The Church and The Social Order

Return to Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
Home Page

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. . ." (Mt 28:19-20).

Immediately before the Ascension, Our Lord stood on the mountain in Galilee and said these words to his apostles.  This final command tells us of the duty to spread the gospel to every man.  But Our Lord meant more than baptizing individuals.  He told the apostles to baptize all nations.  This means to infuse society with the message of the gospel - form Christian nations.

The Church's duty then extends beyond drawing individuals to Christ.  The Church must also help to shape society so that the public morality will be Christian.  In this way the Church "baptizes" the social order, so that all things may be renewed in Christ.

In Scripture we find mentioned four sins which "cry to Heaven for vengeance".  They are sodomy (perverse sexual behavior), willful murder, oppression of the poor, and defrauding the laborer of his just wage.  These sins do not "cry to Heaven" because they are the most serious sins.  Idolatry and blasphemy, for example, are even worse.  These four sins, however, are all injustices which undermine the fundamental order of society - particularly the family, the basic unit of society.  Because of their effect on society, the Church, over the centuries, have often addressed these matters in her social teachings.

Much of the Church's social teaching may be found in the encyclicals of the popes.  These letters addressed to all the bishops and the entire Church are also a means of instructing the world and bringing the gospel to all nations.  As we consider the last three of the sins which cry out to Heaven, we will mention some of these encyclicals.  Because they are addressed to the entire Church, they were written originally in the universal language of the Church - Latin.  Below, the Latin title of each encyclical is given with the English title in parentheses.

Protection of Human Life 

"Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.  Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is Abel your brother? . . . What have you done?  The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground'" (Gen 4:8-10).

Murder was the first sin committed after the Fall.  God, in speaking to Cain, tells us of the grave injustice which has been done.  Yet, we know that not all killing is necessarily wrong.  If Abel had killed Cain in self-defense this would not have been murder.  Murder is the unjust taking of innocent life, which is what Cain did.  This is also what is meant by the Fifth Commandment "Thou shalt not kill."

In modern times one of the most serious forms of willful murder is the killing of unborn children in the wombs of their mothers - abortion.  This is the destruction of the most innocent and helpless human life.  It destroys the future of our families and society.  Abortion is certainly a sin which cries out to Heaven.

Through her teachings the Church has always tried to protect human life from such injustices.  During the twentieth century, when the practice of abortion has spread to many nations - including our own - the popes have frequently addressed the world on this matter.  They have proclaimed the sacredness of human life from conception until natural death and the importance of the family, where new life begins and is nurtured.  Two important social encyclicals which speak on these matters are Casti Connubii (Christian Marriage) by Pope Pius XI and Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) by Pope Paul VI.

War and Peace

The Church has always taught that just as it is licit for a person to defend himself or his family or defenseless persons against attack, so it is licit for nations to defend themselves or help others defend themselves against unjust aggression.  This is what is known as a just war.  Of course, first, other avenues for stopping the attack must be considered and used, if possible and effective.  Also, the response to an attack must not be out of proportion.  The moral principle used is: "preserving the moderation of blameless defense".

The Second Vatican Council taught:  Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation (Gaudium et Spes - Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).

As far as nuclear deterrence is concerned Pope John Paul II stated that under present conditions, deterrence based on equilibrium - certainly not as an end in itself, but as a stage on the way to progressive disarmament - can still be judged to be morally acceptable.  However, to insure peace it is indispensable not to be content with a minimum which is always fraught with a real danger of explosion (Message to the United Nations, June 1982).

Several national bishops' conferences have issued Pastoral Letters on the question of war and peace, for instance, the U.S. bishops and the French bishops.  They agree on the basic principles, but also agree that the practical application may differ because prudential judgments are involved.

Social Justice

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him . .  you shall not afflict any widow or orphan.  If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. . . (Ex 22:21-23).

"Behold the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and . . .have reached the ears of the Lord . . " (James 5:4).

Oppressing the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, etc., and defrauding the laborer of his wage are also sins which directly harm society.  These two evils are the basis of the Church's teaching on economic and civic matters.  The Church reminds all people and nations of their obligations in justice to care for the unfortunate among us.  Thus, the Church teaches us of the evils of economic systems that exploit the poor.

The Church also teaches us of the importance of paying the laborer a fair wage.  Families cannot survive unless the heads of households are paid enough to provide for their basic needs - food, clothing, and shelter.

These teachings on economic issues have been particularly emphasized during the last one hundred years.  The popes have written a number of important encyclicals on these topics.  The first, in 1891, which is the basis for all those which followed, was Rerum Novarum (The Condition of labor) by Pope Leo XIII.  A more recent one, called Laborem Exercens (The Dignity of Labor), was written by Pope John Paul II.

In our concern for the promotion of the dignity of man, we must note that not every movement, ideology, or form of government which claims to benefit man or the poor does so.  Certain movements in the twentieth century have been condemned by the Church.  Communism, while claiming to be for the oppressed classes in society, actually exploits them and suppresses basic human rights.  National Socialism (Nazism) claimed the superiority of one race, and the Nazis brutally enslaved and persecuted others, even committing mass genocide.  Any form of racism is condemned by the Church, since we are all created in God's image and Christ died for each one of us.  Consequently, the Church has taught about the evils of these systems.  Pope Pius XI wrote two encyclicals on these matters - Mit Brennender Sorge (Against the Nationalist State) and Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism).

These social teachings remind us of our Christian call to live in the world without adopting the ways of the world.  At various times in history, people have ignored the Church's guidance and lived in ways contrary to the gospel.  Our task is to reshape the values of society, if we can.  At all times, even if the world is against us, we must listen to and follow the Church.

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

Return to Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
Home Page