FRONT PORCH: Catholic Social Teaching promotes, protects and defends the radical dignity of the human person

IN A 55-minute speech during a 2015 pastoral visit to Bolivia, Pope Francis addressed a crowd of farmers, indigenous people and activists with this ringing plea: “You are social poets: creators of work, builders of housing, producers of food, above all for people left behind by the world market.

“You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organise and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three ‘Ls’ (labour, lodging, land)…”


Francis, an Argentinian Jesuit, was employing Catholic Social Doctrine or Catholic Social Teaching (CST) to reflect on human dignity, the dignity of labour, the need for human solidarity, concern for the poor and vulnerable and other principles of the Catholic Social Imagination.

The faith and teachings of Roman Catholicism and the Gospels of Jesus Christ should not be limited or reduced to either moral theology or the social teachings of the Church.

But human and social ethics are essential components of a broader tradition and faith infused with what is articulated in the Jesuit tradition of St Ignatius of Loyola as, “Finding God in all things”.

For Roman Catholics, there is the radical presence of God in the created order, inclusive of the human person.

Catholic Social Teaching is a way of seeing the world, a lens, a framework for reflecting on perennial social questions and the social questions of the day, ranging from questions of economic justice to questions of environmental stewardship.

The great emphasis of the Church on concern and caring for the poor has manifested itself in social outreach through organisations like the St Vincent de Paul Society and a plethora of Catholic charities.

But the Church is not a charity. It is intended as an instrument of God’s love which cares for the poor and seeks the transformation of unjust structures which sustain inequality and poverty.

Because of the Roman Catholic understanding of the human person, the Church has placed an enormous emphasis on education from primary to tertiary education.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Bahamas has served the poor and the vulnerable, with the Sisters of Charity, the Benedictine monks and sisters, other religious, diocesan priests and the laity, offering social ministries ranging from food distribution to the Agnes Hardecker Clinic to the Samaritan Ministry for people with HIV and AIDS.

Though the third largest Christian denomination in the country, the Roman Catholic Church still operates the largest private school system in The Bahamas.

Roman Catholics often see the world, creation and the human person in a more varied light because of the emphasis placed on the Church’s social teachings and worldview in their spiritual and religious formation.

They would all share a passionate commitment to social justice, and to the common good, which the bishops of the US Catholic Conference have defined as: “The common good is understood as the social conditions that allow people to reach their full human potential and to realise their human dignity.”


In Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions, Reflections of the US Catholic Bishops, the bishops note that CST is: “Founded on the life and words of Jesus Christ; inspired by the social teaching of our Church, including papal encyclicals, conciliar documents and episcopal statements that have explored and expressed the social demands of our faith; shaped by those who have come before us, by St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine [and others] and lived by the People of God, who seek to build the kingdom of God …”

Because of the experience of Christ in the Eucharist, and a sense of the radical dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God, Roman Catholicism promotes, protects and defends the radical dignity of the human person at all stages of life.

The Tradition views the human person in a communal and social context, reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the communal nature of human salvation.

As the US Catholic Bishops note: “God reveals himself to us as one who is not alone, but rather as one who is relational, one who is Trinity.

“Therefore, we who are made in God’s image share this communal, social nature. We are called to reach out and to build relationships of love and justice.”

This communal vision is different from a fundamentalist Christian worldview which places more emphasis on the individual and their relationship with Christ, often to the sidelining or exclusion of the broader human community working together for the kingdom of God inclusive of the work of social justice.

The CST vision of human dignity animated the consistent life ethic popularized by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. This ethic opposes abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, capital punishment and unjust wars as offences to human dignity.

CST is rooted in Scripture and the life of the Church. The tradition took on a new expression in the modern world as humanity faced more complex global social questions, mostly dealing with questions of economics, social development and war and peace.


A seminal moment in the tradition was the publication of Rerum Novarum, entitled in English, Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour, an 1891 papal encyclical by Pope Leo XIII.

Rerum Novarum was “an open letter, passed to all Catholic Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops and Bishops, that addressed the condition of the working classes”.

“It discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labour and capital, as well as government and its citizens.

“Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration of ‘The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.’ It supported the rights of labour to form unions, rejected socialism and unrestricted capitalism, whilst affirming the right to private property.”

Since its publication, popes, bishops, episcopal conferences, synods and Vatican Council II have added a rich tapestry and treasury of teachings to the tradition, which is founded on a complex of related principles, which serve as an ethical framework for the Church’s reflections on the social questions of the day.

The principles of CST include: the dignity of the human person, the commitment to human equality, the preservation and protection of the family, the balancing of the rights and responsibilities, the call to community and participation as citizens, the dignity of work and worker’s rights, solidarity with the human community; and an option for the poor.


During his tenure as Bishop of Nassau, the late Bishop Paul Leonard Hagarty, OSB, spoke out against a proposed constitutional referendum by the Pindling administration, the possible results of which Bishop Hagarty argued were unacceptable and immoral because many people could have been left stateless.

Archbishop Burke spoke in defense of the dignity of migrants, frequently championed legal aid and restorative justice, and spoke against discrimination of those living with HIV and AIDs, and in opposition to corporal punishment in the prison system.

Archbishop Pinder has written and spoken on the Church’s position on capital punishment, on the need for the environmental stewardship, and of the importance of “responsive and responsible citizenship”.

The three ordinaries were animated by the Church’s Social Tradition. While refraining from being involved in partisan politics, they understood from the tradition that they could not absent the Church from offering an ethical perspective on the social questions in the society.

And while the bishops rightly refrained from offering public policy prescriptions, they offered ethical insights which might help to guide the Catholic faithful and laity, and public authorities.

During his pontificate, Pope Francis, who took the name of the 13th century saint of peace and intentional poverty, St Francis of Assisi, has through word, witness and gestures of love deepened the treasury of the Catholic Social Tradition through his simplicity of lifestyle, his social outreach and his defense of the dignity of the poor and migrants.

He has extended the tradition through his travels as an instrument of peace to non-Christian countries like South Sudan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, witnessing to the dignity and protection of the vulnerable and the oppressed.

The treasury of CST is one of the Church’s finest gifts to a world often besieged by injustice, war and inequality. This treasury and tapestry contain balm and grace and a framework for a culture of life and human possibility.