For decades, the social sciences have been the predominant locus for research on social capital, but there is an overlooked opportunity for constructive engagement with the Catholic Church’s long social tradition. As a self-identified “expert in humanity” (John Paul II 1987, n41), the Catholic Church has much that commends its philosophers and theologians as interdisciplinary partners reflecting on what constitutes true social capital. Such a normative exercise seeks to distinguish authentic and productive social capital instantiated in trust, norms, and networks among persons for the achievement of common goods, rather than perverse and destructive counterfeits that breed mistrust, corruption, and alienation. This paper argues that the four permanent principles of Catholic social doctrine—the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the dignity of the human person—can establish clear, normative principles that social scientists can use as they investigate the social realities that we as human beings in community constitute and actualize.

Each permanent principle provides particular value for grappling with enduring critiques and questions in social capital research. Responding to criticisms of the rent-seeking nature of associations, the Catholic notion of the common good can be used as a heuristic for evaluating whether or not social organizations contribute to or detract from the achievement of comprehensive outcomes for all members within a group without injury to those outside. The concept of solidarity can further enlighten how to interpret and evaluate agency within associations. Furthermore, notions of tradition and subsidiarity respond to critiques that social capital is neither persistent through time nor alienable. Lastly, the principle of the dignity of the human person, in light of the common good, helps to explain why true social capital will not be destructive to the public good, but always constructive and constitutive of communities and their governing bodies.

Popularized by Robert Putnam in the 1990s, the concept of social capital has occupied a central interest for social scientists seeking to understand the extreme variance in outcomes for economic and social development in the past century.1 Social capital, or the instantiation of trust, informal norms, and personal networks that promote cooperation between two or more individuals, has been hypothesized by many to be the reason why many economies and societies have prospered while others continue mired in material and moral poverty.2 From a development perspective, social capital is thought to play a positive role in economic growth and social progress by reducing costs among those transacting commerce, reducing moral hazard with regard to contract fulfillment, and solving problems of free riding in collective action. Recent advancement in measurement and evaluation has yielded convincing evidence that social capital is a significant factor in long-run, sustainable economic growth and social development of a people.

However, many critics have pointed out that there exist negative economic and social phenomena that seem to be associated with social capital as well. As early as the 1960s, Mancur Olson noted that associationalism, a significant indicator in the measurement of social capital, tends to increase aggregate economic costs due to the intentional rent-seeking of individuals who join the group as a means to lobby special interests.3 Further criticisms by Kenneth Arrow and Mauricio Rubio focus on the intangibility and inalienability of the notion by the former, and the potential for destructive rather than constructive effects of social capital in the case of the latter (see Arrow 2000; Rubio 1997). In order to better understand the complex and often contradictory manifestations of so-called social capital, it would be helpful if theorists and policymakers had a set of common principles and values to which they could refer when making normative judgments on what constitutes authentic definitions and productive manifestations of social capital.

In this paper, I argue that several key principles of Catholic social teaching provide social scientists with suggestions for a framework to reflect on and evaluate what constitutes authentic, beneficial social capital. Responding to criticisms of the rent-seeking nature of associations that manifest so-called social capital, the Catholic conception of the common good can be used as a heuristic tool for evaluating whether or not intermediate associations and social organizations, often located within civil society, contribute to or detract from the achievement of a comprehensive outcome for all members within the group without injury to those outside. The concept of solidarity can be marshaled from the tradition to further enlighten how that interpretation and evaluation of agency within an association ought to take place. Furthermore, notions of tradition and subsidiarity aid in response to Arrow’s critiques that social capital is neither persistent through time nor alienable. Finally, the principle of the dignity of the human person, in light of the common good, helps to explain why true social capital will not be destructive to the public good, but always constructive and constitutive of communities and their governing bodies. Through awareness, adoption, and application of the four permanent principles of Catholic social doctrine—solidarity, common good, subsidiarity, and dignity of the human person—policymakers can more surely foster favorable conditions and recommend action for the unfolding of authentic instantiations of trust that constitute human good both materially and spiritually.

My thesis in this paper is that magisterial documents of Catholic social doctrine suggest strong candidates for normative principles to guide those working in social research and policy so that they avoid corrupt or perverse forms of trust while maximizing the benefits associated with authentic social capital related to development. To argue this, I will explore how Catholic social teaching names several important themes and principles upon which the concept of social capital is grounded and explore how those principles can nuance and refine the prevailing theories of social capital. It is my goal that this study will contribute to new avenues for understanding and applying what constitutes authentic and truly productive social capital from the perspective of integral human development.4

In responding to critiques of a social science concept, it may seem odd to look for grounding principles in the doctrinal tradition of a religion. However, with regard to definitions and theories of social capital, religion, in fact, is a solid candidate for philosophical foundations. Putnam has pointed out the unique and signal importance of churches and other religious organizations in American civil society. He writes, “Churches have provided the organizational and philosophical bases for a wide range of powerful social movements throughout American history, from abolition and temperance in the nineteenth century to civil rights and right-to-life in the twentieth century” (Putnam 1993, 68). He is not alone in recognizing the role and value of religion for articulating grounding principles for social movements that create and constitute social capital, and others have noted that religion provides one of the most important sources of culture, with its norms and networks, which can actualize the social capital for flourishing (see Fukuyama 1999; Kliksberg 2000). The tradition of the Catholic Church’s social teaching is one such source, rich in its history and reflective depth. The remainder of this paper will explore the potential lengths and limits of the Catholic Church’s vision for the human person in society, setting forth principles that may help ground norms for understanding what constitutes authentic social capital as understood in social science as well as presenting the unique contribution that Catholic social action has exemplified the kinds of civil society and collective action that manifest productive social capital. These will directly respond to some critiques of the concept of social capital and show how Catholic social doctrine can contribute to a precise and refined articulation of social capital and its manifestations.

