Introduction and historical summary

The publication of Rerum novarum in 1891 marked the beginning of the development of a recognisable body of social teaching in the Catholic Church. It dealt with persons, systems and structures, the three co-ordinates of the modern promotion of justice and peace, now established as integral to the Church's mission. In the years which followed there have been numerous encyclicals and messages on social issues; various forms of Catholic action developed in different parts of the world; and social ethics taught in schools and seminaries. But we had to wait until Vatican II and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World to find the statement that brought a change in the overall Church attitude to its presence in the world, and a call for the setting up of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to help the Church respond to the challenges in the world.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church indicated at the same time that, the laity enjoy a principal role in the universal fulfilment of the task of helping the world attain its destiny in justice, in love and in peace (LG #36). In the document on the mission of the laity, it was given to pastors to set forth clearly the principles concerning the purpose of creation and the use of the goods of the world, and to provide moral and spiritual support for the renewal of the temporal order in Christ (AA #7). The setting up of the Pontifical Council after the publication in 1968 of the encyclical Popolorum Progressio, led in time to the setting up of many local commissions and the development within religious orders of a new consciousness of their mission.

The Synod of Bishops in 1971 is another landmark in the Church's understanding of her mission. In this synod, under the title Justice in the World, the bishops pronounced the now often quoted words The work of justice is an integral part of the Church's mission of Evangelisation (# 5). Pope John Paul II continues reflecting on this commitment with several encyclicals and numerous statements throughout his pastoral visits.

In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II, summarises what went before: "During the last hundred years the Church has repeatedly expressed her thinking, while closely following the continuing development of the social question. She has certainly not done this in order to recover former privileges or to impose her own vision. Her sole purpose has been the care and responsibility for humankind, entrusted to her by Christ ... the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake ... We are not dealing here with something abstract but with real, concrete historical men and women. We are dealing with each individual since each one is included in the mystery of Redemption, and through this mystery Christ has united himself with each one forever. It follows that .. this humankind is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission ... the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption.

"Today the Church's social teaching focuses especially on men and woman as they are involved in a complex network of relationships within modern societies. The human sciences and philosophy are helpful for interpreting the human person's central place within society and for providing a better understanding of what it means to be a social being. However, a person's true identity is only fully revealed through faith, and it is precisely from faith that the Church's social teaching begins. While drawing upon all the contributions made by the sciences and philosophy, her social teaching is aimed at helping humankind on the path of salvation" (Centesimus Annus, # 53-54).

The principles at the heart of the Church's teaching are:

One of the greatest challenges we face in the post-Cold War world is to enhance and strengthen peace. Peacemaking requires building the structures of peace, not just proclaiming peaceful ideals. Real peace brings with it the possibility for development, and development in turn strengthens peace.