Catholic Social Teaching

Course Syllabus (PDF)

Christian faith is more than an abstract set of beliefs without visible fruit in the world. In principle, as people are brought into the life of God’s salvation, their actions and relationships begin to reflect the reality of the Realm (or kingdom) that Jesus announced. At least in broad outline, most people are familiar with the ethical guidelines that Christian faith gives to individuals, but what guidance does Christian faith offer to human life at the level of societies, economies, and political systems?

Starting with Pope Leo XIII’s publication of the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, there has been a growing body of official Catholic teachings that seek to answer that question. Of course, questions of the relation between Christian faith and society as a whole are not new, and so this body of text draws deeply on scripture and tradition. The style, method, and content of these writings, however, are distinct enough that they have gained a reputation and a name of their own—Catholic Social Teaching.

This course takes the texts of Catholic Social Teaching as a starting point for critical discussion of important and seemingly intractable problems of human societies. The course is organized around five major problems or themes: economic inequality and poverty; war and state violence; the exploitation of workers; ecological degradation; and racialized injustice. Our class conversations will begin from the ways that these issues are addressed within Catholic Social Teaching, but we will discuss the issues broadly. While students will be expected to develop a charitable understanding of Catholic Social Teaching’s positions and principles, the class does not operate on the assumption that students must agree, only that students are able to critically and carefully express the reasons for their assent or dissent.

By the end of the semester, students will (1) develop a functional and critical knowledge of the themes, methods, and content of Catholic Social Teaching; (2) learn to understand and interpret the texts of Catholic Social Teaching through close reading practices; (3) learn to critically assess the principles and values that organize human societies, economies, and political bodies; (4) intuit and describe the inextricable entanglement (sometimes resonant, sometimes dissonant) of the ideals that structure human societies with the teachings of the Catholic Church (and religion more broadly); (5) gain facility and comfort in productively discussing sensitive and controversial questions surrounding religious teachings and values as they impact human society—a skill that requires careful expression, empathetic listening, and intellectual solidarity; (6) develop and articulate personal positions on some perennial and urgent problems of human society.