Definitions of Catholic Social Teaching, Social Justice, and Charity



Catholic social teaching, which is a branch of Catholic Moral Theology, contains a set of principles to be used to form our conscience as we impact on the social structures around us.


Charity is a theological virtue. It applies to all and involves engaging, directly, those around us who are in need.

We need to clear up some confusion caused by the many projects labeled ‘social justice’ but which are, in fact, usually initiatives of charity. We need to be clear to distinguish between charity, understood as corporal works of mercy, and Catholic Social Teaching.

Catholic social teaching, charity, and social justice must be understood properly

Catholic social teaching, charity, and social justice must be understood properly

Charity is directed at the effects of injustice, its symptoms. Charity addresses problems that already exist. Charity, as a theological virtue, is what we are all called to do, as individuals. As Pope Benedict XVI says, charity or “Love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful” (Deus Caritas Est, 20)


“To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.” (Caritas in Veritate, 7)

“Justice is the primary way of charity” while “On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it”. (Caritas in Veritate, 6)


Social Justice (which is a noun not a verb) is the result of Catholic social teaching applied in the world, the end goal being promoting social change in institutions or political structures. Social Action (which is a verb) is the implementation of Catholic social teaching — not exclusively comprised of acts of Charity.

As Pope Benedict XVI defined Catholic social teaching in Caritas in Veritate:

“Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations.” (Caritas in Veritate, 9)


“Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them.” (Caritas in Veritate, 6)

Social justice will inform how institutions such as non-profit food pantries, soup kitchens and institutions like Catholic Relief Services are established, organized and operate. But clothing runs, food drives, home building projects, and donating to Catholic Relief Services are acts of charitycorporal works of mercy, not social justice. 

However, charity, as a Theological Virtue, certainly must and does inform Catholic social teaching. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in Caritas in Veritate that “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine.” (Caritas in Veritate, 2) and, later “‘Caritas in veritate’ is the principle around which the Church’s social doctrine turns” (Caritas in Veritate, 6) continuing to make the point that “Justice is the primary way of charity” (Caritas in Veritate, 6) while “On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it” (Caritas in Veritate, 6) –but– they are not the same.

Three circles containing symbols of the three principles of catholic social teaching: human dignity, subsidiarity, and solidarity.

Three Key Principles

Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human DignitySolidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.

Human Dignity

This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image. 


Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.


Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)