The Church’s social teaching and the changes in society, Academie Catholique de France, 16.12.17

Academie Catholique de France


Catholic Social Doctrine (CST) and social changes




Card. Peter K. Turkson. Paris, 16 December 2017



I feel honoured to be invited to this prestigious academy, to participate in this seminar on social transformation and Catholic Social Doctrine.[1]

The Catholic Church has been wrestling with interpreting the new state of affairs of modern society in the light of the Gospel and the Church’s tradition for more than a century.  Although this scrutinising of the signa temporum has ensured a deep and more influential human interpretation of modern concerns, such as the meaning of labour, peace and economic development, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) needs to address several novel challenges if it is to have any impact on the present global trend.[2]

In 2015, Laudato Si’ has faced head on the unprecedented current socio-ecological crisis.  In this latest CST document, Pope Francis appeals to the whole human family to respond to both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (LS, 49), which are inextricably interconnected.  Indeed, given that social and ecological justice go hand in hand, we must address them together, which does not come without challenges.  Let me highlight only some of those challenges by grouping them in three sets around the word “home”.

Home, or oikos in Greek, is the root for: (i) ‘oiko-nomia’ (economy: the way we organise, or rule home); (ii) ‘oiko-logia’ (ecology: the logos or life that inhabits home); and (iii) ‘oiko-umene’ (the whole world inhabited, in relation to each other, the place where we live and flourish in common, through dialogue).  By including “home” in the subtitle, the encyclical Laudato Si’, right from the beginning, is implying that economics, ecology and ecumenism are interwoven.  In fact, because our common home, ‘burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor’, and ‘groans in travail’ (LS, 2), it needs good administration (economics), fruitful connections between the various webs of life (ecology), and dialogue and respect between its inhabitants (ecumenism).


OIKO-UMENE: dialogue, participation, ecumenism

This first set of challenges I would like to point out is related to oiko-umene, to dialogue.  Laudato Si’ calls for a new dialogue about “how we are shaping the future of our planet”, a dialogue from which we can find inclusive and sustainable models of development (cf LS, 14, 194).  To be truly inclusive, this dialogue must include everyone, especially those most affected by poverty and ecological degradation (LS, 14), and it needs to happen at different levels, i.e. international, national, local.  Everybody has something to contribute to this dialogue; “no form of wisdom can be left out” (LS, 63). A first challenge for CST, therefore, is to delve deep into this dialogical approach, both ad intra and ad extra: the dialogue that Pope Benedict calls for in Fides et Ratio and in Caritas et Veritate.  This means that we need to fight the temptation to conceive CST as a documentary doctrine only (i.e. a teaching coming from documents of the Pope and Bishops), and remind ourselves that while CST is not an ideology, or a social theory or an utopian ideal  and an alternative to capitalism or socialism or some social philosophy, it is essentially moral theology applied to social issues. Thus, CSD is the The reflection of the Church on social realities in the light of the Gospel and the formulation of guiding principles for application in society. With it, the Church sheds the unfailing light of the Gospel on the various changing situations of the human person and family. It is the application of (moral) theology to issues of human family. In CSD the insights of theology, philosophy, economics, ecology and politics have been harnessed coherently to formulate a social doctrine that places the human person, his full and integral development, at the center of all world systems of thought and activity. So, the CST straddles philosophy and theology, whose basic concepts are understandable by all. But for the believer, the Gospel illuminates, deepens and elevates these concepts, giving them a whole new level of meaning. Thus, CSD is a language of faith and reason, rooted in the Scriptures and in dialogue with the human sciences. It is a teaching not only inspired by social changes, but also a teaching that motivates (or should motivate) actual social transformation.

Hence, for those studying or promoting CST, a dialogue with all social actors is key.  Such a dialogue can help us to move from a pedantic attitude with which many tend to address economic, political or environmental issues, as if we had the final “say” about them, towards a more humble and dialogical attitude, where we, as disciples of Christ, can contribute with ideas and actions that bear witness to the “fragrance of the Gospel” within our pluralistic societies (Evangelii Gaudium, 31).    

This is an attitude to be promoted by Christian formation, especially in our seminaries.  In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis expresses his hope that Christian formation, whilst providing an education that is seriously concerned “for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment” (LS, 214), can foster a “cultural revolution” that can bring about actual change (LS, 114).  In other words, we do not want the social teaching of the Church to be confined to academia, but rather to be inspired by social actors, and to generate agents of social transformation.  Yet for that to happen, we need to listen and to dialogue with different people, all sciences and other religions.  As is explained in Evangelii Gaudium (cf EG, 4, 40, 205, 238), we need to foster processes of public dialogue, processes which can help us in healing the evil roots that are disrupting human relationships, processes of dialogue from which new models of development can emerge.

