1988: Guidelines for the study and teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine

Extracts from the Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests, originally published in 1988 by the Vatican Congregation for Education.

6. Three-fold dimension of social doctrine

Social doctrine includes a three-fold dimension; theoretical, historical and practical. These dimensions make up its basic structure and are inter-related and inseparable.

First of all, there is “a theoretical dimension because the Magisterium of the Church has explicitly formulated an organic and systematic reflection in its social documents. The Magisterium indicates the sure path for building relations of co-existence in a new social order according to universal criteria which can be accepted by all.18 These are permanent ethical principles, not changeable historical judgments or technical matters, for which (the Magisterium) has neither the equipment nor the mission “.19

Next, there is a “historical dimension” in the social doctrine of the Church because, in it the use of principles is framed in a real view of society and inspired by an awareness of its problems.

Lastly, there is a “practical dimension” because social doctrine does not end only with a statement of permanent principles for reflection, or with the mere interpretation of the historical conditions of society. It also proposes the effective application of these principles in practice by translating them concretely into the ways and to the extent that circumstances permit or require it.20

7. Methodology of social doctrine

This three-fold dimension aids understanding the dynamic inductive-deductive process of the methodology which, although already followed in the earlier documents in a general way, is better specified in the Encyclical Mater et magistra, and taken on decisively in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes and in subsequent documents. This method is developed in three phases; seeing judging and acting.

Seeing is perception and study of real problems and their causes, the analysis of which, however, belongs to the human and social sciences.

Judging is interpretation of that same reality in the light of the sources of social doctrine which determine the judgment pronounced with regard to social phenomena and their ethical implications. In this intermediate phase is found the function proper to the Magisterium of the Church which consists precisely in interpreting reality from the viewpoint of faith and offering “what it has of its own; a global view about man and humanity”.21 Obviously in seeing and judging reality, the Church is not and cannot be neutral because she cannot help but adapt to the scale of values enunciated in the Gospel. If, hypothetically speaking, she were to conform to other scales of values, her teaching would not be what it in fact is, but would be reduced to a biased philosophy or ideology.

Action is aimed at implementing these choices. It requires a real conversion, that inner transformation which is availability, openness and transparency to the purifying light of God.

By inviting the faithful to make concrete choices and to act according to the principles and judgments expressed in its social doctrine, the Magisterium offers the fruit of much reflection and pastoral experience matured under the particular assistance promised by Christ to his Church. It is up to the real Christian to follow this doctrine and to make it “the foundation of his wisdom and of his experience in order to translate it concretely into forms of action, participation and commitment”.22

8. The method of discernment

Ethical principles and guidelines cannot be put into practice without an adequate discernment that leads the entire Christian community and each one in particular to scrutinize “the signs of the times” and to interpret reality in the light of the evangelical message.23 Although it is not up to the Church to scientifically analyze social reality,24 Christian discernment as a search for, and evaluation of, truth leads to investigating the real causes of social ills, and especially of injustice, and to accepting the certain results, not the ideologized ones, of the human sciences. The goal is to arrive, in the light of permanent principles, at an objective judgment about social reality and, according to the possibilities and opportunities offered by the circumstances, to make concrete the most appropriate choices which may eliminate injustices and favor the political, economic and cultural transformations needed in individual cases.25

In this perspective, Christian discernment does not only help clarify local, regional or world situations; it also, and principally, helps discover God’s plan of salvation, realized in Jesus Christ, for his children in the different periods of history. It is obvious that this must be placed in an attitude of fidelity not only to the evangelical sources, but also to the Magisterium of the Church and her legitimate pastors.


18 JOHN XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et magistra (May 15, 1961): A.A.S. 53 (1961), page 453.

19 PIUS XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo anno (May 15, 1931): A.A.S. 23 (1931), page 190.

20 JOHN XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et magistra (May 15, 1961): A.A.S. 53 (1961), page 453.

21 PAUL VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum progressio (March 26, 1967), n. 13: A.A.S. 59 (1967), page 264.

22 PAUL VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), n. 38: A.A.S. 68 (1976), pages 29 ff.; VATICAN COUNCIL II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, n. 25.

23 VATICAN COUNCIL II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 4.

24 JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Laborem exercens (September 14, 1981), n. 1: A.A.S. 73 (1981), page 580.


