In only a couple of weeks, Catholics in the United States will be going to the polls for the 2020 US election. In principle, Catholic bishops avoid instructing their flock for whom they should vote. Rather, as they did in their 2003 “Faithful Citizenship” statement, the bishops are solely concerned “to form the consciences of our people… [and] do not wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates.” Catholic voters are tasked to “examine the position of candidates on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy, and performance.”

But how does one properly form one’s conscience or by what standard does one evaluate the candidates? This is where Catholic Social Teaching comes in. Over the past 140+ years, the Catholic Church has developed seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching. This article will briefly explore each principle, which will be bolded below.

These teachings are difficult to summarize neatly, and many good people will disagree on how they should be implemented. The teachings are going through ongoing development since the first social teaching encyclical in the 19th century by Pope Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum. Other key papal teachings include Pacem in Terris by St. John XXIII, Centesimus Annus by St. John Paul II, Deus Caritas Est. by Pope Benedict XVI, and Laudato Si by Pope Francis. The development of these teachings is a reflection of a deepening understanding of these ethical principles and the application of them to changing social conditions.

The primary principle in Catholic Social Teaching is the life and dignity of the human person. Every person is precious, and people are more important than things. One should measure the worth of something by whether or not it enhances or threatens the life and dignity of a human person. This is the foundation for our Catholic moral vision for society. St. Paul writes in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The dignity of all humans must be protected. St. John Paul II wrote:

“Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. John 1:14), is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature (cf. Mark 16:15).” – St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 3

The next key principle is the call to family, community, and participation. Indeed, how one organizes society directly affects human dignity and the growth of individuals. Some key beliefs include that (1) marriage and family are central and must be strengthened, (2) everyone has a right and duty to participate in society, and (3) one must seek the common good and well-being of all, particularly the poor and vulnerable. Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si, 179, “Local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land.”

Human dignity and community can only be protected by human rights. The third principle is that all people have rights and responsibilities. All humans have a fundamental right to life and to those things required for a life in keeping with human dignity. With these rights comes corresponding duties and responsibilities—to one another, to one’s families, and to the larger society. St. John XXIII wrote:

“We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.” – St. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 11

The key moral test for the society is How are the most vulnerable doing? One must put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Solidarity in society means that the lives of all take priority over the appropriation of goods by a few. Love of the poor is at the center of the Gospel. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Those people who are oppressed by poverty are always the object of preferential love by the Church.

Work is a key avenue out of poverty. Society must be aligned to value the dignity of work and the rights of workers. The economy must serve the people and not the other way around. Work is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. Consequently, the basic rights of workers must be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative. St. John Paul II again wrote:

“The obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace.” – St. John Paul II, Centisimus Annus, 43

Another important belief in Catholic Social Teaching is solidarity. We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. The core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict. Solidarity “is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” St. John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei Socialis, 38.

Finally, we must care for God’s creation. We respect the Creator by our stewardship of creation. As such, we must protect the people and the planet and live our faith in relationship with the entirety of God’s creation. Pope Francis wrote:

“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. . . . Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” – Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 49, 91

It is unlikely that any particular candidate will perfectly understand and rightly apply all the principles outlined above. The Catholic voter must examine their informed conscience and the positions of the various candidates. Through thoughtful consideration and prayer, one can come to a decision on what is the proper course of action. God bless you all.

Photo Source: Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Alex Proimos: Flickr/Creative Commons