Yet a dialogue about the future of our planet, as in any serious dialogue, will comprise disagreements and different points of view.  So another challenge to CST is to help generate minimum conditions for real dialogue, such as (i) a self-critical attitude; (ii) the willingness to recognise positive elements in other’s opinions and views; or (iii) the willingness to work together for the common good.  Positive experiences of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue could help us in this endeavour.  Also, we can learn from previous proposals for public dialogue on contested social issues, such as the 2017 proposal of the French Bishops: “Dans un monde qui change, retrouver le sens du politque”.  With this proposal, the Bishops intended to recognize the validity of diverse political perspectives of French Catholics before the latest presidential elections, and incentivised socio-political dialogue as a way of spiritual conversion.  Other experiences of inclusive dialogue, even at the international level, such as the processes of dialogue that ended with the Sustainable Development Goals, could also help us to promote the fruitful dialogue Laudato Si’ is calling for.

In the new Dicastery that I preside over, for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, we also need to find good dialogical frameworks, both ad intra and ad extra.  Inside the Dicastery, because we have merged four previous Pontifical Councils into one, with all the internal difficulties that any merger entails; and outside the Dicastery, because we need to listen attentively to those who suffer, to those who work with them, as well as to scientists, academics and practitioners, in order to fulfill our mission. Integral Human Development, like the Gospel that inspires it, cannot be imposed.  It has to be offered; and we cannot do it without good processes of engagement, encounter and dialogue.[3] 


OIKO-NOMOS: economics and the issue of labour

The second set of challenges for CST is about oiko-nomos, or economics.  Pope Francis criticises an economic system that is master rather than servant of humanity (cf EG, 57), and reminds us that, according to the social tradition of the Church, the economy, whilst seeking for economic growth, should have people at its centre and respect the environment (cf LS, 6).

The challenge for CST, hence, is to collaborate with economists, politicians and social actors in finding an economic model that does not respond to the myth of material progress nor to a market system that has become idolatrous and that leads us to a short-term, selfish and throw-away mentality.  Indeed, there is an urgent need to promote an inclusive and environmentally friendly economic system, where there is little room for exploitation of workers and destruction of ecosystems, and where the costs for economic production include social and environmental costs (cf LS, 128, 195).

One topic among many related to economic challenges, is that of labour, which has always been at the heart of CST.  As Rerum Novarum (1891) was an attempt to respond to the novel industrial revolution of previous centuries, particularly in relation to the question of work within the context of industrial wealth creation, so Laudato Si’ (2015) is an attempt to respond to the consequences of two hundred years of industrialisation.

Unfortunately, there are still huge global “social” problems in connection with work that resembles the situation when Rerum Novarum was written.  These are, for example, unemployment, modern slavery, unfair wages, long hours of work or lack of holidays, child labour and all sorts of non-dignified work, unhealthy environments, human trafficking, forced migration of workers, and abuse of workers in general.  We still have, also, problems with multinational corporations violating human rights, as we have witnessed in the last decades with some companies within the textile, food, toy and mining industries.

All these labour issues are recurrent challenges, and we don’t have to assume they are over.  But today, on top of them, we have the novel conundrum of “robotisation”, which has become a “productivity” factor in many countries, and the most subtle problem of “artificial intelligence”, which is changing work dynamics altogether.[4]  Furthermore, today, we are witnessing how, for the first time in history, human work is causing the depletion of natural environments and ecosystems, which in turn affects the very poor worldwide.

Another challenge for CST, therefore, is to revisit our idea of work.  We still want to promote full employment, but, due to the ecological crisis, we can no longer do it in the same way as we tried in the past.  However, who is going to pay the cost of the transition towards sustainable work?  This cannot occur at the expense of the workers.  Also, we want to keep promoting work as a vocation, but how to do it within a technocratic society and in the light of robotics and artificial intelligence?  And which kind of “hope” is CST going to provide if more jobs are going to be replaced by machines?  Moreover, we want to keep supporting the role of trade unions and labour movements.  But how to do it in a world where national labour laws are somehow losing their teeth due to the ultra financialization of the global economy?  Furthermore, we want to continue encouraging business people in their role as responsible agents of wealth creation for the good of society.  But how are they going to deploy their responsibility in the light of the socio-environmental crisis?  How can they, and all who seek the “common good”, include the value of the “common goods”, such as climate?  

In short, CST needs to revisit its accompaniment of workers in the quest for their rights and the fulfillment of their vocation to work, on the one hand, and how to help businesses and nations in creating new healthy and sustainable jobs while promoting development on the other. Yet at this 4th hyper technological stage of the Industrial Revolution, the challenge for Catholic social thought is to face, analyze and propose lines of action to the new economic reality.

The Dicastery for promoting Integral Human Development is fully aware of this challenge too.  So much so that we have decided to be part of a five-year project where we will address, alongside the ILO (International Labour Organization) and hundreds of institutions of workers, academics and entrepreneurs, some of these issues related to the problem of work.  I hope each one of you, in your own environments, can contribute to this challenge too.  


