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A Closer Look: The Domestic Church & Catholic Social Doctrine

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The Gospel of St. Matthew ends with the charge of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations, . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). And in the very last words of Christ before His ascension, He tells His disciples, “you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Together, these last words of Jesus tell us both what we are to do, and how we are to do it. Sometimes called the “great commission,” the charge in Matthew is the foundation of the Church’s mandate to “evangelize”—to spread the “good message”—of the Gospel. The words from Acts tell us the primary way we accomplish that is not by argument, but rather by being faithful witnesses of this good news.

The family has a necessary role in this mandate. Indeed, from a chronological perspective, the family is the “first Church – the primary place we are evangelized and the most important public witness of the good news. In this context, the family is the primary model of what has become known as Catholic Social Doctrine – the four-fold body of teaching that demonstrates how the Gospel works in the world.


The foundation of social doctrine is the dignity of the human person. Sometimes this is articulated as respecting human life “from conception to natural death.” While this is correct, this formulation may not capture the full depth of the meaning of human dignity.

For example, being a witness to the dignity of human life begins before conception. It is not just about preserving and protecting life that has been conceived, but rather being open to the possibility of new life. Even our evangelical Christian brothers and sisters who are opposed to killing the unborn and aged, have no problem with preventing them from being conceived in the first place. It is difficult to be a consistent witness to the goodness of lives that are if we are not welcoming of the lives that may be. As Pope St. John Paul put it in the encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, “contraception and abortion are . . . fruits of the same tree.”

Closing ourselves to the possibility of new life sends a message that a life’s dignity is dependent on our decision to bestow it. This is a false witness. We Catholics must be witnesses that the dignity of life comes from God, not from our personal whims.


The doctrine of subsidiarity teaches us that social goals and challenges must be addressed at the most local and immediate level possible. As Pope Pius XI famously said in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, it is both “gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative,” and “a grave evil . . . of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

In this context, the family is not only the first Church for most of us, it is the first unity of society. As such, the family is the primary locus of the care, nurture, and education of the human person. The family is the place where we learn individual moral responsibility, and familial support and nurture. While it is certainly true that many social goods can only be accomplished through larger units of society, this deference must only occur in those instances where they cannot be accomplished by the family.


Closely related to subsidiarity is the doctrine of solidarity. For the family to be the primary locus of meeting its own needs, it must cultivate a strong sense of solidarity. The individual members of the family are only as strong as the family as a unit. The doctrine of solidarity is a witness to the inherently social nature of human beings. We are not isolated individuals, but rather connected beings, who recognize ourselves only in relation to the other. We witness to the Gospel by our openness and commitment to the other, beginning with the family and radiating outward to the broader society.

In the practice of vulnerability and openness in the family, we learn the habits and practices that become the virtues that support solidarity. People correctly say that policies related to immigration, health care, and social welfare are open to careful prudential judgment. But we should not use this as an excuse to dismiss these issues, but rather to think more carefully how our position on these issues reflects our commitment to solidarity. We are Jesus’ witnesses when we witness to the natural solidarity of all people, without regard to ethnicity, nationality, religion, or any other demographic.


Finally, the Catholic family must be a witness to the sum of these doctrines: common good. The individual dignity and moral agency of every member must be recognized and supported. But we witness to the Gospel by recognizing that the goods of individuals are ordered toward the good of the whole. This can never be coerced. Rather, each member of the family must recognize that commitment to dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity naturally leads to a concern for the good of the family, rather than to oneself. Common good is not measured by the sum of individual goods, but rather by the good of the whole. The Catholic family, above all, must recognize that the well-being of the whole is greater than the needs of the individuals. We cannot witness to this truth unless we live it ourselves. The Catholic family does not have a choice about being a witness to the world. The only question is whether we are witnesses of the good news, or something else.

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Boston College, and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law.

This article appeared in the July 2021 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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