Reflection on ‘Health of Nations’ in light of Catholic Social Teaching and Pope Francis

CAPP International Conference
The Health of Nations: Pope Francis‘ Call for Inclusion
New York City, September 24, 2021
by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano


Thank you for those kind words. Good morning everyone. I am absolutely delighted to join you today and I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some initial reflections to set the stage for what I believe is going to be a very productive, fruitful dialogue about the “Social Gospel”, that is, Catholic social teachings that we hold so dear, and Pope Francis’ particular call for inclusion.


I believe this topic is of great significance for many reasons, not least of which because we are living in a “window of opportunity”. More specifically, given the widespread dislocation caused by the pandemic, a growing number of people are now far more comfortable with the notion that things need to change than before the pandemic began. We have the opportunity, not simply to reevaluate our economic, political, and social orders, but actually to change them for the better. In other words, we need not limit ourselves to seek solely greater economic stability, but to realize what Catholic social teaching mandates: to respect the dignity of each human being and to foster inclusion for all.

Bishop Frank Caggiano spoke of Pope Francis' call for inclusion at the Health of Nations Fordham University event

Bishop Frank J. Caggiano


I believe that Pope Francis is the right man, with the right voice, at the right time during this window of opportunity to engage believers and people of good will in this project. I speak not only of his many prophetic acts of inclusion, such as erecting showers under the rotunda of St. Peter’s Square, sharing his birthday breakfast with the homeless, going to Lampedusa or even opening the Office of Papal Charities but the very substance of his teaching of which you are all familiar.

For example, he has an unwavering commitment to promote the dignity and needs of those who are excluded and vulnerable in our economic, social, and political order; to promote the common good and to situate individual rights within the common good; to dare to say that “siamo tutti fratelli e sorelle” (i.e., we are all brothers and sisters), echoing St. Francis of Assisi’s vision of a unity formed irrespective of culture, language, nationality; to reaffirm the importance of families and local communities as building blocks that will respect the dignity of individuals and to advocate for an integral ecology. My friends, this is a profound call to inclusion.


So what is my task today? I stand before you, as a pastor of the Church, to do two things.

First, I wish to situate the work of this day within the larger context of what Catholic social teaching states.

Second, I will seek to explain elements of Pope Francis’ call to inclusion, examining what they could mean for the conversation we will have today.

We are all called to maintain, defend and advocate for the fullness of the Truth, despite the complexity of the issue or the personal cost to do so.


To begin, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that if you ask the average Catholic what Catholic social teaching is, they would be hard-pressed to figure out how best to respond. I think they would point to the mandate of the Gospel to be charitable, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, but they would not necessarily understand the robust, sophisticated, and articulated vision of teachings that challenges all believers to engage the world, in concrete and effective ways, to realize this mandate of charity. Pope Francis is one of many voices in a long tradition that has articulated this mandate.


Most commentators would say modern Catholic social teaching began with (Rerum Novarum) written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. However, the roots of Catholic social teaching began in the teachings and ministry of the Lord Himself and in our living Apostolic Tradition as the Church over the centuries has responded to changing circumstances such as feudalism, industrialization, modernism, politics, wars, technology, globalization, and now the digital continent.

At its heart, Catholic social teaching marries the evangelical mandate of love (to will the good of the other) with the demands of reason (illustrated by the natural law and also informed by the social sciences) so that we can identify concrete paths to foster the dignity of every human person and the common good that binds us together.


This “marriage”, my friends, is also founded upon two unities that are central in Catholic thinking.

The first is the unity of faith and reason that complement one another, in the same way that grace builds upon nature.

The second unity is summarized by the scriptural exposition of St. James who affirmed that faith without good works is dead.


Before we move to Pope Francis’s call to inclusion, allow me to offer two additional preliminary remarks.

First, there are three fundamental principles that undergird Catholic social teaching, further articulated by complementary corollaries. Some theologians identify seven fundamental principles for Catholic social teaching. In any case, we must understand that these principles do not exist in isolation. They exist in creative tension with one other, creating a cohesive and comprehensive picture that at times must be self-correcting of the potential excesses of any one principle.

Consider the image of a mosaic. When you look at the pieces of a mosaic, each is beautiful, but you do not appreciate the full beauty of the entire mosaic until you see the pieces together.


So part of our challenge is to realize the full vision of Catholic social teaching in our complex, complicated and divided world. It is a world that seeks exclusion rather than inclusion. We must reflect deeply upon the simple question: how do we concretize – in the messy world in which we live – the full message of Catholic social teaching?

The second premise follows from the first. Given the enormity of our economic and political orders and the complexity of the social structures found in countries around the world, there will be legitimate disagreement among us, even in this room, regarding how to apply these principles to everyday life.

I am hoping that some of that diverse thinking will come to the fore during our question and answer session. However such disagreements should never be a reason for us to shy away from the discussion. Pope Francis is no stranger to controversy; neither should we because of the import of what stands before us.


So, let us turn to Pope Francis’ teachings. The Holy Father has made a clear call for inclusion that animates much of his papal magisterium. In order to understand this fundamental call, I wish to suggest that there is a basic theological principle that undergirds much of what Pope Francis is asking of us. It is a fundamental principle that unites what otherwise could be misunderstood as unrelated moral imperatives.