54. Criteria for action

The social doctrine of the Church, as theoretical-practical knowledge, is directed toward the evangelization of society. Thus it necessarily includes an invitation to social action by offering, for the different situations, adequate directives118 inspired by the fundamental principles and criteria for judgment119 illustrated above. The action that is suggested is not deduced a priori once and for all from philosophical and ethical considerations. Instead, it is specified case by case through Christian discernment of reality interpreted in the light of the Gospel and the social teaching of the Church which demonstrates its up-datedness in every historical moment. It would therefore be a grave doctrinal and methodological error if, in the interpretation of the problems of each historical era, the rich experience acquired by the Church and expressed in her social teaching were not taken into consideration. For this reason, all Christians will have to place themselves before the new situations with a conscience well-formed according to the ethical demands of the Gospel, and with a truly Christian social sensitivity that has matured through careful study of the various magisterial pronouncements.

55. Respect for the dignity of the human person

In her social apostolate, the Church is committed to the full realization of human advancement. This advancement enters into the plan of man’s salvific advancement and of building the Kingdom of God in that it aims at ennobling the human person in all the dimensions of the natural and supernatural order. As Gaudium et spes teaches, the mission of evangelization, which aims at man’s salvation or definitive liberation, requires a pastoral action that is diversified according to the environment in which it is carried out: prophetic, liturgical or of charity. The Church’s pastoral action in her relations with the world is an action of presence, dialogue and service, starting from the faith, in the broad and vast social, economic, political, cultural, technological, ecological, etc. fields. In brief, it includes the whole panorama of temporal realities.

Given the primacy of man over things, a first criterion or norm not only of judgment but also of action is the dignity of the human person which implies respect and fostering of all the personal and social rights inherent in his nature.

Morality and discrimination between what is just and unjust will depend on the conformity, or lack of conformity of political lines and decisions, of the projects and programs adopted by the different social agents (governments, political parties, institutions and organizations, persons and groups) with the dignity of the person who has inviolable ethical requirements.

58. Formation in the necessary areas of expertise

Concrete action in the field of temporal realities, according to the guidelines of the Magisterium, is principally the task of the laity who must let themselves be guided constantly by their Christian conscience. Therefore, they must acquire, together with moral and spiritual formation, the required expertise in the scientific and political field which renders them capable of carrying out an effective action according to lawful moral criteria. 123 In these matters, however, tasks of no less importance await Pastors as well who must help lay people to form a lawful Christian conscience and give them “light and spiritual strength”.124 It is obvious that Pastors will only be able to carry out this specific task if they themselves know well and uphold the social doctrine, and if they have acquired a sensitivity for action in this field in the light of the Word of God and the example of the Lord. expertise. Therefore, a fourth criteria of action is formation in these areas of expertise.


118 JOHN XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et magistra (May 15, 1961): A.A.S. 53 (1961), pages 455 f.

119 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Instruction Libertatis conscientia on Christian freedom and liberation (March 22, 1986), n. 76: A.A.S. 79 (1987), pages 558 f.

123 VATICAN COUNCIL II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 43; Decree Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 13; CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Instruction Libertatis conscientia on Christian freedom and liberation (March 22, 1986), n. 80: A.A.S. 79 (1987), pages 590 f.; Instruction Libertatis nuntius on some aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” (August 6, 1984), nn. 12-14: A.A.S. 76 (1984), pages 906 ff.

124 Vatican COUNCIL II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 43; CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Instruction Libertatis nuntius on some aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” (August 6, 1984), n. 14: A.A.S. 76 (1984), pages 906 ff.


59. The experience of temporal realities and the experience of faith

The ecclesial identity of the laity, rooted in Baptism and Confirmation and made actual in communion and in mission, implies a dual experience: one based on knowledge about the natural, historical and cultural realities of this world, and the other which comes from their interpretation in the light of the Gospel. They are not interchangeable; one cannot substitute the other, but both find unity in their first basis which is the Word of God, the Verbum through whom all things were made, and in their ultimate end, which is the Kingdom of God. Hence, a fifth criterion for the methodological aspect of action is use of this dual experience: the one of temporal realities and the other of the Christian faith.

This method applied to interpretation of the social doctrine of the Church will aid all Christians, and especially the laity, in making a more correct interpretation of reality. In this way, they will be able to see to what degree human and Christian values that express the dignity of the human person are incarnated into historical reality. They will be able to: link general principles of thought and action in the social sphere to the values that a society must always respect in order to solve its problems; have an orientation in the concrete search for the solutions needed; stimulate the change or transformation of the structures of society which show themselves to be inadequate or unjust; evaluate wisely the programs drawn up by all the living forces on the political and cultural plane. In this way, the authentic progress of man and society will be ensured in a more human dimension of development which does not leave aside nor is exclusively governed by economic growth.

