The USCCB, in a document entitled "Themes of Catholic Social Teachings," states the following:
The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching.
The key element of Catholic social teaching is the dignity of the human being. But what exactly is meant by the "dignity" of the human being. After much study, prayer and thought I am ready to put forth my concept of the dignity of the human person.
The dignity of humans has three elements. The first element is the dignity with which everyone is born. It is the inherent dignity that comes from being made in the image of God. Every human has this dignity and deserves to be treated with respect and thoughtfulness because of this dignity. It is from this fundamental dignity that the foundation of human rights are established.
The second element is the dignity that humans earn from living a virtuous life. The practice of the cardinal virtues lends dignity to one's life regardless of their socio-economic or political status.
The third element is the dignity that humans earn from the fruit of their labors. This is often overlooked in our society today. As we have moved further away from an agrarian society toward a post industrial society the value of a man's labor is often neglected or devalued to strictly monetary terms. This is really tragic because there is much dignity in a good day's work. There is much value to the human soul in participating with God in providing for one's self, family and neighbors.
These three elements encompass the whole of human dignity and take into account the total of a person's life not just his conception.
Let us now take a moment to reflect on Catholic social teachings with this understanding of human dignity in mind. The goal of Catholic social teachings, as I understand it, is to uphold, affirm and elevate the dignity of all humans, with special attention paid to those most vulnerable in our society. This is a most noble and praiseworthy goal. I believe it captures the essence of the gospel commandment "to love our neighbor as ourselves."
It is obvious that we as Catholics and I daresay all Christians have a moral obligation to help those that are less fortunate. I believe it is the highest of human endeavors to care for the sick, widowed and orphaned. I also believe that "to whom much is given much is expected." We in America have been blessed with much. These blessings are not just limited to our material wealth but also include the wonderful spiritual and moral heritage that we have inherited. Americans are the most generous and giving of any industrialized nation. In fact it is not even close as the following website documents. (http://www.american.com/archive/2008/march-april-magazine-contents/a-nation-of-givers) Another study showed that the per capita giving of Americans more than doubles the closest per capita giving of any European nation.
This is not to disparage another nations or peoples. I point these facts out because it is important that we approach the issues of social justice from the foundation of truth not merely political hyperbole.
Having laid now a rather lengthy foundation, I will in the next part begin discussing the difference between the common political use of the term social justice and what I have come to understand as the substance of Catholic social teachings.