To begin with a point of clarification, the Catholic Church’s social doctrine is not meant to compete with or supplant the valid and necessary work of the social sciences. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) clearly acknowledges the “rightful autonomy of earthly affairs,” the benefits of the progress of science and richness of cultural exchange that have enriched the Church’s own vision and expression of human nature (see Vatican Council II 1965). Pope Paul VI, in his anniversary encyclical reflecting on Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, thought by many to be the initiating document of modern Catholic social teaching, wrote:

The “human sciences” are today enjoying a significant flowering. On the one hand they are subjecting to critical and radical examination the hitherto accepted knowledge about man, on the grounds that this knowledge seems either too empirical or too theoretical. On the other hand, methodological necessity and ideological presuppositions too often lead the human sciences to isolate, in the various situations, certain aspects of man, and yet to give these an explanation which claims to be complete or at least an interpretation which is meant to be all-embracing from a purely quantitative or phenomenological point of view. This scientific reduction betrays a dangerous presupposition. To give a privileged position in this way to such an aspect of analysis is to mutilate man and, under the pretext of a scientific procedure, to make it impossible to understand man in his totality. (Paul VI 1971, n38) 

The Church attempts to hold together the insights of social science, philosophy, and theology according to the truth it safeguards in teaching and practice, so as not to privilege one type of human rational inquiry over another unreflectively (John Paul II 1998, n61). To this end, Pope John Paul II through his apostolic letter Socialum scientiarum established the Pontifical Academy of Social Science, whose aim is the exploration and integration of the fruits of research in these arenas into the Church’s magisterial teachings.5 In cases where the Church identifies dangers to the freedom and dignity of the human person in the method or conclusions of research, it can and does denounce those notions in defense of humanity, on which it claims privileged expertise.6 However, where there is consonance with human values or room for further inquiry and refinement, the Church actively participates through both its official bodies and the work of the laity toward the advancement of human science. The Church’s modern social teaching is meant to be a constructive and critical dialogue with the best of human science for the sake of advancing the human good.

The social teaching of the Church has explicitly worked with the concept of social capital to elaborate the fundamentally social nature of human persons in relationship to one another. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church applies the term in articulating its understanding of the relationship between labor and capital, saying, “The term ‘social capital’ is also used to indicate the capacity of a collective group to work together, the fruit of investments in a mutually-binding fiduciary trust” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace 2004, n276). In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI not only uses the term but also defines it in ways recognizable to its treatment in social science:

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. All things considered, this is also required by “economic logic.” Through the systemic increase of social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries (i.e. the massive increase in relative poverty), not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of “social capital”: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. (Benedict XVI 2009, n32) 

The context of the encyclical was integral human development, and the immediate context of this paragraph was the concern for moral development alongside the positivist proposals and prescriptions of scholars and the policymakers who depend on their research. As noted, many critiques of the concept of social capital in social science itself attend to its moral problematic and its application in policy. Like Putnam, Pope Benedict XVI is concerned with the deterioration of social capital in the face of policies that, in pursuit of economic development, would in fact destroy one of its key components. Appealing to the “dignity of the individual,” “justice,” “steady employment for everyone,” and “social inequality,” the pope is naming principles that require attention when examining development policies with regard to effect on the social capital upon which they rely. Naming and keeping in mind key principles from the social teaching of the Church when discussing social capital and policies that relate to it can not only prevent its erosion but also contribute to its advancement.

For the purposes of this paper, the principles that I will discuss are (1) the common good, (2) solidarity, (3) subsidiarity, and (4) the dignity of the human person. These four are defined as “permanent principles” of Catholic social doctrine in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and they are also elaborated extensively in the sociological research of Pierpaolo Donati, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Science. He argues the merit of a relational approach to understanding these four principles of Catholic social teaching, not only employing the terms together but also defining them in relationship to one another. The relational approach claims that “considered in their social phenomenology, ‘common goods’ are the products of those action systems that have human dignity as their value model (referring not only to the individual as such but also to his or her social relations) and which operate through social forms that are both solidarity and subsidiarity among the subjects concerned” (Donati 2009, 224–25). Because of the complexities of the notion of social capital and its manifestations in the relationships of trust, norms, and networks of persons, it is fitting to approach it from a relational understanding that recognizes the mutual inherence of all principles in all parts of the reality it seeks to describe and judge. Though this constellation of principles is neither canonical nor exhaustive, it names a discrete and useful set that speaks directly to the gaps and critiques of social capital theory.

