Ethics is the reflection theory of morality. It seeks a scientifically justified answer to the question: ‘What should we do?’ Christian ethics views the human experience of freedom and responsibility as equiprimordial and intimately intertwined. In Catholic theology, in the late 19th century a distinction emerged between moral theology and Christian social ethics/social science. The former relates for the most part to the difference between good and evil. The latter concerns the distinctions between just and unjust arrangements, and hence the moral questions of social order.
The consequence of Christian faith in a God favourably disposed towards humankind is unconditional and liberating attention to one’s neighbour. The horizon of meaning of the Christian understanding of God, humankind and Creation fosters an ethos of solidarity and humanity put into practice. As an ethical authority, then, the role of the Church is to discover the humanity in human beings, and to foster humane conditions for successful life together. In the Christian view, it is God’s unconditional determination to achieve salvation for all people and for all of Creation that establishes the intrinsic value of creatures and the unconditional nature of human dignity; the task, however, is to honour this determination in the context of the biological and social limitations that life presents. The deepest argument for an ethics that, although Christian in character, nonetheless exceeds all of the boundaries of a morality confined to a single group is the Biblical concept of love: the Bible calls upon us to grant unconditional, affirming love to every person. Only this love is in a position to perceive the human individual in his or her unconditional dignity. Within this horizon of meaning, indivisible dignity befits every person, regardless of religion, nationality, gender, or any other property or capacity. The feature specific to Christian ethics can thus be seen not in an establishment of norms accessible to and incumbent upon Christians alone, but rather in the fact that this ethics is oriented towards a fundamental overcoming of particularity. By its own measure, because it is directed to all people, it must necessarily be interpreted within the meaning of a universal ethics.
Christian social ethics represents the attempt to apply scientific method in the effort to respond to developmental problems of modern society in light of the Gospel. It understands faith as an enabling of, and as a call to, co-designing of life in society. The unity of divine law and human rights creates an obligation to engage in an unrelenting pursuit of justice. Within the horizon of the Biblical proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the standard of measure applicable here consists of the experiences of those who are on the downside of society (cf. Lk 4.18: ‘The Spirit of the Lord […] has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’). Hence the option of prospects for the poor that Christian social ethics presents. It is designed to foster the powers of speech and the competence to co-design the Church as institution, and of the individual faithful, in political, social, and economic questions. It asks for criteria and strategies with which to pilot social structures, political decision-making and economic processes towards an enabling of justice, peace and custodianship of Creation. In contrast to the individual-ethical question of motivation and responsibility in personally accountable practice, social ethics concerns itself with social institutions, structures, and systems of ordering.
The social principles constitute the systematic core of Christian social ethics. Their basis is the person principle that grasps unconditional human dignity, construed as end in itself, as the guiding standard of every social order that takes the form of individual freedoms, claims by society, and rights of political participation. The person is a social being who relies upon community, co-operation, and support in times of need (solidarity). At the same time, the individual requires protection from collectivistic usurpation through recognition of the pre-eminence, in principle, of the smaller social unit (subsidiarity). Today, the sweeping threat to the livelihood of nature itself that has come about through modern lifestyles and economic systems must be offset by the principle of sustainability, a principle that can be grasped from a Christian perspective as a categorical imperative of contemporary custodianship of Creation.
In the debate of plural interests and convictions, demonstrating the capacity for consensus, and the added value, of Christian ethics versus secular ethical projects requires linkage to the practice of faith and to a bearing-witness to the Church. As a result, ethical reflection accompanies ecclesiastical practice and aims to elucidate the liberating power of Christian faith in social dialogue. The latter is understood as a process of mutual learning carried out between Church and society. By linking theology, philosophical ethics and methods in the social sciences, it constitutes an interdisciplinary bridge between Church and society. Only as such will it fulfil its own scientific claim; only as such can it suitably reflect the realities of human life today.