The Common Good

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Over at America magazine, University of Dayton theologian Vincent Miller explains the place of markets in Catholic social teaching.  (I recommend his book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in Consumer Culture).

I encourage you to read the entire piece here.

As he makes his argument, Miller defines the “common good”:

The common is good a fundamental principle of Catholic social thought. The term is as widely supported as it is misunderstood. It is frequently equated with the average degree of economic flourishing among the individual members of society and thus reduced to the assumption that economic growth is a sufficient measure of social well-being.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the official Vatican summary of papal social teaching, distinguishes the common good from “the simple sum of the particular goods” of each member of society. The compendium notes that this good is “‘common’, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it” (164). It is the specifically “social and community dimension of the moral good.” In David Hollenbach’s words, the common good “fulfills needs that individuals cannot fulfill on their own” and realizes “values that can only be attained in our life together.” It designates a certain kind of agency: working together for the good of the whole.

The Catholic understanding of the common good is indebted to Aristotle, who, Thomas Smith observes, contrasted it with the competitive pursuit of goods such as wealth, security and honor. The common good concerns the flourishing of the entire community, and it is something that increases rather than diminishes when shared.

This notion of a shared good of the entire community resonates with belief in God as a triune communion of persons. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes,” from the Second Vatican Council, roots the common good in Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John 17 that “all may be one as…as we are one.” The council noted a “likeness” between the “union of divine persons” and the unity of humankind. This brings theological depth and specificity to the common good.

The political common good is of interest to the church because it is an incomplete but real fulfillment of the eschatological unity to which we are all called. The comparison with the unity of Jesus and the Father calls attention not simply to outcomes but also to the character of relationships. “Gaudium et Spes” states that humans “cannot fully find themselves except through the sincere gift of themselves” (24). Finally, “Gaudium et Spes” challenges limited notions of the common good, expanding it beyond the local community or nation, making clear that we have rights and duties regarding the “whole human race.”

In its treatment of the role of the church in the contemporary world, “Gaudium et Spes” considers and distinguishes economic and political aspects of society, which it discusses in separate chapters. As the theologian David Cloutier notes, each has its own associated good. The treatment of economics focuses on the universal destination of goods, and the discussion of the political order centers on the common good. Here we find the oft-excerpted definition: “The common good embraces the sum of those conditions of social life whereby men and women, families and associations may more adequately and readily attain their own perfection” (74).

Lifted from its context, there is always the danger of reading “conditions” here as if they are purely external situations in which we pursue individual flourishing. But the context in the document makes clear that the common good is the collective work of the community. Individuals, families and groups “are aware that they cannot achieve a truly human life by their own unaided efforts. They see the need for a wider community, within which each one makes his or her specific contribution every day toward an ever-broader realization of the common good” (74). Awareness of this need drives the establishment of various forms of government or “political community” that exist “for the sake of the common good.” This expresses the ancient Catholic judgement that government is not a response to human sinfulness but an essential consequence of our social nature created by God.

Thus, Catholicism views the common good as a particular kind of good that concerns the whole of society. It corresponds with a particular form of agency: collective and political action. The common good is distinct from the economy but related to it as both address different aspects of social life.

Read the entire essay here.