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Catholic Social Teaching and the way we work

Mary Bryant

A version of this article appeared in Uniya's Meeting Place, Winter 2007

Workplace rights and ethics have been ongoing concerns for me as a social worker employed in the not–for-profit sector for more than eighteen years. The introduction of the new workplace relations legislation in 2006 again brought the issue into the public arena for debate and consideration. However, it is not the legal framework or industrial landscape that I wish to focus on. Rather, it is the ideological and moral choices we make as managers, board members and staff in the workplace.

The question that has haunted me for most of my career is how do we treat each other as staff members? How do we treat each other every day in tea-rooms, in meetings and in the decisions we make? And does our behaviour in the workplace mirror and confirm the values we proclaim to the wider community in regard to justice and empowerment?

In her “Brief Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching”, Sandie Cornish writes:

Catholic Social Teaching sums up the teachings of the Catholic Church on social justice issues. It promotes a vision of a just society that is grounded in the Bible and in the wisdom gathered from experience by the Christian community.[1]

These teachings are expressed formally in the teaching documents of the Church, such as Papal Encyclicals and the pastoral letters of bishops.

Cornish identifies six themes as foundational to Catholic Social Teaching (CST).[2] Managers, board members and staff may ask themselves how each of these apply to the decisions they make in their work.

Human dignity and human family unity

Cornish writes:

Human dignity is the starting point and central concern of Catholic thinking about human rights. Each person is created in the image and likeness of God and so has an inalienable, transcendent, God- given dignity.[3]

It follows that the Catholic tradition is opposed to anything that is anti-life or that “violates the integrity of the human person.”[4]

She continues, “From this principle we can derive the following criteria to help judge a social situation: ‘Does this situation respect and promote human dignity?’, and, ‘What is happening to people, and to their human dignity?’”[5]

As a board member, manager or colleague, one is asked to consider the implications and consequences of decisions, communication and/or policies and procedures, taking into account the human dignity of each person. Do the policies and procedures, decision or communication under consideration respect and promote the dignity of each person affected by it or do they devalue it?


The document continues:

The principle of solidarity means that we are all … responsible for each other. It is not about a vague sort of compassion or shallow distress at others’ misfortune, but involves a determination to commit oneself to working for change so that everyone will be able to reach their potential. It is about respect for, and the promotion of, the dignity and rights of our sisters and brothers.[6]

This principle has significant implications for managers, board members and staff. It asks them to consider how they can be part of the solution to issues faced by their colleagues. It offers the opportunity to act collegially in a genuine and principled fashion to create policies and procedures that include rather than exclude.

Managers might ask how accessible their organisation is. This question might include consideration of physical access. But it is not limited to that. How have we changed our organisation to include the needs of women, parents, people who live with a mental illness, or Indigenous people? The principle asks organisations to consider the decisions they make in recruitment, organisational culture, policies and procedures, employment practices and the governance models that are operating. The question challenges managers, board members and staff to act in a way that advances the other, avoiding language and communication that marginalises, stereotypes and/or judges.

The common good

Cornish states:

The common good is understood as the collection of social conditions that make it possible for each social group and all of their individual members to achieve their potential. It means that each social group must take account of the rights and aspirations of other groups, and of the well-being of the whole human family. The rights and duties of individuals and groups must be harmonised under the common good.
Questions that flow from these principles when judging a social situation might include: ‘Are the benefits enjoyed by some groups attained only at the cost of other groups?’, and, ‘What are the consequences of this policy for those living in poor countries?’ [7]

This principle asks organisations to consider how they work with and within the larger community. For example, how do they network with other agencies? How do they consider the impact of their work policies and procedures on the larger community? Do they consider the impact of their employment policies on the families of their employees?

Universal destination of goods

Next she states:

The universal destination of goods refers to the fact that God intended the goods of creation for the use of all. Everyone has the right to access the goods of creation to meet their needs. People and nations have no right to squander resources when others are in need. The key question is: ‘Does everyone have access to a large enough share of resources to meet their needs?’”[8]

This principle invites managers, council members and staff to consider how the policies and procedures, which they have in their organisation, impact on the larger community. For example, they may question how they use and/or conserve energy? What is the organisation’s commitment to the care of creation? What policies and procedures have they developed that illustrate their commitment?


Catholic tradition teaches that because of our intelligence and free will, people have both “a right and a duty” to participate in those decisions that most directly affect us.[9]

Cornish states:

They are active in shaping their own destinies rather than simply accepting the decisions of others. This right to participate belongs not only to individuals but also to groups and communities. One way to reflect on participation is to ask: Who wins? Who loses? Who decides?”[10]

This is a critical question for managers, board directors and staff and one that has been particularly relevant to me in my career as a woman in this still patriarchal society. Who decides who has the power? Who has no power and why? What policies and procedures have been developed to ensure that all staff have a voice in the work and direction of the organisation? The idea that one person or small group of people have authority over all staff and decisions appears to be in direct conflict with this principle. The question might be asked, who is invited on to boards and on what basis? For example, if running a refugee organisation, how many of the board members are actually refugees? In any organisation, how many board members are women? Then, ultimately, who has a voice and who makes the decisions?


On this principle she writes:

The principle of subsidiarity places responsibility as close as possible to the grassroots. The people or groups most directly affected by a decision or policy should have a key decision-making role. They should only be interfered with in order to support them in cases of need, and to help coordinate their activities with the activities of the rest of society with a view to the common good.[11]

This principle logically comes from a philosophical position that, unless an issue is beyond the capacity of an individual, those affected by that issue within an organisation should make, or at least be directly involved in making, the decision. Further, consumers and/or clients should be involved on working parties and be consulted regarding work that affects them and/or their service provision.


Catholic Social Teaching provides a framework for human service organisations in the not-for-profit sector, particularly those in the Catholic social justice arena. They might consider evaluating their commitment, authenticity and integrity in practicing, in their own organisational operations, the values that they espouse to the public. We need to ensure that we act with integrity in doing justice – and more importantly, that we value the rights and opinions of those we work with.

In the absence of a uniform commitment to professional standards, the application of CST principles in a Catholic workplace offers managers, boards and staff a benchmark, guideline and reference point to consider when they are making decisions, developing policy and managing staff.

I have suggested only prompts and examples from each of the principles that Cornish identifies. The challenge is now for organisations, board members and employees to ask themselves these questions and indeed for all of us to commit to practising what we preach.

[1] Sandie Cornish, “Brief Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching”, Australian Catholic Social Justice Council website, http://www.acsjc.org.au/content/pdf/cst_intro.pdf, 1.
[2] Ibid., 1.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid., 2.
[5] Ibid., 2.
[6] Ibid., 2.
[7] Ibid., 2.
[8] Ibid., 2.
[9] Ibid., 2.
[10] Ibid., 2.
[11] Ibid., 2.

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