What is most important is that pastors and the faithful be and feel united in participating, each one according to his or her own abilities, in the one saving mission of the Church. In this ecclesiological view, the task of animating temporal realities in a Christian way is not delegated to the laity by the hierarchy, but it flows naturally from their Baptism and Confirmation. In our times an increasingly vivid awareness has grown of the need for the laity’s contribution to the evangelizing mission of the Church. Lumen gentium affirms that in certain places and in certain circumstances, without them, the Church cannot become salt of the earth and light of the world. 125

60. Openness to the gifts of the Spirit

As has already been stated, the Church does not offer her own model for social life. She remains open to a certain pluralism of projects and hypotheses for action, according to the charisms and gifts which the Spirit grants to the laity for accomplishing their mission in the context of the family, work, the economy, politics, culture, technology, ecology, etc. It derives from this that the directives for action contained in the social doctrine of the Church take on a particular meaning according to the specific characteristics of the action to be carried out in each of these areas. From this comes a sixth criterion for action: openness to the charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit in Christian commitment and choices in social life.

61. Practicing love and mercy

The awareness of having been called to offer her service in social realms has always been alive in the Church from the first centuries until today. In fact her history is filled with social works of charity and assistance 126 in which, taken together, shines forth the face of a poor and merciful community which has aimed at putting the “sermon on the mount” into practice.

The testimonies to this pastoral awareness are countless in the Popes, the teachers of social doctrine. In their documents, they ask for improvement of the workers’ conditions and encourage experiences in this direction;127 they recommend the practice of charity harmonized with justice;128 they extend social action to all temporal environments;129 they ask that the assertion of principles, the declaration of intentions and the denunciation of injustices be accompanied by effective and responsible action;130 they recall, as proof of the Church’s continuous attention to the social question, not only the documents of the Magisterium – Conciliar, Papal and Episcopal -, but also the activity of different centers of thought and action, and the concrete initiatives of the social apostolate in the local Churches and in the international field;131 they invite the clergy, religious and the laity to become engaged in the “different sectors, works and services of social pastoral care”.132 From this social awareness a final criterion of action emerges which must be present in all the other criteria mentioned above: the practice of the commandment of love and mercy in everything which, in the spirit of the Gospel, gives priority to the poor.133

Such priority, witnessed by the whole tradition of the Church, has been strongly emphasised in Sollicitudo rei socialis: “Today furthermore, given the worldwide dimension which the social question has assumed, his love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. One cannot fail to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the “rich man” who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate (cf. Lk 16:19-31)”.134

62. Link between social doctrine and Christian practice

In the Church’s awareness the essential uniting link is evident between the social doctrine and Christian practice in the sectors, works and services in which the principles and norms are put into practice. In particular, pastoral concern requires social doctrine and this leads to pastoral action as a privileged part of Christian practice. The presence

and dialogue of the Church with the world in seeking to resolve the complex problem of man requires the necessary expertise in pastors and thus requires their serious study of social doctrine together with formation to sensitivity for pastoral action and the apostolate. Once again we find ourselves before a precise need for adequate programming and good general bases for teaching.

63. Repercussions in the political area

The fact that the Church does not have nor does she present a system as a way “model” of social life, nor is she linked with any political system as a “way” of her own to be chosen out of other systems 135 does not mean that she must not form or encourage her faithful – and especially the laity – to become aware of their responsibility in the political community,136 or opt for solutions, when they can be found historically of a model in which the inspiration of the faith can become Christian practice. The directives of the social doctrine of the Church for action by the laity are valid both in political matters and in other areas of temporal reality in which the Church must be present by reason of her evangelizing mission.

The Christian faith, in fact, values and highly regards the political dimension of human existence and the activity in which it is expressed. It follows that the presence of the Church in the political area is a requirement of faith itself, in the light of the Kingship of Christ, which leads to excluding the divorce between faith and daily life “one of the gravest errors of our time”137. Nonetheless, evangelizing the whole of human existence, including its political dimension, does not mean denying the autonomy of political reality as well as that of the economy, culture, technology, etc., each one in its own order.