In the Tradition of the Church, this fundamental principle is called communio or communion. It can also described as social fraternity.

Communio is a mystery, not because we cannot speak of it or describe it. Rather, it is a reality that is better understood by entering into it because by doing so, we are responding to a divine invitation.

What is the invitation? The invitation is for all of us who are made in God’s image and likeness, through the power of grace, to enter into the very life of God who is Himself a divine communion of perfect love.

In Christian revelation, we speak of God as a Trinity of divine persons, bound together in love since “God is love”. Our communio reflects this divine life, reminding us of who we are and the bond we share with every human being, of all races, cultures and backgrounds.

It also reminds us of our obligation to sustain our common life and the care of creation which allows human life to endure. In short, as we hear in chapter 1 of (Fratelli Tutti), paraphrasing the Holy Father’s words, we must reaffirm that there are no “others” or “them” only “us”, who includes God. This is our communio with God and one other.


Where does the notion of communio come from? In the Jewish scriptures, it is the notion of covenant. In offering a covenant to His chosen people, God binds Himself in love to them even though they do not necessarily merit such love because of past infidelities.

The covenant is God’s everlasting and irrevocable invitation to share divine life with His Chosen People. For those of us who are Christians, we believe that this covenant is perfectly fulfilled in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why? It is not solely because Christ forgives our sins in His free sacrifice upon the Cross, but through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Christ is the living bridge into the life of God. He is the divine bridge into an everlasting Communion who is the Trinity.

As human beings created and redeemed by Christ, communio is a consequence and fulfillment of who we are meant to be, with God and with one another.

When Pope Francis speaks of inclusion…He is speaking of a profound change of mentality and lifestyle, which is a fundamental reflection of who we are in Christ.


In (Fratelli Tutti, 94), the Holy Father writes, “Only by cultivating this way of relating to one another will we make possible a social friendship that excludes no one and a fraternity that is open to all.”

Thus, when Pope Francis speaks of inclusion, he is not describing something transactional in nature. He is speaking of a profound change of mentality and lifestyle, which is a fundamental reflection of who we are in Christ.

Whether we call it fraternal love or social friendship, it is synonymous with the reality of which I am speaking. We are to live in communion with each other because we should know no other way how to live. We must be impelled by this communion (i.e., “common union”), to redefine not only our personal relationships but every social and economic structure.


When this vision is applied to daily life, we can understand why Pope Francis constantly speaks of mercy. My friends, the effect of living communion is mercy. Mercy is the spiritual bridge that will leave no person behind.


When Pope Francis speaks of synodality as an essential part of the Church’s life, what he is saying is that the journey of faith excludes no one. It is not just bishops who are tasked to discern the voice of the Spirit but all God’s people share this task by the power of their baptism.

Even those who do not share Christian faith have a role in our discernment because they share the very fabric of who we are as potential respondents to the divine call to communion.

In short, there is a personal and communal obligation to look at the economic, political, and social order through this lens of communio.


Allow me to go deeper. I will use the three fundamental principles of Catholic social teachings to illustrate in greater detail what Pope Francis is teaching us.

If you recall, St John Paul II in (Ecclesia in America, 55), said, “her [that is, the Church’s] moral vision in this area [Catholic social teaching] rests on three cornerstones of human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity.” For the balance of my remarks I will explore each of these fundamental cornerstones to illustrate the implications of our Holy Father’s call to inclusion.


Let us begin with the fundamental principle of human dignity and the value of every human person.

While Pope Francis has constantly reaffirmed the dignity and value of unborn life, he also has made it clear that such dignity extends to every person, including the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the excluded in our midst.

Human lives that have become marginalized and invisible to the economic and political order around us must be protected and nurtured. They deserve respect, protection and inclusion, not because we accord it, but because it is already inherent in the fundamental nature of every human person.

In (Fratelli Tutti, 107), this imperative is summarized with the fundamental reaffirmation that every human person has a right to live with dignity and develop integrally.

So who are the marginalized for Pope Francis?

They include the physically poor, those who lack the necessities of life and migrants whose dignity is challenged at the borders. He also reminds us that the elderly, the uneducated, refugees, and those who are suffering from the effects of climate change are also among the marginalized.

The fourth chapter of (Fratelli Tutti) dreams of “a heart open to the world”. It affirms that human dignity exists in every stage and season of life. It is never to be judged in a utilitarian fashion. It is universal since it embraces every human person and knows no distinction of politics or national boundaries.

Finally, it is a dignity that must safeguard a preferential option for the marginalized persons in our midst who will otherwise be left behind.


Pope Francis does not mince words. He challenges the political, economic and social orders to include the excluded.

In (Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Francis challenges all governments to assure dignified work, health care, and education for all their people. He also criticizes the “idolatry of money”, in which the human person, because of the economic structures that now exist, is no longer an agent of economic life but is reduced to a center of consumption for profit. He speaks of the victims of a “neoliberal faith” in an unfettered marketplace.

