Catholic Social Teaching vs. Secular Social Theory




We are Social Beings, Made in God’s Image


We would be remiss if we gave the impression that Catholic social teaching is just an alternative sociological, economic or anthropological view of the world, albeit a prescriptive one, with many of its insights being substantiated by these disciplines.

This is not the case at all! Catholic social teaching stands in marked contrast to the social theory of Hobbes and Locke. The Church’s teaching bases itself on the truth that we are inherently social – reflecting our Trinitarian God, in whose image we are created, and whose own being is irreducibly social.

By contrast, social contract theory assumes we are inherently autonomous, committed to no higher moral grounding than our own self-interest.


In fact, we suggest it is in this inherently social versus autonomous anthropology – and the three principles of – a correct understanding of the human person – human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity, that Catholic social teaching provides such a compelling answer to the multiple problems of modernity identified – consumerism, the destruction of our human environment, alienation and the dictatorship of relativism/radical secularism.


While it is quite useful as a guide for living in and creating a civil society it should be remembered that Catholic social teaching is first and foremost Christian teaching. As Pope St. John Paul II emphasized in Centesimus Annus, “it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself…in this light, and only in this light” (Centesimus Annus, 54) does Catholic social teaching go on to concern itself with issues of

  • human rights,
  • workers’ rights,
  • property rights,
  • the role of the state,
  • economy and culture,
  • and “respect for life”.

This is another ‘signature point’, essential to a correct and full understanding of Catholic social teaching and one that received a great deal of attention by Pope Benedict XVI.

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)