What is the common good?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Thursday 08, June 2017 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs,Pope Francis
Common good
“The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of the civil authorities,” Pope John Paul II declared.
Human nature may be viewed from two perspectives: the individual or the social. Which perspective reveals our true identity? Our society ensures we’re well schooled in individual rights and freedoms. From these principles I will navigate toward goals that satisfy my longing for the good life. I may believe that striving for what I want leads to my fulfillment. I may expect the state to safeguard the pursuit of my prosperity by whatever means necessary.
 

The common good, a tenet of Catholic social justice teaching, moves from the opposite assumption. It presumes human nature is essentially social. It’s not good for us to be alone, as our Creator originally determined. Our fulfillment involves creating conditions that are good for all of God’s children, with whom we share an origin and destiny. This creates a different expectation of the state: “the attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of the civil authorities,” Pope John Paul II declared in Pacem in Terris.

Once we embrace the social nature of the person, the common good becomes a new lens through which to view social policy. What do rights and freedoms look like from a social perspective? Pacem in Terris defends the right to bodily integrity for all, including what’s necessary for life’s proper development: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and social services. The common good requires freedom to worship, work, and form associations—to gather for mutually beneficial reasons. Immigration becomes a universal right, to care for one’s family or security. All should be free to take an active role in public life as well.

Some resist the common good ideal as a brand of totalitarianism: a system that subordinates the individual to the group. Totalitarians don’t value a universal good, but only their party’s vision of the good. The common good has also been suspect as a communist value. It doesn’t erase individual rights or deny private property; it does view them as limited by and subordinate to the needs of others whose existence is in jeopardy. Pope John Paul II spoke of  “the universal destination of goods”; that the good things of this world are intended to be shared. He also boldly proposed that “personal property is under a social mortgage”. What belongs to us is ours as stewards of God’s gifts, not as guardians of our personal stash.

Scripture: Genesis 2:18; Isaiah 2:2-5; 25:6-10; Romans 14:7-9; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:1-6, 15-16; Philippians 2:3-4

Website: Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue (ICCD) A free resource related to the common good can be found at www.iccdinstitute.org. 

Books: Common Good, Uncommon Questions – William C. Graham, ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)

Public Theology and the Global Common Good – Kevin Ahern, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016)

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