One of the treasures of Catholic Social Doctrine is its emphasis on the common good. Discourse centering on the common good offers a counterbalance to “rights talk” that dominates cultural discourse today. For many however, the notion of the common good remains vague and therefore misunderstood. In its broadest sense the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 164). The Catechism of the Catholic Church points to three elements of the common good which help to illuminate the twofold focus in the definition that is placed on both the individual and the community. The common good, first and foremost, must recognize the dignity of the person. This means creating societal “conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as “the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard. . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion” (CCC 1907). Second, the common good requires “the social well-being and development of the group itself” (CCC 1908). However, this must never be done at the expense of the dignity of the person. Finally, the common good requires an atmosphere of peace founded upon a just order in which the mutual fulfillment of members may occur (CCC 1909).
Despite its inherent richness and relative simplicity, the notion of the common good is rarely referenced in civil discourse. This is because of some underlying assumptions about man and society cause some grave misunderstandings.
Much of western political thought is built upon the assumption that man is not by nature a social being but instead enters into a social contract in order to have his needs met. This is contrary to not only the classical understanding of man but also the Christian understanding of man-made in the image and likeness of God, Who is a society unto Himself. The rugged individualist understanding of man reduces the common good to simply the sum of individual goods. What emerges is a sort of utilitarian understanding of the common good as the “great good for the greatest number.” Goods however, if they are truly common goods, ought to flow back over the individual. Two important points follow from this.
First, civil life is an ultimate end, but an ultimate end in a relative sense to the transcendent good of man. Second, because each man shares in the common good it is superior to individual goods. Specifically one might have to forego an individual good for the sake of the higher, common good.
A materialist understanding of man also leads to errors in applying the notion of the common good. It leads to two equally dangerous errors. First, if all that exists is material then there can truly be no common good. Life becomes a zero sum game in which everyone is clamoring for his piece of the pie. Although the common good ought to lead to individual fulfillment, this fulfillment is not merely on a material level. Seeking the common good is not just about a flourishing economy, protection of rights, etc. but requires special attention to truth, justice, love, virtue and duty in the social order.
Second, it can lead to the view that the whole of society is simply a biological organism and the individual is a cell within that organism. The common good becomes something like a public good that bees enjoy with a good functioning hive. But the common good common good is one that is both received and communicated in the person. A communicable good would be one that enables the individual to perfect his life and liberty.
The Catechism (1908) suggests there is an intrinsic link between the common good and religious liberty. Given the gross misunderstandings that plague our society regarding religious freedom, it might be helpful to apply the concept of the common good to the question of religious liberty. In particular there should be a special emphasis on the principle that one might have to forego an individual good for the sake of the higher, common good. For the sake of the common good, each person must forego the good of not being annoyed, inconvenienced or even persuaded about certain truth claims by religious believers and the manner in which they discharge their beliefs . Even those they deem false or even find ridiculous. Out of respect for their own religious liberty they should be free from coercion and from any other behavior in which religious freedom has been coopted to threaten the common good.
Religious practice is a true human good that is common to all mankind and therefore is part of the common good. One must never lose sight of this truth—that religion is ordered to the transcendent nature of man. There is a danger when speaking of the common good to think only in terms of the temporal common good and not the common good of whole man who is a person on pilgrimage to God. One must protect religion from being viewed as “basically just instruments for advocating freedom, peace, and the conservation of creation, so that they would have to justify their existence through political success and political goals” (Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth).
Despite this, religion can still contribute positively to the common weal. Everyone is familiar with the works of charity that are done by religious groups who are animated by their religious beliefs but there are some other not so obvious contributions that religion makes to the common good that need to be examined.
There are some very specific ways in which religion contributes to the common good in a democratic republic such as we have in the United States. Because democracy requires virtuous citizenry in order to survive, it requires something from the moral order that transcends itself. That is why John Adams said that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Christianity in particular contributes to the common good as well because of what Jacques Maritain termed “hidden work” of the evangelical inspiration on the secular conscience. In particular the three main philosophical principles underlying a democracy are promulgated by the Christian faith; the equality of all mankind, the principle that although man is a part of the State, he also transcends the State and because authority itself comes from God and man is free it is only with the consent of the governed that one can rule over another.
Tocqueville thought the role of religion in the United States was one of the great checks against tyranny. He thought that “among the various sects of Christians, Catholicism seems… to be one of the most favorable to equality of condition among men” (Democracy in America, Volume I, Chapter 17). Pope Benedict saw that the Church also contributes to the common good by “contributing to the purification of reason” especially when it comes to who man is and what is his just due. In the words of the Pope Emeritus, “the whole Church, in all her being and acting — when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity — is engaged in promoting integral human development” (Caritas in Veritate, 11).
If history is to teach us anything it is that the attacks against religious freedom will only get worse and not better. Perhaps the only way to stem the tide is to keep its connection to the common good always in the forefront of civil discourse.