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Basic Principles Behind Social Doctrine

11/8/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Compendium Explains Background - Story on Catholic Online.

ROME, NOV. 8, 2004 (Zenit) - Catholic social teaching often mentions the importance of the human person, or concepts such as the common good, but without going into much detail as to what they mean. After explaining the foundational elements underlying the Church's social doctrine the newly published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates a couple of chapters to the human person and to a series of principles.

"The Church sees in men and women, in every person, the living image of God himself," states No. 105. Christ, by means of his incarnation, has united himself with humanity, continues the paragraph, giving to us "an incomparable and inalienable dignity."

This is relevant to society, notes the Compendium, because the protagonist of social life is always the human person. In fact, the entire body of social teaching offered by the Church "develops from the principle that affirms the inviolable dignity of the human person" (No. 107).

The Book of Genesis speaks of the human person as being created in the image of God. The human creature is placed at the center and summit of all creation, and receives from God the breath of life. There is, therefore, in each person an intrinsic relationship with God, which, while it can be forgotten or ignored, can never be eliminated (Nos. 108-9). Genesis also relates how man and woman were created together, thus demonstrating that the human person is not a solitary creature, but has a social nature.

The biblical account also relates how sin affected human nature and is, "At the root of personal and social divisions" (No. 116). Sin, separation from God, also brings with it a separation from other persons and from the world around us. There are also sins that constitute a direct assault on our neighbors, notably those that affect matters of justice, the right to life, and freedom to believe in God.

But along with the ever-present reality of sin we must not forget "the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ," recalls the Compendium (No. 120). Moreover, the redemption obtained by Christ enables each person to share in the nature of God.

The Compendium also warns against some errors in ideas about the human person. We should avoid reductionist conceptions that portray individuals either as absolutely autonomous or as a mere cell within a larger organism. Another error is to lose sight of the unity between body and soul, a mistake that can lead to either a spiritualism that despises the body, or a materialism that ignores the spirit (Nos. 125-9).

A just society

Coming to the consequences of the Church's vision of the human person the Compendium states that there can only be a just society "when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person" (No. 132). The text also insists on the importance of freedom. Authorities should be careful of the restrictions they place on freedom (No. 133) and our human dignity demands that we act "according to a knowing and free choice" (No. 135).

This freedom is not unlimited, however, given that only God can determine what is good and evil. Moreover, freedom should be exercised by a conscience that is guided by the natural moral law (Nos. 136-43).

Other consequences are:

-- The equal dignity of all people, whether it be between male and female, or persons with disabilities (Nos. 144-48).

-- The social nature of all humans that means we grow and realize our vocation in relation to others (Nos. 149-51).

-- The existence of human rights, based on the dignity of the person (Nos. 152-55).

"The very heart"

After looking at the human person the Compendium then goes on to consider other basic principles that "constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching" (No. 160). The first of these is the common good.

The common good is more than just a simple sum of individual goods in society. It is the total of conditions that allow people to reach their fulfillment more fully and easily (No. 164). These conditions vary according to the concrete historical conditions, but include such elements as a commitment to peace, a sound juridical system and the provision of essential services.

The state has a responsibility to safeguard the common good, but individuals are also responsible for helping to develop it, according to the possibilities open to each one. The state is also charged with reconciling the particular goods of groups and individuals and the general common good. This is a delicate task, notes the Compendium, and in a democratic system authorities must be careful to interpret the common good not only according to the wishes of the ...

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