Supporting Article

Catholic Social Thought

A Contribution to Civil Society in Contemporary China

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical, entitled in Latin Rerum Novarum—generally translated “Making All Things New.” Encyclicals are papal letters containing official Catholic Church teaching about a topic of concern. They are sent to Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church all over the world and are intended for a wide general audience. Thereafter, eleven other encyclicals addressing universal social issues followed from successive Popes. In 1991, Pope John Paul II issued a document entitled Centesimus Annus, “On the One Hundredth Anniversary.” This body of teachings includes five of the major documents of Vatican Council II and the post-council period. Taken together, the twelve documents constitute what is commonly known as Catholic Social Thought (CST) and contain analysis and commentary on the major social issues of the day affecting the masses of people in every land.

Catholic Social Thought forms a compendium of ethical and moral teachings that have been favorably received not only by Roman Catholics, but by Christian believers of every tradition, and by many people of other orientations. CST provides the principles and rationale for engaging with the critical social issues and problems that arise from time to time in every society. It offers inspiration, motivation and practical guidelines for all those who accept that the gospel teachings of Jesus Christ call for the social betterment and advancement of the entire human community. In every sphere of human endeavor, CST challenges us to manifest charity, mercy and compassion for our neighbors near and far with the ultimate goal of realizing the global common good with equitable justice and peace for all peoples.

The Gospel and Social Service in China Today

It is a common lament in North America that Catholic Social Thought is a “well kept secret.” It will not be surprising, therefore, to learn that knowledge of and appreciation for the Church’s teaching on human development and social justice are not widespread, even in the Catholic Church in China. Yet, the Christian churches in China have always had a strong commitment to providing social welfare services and ministering to the most basic needs of people. Major social, medical and educational institutions were the hallmark of the modern missionary era dating from the early 19th century until the advent of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949.

Following the initiation of the “Reform and Opening” period in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, religious belief and activities were once again allowed to function in Chinese society. While the priority for the Christian churches was recovery and restoration of their sanctuaries for worship and prayer, followed by the education and training of new generations of Church leaders, the commitment to reactivate Christian social service ministry was evidenced early by the establishment in 1985 of the Amity Foundation.

Amity is a semi-autonomous, voluntary, nonprofit organization created on the initiative of Chinese Protestants to promote education, social and health services, and rural development in China’s poorest coastal regions and western ethnic minority areas. While no equivalent national organization yet exists under Chinese Catholic Church auspices, many hundreds of local parishes have begun to provide care and services for those in need in their areas.

In the past five or more years, very professional Catholic social service centers have been officially established under diocesan auspices in several major cities. These centers offer an array of services and administer social development projects in both urban and rural districts. These services and projects include education and preventive programs to empower the people to improve their own health and well being, the provision of infrastructure-type projects and mechanisms to raise living standards and foster the overall social and human well-being of communities and people, and necessary responses to natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes. It is important to note that these programs are provided at minimal, if any, cost and are extended to all those in need, regardless of religious affiliation. Such dedication and commitment on the part of Christians in China to respond in charity, mercy and compassion to the needs of their neighbors springs, as it does for Christians everywhere, from their basic understanding and acceptance of Christian doctrine and biblical teachings.

The Church in the Public Square

What remains a major challenge in China, as in many other nations, is for people of faith to take on a wider role in their societies, a role that goes beyond simply providing remedial welfare services and programs developed on an ad hoc basis in reaction to manifest need. A more pro-active and foundational approach is required to bring about the structural changes that will prevent constantly having to deal with the same recurrent social evils and problems generation after generation. A more holistic approach that addresses root causes of social problems, care for all of God’s creation in efforts to protect the environment and preserve the ecological infrastructure of our material world, and the development of a more equitable and just distribution system for sharing of material goods and resources are but some of the critical issues calling for dynamic and authentic Christian witness. This type of Christian social service requires a more profound grasp of the fullest implications of the Ten Commandments, of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and of the beauty and depth of the gospel teachings about love of neighbor.

Catholic Social Thought provides one approach to sustain and guide this more far-reaching approach to social and communal justice, to the pursuit of the global common good and to the realization of true peace for all peoples. It is encouraging and very promising for the future of the Church’s engagement in the public sector that the major documents spelling out these traditional teachings are part of the theological curriculum taught every year in China’s fourteen major Catholic seminaries. This means that many of the future pastoral leaders in the local Chinese churches will be imbued with these principles and teachings. They will be equipped to employ a solid philosophical rationale in the choice of activities and strategies to foster a larger role for religion in the public square. By extension, this knowledge and understanding can be used in their preaching and teaching for local Christian communities. Chinese Christians in their everyday lives and social interaction will thereby become key agents of social changes that can benefit the whole society.

Affirming the Role of Religion in Chinese Society

As in every society, significant social transformation and basic socioeconomic restructuring produce many challenges and difficulties. China’s former social system, which sought to provide nearly universal social security and supplied basic social needs for all the people, no longer functions effectively. The private sector, including religious organizations and individuals, are increasingly challenged to step into the breach. What is most needed in China today is a new code of moral and ethical principles to undergird this social transformation.

The need for religion to play a larger role and be welcomed in the public square is widely acknowledged in many circles. China’s scholarly and professional elites have begun to affirm the inclusion of religion in the common task of modernization. A recent essay reviewing the prospects, challenges and hindrances faced by those devoted to religious studies and research in Chinese academia observes that there has been a progression in appreciation for the role of Christianity, not only for its scientific and cultural achievements in the earlier missionary eras, but also for its later efforts in education, medicine, and agriculture.[1]

Gradually, the largely negative interpretation of religion of dogmatic Marxism is being set aside in favor of a more open attitude towards the view of “religion as culture.” The vacillating dynamics in the relationship between Christianity and Chinese society is currently in a more positive phase in which it is becoming quite acceptable to acknowledge the commitment and contribution of Christianity to China’s development. Many are discovering in Christianity the moral teachings and altruistic principles to support the formation of a new “spiritual civilization.” Many are persuaded that this is a necessary requisite to rationalize and guide China’s developing role as a responsible world power in the global community.

Christian believers, however, must not be compromised by this utilitarian view of religion. Pragmatism should not be permitted to become a substitute for a principled approach to social and civic well being. The solid biblical and theological principles of Christian social doctrine must remain an essential component of the social discourse between Church and State in China. In this sense, Catholic Social Thought, especially the more recent and very cogent teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, can provide an invaluable contribution to the emergence of a socially just and humane civil society in China in the twenty-first century.[2]



  1. ^ Dr. Jean Paul Weist, “Religious Studies and Research in Chinese Academia: Prospects, Challenges and Hindrances,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 29 No. 1, January 2005.
  2. ^ See also, Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
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Janet Carroll

Dr. Janet Carroll, M.M., currently serves as the outreach program associate with the U.S. Catholic China Bureau and formerly served as the Bureau's executive director with overall responsibility for a program of education and outreach relating the Catholic Churches in North America and China.View Full Bio