OIKOLOGOS: ecology, issues on anthropocentrism and human rights

The last set of CST current challenges is related to oiko-logos, to the ecology.  Apart from the link between ecology and economics, that I’ve just mentioned, I would like to point out other inter-disciplinary challenges brought up by the ecological crisis.

Within theology, the challenge for CST lies in intra-theological research, such as linking the social doctrine of the Church with biblical, dogmatic and sacramental theologies. Laudato Si’ states clearly that there is no place in the Bible for a tyrannical anthropocentrism which leads to the misconception of considering that human beings are at the centre of creation, and that they have an absolute dominion over the earth (cf LS, 68-69).  This distorted theological view has somehow contributed to the excessive modern anthropocentrism, which, by ignoring human limitations and the importance of relationships with other humans and with nature, has paradoxically lead us to a technical and tyrannical mind-set that does not recognise the intrinsic value of creatures (cf LS, 115-116). Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church criticizes this distorted anthropocentrism, some Christians are still misguided and are thus influenced by it.  Therefore, more research on the sense of justice towards creation and the sense of the centrality of interwoven relationships (with God, human beings and all creatures), and the way this is included into our spirituality and liturgy are needed.

Moreover, CST needs to interact with sacramental theology so as to analyse how Christian celebrations can counter some of the spiritual problems related to the present socio-ecological crisis, such as “rapidification”, ie. the ‘intensified pace of life and work’ which hinders development (LS, 18).  In this sense, social ethicists and sacramental theologians could shed light on how the notion of time as kairos, as opposed to time as mere kronos (which leads us into “rapidificaiton”), can motivate actual change in the way we live, produce, trade, consume, and waste.        

Outside theology, one of the challenges of CST, whilst tackling damaging anthropocentrism, is the Church’s position before what is known as the 3rd generation of human rights. These rights go beyond the civil and political rights of the first generation, and beyond the social and cultural rights of the second one.  In fact, as Karel Vasak, a Czech-born French jurist and director of UNESCO’s Division of Human Rights and Peace put it back in 1977, the third generation of human rights comprises the ‘solidarity rights’, which include the right to development and peace, the right of self-determination and of minority rights, the right to a healthy environment and to ownership of the common heritage of humankind. [5]

In short, these rights are seen as the intergenerational equity rights, as sustainability rights, and as environmental rights.  The involvement in their inter-disciplinary analysis is particularly relevant, not only because of the unprecedented socio-ecological crisis we are facing, which is affecting the poorest and will affect future generations, but also because we are in the wake of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Participation on an inter-disciplinary level in the 3rd generation of human rights is also relevant because it is a way of responding to Laudato Si’ call for a new universal solidarity (LS, 14), one that is both intergenerational (LS, 162) and environmental (LS, 142). 



To conclude, there are many challenges CST faces today.  Some of them, such as the state of democracies, finance, technologies and migration, will be further elaborated on in this seminar.  In this short introduction, I have just highlighted three sets of challenges around the word “oikos”, home.  In fact, society is transforming the way we participate and dialogue worldwide (oiko-umene); it is transforming the way we administer our common home, particularly the way we work (oiko-nomos); and it is transforming the way we interact with ecosystems (oiko-logos).  Therefore, the role of CST, shedding the light of the Gospel on the ever-changing situations of the human family, is to ensure that these changes / transformations are inclusive, sustainable and just and that the meaning of authentic human life and its flourishing is served.

Thank you



[1] The preoccupation with the social development of humankind is a theme which the Church took up and made her principal concern from birth (Acts 2;4). A reflection of the meaning of an authentic human life in history and culture found expression already in Scriptures and in writings of Fathers of the Church, were formulated in principles in teachings of Popes, and now collected in CSD.

[2] Over the years the social order to which the CSD refers has evolved constantly: from

-Misery of workers during Industrial Revolution, -and emergence of Marxism (Pope Leo XIII). -Economic crisis & recession of  1929 (Pius XI). -Decolonization & 3rd Worldism (John XXIII & Paul VI). -Fall of Berlin wall & political changes in E-Europe (JP II). -Globalization, underdevelopment, financial, economic, anthropological crisis (Benedict XVI

-Current inequity, exclusion, ecological crisis, indifference, throw-away culture (Francis)

[3]  NOTE: This paragraph, and a similar one in point 2, are to promote the Dicastery, and also to show empathy with the audience about the challenges everyone involved with CST is facing.

[4] The  challenge is how the talents and ideas underlying artificial intelligence promotes the universal destination of goods, making for shared profits and gains.

[5] K Vasak, ‘A 30 year struggle’, UNESCO Courier, November 1977. Cf. too, Caritas in veritate, chapt.4-5.

21 junio 2018