The Common Good

By Brian Caulfield

The trouble with the “common good” is that good is not so common.

While we all want good things for ourselves and our families, not everybody uses good ways to secure these things. A quick scan of the headlines about our political and financial scandals should tell us enough; but we can also look at kids in the playground or motorists in the church parking lot to conclude that not everyone employs good means to achieve good ends.

Yet even if we avoid illicit methods to achieve our goals, how do we work toward the “common good”? Is something extra required for this lofty goal?

The short answer is that to contribute to the common good, we must not only avoid evil, but we must seek to do good. We must be protagonists at some level in the public realm.

The Church’s View

As an institution that has been around for some 2,000 years, and has seen empires, kingdoms and governments rise and fall, the Catholic Church has a deep and unique perspective on the common good. The Church, in fact, has a mission from God to promote the common good through Gospel values.

I will refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in developing a few basic points.

Human persons, by their very nature, are made for community -- man is a social creature. This is an important point to establish because, stemming from the Enlightenment, there are strong strains of thought that see each person as an autonomous unit who "gives up" some autonomy in exchange for the protection and power of the group.

Catholic tradition is clear, however, that humans are created by God to live in community, not as a surrender to necessity, but as a means of fulfilling their vocation and perfecting their being.

The Catechism states (#1879): "The human person needs society to live. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential, and responds to his vocation."

Americans come from the "rugged individual" tradition of the explorer and the pioneer, so we must struggle a bit to reconcile the Church's view of man and the view that has been handed down by our culture.

Now, human persons exchanging goods, helping one another and dialoguing among themselves can describe the family or the farm or the neighborhood.

However, when the needs and reach of family, farm or neighborhood go beyond themselves to meet others in a larger community, there is need for a regulating authority to assure the smooth and fair operation of affairs. We are getting into the realm of what we now recognize as society and government, and the need for that once noble vocation of politics.

I will close with a few more Catechism quote:

"A society is a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future ... (#1880)

"Each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules; but "the human person ... is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions." (#1881)

“The common good is always oriented toward the progress of persons: ‘The order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around’ (Gaudium et Spes, 2). This order is founded on truth, built up in justice, and animated by love.” (#1912)

Mankind is created for community to achieve his vocation and the goal of community is the true good of the person. Many of the great debates dating back to the ancient Greeks have revolved around these concepts of community and individuality.

We must act in the public realm to bring about the just structures of government and law for the benefit of our all persons.
And in doing this, we must not neglect charity, caritas, love, which is an invitation from God to serve the most needy of his people.

Brian Caulfield is editor of Fathers for Good.