Social “Capital” and the Common Good

The first critique that requires address is the very use of the term social capital itself, and whether this ought to be the term going forward in research and policy. Several points raised by Manohar Pawar in particular matter here. First, Pawar noted the troubling paradox in the juxtaposition of the words social and capital in the coining of the term, cautioning his readers on naively accepting connotations of a potentially partisan capitalist subtext (see Pawar 2006). The social doctrine of the Church, however, is unequivocal on the priority of human beings as laborers over the instrumental means to their labor in capital. In John Paul II’s encyclical on human work, Laborem exercens, he wrote that “we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the church: the principle of the priority of labor over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: In this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of the means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause” (John Paul II 1981, n12). Human beings are the source and the ultimate end of the capital that they use in production for the goods produced and enjoyed in labor. They have a right to the use of capital and additionally its private ownership for the sake of its efficient use, maintenance, and protection from unjust appropriation by others. At the same time as it affirms the right to private ownership of capital, the Church affirms the universal destination of all goods to prevent the concentrating, exploitative, discriminatory, and individualistic notions of capital from overwhelming the social nature of not only properly called “social” capital but all forms of capital.7 The pope seems to hint at this acceptation of the notion of capital for all instrumental means to labor where he continues:

Further consideration of this question should confirm our conviction of the priority of human labor over what in the course of time we have grown accustomed to calling capital. Since the concept of capital includes not only the natural resources placed at man’s disposal but also the whole collection of means by which man appropriates natural resources and transforms them in accordance with his needs (and thus in a sense humanizes them), it must immediately be noted that all these means are the result of the historical heritage of human labor. (John Paul II 1981, n12) 

According to this statement, the Church ought not necessarily object to the use of social “capital” to describe the phenomenon of those relationships of trust, norms, or networks that facilitate commerce and production. In order to safely do so, however, the Church must constantly advert to the priority of the human laborers in their social milieu over the instrumental means that serve their common good. In the present context, one must remember that the pursuit of social capital itself should never become untethered from the needs and concerns of the human persons in their relationships that constitute and benefit from it.

There is evidence, however, that at times the pursuit and exercise of social capital does exhibit the individualistic, discriminatory, exploitative, and concentrating characteristics that Pawar rightly decries. These are the same critiques that find their root in the work of Mancur Olson on the problem of collective action and rent-seeking individuals and groups. Olson identified that where groups sought to pursue public goods that could be enjoyed by all, but that required the mobilization of common resources voluntarily by its members, there existed the problem of “free riders” and “bandits,” who seek the benefits of such common activities without incurring the costs. Social capital is instantiated in relationships of trust and normative expectations of free individuals in networks that can be exploited by those individuals or subordinate groups who seek their own particular interests at the expense of the wider public interest. For this reason, the principles of common good and solidarity must enlighten theories of social capital to judge those relationships that authentically embody the trust, norms, and networks that attain to true productivity and those that do not.

First, the principle of the common good is a foundation of Catholic social doctrine and needs to norm any potential benefits of relationships that might qualify as authentic social capital. The common good has deep historical roots in the Christian tradition and differs greatly from terms like “general welfare,” “public interest,” or “public goods,” as they are used today. However, David Hollenbach points out that a close contemporary analogue to the classical understanding of the common good lies in a qualified sense of what we call “public goods” today (Hollenbach 2002, 7–9). First, the common good is accessible and available to all members of a community, where one’s enjoyment of it does not diminish or preclude others’ enjoyment of the same good. Second, the common good is nonexcludable, meaning that if a benefit is available to one member, then it is available to all, like the fresh air of a clean environment. What qualifies the common good from contemporary definitions of a public good is the fact that whereas “public goods are largely seen as extrinsic or external to the relationships that exist among those who form the community or society in question,” in the common good, “these positive relationships are, in fact, preconditions for such sharing” (Hollenbach 2002, 8). The common good, therefore, recognizes the good of being a community itself prior to the goods enjoyed or realized posteriorly by the community. The common good recognizes the intrinsic good of being in relationship and as a result enjoys the good fruit of the relationship.

In considerations of social capital, the principle of the common good makes the kinds of relationships necessary for authentic social capital more robust. Like all forms of capital, social capital is instrumental and necessary for achieving further goods and ends, such as profit. However, the principle of common good used to norm those relationships demands that they cannot be merely instrumental, seeking to use others as means, not only to one’s own personal profit but even to the attainment of a genuine public good. Pope Benedict XVI does not disparage profit as a motivation to human development in our time, but he cautions against it as exclusive or ultimate means to development goals: “Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty” (Benedict XVI 2009, n21). His logic in light of the notion of common good is sound, for if a group attains profits or public goods in such a way that ignores or destroys the relationships that realized those ends, the good of the relationship itself is lost and the means to further achievement and enjoyment of those goods is lost as well. For example, intermediate groups such as labor unions, which enjoy trust, common norms, and an intricate network of coordination, can become “rent-seekers” if they do not attend to their responsibility for the common good, looking only for their particular profit at the expense of society as a whole, or even the management and owners of the firms at which they work (Paul VI 1971, n14). By ignoring or denying other relationships in which they are embedded, even if those relationships are themselves imperfect in justice, people can preclude future opportunities for social development. In those deficient cases, instead of development, there is a dangerous exchange of immediate profit for the composite instrumental and constitutive good in the relationship that bore the social capital necessary to achieve it in the present and future.

