Catholic Social Teaching in Action: How to Follow in the Footsteps of Holy Men and Women

Often referred to as “the best-kept secret of the Church,” Catholic Social Teaching is central to our Christian faith, representing as it does our collective wisdom — from Biblical texts to papal encyclicals to modern moral theology — of how to live Christ’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves. And yet, we as a Church don’t seem to talk much about it.

In one way or another, every saint, every holy person, every committed Christian practices these ideals in their own lives. Their examples can help us grow in holiness and truly become the “light of the world” Jesus calls us to be. Catechists have identified seven themes that give us a helpful summary and overview of Catholic Social Teaching. And looking at these themes through the lives of the saints and the holy men and women of the Church allows us to see these themes in action.

1. Rights and Responsibilities

Our Catholic faith teaches us that every human being has a fundamental right to life, dignity, and basic necessities. And we each have the responsibility to support the rights of our neighbors.

Salvadoran Archbishop and martyr Saint Oscar Romero lived this responsibility. He was a modest, pastoral cleric who wanted only to serve his people and trust the government to do likewise. But when he saw his people being oppressed and murdered, Romero realized he could not in good conscience ignore his moral duty to speak and to act.

Even though it cost him his life, Romero realized that when the structures of government and society fail to respect basic human rights, the Christian has a moral responsibility to protect the rights of all people.

Get involved:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Campaign for Human Development is dedicated to acting on our common social responsibilities to our communities and our neighbors in need. Any number of community service organizations right in your own parish, neighborhood, or hometown are surely looking for people willing to get involved. Websites such as Volunteer Match or Idealist can help you find opportunities in your area.

2. Life and Human Dignity

Our most fundamental right is the right to life and dignity, as we are made in the image and likeness of God. We use the image of Christ’s Seamless Garment from the Crucifixion (see John 19:23-24) to represent our belief that human life should be cherished in total, from conception until natural death.

Pope Francis recently drove this point home when he amended the passage in the Catechism regarding the death penalty. Where previous Church teaching allowed for governments to administer the death penalty “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” the new text charges civic authorities to strive toward a deeper commitment to a consistent life ethic. “The Church teaches that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’”

Get involved:

Sister Helen Prejean is probably best known for inspiring the movie “Dead Man Walking” in 1995. She continues to advocate against the death penalty at sisterhelen.org. But our obligation encompasses the entirety of human life. Check out what your local diocese offers for pro-life resources. Or volunteer to work with the elderly. Or volunteer to help victims of domestic violence or suicide prevention.  There are many organizations hoping for your help.

3. Option for the Poor

Everyone has a right to the basic necessities of life – food and drink, clothing and shelter. We call this the Universal Destination of Goods. The rich and bountiful resources of the Earth are God’s, intended for the good of all people and not merely a select few.

Jesus identifies himself with the poor and the suffering. Whatever we do (or fail to do) for the poorest among us, we are serving (or ignoring) Christ himself (see Matthew 25: 31-46). Saint Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, was especially conscious of this. She would tell her fellow sisters of the order to observe how a priest at Mass handles the Eucharist with tenderness and devotion. “Do not forget,” she said, “that Christ is the same Christ you touch in the poor.”

Get involved:

The U.S. Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services work around the world through Catholics Confront Global Poverty, and to better encounter Christ in the poor, check out your local food pantry, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter for volunteer opportunities.

4. Family and Community

Humans are by design social beings. When God created humankind, he said it was not good for us to be alone, so we find our fulfillment in family, in community, and in society.

Before converting to Catholicism, Dorothy Day was a Communist radical. After her conversion, one of her friends said she had always been too spiritual to be a good Communist. In Catholicism, she perhaps found the ideal she had been seeking: Communal life with deep spiritual roots.

Day’s Catholic Worker movement brought together a motley assortment of radicals and activists, artists and anarchists, pilgrims, panhandlers, and prostitutes. Modeled after the early Christian communities, where “everything they owned was held in common,” and all was “distributed to each as any had need,” (see Acts 4: 32-35) the goal was, as Day liked to put it, “to make the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.” This chasing after the perfection of God’s Kingdom amongst imperfect humanity was, and is, a challenging lifestyle, but she believed that what we build in this life is the foundation of the life to come, and that means learning to live together and to love one another. Especially when it’s difficult.

Get involved:

Today, the Catholic Worker has active communities throughout the country and the world. Check their website for a directory of houses in need of volunteers.

5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

We all spend a lot of time working. It is how we cooperate in God’s work of Creation, and as such all work should have an inherent dignity to it. That includes ensuring that workers receive a just wage for the work they do. For both the worker and the employer, work should be about more than income.

A founding member of the Jesuit order and a close companion of Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint Peter Faber was only recently canonized by Pope Francis. Around the same time, National Catholic Reporter published an article suggesting him as the patron saint of business. He was a pioneer in understanding business as a moral agent in society.

On observing an area of rampant poverty, Faber once wrote, “Perhaps if we had a flair for business … we could concern ourselves more with this problem.” He saw that business, rather than charity, can be a sustainable and long-term solution to widespread poverty. He also recognized the “flair for business” as a spiritual gift, which could be cultivated to serve the common good.

Get involved:

Business and ethics can be uneasy partners in the current socio economic climate, but regional groups and organizations are popping up all over. My own diocese in Burlington, Vermont, recently started a Catholic Professionals Network. And a quick Google search turns up similar groups around the country. Check your local area for a Catholic Business Network, a Businesses for Social Responsibility organization, or a local Rotary Club chapter. These organizations help local business owners support their communities and work to uphold the common good.

6. Solidarity

In the Apostles’ Creed, we profess our faith in a Church that is one (unified) and catholic (universal). What this means, simply put, is that all the people of the world are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In 1987, at a time when economic globalism was becoming a major force around the world, John Paul II wrote the encyclical Sollicitudo rei Socialis, with a heavy focus on the need for global solidarity.

We are our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers. As our culture, our economy, our lifestyle, becomes more globalized we have to recognize the impact we have on others. Basic things like where we shop and what we buy can support, or exploit, workers in poorer parts of the world. Solidarity takes a bit of effort in educating ourselves and learning how we can best help our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Get involved:

During World War II, a small prayer group came together. They recognized that Catholics across Europe were at war with each other – the Body of Christ was literally divided amongst itself. From this, Pax Christi grew into an international organization dedicated to peace and unity.

7. Care for God’s Creation

As mentioned earlier, the Earth and everything on it belongs to God and is entrusted to us for the good of all. Saint Francis of Assisi had a deep and unique understanding of creation as a sacred gift from God to all.

He called the Earth, the sun, the wind, and the water his brothers and sisters because all are created by God. It has taken several hundred years to fully appreciate his wisdom. Creation is not a resource to be exploited, but God’s gift to be treasured and protected.

Get involved:

The Franciscan Action Network carries on the work of Saint Francis of Assisi through education and activism. In addition to their environmental work, they are involved in issues of human life and dignity, and bringing peace to the world.