RCSC 102: Society and Spirituality

A Practical Overview of Catholic Social Teaching

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Do you ever get confused by debates about social issues? Do you ever get frustrated by the way politics plays out and how people with opposing political views never seem to have constructive conversations? Do you ever get the feeling that the REAL issues behind problems like abortion, the economy, immigration, and racism aren't really being dealt with in public and private conversations? If so, this course is for you.

In this practical overview of Catholic Social Teaching, you will learn about the purpose of social living, from God's perspective, and about the principles that are necessary to help any society achieve that purpose. This course will help you have a clear but profound understanding of key concepts that are often used in confusing and contradictory ways - concepts like the common good, human dignity and human rights, social justice, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the universal destination of goods.

As an overview, the course will not dig into the current issues in today's headlines (those will be dealt with in future courses, I hope), but it will equip you to be able to do just that in an intellectually and emotionally satisfying, and in a truly Christ-centered, way.

Here is the text of the course syllabus:

Society and Spirituality: A Practical Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching, Online Course Syllabus

Course Designer: Fr John Bartunek, LC, SThD

Online Course Troubleshooter: Teresa Chabot

Course Modality: Self-Directed, Do-It-Yourself

Course Objectives and Description:

Many people make reference to “Catholic Social Teaching” in public and private discourse about social, political, and economic problems and issues. And yet, these many people very often disagree about the solutions to those problems and the significance of those issues. Sometimes those disagreements become passionate, confusing, and even scandalous. How can this be? Does this mean that Catholic Social Teaching is impractical, useless, or irrelevant? It is our hope that this online course will shed some light on these questions and allow you, the student, to understand what is at play in those disagreements while also benefiting personally from the wisdom behind Catholic Social Teaching. Specifically, the course has four concrete objectives:

  1. Students will attain a clear understanding of the fundamental concepts and principles that form the core Catholic Social Teaching.
  2. Students will develop the capacity to analyze social problems so as to clearly distinguish between unchanging principles and variable, prudential judgments/policies.
  3. Students will be enabled to apply the wisdom of Catholic Social Teaching to the various communities of which they are members (e.g. family, parish, work, team, State, Nation).
  4. Students will be enabled to speak intelligently and convincingly about Catholic Social Teaching with other people, both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Course Requirements:

This version of the online course is designed to be done at your own pace as individuals or small groups, without the assistance of the Instructor. It will require you to:

  • Watch attentively all of the recorded presentations
  • Read attentively the occasional short readings
  • Reflect attentively on the questions for assimilation and/or group discussion
  • Use the short, occasional quizzes as a way to test your own assimilation


Since the mid-19th century the Catholic Church has gradually developed a coherent body of doctrine regarding how best to organize human societies. This body of doctrine is commonly known as Catholic Social Teaching, or Catholic Social Doctrine. This online course, Society and Spirituality: A Practical Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching, presents the essential elements of this doctrine in a clear, organic, and practical way. This online course is meant to be an overview of this body of doctrine, and so it will not go into detail about the history, development, or specific controversies surrounding that history and development. Rather, this course will present the fundamental concepts and principles of this body of doctrine in such a way as to show how they relate to each other and how they can be used to help untangle difficult social issues. The following topics will be addressed in this order:

Intro: Why study Catholic Social Teaching? Four excellent reasons.

  • a. Introduction
  • b. Short reading: Carefully read the syllabus and the list of official Church documents regarding Catholic Social Teaching

Lesson 01: What Is “Catholic Social Teaching”?

  • a. Video Lecture 01: What Catholic Social Teaching Is NOT
  • b. Video Lecture 02: What Catholic Social Teaching IS
  • c. Questions for personal reflection and assimilation [and/or discussion]

Lesson 02: What is “The Common Good” and what are some common misunderstandings of this term?

  • a. Video Lecture 03: Mistaken Concepts of the Common Good
  • b. Video Lecture 04: What IS the Common Good and Its Three Constitutive Elements?
  • c. Questions for personal reflection and assimilation [and/or discussion]

Lesson 03: The First Essential Element of the Common Good: What do we really mean by “Human Dignity” and what is its relationship to the Common Good?

  • a. Video Lecture 05: Human dignity and the common good
  • b. Video Lecture 06: Human dignity and human rights, and how to distinguish true rights from false rights
  • c. Questions for personal reflection and assimilation [and/or discussion]

Lesson 04: The Second Essential Element of the Common Good: What do we mean by “Development and Social Well-Being” and what is the relationship between Development and the Common Good?

  • a. Video Lecture 07: Development and the Common Good
  • b. Short Readings [see “readings for Lesson 04”]:
    • Spe Salvi #s 22-24 on the “ambiguity of progress”
    • Centesimus Annus #s 49-51 on the Church’s service to the human community

Lesson 05: The Third Essential Element of the Common Good: What do we mean by “Peace” and what is its relationship to the Common Good?