Solidarity and Subsidiarity: Participation, Reciprocity, and Responsibility

The principle of the common good is a strong norm for evaluating the authenticity of social capital and its exercise, yet it is insufficient. As Pierpaolo Donati notes, “The relational definition of the common good leads to a relational vision of the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity; meaning that subsidiarity and solidarity are seen as two ways of relating to others, both of which acknowledge the dignity of the other” (Donati 2009, 225). The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, considered in relationship to the common good and to each other, will further shed light on the notion of social capital and contribute to filling out gaps and responding to critiques. To unpack that relational understanding of those two principles, I will turn first to solidarity.

A rather recent term in Catholic social teaching, solidarity has quickly gained preeminence in understanding proper social participation and responsibility of one for all.8 It is deeply grounded in a Christian vision of the world as network of grace, in which one finds one’s deepest identity with God, others, and self through the gift of self to others (John Paul II 1991, n41). For this reason, solidarity is an important principle tied to the common good, because it is the principle by which a person identifies his or her own good with the good of others with whom he or she is in relationship. It broadens the perspective of one’s interest beyond self-interest and makes it possible to envision solutions to problems of collective action.

Gaps in social capital theory rooted in Olson’s “rent-seeking” individuals or groups find another response in the principle of solidarity. Evaluating the relationships of trust, norms, and networks in light of the common good attends primarily to the product of social capital, but solidarity attends more directly to the cause of social capital in the persons themselves. It examines the relationships themselves and vets the intention of the persons that constitute them. In many ways, one might envision the possibility of pursuing the common good in an anonymous and general way, attending to the maintenance of those recognizably good relationships but only insofar as they impinge on the good obtained and enjoyed. However, examining social capital through the lens of solidarity makes those relationships vivid and robust. In Centesimus annus, Pope John Paul II wrote:

Apart from the family, other intermediate communities exercise primary functions and give life to specific networks of solidarity. These develop as real communities of persons and strengthen the social fabric, preventing society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass, as unfortunately often happens today. It is in interrelationships on many levels that a person lives, and that society becomes more “personalized”. (John Paul II 1991, n49) 

The personalization of society is constitutive of authentic, robust social capital, and also describes the notion of common good, or “the good of being a community at all—the good realized in the mutual relationships in and through which human beings achieve their well-being” (Hollenbach 2002, 81–82). Attention to the quality of intentional and meaningful relationships as social capital should further allay the fears of critics like Pawar that the notion of social capital obscures the phenomenon’s characteristics of association, its tendency to share itself and spread, its inclusivity, and its inculcation of sympathy. Moreover, it directly attends to a key characteristic norm of all social capital identified by Putnam and so many theorists of social capital—namely, the norm of reciprocity.

Reciprocity was identified by Putnam as the “touchstone of social capital,” the idea of mutual aid with promise for future repayment of a favor received (Putnam 2000, 134). In social, economic, and political contexts, it is the lubricant for the efficient functioning of a dynamic system of exchange of benefits. Reciprocity has an analogue in classical concepts of commutative justice and the lex talionis. However, the Catholic principle of solidarity amplifies this notion. Donati points out that the common good is the fruit of reciprocity stemming from a spirit of free giving, but in the context of solidarity, “reciprocity is a mutual helping, performed in a certain way. In other words, reciprocity is help concretely given by ego to alter in a context of solidarity (that is, one of common responsibility and recognized interdependency). Ego is aware (recognizes) that alter would do the same when required; namely, alter would assume his or her responsibility within the limits he or she can afford when ego needs it” (Donati 2009, 225). Here, the value of the efficient exchange is not only the cost-benefit analysis of present sacrifice for future gain, a feature that Arrow had claimed was not present in accounts of social capital as legitimate “capital” in economic terms, but additionally the recognition of the dignity of the person in need and desire to contribute to his or her good and the common good through one’s voluntary gift. Solidarity gives a human face to the other in the reciprocal exchange and sees one’s own face and even, in a Christian context, that of Christ in the other. When solidarity is a lived principle in one’s community, then social capital has deeper and sounder roots for further growth and fruits.

The question still remains, however, how the principle of solidarity can inform situations where there remain “free riders” or “bandits” who would seek to take advantage of the generalized norm of trust in relationships where social capital exists. Are there resources within the principle of solidarity to respond and sanction that behavior without impairing the common good? Much like Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary … but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”9 The principle of solidarity has the resources needed to check the ambitions and foibles of human beings who are, very generously speaking, little less than angels. First, the principle of solidarity can lay out the consequences of consistent disregard of the principle by members who rely on the expectation of adherence to the norms, as Benedict XVI did:

Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss. It was timely when Paul VI in Populorum Progressio insisted that the economic system itself would benefit from the wide-ranging practice of justice, inasmuch as the first to gain from the development of poor countries would be rich ones. According to the Pope, it was not just a matter of correcting dysfunctions through assistance. The poor are not to be considered a “burden,” but a resource, even from the purely economic point of view. It is nevertheless erroneous to hold that the market economy has an inbuilt need for a quota of poverty and underdevelopment in order to function at its best. It is in the interests of the market to promote emancipation, but in order to do so effectively, it cannot rely only on itself, because it is not able to produce by itself something that lies outside its competence. It must draw its moral energies from other subjects that are capable of generating them. (Benedict XVI 2009, n35) 

By warning of the collapse of the very system the “free riders” and “bandits” seek to exploit, the pope attempts to reassert the strength of the argument for solidarity itself and invites those shunning the norms to take advantage of the moral energies and rationale provided by the Church.

