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Are All Elements of Catholic Social Teaching Equally Important?

The short answer is . . . no

Because Catholic social teaching concerns human dignity, human life, and the proper arrangement of human society, all the issues it touches on are important but not necessarily equally important. Their importance can vary depending on the principles involved, the goods and evils at stake, the resources available to promote good and overcome evil, and the obligations and commitments different people may have.

Not all good actions, good practices, or just institutions necessarily equally promote the principles of Catholic social teaching, and not all bad actions, bad practices, or evil institutions necessarily equally violate them. For example, the right to private property is an aspect of the dignity of the human person. If a street gang widely “tags” with graffiti the homes in a neighborhood, the gang violates people’s property rights. That’s wrong. But it isn’t as wrong as the street gang murdering people. The right to private property is not, as such, as important as the right to life, even though both rights are foundational for human thriving.

Sometimes it is a matter of how one issue relates to another. For example, Pope St. John Paul II defended what he called “the inviolability of the human person.” This idea is related to the principle of human dignity, one of the fundamental ideas of Catholic social teaching as we have seen. According to John Paul II, the inviolability of the person “finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life.” In other words, in order to respect the dignity of a human being, we must first and foremost respect his right to live. John Paul II continues: “Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (Christifidelis Laici 38).

Take away someone’s right to life, and you effectively nullify his other rights. Issues directly touching on the right to life, then, will tend to be more important than issues involving rights dependent on the right to life. But the fact that some issues can be more important than others doesn’t mean the other issues are therefore unimportant.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the future Pope Benedict XVI, sent a memorandum addressed to the US episcopal conference, outlining principles of worthiness to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. Referring to a would-be communicant’s stances on moral and political issues, Cardinal Ratzinger highlighted that when it comes to a Catholic’s conscientious judgment, some issues have greater moral weight than others:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Let’s set aside, for the moment, debates about war and capital punishment. The notable point here is Cardinal Ratzinger’s principle that not all moral issues have the same weight as abortion and euthanasia.

What’s more, a variety of factors can be involved in assessing an issue’s importance for any given person. If a village on the other side of the world, in a remote, hard-to-reach area, is afflicted with a deadly virus, it is obviously a situation calling for attention. Yet, as grave as the situation may be, you may be unable to do much, if anything, to change things. But perhaps, to go back to an earlier example, you can affect the situation of the street gang graffitiing your neighborhood. Perhaps you and your neighbors can band together to keep an eye out for graffiti and report taggers to the police. Perhaps you can support community programs to direct young people into constructive activities.

You may in fact assist that remote village through prayers, donations, and urging your government to help. But although human life itself is at stake there, you can legitimately choose to focus more of your resources to help your immediate community, because you can more readily help solve its problems.

Here is a related but distinct point when it comes to applying Catholic social teaching to various issues: some issues involve things that are wrong per se. These are things often referred to as intrinsically evil. Abortion, euthanasia, genocide, and intentional targeting of civilians in war are examples. Intrinsic evils may never be chosen or supported as political rights or policy objectives.

Yet some things aren’t intrinsically evil. They can be wrong under certain conditions yet morally acceptable under others. Going to war is one example. We will discuss the Church’s just-war teaching later. Here it suffices to note that whether war is morally justified depends on a variety of factors—unlike abortion, euthanasia, genocide, and intentionally targeting civilians in war, which are unjustifiable in principle.

Or consider tax cuts, which are neither good nor bad as such. In some situations, cutting taxes can be the right thing to do. In other situations, lowering taxes may cause government to be unable to fulfill its obligations to all citizens, with some citizens being seriously harmed.

Catholics should oppose things that are always and everywhere wrong (intrinsically evil). It’s impossible to support or promote such things without formally cooperating with them, and, in a sense, without making such evils our own. But this does not mean that so long as something is not intrinsically evil we may support it or that we can never be morally obliged to oppose it.

How one should approach an issue involving good and evil depending on circumstances is a question of prudence.


This article is taken from Mark Brumley’s 20 Answers: Catholic Social Teaching, on sale now on the Catholic Answers online store.

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