The Common Good: Contained in the Person of Jesus Christ
CONNECTING THE DOTS: A Register Series on Catholic Social Teaching
Last time, in this space, we looked at the first pillar of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person. This is a concept that is easily familiar to many Catholics, particularly since it undergirds the pro-life movement.
It lies at the root of the truth that human beings are human beings, not human doings; that their value does not depend on how much they can earn, nor on whether they are inside or outside the womb; nor on whether they are too old or sick to be “productive”; nor on whether they are innocent or guilty (since we are all the authors of the passion and death of the Son of God). Our rights and dignity proceed, as President John F. Kennedy put it, “not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
We also saw that the Church looks at us as persons — that is, as creatures in a familial relationship with one another — due to the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God who is himself a communion of Persons.
This brings us to the next pillar: the common good. The common good — like solidarity — is an aspect of Catholic social teaching that often affects the American ear in a profoundly different way than the phrase “dignity of the human person.”
Many fear that it is the Church’s trendy nod to Marxism, as though the Church pits the common good against the dignity of the human person, as the Marxist pits the rich against the poor or the U.S. Constitution pits the three branches of government against one another to maintain a “balance of power.”
But this is to radically misunderstand Catholic social teaching. As we noted last time, the American conception of the social order, while it draws on certain aspects of a Catholic anthropology, also veers from it.
Our culture tends to see selfishness and sin as the most basic reality and virtue as the mask. So it begins with selfish individuals in conflict as the basis for its politics. Selfish competition in the marketplace, in the state and among various races, classes and genders is seen as the most basic reality, and everything comes down to a perpetual struggle for power among sinners.
Catholic anthropology, by contrast, insists on the human person made in the image and likeness of God as the most basic reality and sin as the mask. So it begins with the following presupposition: Human persons are in the first instance created by God, and love of God and neighbor is the fundamental purpose of our existence. To be sure, sin (and concupiscence) is a reality. But it is not the fundamental reality.
Because of this, the four pillars of Catholic social teaching work in harmony, not against one another. They certainly take into account the fact of the Fall — without which there would be no need for Catholic social teaching (anymore than, say, the angels need instruction on how to love perfectly) — but they do not begin there, as our politics does.
Catholic social teaching starts with the fact of the human person created in the image and likeness of God and with our primordial common call to such goods as vocation, fruitfulness, work and worship. Think of the four pillars as four notes in a chord, not as warring political ideologies.
And so, when the Church speaks of the common good, she does not begin with the rights of the individual in conflict with the needs of the collective, but with the fact that because each person is made in the image and likeness of God, all persons are.
Therefore, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says:
“The principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people. According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.’”
Since human beings are made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God, the family — not the individual, state or corporation — is the living icon of God and the basic building block of civilization. No small part of Catholic social teaching can be summed up in the principle: “If it’s good for the family, it’s good.”
The Church has in view a common end: “a true worldwide cooperation for the common good of the whole of humanity and for future generations also.” Yet this common end is woven together by several necessary and intrinsically linked threads: the sanctity of life, the demand for a living wage, “respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights, 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 [such as] food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression and the protection of religious freedom.”
That said, the thing to remember is that building blocks are for building. The Church deeply respects the family and fights to protect it more than any other institution. But the paradox remains that the family, though necessary, is not sufficient for our flourishing as human beings.
The evidence for this is seen in the greatest family in history: the Holy Family. It is not a family simply ordered toward amassing its own good and then passing it on to the children, with no concern for the community.
On the contrary, the Holy Family’s purpose is about offering themselves entirely to the world. Mary and Joseph take seriously the fact that the prophets declare, on behalf of Israel and the whole world, “For to us a child is born” (Isaiah 9:6). This family offers itself and the fruit of Mary’s womb for the life of the world.
Not surprisingly, then, Jesus likewise treats the family as a building block, not as an end in itself. He subordinates it to the kingdom of God in emphatic terms, saying, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
His point, of course, is not that we should wish evil on the family, but that nothing, not even the family, comes before our fidelity to the kingdom of God.
In a related way, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was asked, “Who are my mother and my brethren?” And looking around at those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brethren: Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35).
Once again, the family is hailed as good, but its goodness lies not in being isolated from the community, but by its reaching fulfillment in the kingdom of God. The fruit of Mary’s womb calls us to a generous fruitfulness that will redound not only to our progeny, but to future generations throughout the world.
The mention of future generations ties together two ideas that most moderns seldom think to relate: material generosity and the fruitfulness of the marital act. That’s because our politics has unnaturally severed them.
Conservatism is typically associated with being “pro-life” in terms of procreation and liberalism with being free in terms of money. But in the biblical tradition, separating those ideas is absurd. Generation, generosity, generativity, genital, genealogy and genius (among others) all come from the Latin root gener, meaning “kin,” “clan,” “race” or “stock,” with the root Indo-European meaning of gen being “to beget.”
The connection is not far to seek. Generous persons are life-giving persons in the biblical tradition. They literally give life by begetting children, but also give life to others by recognizing their common humanity and supplying their needs. They further give life by tending the garden of creation and using their genius to create wealth by inventing new things or by husbanding (note that word) nature’s bounty provided by God. Such generosity is characteristic of the biblical saint: archetypally Abraham.
Abraham is particularly remembered in Scripture for his fruitfulness and generosity rooted in faith. God makes him the father of many nations, and his generosity toward those around him is seen constantly.
