Catholic Social Teaching and Justice


Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and shelter the homeless … you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

In the story of the Good Samaritan, he teaches:

“Which of these three proved himself a neighbor to the man?…”the one who took pity on him,” he replied. Jesus said “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10: 29-37)


COVID-19 has had devastating consequences for the poor and disproportionately affected persons of color in affluent nations and poor nations alike.

Pandemic reveals starkly the necessity of accessible, affordable health care and the global inadequacy of public health programs and services.

While a new spirit of neighborliness emerged in aid to those less advantaged, for many others, self-protection ruled.

Pandemic has provided tragic images of the plight of desperate refugees and migrant families rejected by nations and children cruelly separated from their parents in detention camps.

The financial cost of the pandemic has crippled economies for generations to come.

Lessons from pandemic demonstrate dramatic differences between inconvenience and dire, life-threatening situations, especially for those living in poverty, the elderly, migrants and refugees.

Catholic social teaching

Catholic social teaching provides a set of principles to provide criteria for prudential judgment on public policy and decisions. These are the dignity of the human person, stewardship of our time, talents and resources, solidarity and subsidiarity and commitment to the common good.

The common good is “…the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families and organizations to achieve complete and effective fulfilment” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965, no.74).

Pope Francis insists, “Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good. (Laudato Si’, 2015, May 24, no.157) He expands the notion of the common good to include the environmental and ecological crisis of our time in this masterful and influential document.

Agents of mercy and care

Disciples of Christ have a duty to continue his healing ministry in the circumstances of our time. Diakonia, the service and care of those in need, is an essential work of the Church; not an option or choice of a few. In times of isolation and social distancing, loneliness and need, Christians’ care and practical support for one another is essential because:

”…the very truth of Eucharistic participation depends upon commitment to the poor by insisting, in other words, that without real sharing there is no Lord’s Supper. (Mitchell, 1998, p34)

In his amazing encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis provides a wonderful reflection on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan where a stranger, puts himself at risk to provide direct care to a wounded stranger; binds up the wounds; brings the injured man to a place of care and pays for it. He tells us:

The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project. (Fratelli tutti, no. 69)

Many parishes have been involved in local ministries of care and companionship practicing the corporal works of mercy. However, personal experience of the Church as a community of care and justice varies from deep commitment to expectations that others will do this and occasional financial contributions from a comfortable distance. With the closure of churches, financial support for local and global initiatives declined drastically, creating further trauma.

Following Jesus’ command in the poorest corners of the globe from the Cox’s bazaar refugee camp, slums, migrant workers, indigenous communities, the Church agencies emerged as a critical support for those affected by Covid-19. Pope Francis warns us that prosperity and wealth can dull our sensitivity to the plight of others:

The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which…results in indifference to others; indeed it even leads to the globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business. (Homily of Holy Father Francis, 2013, Jul 8)

Lesson: All Christians are called to be “Good Samaritans” to neighbors and strangers alike.

Advocates for justice

COVID-19 brought a new understanding of poverty and its consequences. Quantitative assessments of poverty, as absolute or relative, are based on income. There are other crucially important qualitative measurements of poverty including lack of opportunity. Tragically, some use the well-known “cycle of poverty” as proof that the poor bring it on themselves, rather than providing clear evidence of the multi-generational consequences of the socio-economic determinants of health.

Public health is grounded in preventing illness and promoting health; building physically and socially healthy communities; and eliminating health inequalities. The pandemic highlighted the lack of public health development and support globally. It is recognized that

“…the foundational moral justification for the social institution of public health is social justice…the twin moral impulses that animate public health: to advance human well-being by improving health and to do so by focusing on the needs of the most disadvantaged.” (Powers & Faden, 2006, p.80)  

Persons living in poverty, the elderly and migrants and refugees are clearly disadvantaged today.

Lesson: While acute medical care aids the health of individuals, the health of communities and populations is dependent on a robust public health system.

Care of the elderly

Jesus, a devout Jew, was taught the critical importance to the Jewish people of respect and honor for parents and other elders in the fourth commandment. From the cross, he ensures care for his widowed mother after he is gone. (John 19:26-27) He also had a sensitivity to dependence in old age when he says to Peter:

…when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)

Pandemic highlighted the existing crisis in care for the elderly living alone and in long term residential facilities. Isolation and loss of social connections for many seniors increased their risk of infection and death.