In (Fratelli Tutti, 168), the Pope challenges the mistaken belief that the marketplace will solve all problems through “spillover” or “trickle” theories.


In light of these challenges, the Pope affirms the need for a full integral human development as he observes in (Fratelli Tutti, 21): “Some economic rules have proved effective for growth but not for integral human development. Wealth has increased but together with inequality and the result that that there are `new forms of poverty emerging’.” A simple stroll down any avenue in Manhattan vividly illustrates the consequences that such inequality has created.


Associated with dignity of the human person is the essential role that both the family and the local community play in assuring the welfare and dignity of human life.

This theme is particularly developed in (Amoris Laetitia). Every human life needs these two basic communities to realize each person’s human potential and to thrive in communio with God and one another.


So if you were to ask me, “Bishop Frank, summarize all this in a sentence,” I would respond this way. For Pope Francis, the basic moral test for any society is determined by the manner in which we treat the poor and marginalized in our midst. To the extent that we are failing this test is the measure to which we need to change.


The second principle of Catholic social teaching is human solidarity. Solidarity is the basis of the communio of which I have already spoken. In fact, such solidarity underlies our obligation to identify and protect the common good.

We live in a time, particularly here in the United States where personal rights have almost been divinized and a discussion of the common good has been set aside. The Holy Father says that such divinization of personal rights is a recipe for disaster because the common good checks personal excess. Both individual rights and the common good are in a very delicate and creative balance.

An urgent task facing our contemporary society is the need to articulate what the common good entails so that it is in fact held in common by society at large.


For Pope Francis, the notion of advancing the common good resonates very deeply in his writings. He challenges his listeners to understand the common good as essential in any conversation of an economic political or social order.

More specifically, by the common good, the Holy Father is speaking of the long-term common good. In (Fratelli Tutti, 76), he states, “True statecraft is manifest, when in difficult times we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good.”

In fact, in chapter 5 of (Fratelli Tutti), the Holy Father challenges us to reimagine a better type of political order, one based on charity and fraternity. He calls it “political love”.

Do you see a lot of political love in Washington? My friends, we have a lot of work to do.

When the Holy Father speaks of the ideal of a fraternal society based on dialogue, it is clear that realizing this ideal is becoming harder and harder to live in our fractured and divided world. In fact, to the Hungarian bishops, whom the Pope just visited last week, he said, “if we want the river of the Gospel here also in Hungary to penetrate people’s lives [and note the emphasis] to lead to a more fraternal and solidary society [which is a synonym for an inclusive society], the church needs to build new bridges of dialogue.” The pope has been insistent on realizing this ideal for all believers.


Regarding the societal structures and obstacles that prevent the realization of a truly fraternal society, the title of the opening chapter of (Fratelli Tutti) is sobering: “Dark Clouds over a Closed World.”

It summarizes many of the difficulties that I have already outlined. Inan earlier document, the Pope speaks of a “new tyranny” in (Evangelii Gaudium), where he states, “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by [what he calls] the happy few.”

This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, such ideologies reject the rights of states charged with the vigilance of the common good to exercise any form of control. The result is that a new tyranny is born, invisible often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its laws and rules. This is the tyranny that the Holy Father challenges us to fight without compromise.


The last principle of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity which holds that the state or any larger entity should not assume the tasks that local entities and individuals can rightly do for themselves.

This basically is the affirmation of personal responsibility, collective responsibility, and how they are held in creative tension.

The Pope has made it clear that every human person, and particularly every believer, has a personal responsibility to live the Gospel in concrete ways. This responsibility is complemented by our general responsibility to protect the common good.


An example of the interplay of these two responsibilities is seen in the Church’s teaching regarding personal property.

The Church has always held that every person has a right to own property, but that right is not completely absolute. In (Fratelli Tutti), the Pope speaks of the universal destiny of all goods and the principle of the common use of created goods. These responsibilities are always in dialogue both personally and collectively.

Another example of this balance is found in the care for God’s creation.


In (Laudato Si’), which resonates in the hearts of so many young adults, the Holy Father speaks of the global urgency to promote an integral ecology. Practically speaking, this means that it is not enough for some countries to respond and others to avoid the issue. If all countries do not respond collaboratively, there will be no lasting, effective response to the global challenge before us. Once again, states’ rights and the global common good must both be protected.


So, my friends, where do we go from here? Popes from Saint Pope Paul VI to Pope Francis have been challenging us to become missionary disciples in the world. If you and I are committed to engage the world around us, that is, to be in mission in the world, Pope Francis has given us a road map using the principles of Catholic social teaching, rooted in the principle of communion.

It can be summarized in four simple words: “a call for inclusion”.

We are being engaged by the successor of Peter to make this the centerpiece of our mission in the world:

  • to protect the life and dignity of every person
  • to foster the health of nations
  • to affirm a global common good
  • to allow all humanity to live in true communio.

We are asked to mold our world to become a place where every human being, and every local community, and every nation can live in prosperity and peace.

The road map is before is. The question for you and me is a simple one: are we ready to begin the journey?

Thank you, my friends, for your attention. God bless you.

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)