Survey on Catholic Social Teaching – The Call by Cardinal Turkson To Redouble Our Efforts to Make CST No Longer “The Catholic Church’s Best Kept Secret


The following are excerpts from a talk given by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana in which he talks about a US survey, conducted by Andreas Widmer, the Mental Models Project –, about knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching.  Cardinal Turkson is the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  This talk originally was published by Vatican Radio and I received it from Prof. Ron Pagnucco, Department of Peace Studies, College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University St. Joseph, MN.

On the one hand, the findings of this survey regarding how much Catholics know about Catholic social teaching are grim.  On the other hand, this reality provides a wonderful opportunity for Cabrini College, through its education, community engagement, and political advocacy programs to communicate the substance of Catholic Social Teaching, so that it is no longer the Catholic Church’s “best kept secret.”

  • John Francis Burke, Ph.D.; Executive Director, The Wolfington Center


Cardinal Turkson. “World Is Hungry for Catholic Social Teaching”

Evaluation can often assist our planning and learning. With this in mind, one of our collaborators, Andreas Widmer, has undertaken surveys in the United States to determine whether the key concepts of Catholic teaching on social and economic life are known, in order to help communicate them better. The project is called “Catholic Mental Models”.  Essentially CMM asks “What do people know about CST?”, “If we talk about CST, will people listen?”, and “What expressions might get the ideas across better?”

The first phase consisted of a survey to determine how the concepts are typically received and understood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. How do they understand the basic ideas of CST: the dignity of the human person, the common good, social justice, subsidiarity, and solidarity?  How are these words typically received by people nowadays? Are they better understood by Catholics than by non-Catholics?


To find out, the survey posed 16 questions to a nationally representative sample of Americans. The key findings are as follows:

  • Catholics in the USA appear to lack knowledge of the core principles of Catholic teaching on social and economic matters.
  • Overall, only a small percentage of American Catholics correctly answered basic questions regarding Catholic social teaching. The percentage of Catholics responding correctly ranged from a low of just over 10% (on the meaning of the common good) to a high of 45% (the meaning of the universal destination of goods). Besides these basic terms, the typical Catholic is also unclear about Catholic social teachings on wages, on hiring and firing and wages – even social justice and charity.
  • The findings reveal that the level of knowledge of Catholics differs little from that of non-Catholics.
  • Practicing (i.e. Sunday-Mass attending) Catholics are not more likely to respond correctly than non-practicing Catholics.
  • Catholic schools appear to be the most important channel through which people gain knowledge of Catholic social teaching.

Sadly, Catholics appear to lack a common understanding of the essential terms that form the backbone of the Church’s social teaching. Worse, these terms have often been invoked to justify actions and behaviours which may contradict the meaning or spirit of the principles themselves.

The second survey explored what language can be used to clarify the concepts and communicate the vision of Catholic social doctrine better. A representative sample of Americans were presented with the five key terms of Catholic social teaching in order to test their resonance – how positively do people feel about the words? Human dignity resonates the most, with 70% of respondents, and subsidiarity the least, with 42%. And none of the formal Catholic terms resonate as strongly as similar words from other domains – expressions such as human rights or equal rights or happiness or love of neighbour.

Reprinted from Vatican Radio

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