The Law of Love: The Four Main Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine

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By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

Jesus Christ gave his disciples a “new commandment: that [they] love one another. Just as [Christ has] loved you, you also should love one another.”[1] This law of love is perfectly exemplified by the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, but what does it mean for Catholics––or more broadly, all Christians––today? Modern times are much different than biblical times, but that does not change the universal call from Christ to love our neighbor. The Church follows the laws of love in the ever changing modern world through its social doctrine. Just as a house is built from the foundation up, the Church’s social doctrine is built upon the dignity of the human person, the common good of everyone, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Not only do these principles provide a foundation, but they also “provide a moral framework for Catholic engagement in advancing what we have called a ‘consistent ethic of life.’”[2] These four principles are how Christians are called to live the law of love in their daily lives. Their purpose is to further the advancement of the kingdom of heaven on earth and to encounter Christ among His living body.

As the foundation, the dignity of the human person remains essential for Catholic social doctrine. Human beings are “created in the image of God” and possess an intrinsic dignity that cannot be taken away.[3] Because this dignity comes from God, it must be upheld and respected by all. Unfortunately through sin and pride, this dignity has been forgotten; one could say it is the stone that the builders rejected, yet has become the cornerstone of the law of love.[4] The effects of sin is a “twofold wound, which the sinner opens in his own side and in the relationship with his neighbor.”[5] Sin has tainted man himself and that overflows, mainfesting itself in acts that are “incompatible with love of God and neighbor: taking of innocent human life, as in abortion, genocide, or torture.”[6] A practical example of the moral framework of Catholic social doctrine calls everyone to “address the preeminent requirement to protect human life [from abortion] and provid[e] women in crisis pregnancies with the support they need.”[7] Another practical example is providing “health care while respecting human life, human dignity, and religious freedom in [the] healthcare system.”[8] Rather than encouraging the disposability of human life as a means of convenience, the Church upholds the right to life and dignity for all: the unborn, the mentally or physically disabled, the elderly, the imprisoned, and the immigrant.

Rooted in the dignity of the human person, the common good should be promoted within society by the government and individuals. It indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.”[9] The common good is, by its nature, “understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good.”[10] Maintaining this good among everyone is a challenge because it “requires the constant ability and effort to seek the good of others as though it were one’s own good.”[11] This second pillar struggles to stand firm in the current individualistic culture because many times, it is rejected because of selfish motives, or “reductionist visions that are subordinated by certain people to their advantages.”[12] The Church urges Catholics, in order to uphold the common good, to protect and uphold basic human rights, respect the dignity of work and protect the rights of workers, and care for God’s creation.[13]

“It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person [and common good] without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities,” and this concern is manifested in the third pillar of Catholic social doctrine: subsidiarity.[14] Subsidiarity is the principle that “larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions,” namely, to micromanage or make it impossible for smaller businesses to carry out work and commerce.[15] Subsidiarity in the world is allowing and giving citizens in developing countries the resources to bring themselves out of poverty. Rather than a large governmental organization managing relief efforts, the people who are “closer to the problem and have a better understanding of the issue” should be leading and directing the efforts.[16] However, when there additional resources are required, “larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs, and advance the common good.”[17] A perfect example of subsidiarity is nonprofit organizations sponsoring projects that are self-sustaining, namely projects that are organized by locals that encourage them to alleviate the poverty themselves in their community.[18]

For those who are unable to donate, travel, or serve hands on, solidarity is something that can be practiced by everyone. Rather than a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people,” solidarity calls for everyone to adopt “a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage.”[19] This is the fourth principle of Catholic social doctrine, taken from the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these …you did it to me.”[20] Solidarity recognizes the dignity and worth of the human person and sees everyone––rich or poor, man or woman, sick or healthy, freed or imprisoned, born or unborn––as equal. Viewing every human as equal is a radical call that fights against the strong, violent current in the modern world. Solidarity, being a social virtue, “places itself in the sphere of justice” and fights for the marginalized, the unborn, the handicapped, and those who live in poverty.[21] Solidarity can be practiced in ways that prioritize the poor and vulnerable, in whatever capacity. For some, it can be voting for pro life government officials into office or praying for the unborn. For others, it may be working at a soup kitchen on the weekends. The practice of solidarity can be lived out in many different ways, depending on the individual. Seeing the face of Christ in others is at the heart of solidarity.

Mother Teresa perfectly practiced these four main principles of Catholic social doctrine in her work around the world and is a great example for everyone. She saw Christ disguised in those she and her sisters served. Her life was lived for others––which is a life lived for Christ. Catholic social doctrine is rooted in the person of Christ. The Church gives its members practical ways and a “moral framework” for loving our neighbor as ourselves.[22] Recognizing the dignity of the human person, promoting the common good, and practicing subsidiarity and solidarity are the foundation for living out the law of love that Christ gave his disciples; the Church––the individual members of the Body of Christ as one––are called to live out the mission of Christ as if Christ said it yesterday. The Church has a role and responsibility to take these words of Christ quite literally, by seeing and protecting the inherent, God-given dignity that each human being possesses.


Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Pope John Paul II, 2005 and other pontifical documents (Gaudium et Spes, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in Terris, Octogesima Adveniens)

Living the Gospel of Life, John Paul II

Part One and Part Two of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship; Compendium of the SocialDoctrine of the Church, USCCB

The New Oxford Annotated Bible (5th Edition); NRSV

[1]John 13:34-35, NRSV

[2]Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22

[3]Genesis 1:27, NRSV

[4]Book of Psalms 118:22, NRSV

[5]Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 117

[6]Part 2 of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship– Doing Good and Avoiding Evil

[7]Part 2 of  Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship– What Public Policies Should Concern Catholics Most?


[9]Gaudium et Spes, 26: AAS 58 (1966), 1046; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1905-1912; John XXIII, Mater et Magistra: AAS 53 (1961), 417- 421; John XXIII, Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 272-273; Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, 46: AAS 63 (1971), 433-435

[10]Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos 164

[11]Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos 167


[13]Part One of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship; How Can Catholic Social Teaching Help Guide Our Participation?

[14]Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 185

[15]Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: Centesimus Annus, no. 48; Dignitatis Humanae, nos. 4-6

[16]Catholic Relief Services Guiding Principles on Catholic Social Doctrine, pamphlet

[17]Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: Centesimus Annus, no. 48; Dignitatis Humanae, nos. 4-6

[18]Initial resources and funds are provided by nonprofit organization

[19]From Part One of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 193. (See Mt 10:40-42, 20:25; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-27)

[20]Matthew 25:40b, NRSV

[21]Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 193

[22]Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22

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