by denying the very purpose of the intellect to know as best it can whatever is, including God Himself. In this sense of a clear, coherent exposition of each element of the faith, the General Catechism is an extraordinarily fine piece of work.

The Philosophy of the Beatitudes

The philosophical counterpart to the Ten Commandments and the Two Great Commandments is the classical discussion of the moral virtues. These virtues (understood in contrast to the vices opposed to them) are justice, bravery, temperance, prudence, liberality in use of material goods, truth-telling, and manners. These virtues are completely understood only when seen in relation to each other—when seen, that is, in how they affect others either immediately or in a family, or in a polity, or in the interchanges of men across the world. The Beatitudes and the Two Great Commandments—which the Catechism treats as an organic part of the social life of man even though originating in faith—are those specifically graced deeds that correspond to the virtues but yet transform them or go beyond them. In a certain sense, they are designed to meet the problems that come up from the paradoxical inadequacies of the natural virtues themselves.

“You have heard it said, but I say to you….” “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—this latter seems to be natural justice but it does not really work even when it does work. Something beyond justice, like mercy or forgiveness, seems necessary for justice even to be justice or bravery even to be bravery. The great Aristotelian teaching on friendship, Saint Thomas taught us, can be fully understood only in the light of the teaching on charity. The Catechism puts it this way: “The human virtues are rooted in the theological virtues [faith, hope, charity] which adapt the human faculties to participation in the divine nature. For the theological virtues refer us directly to God” (1812). We should not overlook the tremendous import of such a passage, for it indicates how and why what we do in this world can become related to our eternal salvation, why the “cup of water” that we give is not merely a virtuous thing to do but actually salvific to us, without ourselves causing our own salvation.

The great Platonic doctrine that soulcraft is statecraft appears in the teaching of the Catechism in the relation of the person to society and in the particular transcendence that each person has, through his destiny to eternal life, to any civil order. This transcendence is, in fact, what primarily limits the state, what should prevent the state from claiming itself to be the final end of human life, even though the state is an end, a proper purpose of human life that either aids or hinders man from reaching eternal life.

The Catechism thus can reemphasize the classic doctrine of subsidiarity (1883), of leaving the smaller units to do what they can do, without at the same time obscuring the higher end both of civil life and of the person himself. In this sense, the notion of religion as “the opiate of the people” is put in its proper context. The “opiate of the people” is not religion but civil society conceiving itself to be the explanation of all things.

Natural Law Reappears

To further emphasize this very point, the great tradition of natural law, which in some sense has been neglected in recent Church documents, reappears in the Catechism in its rightful place and with the correct emphasis on its importance.

The precepts of the natural law are not perceived by all in a clear and immediate manner. In the actual situation (of life), grace and revelation are necessary to sinful man in order that the religious and moral truths can be known “by all and without difficulty, with a firm certitude and without mixture of error.” The natural law provides to the revealed law and to grace an assistance prepared by God and in agreement with the work of the Spirit [1960].

This position is of course a reflection of Saint Thomas.

One of the most dangerous “new” doctrines found in modern Catholic social teaching has been that of “social sin.” In its intellectual roots, it is an effort to employ the Rousseauan teaching that the disorders of our soul arise from outside of our wills, in some arrangement of property, family, state. Reform of the social order, then, would come before inner reform, statecraft before soulcraft. Following the usual Thomistic approach of trying to save the glimmer of truth that is found in every error, the Catechism acknowledges the classic doctrine, found in Aristotle, that civil and economic structures or regimes do make it easier or more difficult to practice virtue. On the other hand, the root of the problem lies in the person and ultimately in his relation to God.

By itself, no legislation would know how to make disappear the fears, the prejudices, the attitudes of pride and egoism that are the obstacles to the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such conduct will cease only with that charity which finds in each man a neighbor and a brother [1931].

