Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: The Common Good

The first principle of Catholic social teaching is the common good. It is defined as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily" (section 164). It belongs to all (it is "common") and is accomplished by joint effort. It is the pursuit of moral good on the social level. "Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good." (section 164)

Given that all human persons have equal dignity and that they cannot find fulfillment in solitary existence, the common good must be the goal of all forms of social life. Every individual must "seek unceasingly — in actual practice and not merely at the level of ideas — the good, that is, the meaning and truth, found in existing forms of social life." (section 165) This is, of course, a very difficult goal. Nevertheless, the temptation to work to one's own advantage must be resisted. Rather, everyone must assume greater responsibility.

The demands of the common good include "the commitment to peace, the organization of the State's powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom" (section 166).

Some of these demands are clearly beyond the capacity of individuals and demand the involvement of government. The common good is, after all, the purpose of government. It must create an environment in which individuals and groups working toward the common good may pursue their goals unhindered. Furthermore, it must harmonize disparate interests so that the collective efforts works for the good of all, including those of racial, political, religious, etc., minorities.

The common good, however, is a penultimate good:
The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it. This perspective reaches its fullness by virtue of faith in Jesus' Passover, which sheds clear light on the attainment of humanity's true common good. Our history — the personal and collective effort to elevate the human condition — begins and ends in Jesus: thanks to him, by means of him and in light of him every reality, including human society, can be brought to its Supreme Good, to its fulfilment. A purely historical and materialistic vision would end up transforming the common good into a simple socioeconomic well-being, without any transcendental goal, that is, without its most intimate reason for existing. (section 170)
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church


  1. I think it's possible to have a little too much Christology at times. For me the transcendent good is just love—God wants us to have justice, freedom, health, and all those good things out of love for us, and we are to help our neighbours out of love for them and our creator. I think creating social good just to give glory to Jesus, though laudable, might be missing the point. It's all about relationship, no?

  2. I think the point here is that we need to keep the goal in mind. The Christian's motivation is more than mere benevolence; we are serving the unseen Christ in our neighbor (Matt 25:35-45). We're responding to creatures like ourselves made in the image of God. And we do all this knowing that our good works will not be forgotten in the coming kingdom - that they are in some way signs of the coming kingdom. This elevates our good works to a new level and orders them. Granted, they'll look no different from the works the non-Christian working next to us. Nevertheless, it is good to have our motivations and priorities correct.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.