Second, the principle of solidarity does not dispatch with the necessity for justice and its rightful sanctions. However, the kind of justice to be sought is not a punitive or retributive kind, but one that seeks to assist the violator of the norms to reenter the circuit of reciprocity that constitutes and attains the common good, and this is wholly consonant with the gratuitousness inherent in solidarity (Donati 2009, 227; see also Benedict XVI 2009, n34). The challenge for those who would manifest “charity in truth” always remains to form a more perfect community. As the Catholic social tradition points out, “The social order requires constant improvement: it must be founded in truth, built on justice, and enlivened by love; it should grow in freedom towards a more humane equilibrium. If these objectives are to be attained there will first have to be a renewal of attitudes and far-reaching social changes” (Vatican Council II 1965, n26). The commitment to and manifestation of solidarity is one step toward that renewal and realization of equity.

Along with solidarity, the other necessary step toward renewal of the social order is the commitment to and realization of subsidiarity. As Donati noted, in a relational perspective, neither solidarity nor subsidiarity can be understood and defined without the other, whereas “[s]olidarity means that all play their own part according to their capabilities. Subsidiarity means to relate to the other in a manner that assists the other to do what he or she should according to a relational guidance system of action” (Donati 2009, 225). It is a recognition of the dignity and capabilities of others in community while noting that provision of subsidium, or “support,” may be necessary for the realization of others’ particular goods or their contribution to the common good. It is a key factor in the realization and maintenance of social capital inasmuch as it pertains to a key focus that Russell Hittinger identified in the social encyclical tradition of the Church. He explains this clearly as follows:

Here, our main focus is not given to the external good to be commonly distributed, but rather goods inherent to activity. It raises the issue of subsidiarity. If the common good is constituted by the common activity, then whenever “higher” powers intervene in such a way that the common activity is supplanted, or whenever the result of common activity is achieved behind the back, as it were, of the collaborative activity itself, the distinctive good of society is lost. (Hittinger 2003, 279) 

What was identified in the common good and solidarity as principally grounding and constituting social capital is lost if the activity of a group is collapsed merely to instrumental status for the achievement of an admittedly good end. For this reason, John Paul II reiterated, “According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good” (John Paul II 1991, n13). Moreover, attention to subsidiarity as a principle for authentic social capital also focuses on critiques and gaps in existing theories on its creation, maintenance, and function. David Skidmore is enthusiastic for a possible “third way” that civil society as represented in social capital research provides for negotiating the statist/neoliberal debate over whether development is best sought through strong states or free markets. However, he warns of three deficiencies in current research, which include (1) distributional issues of social capital in a community; (2) the fungibility of social capital; and (3) whether accumulation of social capital is a function more of cultural traits or institutional arrangements (Skidmore 2001; cf. Putnam 2000, 287–366). In one way or another, subsidiarity speaks to each of these concerns Skidmore raises and can provide a heuristic for further research into those areas.

First, one must account for the distribution of social capital. Skidmore, like Putnam, has noted that social inequalities may be embedded in social capital and part of its productive efficiencies, which accompany the norms and networks considered valuable for organization and attainment of group interests. This can spur efforts of those with seemingly competing interests to turn immediately to the state for resolution of those inequalities or access to the social capital necessary to attain the particular interests of the subordinate group. The principle of subsidiarity, however, recognizes that although social inequality is not justified and is in fact antithetical to the common good: “The State authorities should leave to other bodies the care and expediting of business and activities of lesser moment, which otherwise become for it a source of great distraction. It will then perform with greater freedom, vigor and effectiveness, the tasks belonging properly to it,” among them “to get rid of conflict between ‘classes’ with divergent interests, and to foster and promote harmony between the various ‘ranks’ or groupings of society” (Pius XI 1931, nn80-81). If state authorities intervene too directly, deeply, and consistently in matters that intermediate bodies represented in a rich associational life in civil society can resolve through careful public discourse, negotiation, and compromise, the common good and virtue of solidarity that sustain authentic social capital will be not enhanced but deconstructed. The perspective of subsidiarity helps to check the impulse of lower groups to appeal immediately to higher authorities or to seek complete centralization for the resolution of inequalities or inefficiencies given their present lack of social capital. It instead encourages and empowers those groups and the state to provide only the necessary aid and conditions for the self-realization of the necessary development in local societies and society at large. In this way, the identity and dignity of the intermediate groups and their members is preserved and honored.

Second, fungibility of social capital remains a serious topic for debate in social capital theory. Some social scientists, like Putnam, argue that civil society associations are inherently flexible and can accommodate new functions and purposes as the group is challenged by threats and opportunities, while others note that the flexibility of associations to shift their social capital to other interests lies not so much in their nature as an association itself, but rather in other factors that can be both causes of the association or contingent effects such as trust, general norms of civic cooperation, and the structure of the association itself (see Knack and Keefer 1997). Thus, associations alone and unqualified are neither the sufficient cause of social capital nor the solution to its disintegration and the collapse of civil society. This insight is also present in the reflection of the Church on its history and role in the constitution of civil society. In the first modern social encyclical, Rerum novarum, Pope Leo XIII noted:

