Brief Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching
What is Catholic Social Teaching?
Catholic Social Teaching (also known as Catholic Social Doctrine) sums up the teachings of the
Church on social justice issues. It promotes a vision of a just society that is grounded in the Bible
and in the wisdom gathered from experience by the Christian community as it has responded to
social justice issues through history.
The social teachings are made up of three different elements: principles for reflection; criteria for
judgement; and guidelines for action.
The principles for reflection apply across many different times and places, but the guidelines for
action can change for different societies or times. Uniform guidelines for action wouldn’t work
because societies are so different from one another, and they are always changing over time
creating new situations with different problems and possibilities. The criteria for judgement may
be thought of as ‘middle axioms’ mediating between the highly authoritative but necessarily
general and abstract principles for reflection, and the details of the concrete social reality. They
are less authoritative than the principles for reflection but more so than the guidelines for action.
Guidelines for action are always dependant on contingent judgements and the information
available through human knowledge. There is frequently scope for legitimate differences of
opinion among believers on a range of social justice issues.
Methodology: See, Judge & Act
Since Vatican II the methodology that has been promoted asks us to read the ‘signs of the times’
using the ‘see’, ‘judge’, ‘act’ method that Cardjin made popular in workers’ and students’
movements. It asks us to work inductively, looking first at the social justice issues as they exist in
our communities, before assessing what is happening, and what is at stake. Finally we need to
discern what action to undertake in response.
Key Themes in CST
Many texts on CST move chronologically through the key documents of the social magisterium
examining their content. By tracing ideas and themes through these documents we can see how
this rich body of thought has developed through time. To provide a brief introduction to some of
the most important principles of the social magisterium let us look at six of the key themes evident
in these documents. Every commentator has their own list of key principles and documents, and
there is no official ‘canon’ of principles or documents. In practice, the most important principles
and documents to draw on will be those that most directly speak to the situation in question.
Human Dignity & the Unity of the Human Family
Human dignity is the starting point and central concern of Catholic thinking about human rights.
Each person is created in the image and likeness of God and so has an inalienable, transcendent
God-given dignity. It follows that each member of the human family is equal in dignity and has
equal rights because we are all children of the one God. We are sisters and brothers to each
We understand God to be a trinity of persons and so we see the image of God reflected not only in
individuals, but also in communities. Together in community we bear the image of our God whose
very nature is communal.
The Catholic tradition is opposed to anything that is opposed to life itself, or that violates the
integrity of the human person, and anything that insults human dignity. Human rights are the
things due to us simply because we are human beings, they are the claims made by human
From this principle we can derive the following criteria to help judge a social situation:
“does this situation respect and promote human dignity?”, And, “what is happening to
people, and to their human dignity?”
The principle of solidarity means basically that we are all really responsible for each other. It is not
about a vague sort of compassion or shallow distress at others’ misfortune, but involves a
determination to commit oneself to working for change so that everyone will be able to reach their
potential. It is about respect for and the promotion of the dignity and rights of our sisters and
The Common Good
The doctrine of the common good also emphasises that we are connected with other people.
The common good is understood as the collection of social conditions that make it possible for
each social group and all of their individual members to achieve their potential. It means that each
social group must take account of the rights and aspirations of other groups, and of the well-being
of the whole human family. The rights and duties of individuals and groups must be harmonised
under the common good.
Questions that flow from these principles when judging a social situation might include:
“are the benefits enjoyed by some groups attained only at the cost of other groups?”, And,
“what are the consequences of this policy for those living in poor countries?”.
Universal Destination Of Goods
The universal destination of goods refers to the fact that God intended the goods of creation for
the use of all. Everyone has the right to access the goods of creation to meet their needs. People
and nations have no right to squander resources when others are in need.
The key question here is: “does everyone have access to a large enough share of
resources to meet their needs?”
Because of their intelligence and free will, people have both a right and a duty to participate in
those decisions that most directly affect them. They are actively to shape their own destiny rather
than simply accept the decisions of others.
