The Common Good and Christian Ethics by David Hollenbach, S.J., deserves to be the most read work of American Catholic public philosophy since the late John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths, published in 1960. Both Murray and Hollenbach point to pluralism as a given. The problem, each insists, is that the inherited languages we have drawn most upon are inadequate to the necessary task of joining together in argument (Murray) or dialogue (Hollenbach) for the sake of the commonweal.
For Murray, the tried-and-found-wanting languages are those of American Protestantism, pragmatism and contractarian liberalism. In the 40 or so years since We Hold These Truths appeared, mainline Protestantism has receded as a public ethos-maker, and also pragmatism in its most prevalent academic forms has debunked the idea of a deeply rational public consensus. Contractarian liberalism, however, has witnessed a resurgence since the publication in 1971 of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.
The Common Good and Christian Ethics, then, reads as a neo-Murray response to John Rawls, with some attention to others, like the pragmatist Richard Rorty. Rawls figures large in both the text and notes of this book. The second part of Hollenbach’s titleand Christian ethicsis somewhat misleading, then. A more accurate title would be The Common Good and American Public Philosophy. Hollenbach, a professor of theology at Boston College, repeatedly refers to his work as one of public philosophy, and his primary interlocutors are first of all other public philosophersfor instance, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Sandel and Charles Taylorvery few of whom are Christian ethicists even when they are Christian. This comment is not a criticism of the book, but a note to the prospective reader about the author’s aims. Murray retrieves the natural law tradition that he traces from the American Founders back to Aquinas; Hollenbach develops a concept of the common good for which he finds resources in Maritain, Aquinas and Augustine, as well as Cicero and Aristotle. But, neither Murray nor Hollenbach is first of all concerned to address Christian ethics.
Hollenbach’s argument moves in three stages. First he describes the present situations. One of the key situations is the eclipse of the public. In the face of increasing pluralism, Americans and others have developed a philosophy that is limited to tolerance, that is, non-interference in the lives of others. The result is the loss of a genuine public, where people enter into dialogue about their collective well-being. Hollenbach is clear that tolerance of itself is a social good. However, the other main situation is the existence of social problems that call for more than tolerance. Given institutionally structured patterns that exclude them, the poor in the United States and worldwide do not become better off if we simply leave them alone.
Second, Hollenbach calls upon the idea of solidarity, which he defines, quoting Pope John Paul II, as a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. The idea of solidarity on behalf of the common good can provide a framework that highlights the possibility of truly public deliberation and gives direction to the specific considerations that take place there. More fundamental than tolerance, then, is participation, and Hollenbach uses this term throughout the book.
Against the charge that pursuing a common good is quixotic and socially dangerous, Hollenbach qualifies his approach by indicating that what it seeks practically speaking is, first of all, the fulfillment of certain minimal norms. Human rights, in this view, are the minimum levels of social participation. He also anticipates the objection that he is drawing from a religious tradition, and that religion has a horrible record with regard to dialogical contribution on behalf of solidarity. Hollenbach presents grounds both in secular and theological terms as to why religion has been and can be a positive contributor to public conversation. He first gives reasons to secular persons on grounds they might also accept. His appeals at this juncture are largely empirical. He highlights such persons as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu. He also cites specific movements, including the labor and civil rights movements. Hollenbach then offers a rationale in Christian terms to Christians (and, one suspects, to secular communities who have an interest in overhearing the conversation) as to why they ought to enter into public discourse in the way he describes.
This is the theological moment in Hollenbach’s public philosophy. He draws from Augustine and Aquinas (via Maritain) to argue that the interrelation and yet distinction between the heavenly city and the earthly city can at once spur Christian involvement in the public sphere and help keep that involvement from attempting to be hegemonic. That the earthly common good is not the fullness of the common good as it exists at the end of history seems to desacralize politics; yet because even earthly goods are approximations of the ultimate good, Christians must do what they can to enhance human life in community.
The two arguments, secular-empirical and religious-theoretical, come together to back a virtue that Hollenbach calls intellectual solidarity. As a virtue, intellectual solidarity is a disposition that is demonstrated when persons regard differences among traditions as stimuli to engagement. He anticipates the concern that emphasis on intellectual solidarity will inevitability lead to a thinning of the theological elements in Christians’ reasoning in the public sphere and thereby result in the subordination of the Christian ethic to the ethos of liberal democracy. Hollenbach counters that intellectual solidarity does not imply that all views are equally true or false. On the contrary, it suggests that the pursuit of truth is worth the arduous task of disciplined conversation.
In the third and final section of the book, Hollenbach brings back the concrete issues he raised at the start as beyond the capacity of tolerance to address: inner-city poverty and the global gap between rich and poor. Given the fact of interdependence, our only real choices are unequal interdependence and interdependence in solidarity. Here Hollenbach appeals to John Paul’s 1987 encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis, with its call to take up interdependence and transfer it to the moral plane exhibited by solidarity.
I have two concerns. First, John Paul II frequently critiques what he calls consumer society. Hollenbach makes some references to the problem, but does not give it as much attention as is necessary. Instead, he talks at several points about transforming society in terms of the need to lower the walls between rich and poor, when it is in large part the attachment to a particular material way of life that leads many who presently have access to the goods of society to want to build those walls in the first place.
Second, though he briefly addresses the issue, the concern about the thinness of the specifically Christian appeals in a work that describes itself as a public philosophy will not go away. To connect to the problem of consumerism just raised, it can be asked whether a public philosophy that is expressly theological only in a 19-page section in a 300-page book can have the wherewithal to bring American consumers to give up many of their goods (which they believe they have earned) so that others can live better.
It is possible to recognize the necessity of inter-tradition dialogue on behalf of the common good (here I am fully in agreement with Hollenbach) and still raise the concern that such an effort risks both understating what sacrifices it will take to bring about even basic levels of solidarity and thinning the kind of tradition-specific warrants that make these kinds of sacrifices plausible. The risk of such things does not mean they are inevitable, but it ought to raise a certain vigilance about the potential costs of conversation as well as what is to be gained. Still, The Common Good and Christian Ethics is not only the best work in American Catholic public philosophy in over 40 years, it is likely to remain the best for many years to come.