… that civil society was renovated in every part by the teaching of Christianity, that in the strength of that renewal the human race was lifted up to better things—nay, that it was brought back from death to life … [but w]hen a society is perishing, the true advice to give to those who would restore it is to recall it to the principles from which it sprung; for the purpose and perfection of an association is to aim at and to attain that for which it was formed; and its operation should be put in motion and inspired by the end and object which originally gave it its being. So that to fall away from its primal constitution is disease; to go back its recovery. And this may be asserted with the utmost truth both of the State in general and of that body of its citizens—by far the greatest number—who sustain life by labor. (Leo XIII 1891, n22) 

In the context of the times, the pope was concerned for the dignity of the human persons who constituted the laboring classes in industrializing societies that were undergoing stress and fracture. Merely functioning as a group did not imply health of that society or its intermediate associations, each of which, according to the prevailing teleological philosophy, had precise ends to which it was aimed. For the pope who urged theologians and the Church as a whole “to elaborate and perfect the old with the new,” the recovery of the original principles of society and trade groups was a key to its productivity. Shifting the means provided in an association of persons to a new end without consideration of its original organizing principles could lead to disaster.

Digging deeper into the tradition, I contend that the Catholic Church’s doctrine does not hold to an ideological conservatism with regard to the nature of associations and their continuous function and ends. If a particular society or association of persons recognizes that a new interest common to all members needs attention and collective action, that association by its very constitution has it within its purview and responsibility to respond. The principle of solidarity grounds this response to aid fellow members from within and from without a particular group. Moreover, associations and civil society do not exist merely for particular special interests of members, whether they be political parties, trade unions, mutual aid societies, or bowling leagues. In the same encyclical, Leo XIII affirms, “These lesser societies and the society which constitutes the State differ in many things, because their immediate purpose and end is different. Civil society exists for the common good, and, therefore, is concerned with the interests of all in general, and with the individual interests in their due place and proportion” (Leo XIII 1891, n37). Thus, associations that authentically contribute to the common good, and can thus be considered constitutive of civil society, would seem to possess the fungible social capital that would allow them to respond to threats to the common good even when the originating principles of particular interest were different from those it now would pursue. The subsidiary construction of civil society through associations provides the flexibility to seek aid from higher institutions and evoke solidarity from its members and members of other associations of civil society to work for the common good while attending to the human dignity of its members who operate in those relationships out of their freedom.

Third, there remains debate over whether social capital is the result of cultural traits inherent in a society or whether it can be constructed through institutional organization. This seems to touch, as well, on the critique by Arrow over whether social capital can be extended in time and whether it is alienable. Clearly, social capital’s relational nature embedded in trust, norms, and networks makes it difficult to measure, alienate, and assess apart from the very persons who constitute and benefit from it. However, the articulation of normative principles that arise out of a universally available, living, and continuous historical tradition like that of Catholic social teaching provides a means to objectify and share the goods of a relational understanding across time and space. Reflecting on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum, John Paul II wrote:

Among the things which become “old” as a result of being incorporated into Tradition, and which offer opportunities and material for enriching both Tradition and the life of faith, there is the fruitful activity of many millions of people, who, spurred on by the social Magisterium, have sought to make that teaching the inspiration for their involvement in the world. Acting either as individuals or joined together in various groups, associations and organizations, these people represent a great movement for the defence of the human person and the safeguarding of human dignity. Amid changing historical circumstances, this movement has contributed to the building up of a more just society or at least to the curbing of injustice. (John Paul II 1991, n3) 

The principles of Catholic social teaching themselves are a source for social capital growth whether they be cultural traits themselves or the result of prudential institutional organization. The three principles examined thus far—common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity—create not only norms for organizational schemas that have been shown to promote social capital, but within those norms themselves are cultural treasures that appeal to values like dignity, justice, and freedom. Although these values are articulated in particular cultural contexts, those particular instantiations are universally recognizable as human values. The Church’s magisterium continues to reflect at regular intervals on the signs of the times in which she seeks to realize her mission and offers her teaching that is both old and new to successive generations. The handing down of the Church’s social doctrine in the words and deeds of individuals and groups inspired by it highlights the value of each constituent part’s subsidiary role in the realization of its mission for the flourishing of humanity and its integral development.

Dignity of the Human Person as the Primary Condition for Normative Social Capital

The last principle of Catholic social teaching to be addressed is the dignity of the human person. Although not yet treated in detail, the principle of human dignity has grounded the previous three principles under consideration as a necessary result of Donati’s relational approach employed here. To explain this further, a distinction must be made between common goods that are negotiable and those that are nonnegotiable. As social capital resides in relationships and norms that seek to facilitate the production of collective goods, there will be disagreement over which goods are to be prioritized, sometimes at the expense of others in the short run. However, Donati points out that:

The first common good is the dignity of the human person, which is—at the same time—also the basis of any further common good. In this apparent circularity lies the solution of self-paradoxes of the postmodern thought (for instance, J. Derrida, N. Luhmann), according to which the common good is a paradox based on unsolvable paradoxes. It is a fact that the human dignity of a single person cannot be violated without all the surrounding community suffering because of this. To violate human dignity means to wound the possibility of pursuing the common good from the start. (Donati 2009, 223) 

