For well over a century, Catholic social teaching has advocated for generous social welfare policies that assist members of poor and marginalized communities. Efforts to understand and describe the shape and influence of these advocacy endeavors, naturally conducted primarily by social scientists and historians of policy, must be grounded in foundational theological considerations, as well as an appreciation of recent church history. Among the topics of central relevance are the tensions within these teachings between: (1) engagement and intervention; (2) key contending metaphors, such as “blueprint” and “yardstick”; and (3) the interplay between universal principles and local applications. Only by first appreciating these tensions in their historical and theological dimensions may a fully adequate portrayal of the purpose and influence of Catholic social teaching emerge, even if a significant share of these tensions remains ultimately unresolved. Clarifying these key issues in the developing self-awareness of Catholic social teaching enhances our ability to chart a course forward regarding the prospect of fostering social change, even within highly challenging pluralistic contexts. Adhering to hard-won lessons from past social involvements will allow Catholicism to retain its constructive influence on future social welfare policy.
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