Why Are There Three Key Principles of Catholic Social Teaching?




There are three fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching, the greatest of which the Church insists is the first: A correct understanding of the human person, which is Human Dignity: this is the prime principle! Then there are Solidarity and Subsidiarity.

Pope St. John Paul II

Catholic social teaching is built on these three key principles. This is evident not only in the encyclicals from (Quadragesimo Anno) to (Centesimus Annus) to (Deus Caritas Est) to (Caritas in Veritate) but in Pope St. John Paul II’s continuing teachings, for example, when he told the American bishops in 1999 that:

“Her moral vision in this area ‘rests on the threefold cornerstone of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity’”. (Ecclesia in America, 55)

Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed his predecessor’s words by emphasizing:

“It is up to the lay faithful to demonstrate concretely in their personal and family life, in social, cultural and political life that…the fundamental principles of the social doctrine of the Church such as the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity and solidarity are extremely relevant and valuable in order to support new paths of development in service to the whole person and to all humanity.” (Address to the 24th Plenary Session of the Pontifical Council for the Laity)

“Her moral vision in this area ‘rests on the threefold cornerstone of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity’”. (Ecclesia in America, 55)


Pope St. John Paul II said we should use Catholic Social Teaching’s principles to form our consciences for acting in the public square. We should use these principles to evaluate the framework of society, and to provide the criteria for making our prudential judgments as regards current policy options.

Finally, we should then act on these evaluations.

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)