In the liberal context of theories of social capital and public policy that depends on it at both the local and global levels, the common good to be pursued by any organization or society is the result of voiced preferences, public discernment, and common participation in the realization of those discerned preference selections (see Hollenbach 2002, 212–44). However, when policies aimed at the public interest fail to account for all voices, exclude groups or individuals from discernment, and deny some participants their activity for the public goods, the common good is not achieved. The failure of public life to include all voices is a violation of the dignity of those whose participation is required for its fullness. For this reason, class struggle has been condemned in Catholic social teaching, as well as any dialectical understanding of human social development, because it makes negotiable the dignity of certain persons when the dignity of any person is nonnegotiable for the authentic achievement of the common good.10

Thus, the dignity of the human person stands as an important normative principle for determining authentic and productive social capital, attending to the critique that it can be appropriated to injurious ends or that social capital itself can be corrupt. Mauricio Rubio, examining evidence on juvenile delinquency in Colombia, notes that in the local society there exists a gap between the de jure and de facto norms due to the dysfunction of the formal government and economy. As a result, a vast informal sector has arisen that operates according to the de facto norms that are considered “unproductive” through the lens of the formal sector, but “productive” through the informal. Trust, norms, and networks are identifiable, but instead of contributing to the de jure public good, they facilitate the achievement of the de facto public good, generating income, security, and other necessities of life not through the acknowledged public sphere, but through a shadow society that is caught up in drug trade and insurgencies (Rubio 1997, 812–13). His work challenges the notion that the common good requires the activity of a healthy public order, and therefore, that social capital can authentically exist only in the context of public order.

However, the public order and the health of the state is a good in and of itself, constitutive of the common good because of the role it fills in subsidiarity and the protection of the dignity of human persons. In the absence of a duly recognized and potent political authority, the means for the discernment of and participation in the public interest is lost. Without recourse to government as part of the network of trust and norms, social capital can be neither authentic nor productive. In a situation of a shadow society effacing a collapsed formal society, factions necessarily pursue their limited interests outside the wider purview of the common good that the formal public sector represents, intentionally excluding access to the goods achieved by their own activities. This is true not only in economic terms but also in political terms. Without a healthy formal sector, there is no provision for equal access to legal representation, protection of rights, security, and other safeguards of the dignity of human persons. Not only in the situation of failed states can one see the danger of recognizing social capital without including the public authority in trust, norms, and networks; but also in a globalized world, some thinkers find states redundant. Benedict XVI cautioned against a presumption of “the demise of the state” in 2009, saying that the role of the state rather will need to grow competently to guarantee its citizens economic and public order, human rights, and democratic institutions (Benedict XVI 2009, n41). Instead of admitting merely positive notions of social capital that can be productive or unproductive, proper or perverse, attention to the nonnegotiable common good of the dignity of the human person can remind scholars and policymakers that there can be no genuine social capital if that capital is fundamentally exclusionary of any individual, group, or even a failed government.

Thus, one should seek to find contributions to the theory of social capital not only in the Church’s social teaching but also in the praxis of that doctrine. The examples of those committed to Christian faith can further the case for its social utility based on empirical evidence in the Church’s mission. The Church sponsors and supports innumerable organizations, associations, and groups engaged in civil society, exhibiting authentic social capital, that have contributed to the greater social capital of societies at large, especially Caritas Internationalis and its US subsidiaries Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. Pope Paul VI recognized these and others, writing: “It is in this regard too that Christian organizations, under their different forms, have a responsibility for collective action. Without putting themselves in the place of the institutions of civil society, they have to express, in their own way and rising above their particular nature, the concrete demands of the Christian faith for a just, and consequently necessary, transformation of society” (Paul VI 1971, n50). Such achievements have not gone unnoticed by social scientists either. The work of James S. Coleman, one of the pioneers in the field of social capital, noticed that the dropout rates in Catholic high schools (and other religiously affiliated private schools as well) were statistically significantly lower than in public schools, owing to the social capital inherent in the operation of those networks and the values shared by their members (Coleman 1988, S114-16). Stephen E. McMillin has argued that incorporating Catholic social teaching into trainings of social workers can increase common indicators of social capital within the institutions in which they work (McMillin 2012). Theory and teaching are helpful, but ultimately policy and practice are the end of both social science and Catholic social doctrine.

That is also why research on normative grounds for social capital must also be integrated into self-analysis of the very institutions that purport to support its creation and maintenance. In recent decades alone, there are countless examples of contradictions between the Catholic Church’s own teaching and practice, especially the sexual abuse of minors and the suppression of indigenous peoples in Canada and throughout the world.11 Though this paper cannot go into greater detail on this point, I want to acknowledge the fertile ground for research here and the need for it to bear fruit for the redress of injustices. The practice of Catholic social teaching can have an even more profound effect on the development of theories and policies for authentic social capital than any number of magisterial pronouncements, especially and necessarily in the reform of the Church’s own members and institutions.

The proper locus of research on social capital is the social sciences, but this does not preclude the constructive dialogue between them and Catholic social teaching. As seen in the elaborate and rich analysis of social phenomena presented in the concept of social capital, there is much for the Catholic Church to reflect on regarding its own organization and productivity in light of the ways it instantiates trust, norms, and networks among her members for the achievement of common goods. Future research applying the insights of social capital to ecclesiology and missiology may help those in the Church to better realize its identity and goals in the modern world. Likewise, social science has much to gain from attention to the insights and principles of Catholic social teaching in its long-standing reflection and articulation about what is truly human and social. This paper has outlined how four such principles—the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the dignity of the human person—can inform social science as it proceeds in its investigation of the social realities that we constitute and actualize.

