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Catholic Social Teaching


Catholic Social Teaching     Gerry OShea

The Catholic ethical teaching on ownership of material goods can be encapsulated as follows: the goods of the earth belong to all the people in the universe without distinction of place or culture. This important right is universally accrued based solely on people’s humanity.

In some future idyllic world imagined by high-minded idealists and saints, this thinking may evolve into a new world order. We are talking about a utopia, the mysterious place over the high mountain seen only by mystics who believe that possessions and acquisitiveness should no longer define a person’s importance.

Readers are likely to conclude that such a place is a dreamland that can never exist because one-upmanship will always reassert itself. Status, power and money will inevitably corrupt this imaginary Garden of Eden.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant philosopher and theologian who lived in the 13th century but who remains in the front line of Catholic theologians today, God created heaven and an earthly paradise, which was operating fine until, according to the great John Milton, drawing on the Book of Genesis, a cataclysmic event occurred which he described brilliantly in his epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Of Man’s First Disobedience and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden.

Readers will have different levels of belief in what is called the Adam and Eve story, but there is no doubt about its importance in the Judeo-Christian explanation of where God’s perfect creation went wrong. After the alleged transgressions in Eden, it was all bad news for humanity, featuring suffering and death.

 Aquinas was a realist who believed that he had to deal with the world of sinners as well as occasional saints. He acknowledged that the social structures set up by governments were very important in fulfilling people’s material and moral strivings.

He wrote about the importance of establishing the common good as the basic tenet of Christian moral reasoning. Whatever raises the quality of life for the whole community must always have priority over individual or group pleadings.

So, the central question facing any local or national area in writing laws on taxation or land use or in the provision of healthcare or education for the people must be whether their proposals benefit the whole community rather than pushing the agenda of any “important” individual or pressure group.

In contemporary America this high standard is, to quote Shakespeare, honored far more in the breach than in the observance. Super-rich individuals or companies with multiple zeros in their bank balances are far more likely to succeed in bending tax laws or in managing to secure dubious planning permissions.

 The men who led the Irish revolution in Easter 1916 highlighted this goal for the country they were willing to die for as “cherishing all the people of the nation equally”- a fine ideal that was disregarded by successive Dublin governments.

 While our individualistic culture focuses on personal happiness, common good philosophy encourages us to see society as a team where solidarity must be the driving force.

The Ubuntu philosophy describes an African value system that emphasizes the interconnectedness of individuals based on a universal bond of sharing that connects all human beings. The word Ubuntu is translated as “I am because we are.”

The climate crisis affecting people everywhere highlights the lack of community action against impending disasters. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, issued an ominous warning recently: “we are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree Celsius that was agreed in Paris in 2015.”

He went on to stress that greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity have increased globally across all major sectors. Guterres bemoans “a litany of broken climate promises,” and he forecasts in the immediate future “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”

Some countries like India, now the fifth largest economy in the world, claim that they should be exempt from any growth restrictions because they suffered so long under colonial rule, where their wealth was transferred to European countries.

 In the United States, coal and oil companies insist on increasing their production and, inevitably, their carbon emissions. Sadly, one of the two main presidential candidates for the White House gleefully announces his position in this crucial policy area with the mantra “drill, baby, drill.”  

 The continuing level of poverty at a time of huge company profits is unconscionable. Billionaires' tax payments to the federal government average 8.2%, while the typical fireman or carpenter pays twice that figure.

 Recently, eighteen U.S. Catholic bishops, true to their church’s focus on eliminating poverty, signed a letter calling for cuts in military spending and for directing the money saved to ending the country's hunger crisis.

One of the signers, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington Kentucky, condemned the big jumps in weapons funding with cutbacks in social programs for the poor. He pointed to the increase in family food insecurity, understood as real hunger, from 5.1% during the Covid pandemic to a horrendous 12.8% now, defining over 40 million Americans.

Where were all the other bishops who failed to sign this letter? Catholic social teaching is unambiguous in always siding with the poor and against the powerful who reject programs that feed and house struggling families.

 Two cardinals, Robert McElroy of San Diego and Joseph Tobin of Newark, both seen as progressive pastors, signed the letter. Among those who refused to add their names to this important missive, propounding clear Christian common good principles, were Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and  Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago.

Gerry OShea blogs at



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