  • a. Video Lecture 08: Peace, Social Justice, and the Common Good
  • b. Video Lecture 09: Peace and Social Authority
  • c. Video Lecture 10: Peace and Legitimate Defense
  • d. Video Lecture 11: Peace and Capital Punishment
  • e. First self-evaluation quiz [see “Quiz 01 for Society and Spirituality”]

Lesson 06: Principles of Action

  • a. Video Lecture 12: Principles of Action in General and the Principle #1: Solidarity and shared responsibility for the common good
  • b. Video Lecture 13: Principle of Action #2: Subsidiarity and healthy limits of legitimate authority
  • c. Video Lecture 14: Principle of Action #3: The Universal Destination of Goods, Private Property, and some conditions for integral development
  • d. Second self-evaluation quiz [see “Quiz 02 for Society and Spirituality”]


Throughout the course, students will be given short readings that will help them assimilate the material covered in the lectures. These readings will be taken mostly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). Both of these documents in their entirety are available for free on the Vatican website (vatican.va). The Catechism is the surest guide we have to the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The Compendium attempts to expand on the basic principles, offering reflections about how those principles should be understood and how they can apply to various social situations. To appreciate the Compendium fully, however, one must first have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of this branch of theology. That is what this course hopes to supply, and that is why we do not use the Compendium as a kind of “textbook” for the course. In fact, there is no textbook. The lectures themselves are the textbook. (Even the DoCat, a kind of catechism on Social Doctrine created for young people, can be easily misunderstood in parts without a clear grasp of the fundamentals and how they fit together.)

Below you will find a list of the major papal and conciliar writings that comprise the magisterial written expression of Catholic Social Teaching. The list shows how extensive the writings are. These magisterial documents are not always easy to understand; they are written for particular historical contexts and with an assumption that the readers have a basic knowledge of the basic principles. In order to appreciate them fully, therefore, one must first have a solid grasp of the fundamentals. The lectures will sometimes refer to passages from these writings, but for the most part, the course presents a dependable synthesis of the basic principles, which will enable you to read these papal encyclicals and letters more fruitfully after you have completed the course.

It is important, however, to read through the list at least once, so as to familiarize yourself at least with the titles and the scope of these documents.

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1700-1715 (Man: The Image of God); 1877-1986 (The Human Community); 2030-2082 (Moral Life); 2104-2109 (The Right to Religious Freedom); 2168-2330; 2401-2513 (The Social Commandments)
  • Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004
  • DoCat, Catholic Social Teaching for Youth (ed. Bernhard Meuser)

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum [On Capital and Labor], 15 May 1891

Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno [Reconstruction of the Social Order], 15 May 1931

Ven. Pius XII, Christmas Radio Messages, 24 December 1941&1942; The Ideal Film, 21 June 1955

St. John XXIII:

Mater et Magistra [The Church as Mother and Teacher of All Nations], 15 May 1961

Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth], 11 April 1963

The Second Vatican Council:

Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World], 7 December 1965

Dignitatis Humanae [Declaration on Religious Freedom], 7 December 1965

Bl. Paul VI:

Populorum Progressio [On the Development of Peoples], 26 March 1967

Octagesima Adveniens [On the 80th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum], 14 May 1971

St. John Paul II:

Laborem Exercens [On Human Work], 14 September 1981

Solicitudo Rei Socialis [On Social Concerns], 30 December 1987

Centesimus Annus [On the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum], 1 May 1991

Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate [Charity in Truth], 7 July 2009

Francis, Laudato Si [On Care for our Common Home], 24 May 2015

Papal Messages for the World Day of Peace, 1 January, annually, beginning in 1968

Papal Discourses to the United Nations, Bl. Paul VI (4 October 1965), St. John Paul II (2 October 1979, 5 October 1995), Benedict XVI (18 April 2008), Francis (25 September 2015)

Your Instructor

Fr. John Bartunek, LC S.Th.D
Fr. John Bartunek, LC S.Th.D

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He has taught moral theology at various ecclesiastical institutions at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, Inside the Passion, the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican¹s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist.

His most widely known book is called The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer . It is the first of three meditation books that make us his “Complete Christian Collection”. The other two are: Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength, and Go! 30 Meditations on How Best to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. In 2016 he published a series of meditation books delving into the spiritual values behind the natural world: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Meditations. A compilation of his many online answers to questions about the spiritual life was published in book form as: Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions. He continues answering fresh questions online at SpiritualDirection.com.

His ongoing series of Do-It-Yourself online Catholic Retreat Guides are available in multiple formats at RCSpirituality.org. Fr. John currently resides in Michigan, where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director.

Course Curriculum

  Lesson Four: The Second Essential Element of the Common Good: Development and Social Well-Being
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