This right to participate belongs not only to individuals but also to groups and communities.
One way to reflect on participation is to ask: who wins? Who loses? Who decides?
The principle of subsidiarity places responsibility as close as possible to the grassroots. The
people or groups most directly affected by a decision or policy should have a key decision-making
role. They should only be interfered with in order to support them in cases of need, and to help
coordinate their activities with the activities of the rest of society with a view to the common good.
Sandie Cornish B.Ec. (Nctle), Lic. Soc. Sci. (PUG), M. Pub. Pol.(UNE)
Our approach to migration is rooted in the Gospel and in the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching. A recent example of this teaching is Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, a pastoral letter concerning migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States.
Five principles that help guide the Church’s approach to migration
I. Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.
All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.
II. Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people. When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right.
III. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders.
The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a strong obligation to accommodate migration flows.
IV. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.
Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.
V. The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.
Regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected. Often they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment by enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.
Last Updated: 1/24/17
Click here for a PDF version of this document, Catholic Principles of Migration
In advocating on behalf of migrants, immigrants, and refugees, it is important to understand that the Catholic position is based on Catholic social teaching, which is derived from the Gospels and the words of Christ; statements and encyclicals of the Popes; and statements and pastoral letters of bishops around the world, including the bishops of the United States. In Strangers No Longer Together On The Journey Of Hope (2003), bishops of the United States and Mexico wrote, “Our common faith in Jesus Christ moves us to search for ways that favor a spirit of solidarity. It is a faith that transcends borders and bids us to overcome all forms of discrimination and violence so that we may build relationships that are just and loving.”
There is a long Biblical foundation for hospitality, but nowhere is it made more clear that persons on the move— refugees, migrants, immigrants—are special in the eyes of God than the life and words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel. As a baby, Jesus was a refugee who, along with the Holy Family, fled the terror of Herod into Egypt (Mt. 2:14-15). In His public ministry, Jesus was an itinerant preacher, moving from place to place, “with nowhere to lay His Head….” (Mt. 8:20). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs us to welcome the stranger: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt. 25-35). Jesus Himself was not welcomed by His own people: “He came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept him.” (Jn. 1:11). As we welcome the stranger into our midst, we welcome Christ Himself, for in the face of the migrant, Immigrant, and refugee, we must see the face of Christ. In the Gospel of Luke, this is made clear in the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24: 13-15), as they become witnesses to the Truth by welcoming the stranger, who is Christ.
In the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), Pope Leo XIII established that persons have a right to work to survive and to support his or her family. Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution Exsul Familia (On the Spiritual Care of the Migrant), reaffirms that migrants have a right to a life with dignity, and therefore a right to migrate toward that end: “Then, according to the teachings of Rerum Novarum, the right of the family to a life worthy of human dignity is recognized. When this happens, migration attains its natural scope…” In the encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), Pope John XXIII clearly articulates the right to migrate and the right not to migrate: “Every human being has the right to the freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of their country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate and take up residence elsewhere.” Saint John Paul II reaffirmed this basic teaching in an address to the New World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Immigrants in 1985: “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to migrate to other countries and to take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership to the human family, nor of citizenship in the universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.” Pope Benedict XVI continued this positive message in relation to immigration. During a visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI called on Americans “to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrow and trials, and to help them flourish in their new home. This, indeed, is what your fellow countrymen have done for generations. From the beginning, they have opened their doors to the tired, the poor, the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ These are the people whom America has made her own.” Pope Francis has spoken out on the plight of immigrants and called people of faith to stand in solidarity with them. In his message for the 2015 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis proclaimed, “The Church without frontiers, Mother to all, spreads throughout the world a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place, or disposable.”
For more information on Catholic social teaching on migration, visit cliniclegal.org/CST
Healing a global wound
The Catholic Church teaches that all people have the right to live a dignified life in their homeland. Tragically, over 45 million people around the world are displaced. This festering wound typifies and reveals the imbalances and conflicts of the modern world. War, natural calamities, persecution and discrimination of every kind have deprived millions of their home, employment, family and homeland.