To this point, the application of principles of Catholic social teaching has remained as best as possible rooted in common insights afforded to current science through human reason. However, the Church’s tradition derives its foundations from a religious understanding of faith and revelation in Jesus Christ, who “fully reveals humanity to itself and brings to light its very high calling” (Vatican Council II 1965, n22). From the perspective of those in that community, to restrict the contribution of the Church’s social teaching to only those elements of truth derived from reason denies the fullness of the truth in charity, which the Church proclaims to be “the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (Benedict XVI 2009, n1). It is important to acknowledge that the Christian virtue of charity is at the heart of the revelation that the Church shares through its social teaching. Understood as a gift from God, who empowers us to love God, others, and ourselves rightly, it entails an unconditional gift of self to others for their own good as ends in themselves. Persons, therefore, are never to be seen as means to private ends or even public ends that would deny them the dignity that they possess as a unique creative act of God. As we have seen, the concept of social capital recognizes that the relationships that people share with one another can facilitate production of goods. The goods produced, however, can never eclipse one’s recognition that those relationships with people that facilitate their production are to be first and foremost an end and not merely an instrumental means. Ultimately, authentic social capital in the perspective of Catholic social teaching is the result of charity and gift, and “…the logic of gift does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without; on the other hand, economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity” (Benedict XVI 2009, n34). The most recent encyclical by Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, makes this fraternity and social friendship rooted in reciprocity and trust its central theme entirely.12 Inasmuch as social capital is instrumental for economic, social, and political development, it is the fruit of a more fundamental development of the interpersonal, interdependent gifts that persons make to one another in fraternal charity. It is the same gift that, for Christians, the divine being made to human beings in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is both God and human.

I would like to thank both Dr. David Lantigua and Dr. M. Sophia Aguirre, who provided support and incisive feedback on earlier drafts of this project, as well as the reviewers for this issue of Civic Sociology and its editor, Dr. Rubén Flores, for their comments and critique, which strengthened my argument and prose.

This research received no external funding.

No competing interests exist.


Although not the first to define and use the term, Putnam (1993) became the touchstone for elaboration and critique of the concept of social capital as it spread in academic and popular literature. He followed up his Italian study with an investigation of social capital in the United States with Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Putnam 2000), and he continues to be a leading scholar exploring the value and limits of the notion in social analysis and public policy.


The definition adopted at the outset of the paper is from Fukuyama (1999).


Francis Fukuyama, among others, has pointed out the importance of Olson’s analysis of collective action to social capital theory, noting the problems of “free riders” and “roving/stationary bandits” who pursue rent-seeking strategies out of private interest in public policies. See Fukuyama (1995, 155–58); Hinich and Munger (2004); and Olson (1965, 1982).


The term “Church” used throughout the essay refers to the Catholic Church as a convention and convenience. The author does not intend to make exclusivist claims about the standing of the Catholic Church with other Christian ecclesial communities and denominations. The term “integral human development” is the Catholic Church’s name for the processes by which individual persons and communities advance toward flourishing in all facets of social, economic, and spiritual life.


See for more information on the composition, history, and work of the academy.


The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace asserted: “The Church is an expert in humanity, and anticipating with trust and with active involvement she continues to look towards the ‘new heavens’ and the ‘new earth’ (2 Pet 3:13), which she indicates to every person, in order to help people to live their lives in the dimension of authentic meaning. ‘Gloria Dei vivens homo’: the human person who fully lives his or her dignity gives glory to God, who has given this dignity to men and women.” See Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2004). The Church has also spoken definitively on conclusions of social science that betray a scientism that would subordinate the rights and freedoms of individuals to collective notions of progress that supplant the dignity of the human person. See Vatican Council II (1965, n65) and John Paul II (1998, n88).


In a subsequent social encyclical, John Paul II also applies the term “social mortgage” to affirm that “[t]he right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of [the universal destination of goods]. Private property, in fact, is under a ‘social mortgage,’ which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods” (John Paul II 1987, n42). For more on the notion and its applications, see O’Boyle (2014).


See Clark (2014). Clark outlines the incremental adoption of the term solidarity in the twentieth century by the official teaching authority of the Catholic Church and its increasing importance as a social virtue aligned with the relational notion of human nature.


See Madison, “The Federalist No. 51” (February 6, 1788), in Madison (1788).


“However, what is condemned in class struggle is the idea that conflict is not restrained by ethical or juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of oneself); a reasonable compromise is thus excluded, and what is pursued is not the general good of society, but a partisan interest which replaces the common good and sets out to destroy whatever stands in its way. In a word, it is a question of transferring to the sphere of internal conflict between social groups the doctrine of ‘total war’, which the militarism and imperialism of that time brought to bear on international relations.” See John Paul II (1991, n14).


There is an important, growing literature on the abuse of minors and indigenous peoples in the Catholic Church. Some studies relevant to the presence or absence of genuine social capital and the role it plays in uncovering and remediating injuries and corruption include Decosse (2007); Bullivant and Sadewo (2022); Higgins (2021); and Tulun and Tulun (2022).


Francis (2020); see especially nn133-34, 168, and 262 for the language of trust and reciprocity for the promotion of fraternal charity and peace.

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