We need to make the common good more than just a slogan
What is the greatest challenge facing the world today? The answer from Arturo Sosa, S.J., superior general of the Society of Jesus, may surprise you: “In my opinion, the greatest challenge is that humanity has not developed a shared sense of the common good.”
This answer comes in Walking With Ignatius, a book-length interview with Father Sosa conducted by the journalist Darío Menor. For Father Sosa, at the heart of many of today’s challenges is the ongoing struggle to find what unites us. Like Pope Francis, he worries about individualism and certain forms of collectivism, particularly populism, which cut people off from the common good. And, like Pope Francis, Father Sosa wonders if we feel any sense of urgency to act upon this problem.
Father Sosa’s appeal to the common good is at once traditional and subversive. It is traditional insofar as the common good has been one of the fundamental concepts of political thought and practice since the time of the ancient Greeks. Within Catholic circles, it has been a privileged notion for centuries and has received heavy emphasis in scholastic thought.
Christians today are split between “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches to re-invigorating our sense of the common good.
Father Sosa’s praise of the common good is subversive, however, insofar as its stock has sunk in recent centuries. The common good has been defined in increasingly economic terms in modern times, depriving it of much of its robust meaning. And our current moment would seem to be an inauspicious time to reverse that course, given that we live in a world in which there is little confidence in politics and little hope for political consensus.
This is not the end of the story, however, for the common good has enjoyed a small renaissance of late. It has been invoked, for instance, in two areas: first, in efforts to fight Covid-19, and second, within debates about the future of American conservatism.
The danger with invocations of the common good, of course, is that they risk becoming a performance. As Yuval Levin has argued, rhetoric has become the substance of U.S. politics in recent years, a trend exacerbated rather than created by Donald J. Trump. Performing on social media, television and elsewhere allows one to posture as though one were fighting for a solution, but too often it becomes a substitute for the hard, slow work of governance. Performative embraces of the common good or the use of the common good as a rhetorical tool do little to advance the common good as a political aim. At best, they claim the mantle of the common good for a narrow vision of the good. At worst, they reinforce the ideological connotations of the term. In such circumstances, the “common good” is just another tool of power.
For Father Arturo Sosa, at the heart of many of today’s challenges is the ongoing struggle to find what unites us.
How is the common good not yet another abstraction that assures we do not address real problems? How can we prevent it from becoming a rallying cry for those who feel they have accomplished something by merely pronouncing the term?
In some ways the answer is in Father Sosa’s own statement: a shared sense. The quest for the common good is not simply a concept; it is an activity. And if we do not experience the pursuit of the common good as a shared activity—as common—then it has little hope of reforming us or our society.
The Common Good: How Common Is It?
How can we make the common good something more than a slogan? A primary method is to ensure that its pursuit makes a difference in how we view our neighbor—that is, that it helps us come to see others precisely as our neighbors.
Catholics often imagine the common good in distinct but easily confused ways. One prevalent understanding of it is as a set of conditions that allows each of us to pursue our own individual goods. This definition, with differing emphases, structures much of our social life and imagination in the West, and it is not always bad. But too often this imagination of the common good exists as a defense of individualism: for the few to profit at the expense of the many, as Pope Francis notes in “Laudato Si’” and St. John Paul II notes in “Centesimus Annus.”
Catholics often imagine the common good in distinct but easily confused ways.
It is also important to notice what that definition excludes: the idea and experience of social cooperation being anything other than instrumental. Left out, in other words, is the notion of an intrinsic common good, whereby we are built up into a society of virtuous, holy people—a genuine community.
The common good, if it is truly common, unites us as a society in activities for a common purpose. And that unity as a society is precisely part of what makes it good. It orders us in reason toward justice, creating social bonds that can be strengthened by charity.
What this description suggests is that we often struggle more with the notion of “common” than with the notion of “good.”
Christians as Citizens and Neighbors
How can Christians find opportunities to actualize what is common about the common good? The common good will be real when we experience connections between our individual lives and our common life, when we can name concrete places where and activities in which we have that experience. And so in some ways, our problem is more practical than theoretical.
Many Christians today in the political realm are split between “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches to re-invigorating our sense of the common good: in short, either enacting the “Benedict option” or seizing control of the administrative state. This dichotomy makes sense when one thinks of Christians as citizens, caught in a mass society between the individual and the collective.
But when one thinks of Christians as members of the church, one sees that they are situated in a space between the “top” and the “bottom.” Churches are “intermediary” institutions in classical liberal thought, existing as go-betweens between the state and individual. Even if that conceptualization is inadequate, at least it conveys that ecclesial forms of life are close enough to be guided and animated by individuals but big enough to enable common life. They are spaces, in other words, where individuals can learn to be agents within a bigger community.
Where should Christians start? I would suggest with clerical sexual abuse.
Parish life, religious life, ecclesial lay movements—there are many spaces in which Catholics can renew their commitment to the common good as a shared pursuit. The most obvious of these is the parish.
This emphasis on the pursuit of the common good as an activity has two possible benefits: to emphasize what is common about the common good, and to ward off the risk of performative invocations of it. It does not eliminate those risks, of course. The challenge of recovering the common good is practical as much as conceptual, and even spiritual: to allow reflection and practice to inform one another mutually in a contemplative exercise toward the kingdom.
Where should Christians start? The need is so great that Christians could start almost anywhere, but I would suggest starting with clerical sexual abuse. It is the crime by which we Christians have hurt people the most in the most profound way. And the church has done so as a community, whether it knows that or not. Perhaps, then, the church should come together as a community too.
The process of coming to terms with clerical sexual abuse will not be easy. The political scientist Dan Philpott of Notre Dame has described it as “an integrated portfolio of restorative practices”: common activities of healing, truth-seeking, reconciliation—and perhaps even forgiveness.
The exercise would be an admission, even an embrace, of powerlessness, of poverty. It would be a moment of conversion for all involved. For it forces upon us an unavoidable question that Philpott frames well: “Does the Body of Christ—qua the Body of Christ—offer a response to the sex abuse scandals?”
Every parish has survivors of clerical sex abuse. Perhaps the person next to you in the pew at Mass is one such person. What better way to rebuild the parish than to start where its wounds run deepest?
The Society of Jesus and the Common Good
As Father Sosa suggests, there is a special role for Jesuits and the “Ignatian family” in all of this. The Society of Jesus brings many gifts of value to such service: above all, a flexible desire to serve wherever the greatest fruit is to be had. If I am right, then the greatest fruits would involve showing that the pursuit of the common good can be truly common and truly formative, not merely performative.
In societies where many avoid politics as a contest of power-hungry ideologies, the challenge for partisans of the common good is that the quest for the common good is non-ideological, or trans-ideological. That is not easy, especially since most people are influenced by ideologies. Being honest about that will be important.
At its best, Ignatian spirituality aspires to the capacious universalism of its inspirer, St. Ignatius Loyola. That has more than a little relevance for the problems of today; “Humanity has not developed a shared sense of the common good,” Father Sosa tells us.
It can be hard to imagine how humanity could recover that sense. To the extent that the church desires to capture the aspiration for the unity of the human family, then we can be sure that the fulfillment of that unity will come, if in God’s time and by his grace alone.
And to the extent that those influenced by St. Ignatius Loyola aspire to serve such great dreams, then let us be bold to imagine cooperating with God’s grace.