In order to clarify this presence of the Church, it is good to distinguish the two concepts of politics and of political commitment”.138 With regard to the first concept, the Church can and must justify political behavior not only regarding what affects the religious sphere, but everything that concerns the dignity and fundamental rights of man, the common good, social justice: all

problems having an ethical dimension, considered and evaluated by the Church in the light of the Gospel by reason of her mission to evangelizing the political order” and, for this itself, to humanize it completely. It is a policy understood in its highest value, which is the task of the whole Church. Political commitment, on the other hand, in the sense of concrete decisions to be made, programs to be drawn up, campaigns to be conducted, peoples’ representation to be managed, power to be exercised, is a task for the laity according to the just laws and institutions of earthly society of which they are part. What the Church asks for and tries to obtain in her children is that they have a lawful conscience in conformity with the requirements of the Gospel itself in order to act wisely and responsibly at the service of the community.139

Pastors and other ministers of the Church, in order to better preserve their freedom in the evangelization of political reality, will keep themselves outside of the various parties and groups which could create divisions or compromise the effectiveness of the apostolate, nor will they give preferential support unless “the common good requires t in concrete and exceptional circumstances”.140

64. Sign of the presence of the Kingdom

In the scheme of values, principles and norms which has been outlined, it appears that the social action of the Church, enlightened by the Gospel, is a sign of the presence of the Kingdom of God in the world in that it proclaims the requirements of this Kingdom in the history and in the lives of peoples as the foundation of a new society; in that it denounces everything that threatens the life and dignity of the person in social attitudes, structures and systems; in that it promotes a full integration of everyone into society, as an ethical requirement of the evangelical message of justice, solidarity and love. It is a pastoral action carried out through the Word that transforms men’s conscience; through the preparation and dissemination of a social doctrine, aimed at calling everyone’s attention and arousing everyone’s sensitivity, especially of young people, to social problems and the evangelical requirement of commitment to justice in favor of the poor and all the suffering; lastly, through a timely and generous action which seeks to respond to the many concrete problems that make the lives of persons

and society more difficult. In this way, the Word enlightens the conscience, and works incarnate the Word.

65. Conclusion about the meaning and dynamism of social doctrine

From the analysis of the nature and historical dimension of the social doctrine of the Church and its constitutive elements namely, the fundamental principles, criteria for judgment and directives for action – the conviction is drawn that, while it already constitutes a “rich and complex heritage”, that is sufficiently delineated and consolidated, it still has many stages to pass through depending on the dynamism of human society’s development in history.

Due to its situation, this social doctrine, while difficult to define in rigorously scholastic terms, in the preceding paragraphs is outlined at least in its essential contours, with sufficient clarity, and presents itself in the first place as an integral part of the Christian concept of life.141 In fact, it can be seen that its influence in the world is not marginal but decisive, as an action of the Church “leaven”, “salt of the earth”, seed” and “light” of humanity.14.

On the basis of these presuppositions, the Magisterium of the Church – Papal, Conciliar, Episcopal – with the contribution of the study and experience of the whole Christian community, works out, articulates and expounds this doctrine as an ensemble of teachings offered not only to believers, but also to all men of good will, in order to enlighten with the Gospel the common path to development and the integral liberation of man.


125 VATICAN COUNCIL II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, n. 33.

126 JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris (Febrary 11, 1984): A.A.S. 76 (1984), pages 201 ff.

127 LEO XIII, Encyclical Letter Rerum novarum (May 15, 1891): Acta Leonis XIII, 11 23 (1931), page 182. (1891), pages 141 ff.; PIUS XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo anno (May 15, 1931): A.A.S.

128 JOHN XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et magistra (May 15, 1961); A.A.S. 53 (1961),

129 Vatican COUNCIL II, Decree Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 7.

130 PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens (May 14, 1971), n. 48: A.A.S. 63 1971), pages 437 f. 131 JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Laborem exercens (September 14, 1981), n. 2: A.A.S. 3 (1981), page 581.

132 JOHN PAUL II, Allocution C’est la deuxième to the Delegates of “Caritas Internationalis” (May 30, 1983): Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, VI, 1 (1983), pages 1399 ff.

133 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Instruction Libertatis conscientia on Christian freedom and liberation (March 22, 1986), nn. 66-70: A.A.S. 79 (1987), pages 582-585; JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo rei socialis (December 30, 1987), n. 42: A.A.S. 80 1988), page 572.

134 JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo rei socialis (December 30, 1987), n. 42: A.A.S. 80 (1988), page 573.

135 VATICAN COUNCIL II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 76; JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo rei socialis (December 30, 1987), n. 41: A.A.S. 80 (1988), page 571.

136 VATICAN COUNCIL II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 75.

137 Ibid., n. 43.

138 Ibid., n. 76; Puebla Document, nn. 521, 523.

139 C.I.C., Can. 227.

140 Puebla Document, nn. 526-572; C.I.C., Can. 287.

141 JOHN XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et magistra (May 15, 1961): A.A.S. 53 (1961), page 453.

142 Matthew 5:13-14; 13:13, 24.


Congregation for Education, Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests (Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development)



(NB Scanned to Word; May contain typos)