The right to seek asylum
The Catholic Church teaches that anyone whose life is threatened has the right to protection. Whether because of persecution, armed conflicts, natural disasters, or economic conditions that threaten their lives or physical integrity. It is the element of persecution, threat or danger, or being forcibly displaced that gives rise to a right to seek asylum rather than to migrate through ordinary channels.
Love your neighbour as yourself
The Catholic Church teaches that human life is sacred because each person is created in the image and likeness of God. Human dignity is inalienable. The
human dignity and human rights of asylum seekers must be respected, regardless of their citizenship, visa status or mode of arrival.
The Catholic Church teaches that
the demands of human dignity
always come before the national interest
Devotion to humanity
The Catholic Church teaches that all nations have a right to regulate migration across their borders. This right is coupled with the duty to protect and help innocent victims and those fleeing for their lives. The right of nations to regulate their borders is an extension of the right of all persons to live a dignified life in their community. Borders are for the protection of people, not for the exclusion of people seeking protection.
Justice and Mercy
The Catholic Church teaches that the purpose of the law is to serve justice and mercy. Laws, which subject asylum seekers to arbitrary and prolonged immigration detention or banish them from seeking protection, fail to uphold justice and mercy and are immoral. It is not illegal to seek asylum. Many asylum seekers are survivors of crimes, torture and trauma. Indefinite detention adds further stress and suffering, impacting on their mental and physical health. The Catholic Church advocates the implementation of just and rapid procedures to determine each person’s claim for protection.
The Catholic Church teaches that the most vulnerable people are not simply whose who are in a needy situation to whom we kindly offer an act of solidarity, but are members of our family with whom we have a duty to share the resources we have. Solidarity towards migrants and refugees is inscribed in the common membership to the human family.
The right to be part of a community
The Catholic Church teaches that all people have the right to be part of a community. Asylum seekers who have been forced from their homeland have a duty to integrate into the host community. We must favour this integration by helping migrants to find a place where they can live in peace and safety, where they can work and take on the rights and duties that exist in the country that welcomes them.
Just as you did it to one of the least
of these who are members of my family,
you did it to me
Welcome the stranger
Jesus identifies Himself as a stranger to be welcomed (Matthew 25:35). The Catholic Church teaches that Christ has in some way united himself to every person, whether or not one is aware of this. Christ will consider done to himself the kind of treatment that is reserved to any human person, in particular, to the least among them, the stranger. While the gospel compels us to welcome strangers it also presents the opportunity to practice the commandment to love God “with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength” and to love the other “as you love yourself” Mark 12:29-31. Pope John Paul II invites us to an ever deeper awareness of the mission of the Catholic Church: “to see Christ in every brother and sister in need, to proclaim and defend the dignity of every migrant, every displaced person and every refugee. In this way, assistance given will not be considered an alms
from the goodness of our heart, but an act of justice due to them”.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me
The Holy Family in Exile
The exiled Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, pilgrim and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave their native land, their beloved parents and relatives, their close friends, and to seek a foreign soil. For God decreed that His only Son should experience
the hardship and grief of exile. The firstborn among many of our brothers and sisters, and precede them in it. For this reason, the Catholic Church seeks to look after and care for refugees and migrants in their trials and welcome the stranger who knocks at our door seeking refuge.
This pamphlet represents a compilation of Catholic Social Teaching on migration and asylum from various sources.
For more information and a complete list of sources please visit www.acmro.catholic.org.au
A migrant is a person who chooses to leave their country, generally to seek work, undertake study or be reunited with family. They can return home at any time if things don’t work out.
A refugee is a person who has fled persecution, has sought protection and has been granted refugee status. A refugee may be residing in a refugee camp waiting for an opportunity to return to their home country, waiting for resettlement in another country, or may have been resettled in another country such as Australia.
An asylum seeker is someone seeking protection because they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. An asylum seeker could also be someone who is fleeing other serious human rights violations, including torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.