Population aging is accelerating worldwide from four hundred sixty one million persons older than sixty-five years in 2004 to an estimated two billion people by 2050. This has occurred during profound changes to family structure, work and residence, creating ethical crises for the aging. Pope Francis has said:

A people who does not take care of grandparents, who does not treat them well, has no future! Why does it have no future? Because such a people loses its memory and is torn from its roots. (Pope Francis, Meeting of the Pope with the Elderly, 2014, Sep 28)

Lesson: The focus on acute, expensive health care fuels ageism rather than inter-generational solidarity.

Migrants and refugees

Jesus was a child of refugees

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the chid and his mother with you and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him. (Matt 2:13-14)

The Church teaches:

“The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2241)

Catholic principles guiding our approach to migration are rooted in the Gospel and in the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching including:

Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts.                      

-Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families. The Church recognizes that all the goods of the earth belong to all people.                                               

-Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders but not when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth.                                                                                            

-Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection and preservation of family integrity. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority.

Pope Francis mentions the suffering of migrants and refugees thirty times in Fratelli Tutti; the same number as comments on poverty. His responses are guided by the keywords: welcome, protect, promote, integrate. He states:

If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity; if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters little whether my neighbor was born in my country of elsewhere. My country…can offer a generous welcome to those in urgent need;, or work to improve living conditions in their land by refusing to exploit those countries or to drain them of natural resources, backing corrupt systems that hinders the dignified development of their peoples. (125)

Lesson: Our faith and pandemic experience teach the reality of our global interconnections and need for solidarity.

Advocacy for economic justice

Catholic social teaching in encyclicals began with Pope Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 which condemned subhuman working conditions resulting from industrialism and condemned both liberal capitalism and socialism. Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, the midst of the Great Depression, is even more critical of corporate capitalism.

Pope John XXIII’s 1963 Pacem in Terris widens the focus to the gap between the rich and poor countries globally. Vatican II stated:

“the best way to fulfill one’s obligations of love and justice is to contribute to the common good, according to ones means and the needs of others” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965 ch.II, no.30).

In his 1987 Solicitudo res Socialis, Pope John Paul II grieved over the suffering of so many worldwide. He identifies clearly: the option of love or preference for the poor…as a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. (no. 42)

Pope Francis is in this tradition, especially in his critique of market capitalism:

The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith…Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by sorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle”…as the only solution to societal problems. There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged “spillover” does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society. (October 2020 Fratelli tutti no. 168)

Fratelli tutti is not addressed to Catholics only but to all persons of all faiths, races, colors and cultures. It calls all to a new social friendship which recognizes and reconciles social and economic inequality revealed starkly in the COVID-19 crisis. There are conflicting views on the value and influence of these teachings. It has been criticized as “political” and ignorant of economics by some. The tension between the Gospel of Affluence and the Church of the poor is tearing apart the People of God. Biblical justice is rooted in fidelity to covenant and right relationships, not contractual self-serving relationships.

If pandemic doesn’t move us to change, what will?

Lesson The gospel is not proclaimed if Christians do participate in building just and compassionate societies through political engagement and advocacy.

For Discernment:

What personal conversion of mind and heart is calling you?

What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?

What are the central organizational and relational issues are in need of renewal and reform?

Key references

Bane, M. J. & L. M. Mead eds. 2003 Lifting Up the Poor: A Dialogue on Religion, Poverty and Welfare. Washington, DC: Brooking Institution Press.

  1. Cole, 1992, The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  2. A. Coleman & W. R. Ryan eds.2005, Globalization and Catholic Social Thought, Novalis, Toronto
  3. Mitchell, 1998 Real Presence: The Work of the Eucharist, Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago, IL
  4. Moody, 1992, Ethics in an Aging Society, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

S.N. Moses 2015 Ethics and the Elderly: The Challenge of Long-Term Care, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY

Madison Powers and Ruth Faden, 2006 Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health Policy, Oxford University Press, NY.