Victor Hugo, the 19th-century French writer, famously remarked that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The common good—a classic theme of moral and political philosophy with deep roots in Catholic social teaching—is an old idea that has found new life in contemporary political discourse.
Rick Santorum, for example, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania and a Catholic, has written a book titled It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. His one-time opponent, Robert Casey Jr., a Catholic and currently a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, made the common good a defining theme in his campaign. Several 2008 presidential candidates, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Sam Brownback, have peppered their stump speeches, talking points and position papers with language about the common good.
Appeals to the common good resonate particularly at a time when war, corporate scandals, the government’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and anxiety about globalization have left many feeling adrift in a rapidly changing world. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” W. B. Yeats wrote in his 1920 poem “The Second Coming.” This could describe our own fractured and alienated era.
Despite the flurry of references to the common good in public discourse, however, the term often twists in the rhetorical wind and comes across as a vague idea, so unthreatening that it is about as controversial as clean drinking water. The common good has been invoked in sound bites and catchphrases to support both liberal and conservative arguments. But an authentic understanding of the common good—one enriched by its particular connection to Catholic social thought—has practical implications for public policy and defies conventional ideological and political categories. Indeed, Catholicism’s long history of defining the common good as rooted in the dignity of the human person and the specific demands of justice, makes Catholics especially well-suited to challenge societal leaders to embrace a more energetic public agenda rooted in the common good.
Theory and Practice
For centuries, the Catholic tradition has emphasized a call to the common good as the centerpiece of Catholic social teaching. Building on concepts articulated first by Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas spoke about the good sought by all as intertwined with the reality of God. In the 16th century, the earliest followers of St. Ignatius Loyola were among the first Westerners to travel beyond Europe, inspired in part by a global vision of the common good. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), was the first to make formal use of the concept of the common good as the starting point for the church’s social analysis.
According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “The principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people.” Yet there is a stunning failure to connect the clarity of these ideals and the realities of a world in which poverty, war and racism tear apart the human family. As globalization dissolves borders and shrinks our world, for example, the burdens and benefits of global capitalism undermine the common good by widening the chasm between rich and poor, hope and despair.
The chasm was evident in a recent New York Times story, “The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age” (7/15), in which billionaire tycoons boasted about their personal accomplishments, bemoaned taxes on their fortunes and had little to say about why more than 37 million Americans live in poverty in the world’s richest country. A few months earlier, the Nasdaq launched a private stock market for elite investors with assets of more than $100 million. Meanwhile, in many towns and cities, the blue-collar jobs that once supported the middle class have disappeared as corporations pursue cheap labor, minimal regulation and higher profits outside the United States. Traditional community bonds are fraying. A commitment to the “commons,” public spaces that benefit all, has given way to private, gated communities where strangers of different classes or complexions can live apart, at a comfortable distance.
Our political culture both mirrors and shapes these trends. While government has often been an instrument of social good during epochal changes in American history, several decades of ideological assaults have branded “big government” as antithetical to freedom and individual responsibility. The marketplace, privatization and the primacy of choice have become a secular trinity. While Catholic social teaching values the importance of personal achievement, it also insists that government take on responsibilities that the market or individuals alone cannot or will not meet. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the common good as “the reason the political authority exists.” Furthermore, the church’s social doctrine insists that “ownership of goods be equally accessible to all” and that the “universal destination of goods” requires a moral economic system in which workers earn living wages and resources are distributed equitably. Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, writes that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable and that “justice is both the aim and intrinsic criterion of all politics.”
These are powerful words with practical implications for our most divisive contemporary debates about abortion, war, immigration, health care and climate change. These words challenge us to think deeply about what it means to be faithful citizens and to reflect on how our conscience and faith inform how we vote and live as both citizens and disciples.
The 2008 Election
As a presidential election year approaches, campaigners will again rank Catholics among the most coveted voters. Since Catholic social teaching is broad and deep, Catholics should insist that our national debate on values reflect the fullness of this rich tradition. Building a culture of life requires economic and social policies that help women choose life. It requires ending an unjust war, ensuring that poor children have health care and taking seriously the threats of global climate change. A renewed common good narrative in our public square has the potential to inspire a civic and moral awakening, one that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned when he spoke of the “beloved community,” a society where all of us, not just a few, have the opportunity to share in the abundance of creation.
No political party has a monopoly on moral values. Both Republicans and Democrats have an equal opportunity to succeed or fail in living up to the obligations of the common good. As Catholics, our faith inspires us to help reshape our culture and politics not simply as another interest group, but as members of a global church that seeks justice for the most vulnerable because it recognizes our common humanity as children of God. We should take up this struggle with hope, insisting that our public officials treat the common good not as another catch phrase in a campaign playbook, but as the foundation of moral leadership. In this way, we speak from the heart of our tradition with a message as old as the Beatitudes and as powerfully relevant for this election as it will still be a century from now.