Thus, in the discussion of precisely sin, the Catechism takes up the question of “social sin.” This notion is dangerous because of its Hegelian implications of a social being with its own will and responsibility apart from the wills of each person, who alone is made for and responsible to God. Sin, too, has a social aspect. The Catechism is precisely correct in its teaching on this topic: “The ‘structures of sin’ are the expression and effect of personal sins. They induce their victims to commit evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a ‘social sin’ ” (1869).

The reform of society, then, ought never be attempted apart from the reform of ourselves, and so the preaching, the doctrine, the sacraments, and the prayers of the faithful are the first necessities for the reform of the social order.

It is necessary then to make a spiritual and moral appeal to the person and to the permanent exigency of his interior conversion, in order to obtain those social changes that are really in his service. The priority given to the conversion of the heart does not eliminate but, on the contrary, imposes an obligation to support, in place of institutions and conditions of life when these latter provoke sin, those means that make society healthy and enable it to conform itself to norms of justice and favor the good instead of placing an obstacle to it [1888].

By making sure that an alien social theory does not replace the core meaning of human life, the Catechism nevertheless guarantees the positive responsibility we have to work for a good society.

The Question of Regimes

The Catechism recalls the classic teaching about the legitimate diversity of regimes or civil orders in two ways. First, “it does not belong to the pastors of the Church directly to intervene in political construction or in the organization of social life. That effort is part of the vocation of the faithful laity, acting on their own proper initiative with their fellow citizens. Social action can imply a plurality of concrete ways” to achieve its purposes (2442). And second, “a diversity of political regimes is morally admissible, provided that they work to the legitimate good of the community that adopts them. Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to public order, and to the fundamental rights of the human person, cannot realize the common good of those nations upon which they impose themselves” (1901).

The Catechism repeats Saint Thomas’s position that “human legislation only bears the character of law insofar as it is conformed to just reason” (1902). To reaffirm this position, we read in the discussion of the Fourth Commandment that “no one is able to command or institute that which is contrary to the dignity of persons and to the natural law” (2235).

Can we do anything about such unjust regimes? The Catechism does not hesitate to set down the classic principles:

Resistance to the oppression of political power will not legitimately recur to arms, except when there are found united together the following conditions: (1) in the case of serious and prolonged violations of fundamental rights, (2) after having exhausted all the other means, (3) without provoking worse disorders, (4) if there be a well-founded hope of success, and (5) if it is impossible reasonably to foresee better solutions [2243].

The task of a Catechism is not to decide when or whether such conditions exist. But the measure of its completeness is that it recognizes the realities of human life and the dangers to mankind that arise from disordered regimes. Inertia is not sanctioned.

Do many clear and principled teachings shine forth in this document, from the question of abortion to that of taxation. “Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral malice of every procured abortion” (2271), and, as if to anticipate the heinousness of President Clinton’s decree on fetal experimentation, “it is immoral to produce human embryos designed to be exploited as disposable biological material” (2275).

Of taxes, we have a reaffirmation of the obligation to pay just taxes: “It is unjust not to pay to the organizations of social security the rates established by proper authority” (2436). Unfortunately, except as a matter of general principle, the Catechism did not discuss the much more serious problem of unjust taxation by the state.

Again, there is a discussion of the universal destination of the goods of this earth to all mankind, within which there is a defense of private property (2402-06). Yet there still seems little awareness of the often blatant anti-Christian presuppositions found within the ecological movement.

The Church’s social teaching is rich and well-presented in the Catechism, which clarifies things that often are confused. For instance, take the question of religious liberty:

The right to religious liberty is neither a moral adherence to error, nor a right supposed to error, but a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, that is to say, to immunity in religious matters, within just limits, from external constraint on the part of the civil power [2108].

Civil liberty, then, does not substitute for the earnest obligation of everyone to seek the truth after the proper human manner in which truth is to be sought.

In short, the social teaching in the Catechism is one cf the clearest points, where reason and revelation meet each other in a harmonious whole, where openness to truth and openness to God are essential to understand our openness to one another.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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