The great pagan philosopher Aristotle, who lived over 300 years before Christ, described man as a “social animal”. He meant that one of the main characteristics of human beings is to relate with others. And the relationships that people forge are at the root of what we call “society”.
Aristotle also argued that people who do not act “according to their nature are no different from the common cabbage”! For him, society was so important that people have to relate to one another not simply to live well, but to live at all.
Aristotle was simply tapping in to something more fundamental: that people survive by living and working in relation with each other. The Bible itself recognises this: “it is not good for man to be alone”, we are reminded in the book of Genesis. Men and women are made for relationship: with God, and with each other.
The Church has always taught that the human person is the pinnacle of creation, being made in the image and likeness of God. So she therefore also teaches that we are (or at least ought to be) “the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 402). The family and civic community are societies that are necessary; other associations at national and international level are also important.
Since the Church gives such importance to the necessity of people living in, and building, society, it reminds us of a basic principle, called the principle of subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity states that, “A community of a higher order should not assume the task belonging to a community of a lower order and deprive it of its authority. It should rather support it in case of need” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 403). This principle reflects the fundamental idea that as beings made for social relation, men and women have a basic right to order their own affairs. An example of this is that a government (“a community of a higher order”) has no right to deprive, say, a married couple (“a community of a lower order”) of having more than one child. The couple has the right (and the duty) to fulfil the law of nature and of God in the the planning of their family.
This does not mean that individuals have the right to act as they please. Every human community needs a legitimate authority that preserves order and contributes to the realisation of the common good. The “common good”, which is the sum of the conditions that society provides for people to reach their proper fulfilment, must be respected by one and all. Respect for and promotion of the fundamental rights of the person, the development of the spiritual and temporal goods of persons and society, and the peace and security of all, are examples of the way in which the common good should be upheld. The foundation of such authority, which grounds the exercise of the common good, lies in human nature, which itself corresponds to the order established by God.
With these underlying principles in mind, it becomes easier to see how the Church’s activity in social justice issues is so important. Not only does such activity build up society and so reflect the demands of the natural law, but it also builds up the kingdom of God, to which all human society is ultimately aimed.