Modern thought concerning the Catholic social teaching in the Church can find its foundations laid out in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.” Catholic social teaching traces its roots back to the writings of Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo, who based their observations off the biblical texts and philosophical and theological reflections. Pope Leo XIII addressed the issues with oppression, the role of the state, subsidiarity, social organization, the concern for social justice and the problems of wealth distribution.
He laid out the following seven themes in order of precedence: Life and Dignity of the Human Person, Call to Family, Community, and Participation, Rights and Responsibilities, Option for the Poor and Vulnerable, The Dignity of Work and the rights of Workers, Solidarity, and finally, the Care for God’s Creation. The life and dignity of the human person is the most important social justice issue according to Pope Leo. Subsequent popes would continue to emphasize this point with further letters, homilies and other encyclicals.
The Catholic Church, first and foremost, proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of all principles concerning social justice issues. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and called all of his creation “good.” Yet, the culmination of God’s work was the creation of man, which he called “very good,” because only man is made in the image and likeness of God. Man was given care and stewardship of God’s creation, and in doing so, man was expected to give glory to God in return. If we truly want to have justice in the world, we must begin with respecting the life and dignity of every human person, the first and foremost of God’s creation. All other social issues flow from this first principle of Catholic social teaching.