Catholic social teaching has been called the “Church’s best kept secret”, and with good reason. The two foundational encyclicals (Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum [RV]and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno [QA]), other encyclicals on social topics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church provide a cohesive vision for society. In addition, we have the writings of those who developed the theology of the Church’s teaching as well as those instrumental in composing the encyclicals. Pope Leo relied on Fr. Luigi Taparelli and Fr. Matteo Liberatore; Pope Pius XI requested that Fr. Oswald von Nell-Breuning write the initial draft of Quadragesimo Anno; Nell-Breuning and his colleague, Fr. Joseph Husslein, both wrote book-length commentaries on the encyclicals.
Taken together, these very clearly present the basic ideas of Catholic Social Teaching. Yet, much of this teaching is forgotten, simply ignored, or even misrepresented.
Even the term “social justice” has been redefined to bear little resemblance to Church teaching. Thankfully, authors such as Michael Novak and Paul Adams, as well as Thomas Behr, presented correctives to the unorthodox definitions. In authentic Catholicism, justice is one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being prudence, fortitude, and temperance) and is giving each his or her due (CCC, 1803, 1807). It has absolutely nothing to do with wealth redistribution by government or equality of outcomes. It is rooted in Scripture which reveals that God made us to be in His image and likeness (Gen 1: 26-27). God is good and we are called to be like God, so we are called to be good by living the virtuous life (CCC, 1803).
The Catechism says that virtue occurs when a person “pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” (CCC, 1803, emphasis added). It must be done with free will. The government cannot mandate it because compulsion eliminates free will.
A complementary idea to social justice is the common good, which is the “sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Compendium, 164; CCC 1905-1912). This involves willing the flourishing of others because they are made in the image of God. Ultimately, it is helping others get to heaven.
Medieval Europe developed institutions supporting the common good. Responsibility for the wellbeing of the fief rested with the lord. Peasants and other commoners worked together for the good of the local community through the parish. Religious orders supported the surrounding communities through their activities. While there were many abuses, people knew they had obligations for the welfare of others.
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