Indeed, the mark of his call is that his life-giving generosity will ultimately touch the whole planet, and “in you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8). He is generous even to the wicked, famously dickering with God in order to get him to spare the legendarily corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
This brings us to one of the core biblical insights about the use of our gifts, whether spiritual or material. What is true of Abraham is true of all his spiritual heirs: namely, that the Chosen People are chosen for the sake of the unchosen. Our gifts, whether in spiritual or material wealth, are given to us for the sake of those who do not have them — and those to whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).
Indeed, as the Parable of the Talents makes clear, what we are given is expected back with interest. This is a particularly acute responsibility for those of us living in the wealth of the First World when the bottom billion of the world’s population is literally starving to death. We are Dives (the Rich Man). They are Lazarus. And we have the opportunity and responsibility to be Abraham.
As Pope Pius XI said:
“The distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.”
This, of course, involves individual initiatives toward generosity and private charity, and the Church and her members are immense engines of such generosity, not only helping the desperate, but, just as important, carrying out the Compendium’s insistence that:
“By means of work and making use of the gift of intelligence, people are able to exercise dominion over the earth and make it a fitting home: ‘In this way, he makes part of the earth his own, precisely the part which he has acquired through work; this is the origin of individual property.’”
This suits the rugged individualist American ethos quite well. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for the rest of his life. The Church is all for that. But, then, the Compendium turns to the task of the state, beyond the individual, in addressing the common good as well:
“The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the state, since the common good is the reason that the political authority exists. ... The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life. Hence the necessity of political institutions, the purpose of which is to make available to persons the necessary material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods.”
This too is common sense. The myth that the individual or the family is sufficient to provide for themselves without any help from (or given to) the community is simply foreign to Church Tradition (and to experience and common sense).
In a thousand ways, we are dependent, for example, on an infrastructure maintained by the state, which supports us with everything from an interstate highway system to the Internet, from a police force to a system that defends the weak from the predatory, from a military that protects us from deadly threats to a meteorological surveillance system that warns us of tornadoes, as well as state agencies that work to make sure our food and medicines do not kill or cripple us.
And this is just scratching the surface of the tasks that the state, of necessity, must perform in serving the common good. Our freeway system is not maintained by small bands of local citizens patching potholes on Saturday afternoon. There is a state department for that purpose.
When Hitler declared war, he was not met by some boys from Brooklyn who grabbed their pistols and headed across the Atlantic in a dinghy. The state’s military answered the call.
Of course, being human creations, none of these things are flawless. But without them, a quick look at Somalia, or Tikrit, Iraq, shows what really doing away with the state looks like.
Indeed, St. Paul understood the state to be so vital in forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — that is, to maintaining the common good — that he told the Romans:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason, you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:1–7).
And Paul gives these instructions to the Christian community despite the fact that the Caesar of whom he wrote was Nero, the psychopath who would eventually cut off his head.
This does not, of course, mean that we are to simply knuckle under to every whim of Caesar. Indeed, thanks be to God, we live in a representative system of government where, at least in theory, we hire our Caesar by voting him into office. The task of civil authorities, according to the Compendium, is: “to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority, but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority.” And when, as sometimes happens, Caesar enacts unjust laws, we have the right and obligation to resist him, since “an unjust law is no law at all,” according to St. Augustine.
No small part of why Caesar can go wrong is that he often forgets that man does not live on bread alone and tries to reduce the human person simply to a consumer and producer of material goods. The blunder of both consumerist capitalism and communism is the insistence that our highest good is merely material. But, in fact, our life begins and ends in Jesus, and he is our Supreme Good.
Scripture points to this in a curious, yet clear way. In the Old Testament, God commanded that Israel celebrate the sabbatical and jubilee years, which required fields to lie fallow, cancellation of debts and a general release of persons and goods — indicating that everyone in Israel has a right to the common goods of land God gave them. Israel never really observed this fully. But when Jesus, God made man, fulfills the Law and the prophets, he embarks on his mission by applying the image of the jubilee to himself (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2).
Jesus does not mean he is declaring a jubilee year to begin his ministry. He means he is the jubilee, just as he will later say he is the true Bread of Life, prefigured by the manna in the wilderness, and he is the true temple prefigured by the stone building in Jerusalem. What was seen in sign and shadow in the Old Covenant is now revealed in fullness in the Word made flesh.
And so the Church insists that, in the final analysis, every person has the right to know the truth, mercy and love revealed in Jesus Christ, the very embodiment of the common good. All of our other efforts to promote the common good must keep that fact in mind.
Having sketched this framework of the common good and placed it within our transcendent heavenly destiny in Christ, the Church then makes clear, “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone.” This is, of course, straight out of Genesis 1 and carries with it implications that are, at once, commonsensical and also very challenging — and none more so for Americans than the principle of the universal destination of goods.
The Compendium tells us, “The right to the common use of goods is the ‘first principle of the whole ethical and social order’ and ‘the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine.’”
It is here that the American pulse often begins to quicken in fear and the suspicion that the Church is talking about some kind of communism. But this is not so. Communism is the theory that private property should be abolished and everything owned by the state. It is a utopian notion that, like many utopian notions, took a single idea from the Christian tradition and exalted it beyond all reason and sense, forgetting that, crippled by sin, we cannot do always what we do sometimes. The idea communism battened on was this: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32).
It’s a beautiful thing when this happens due to a spontaneous outpouring of self-donating love. But, as St. Luke will point out in the story of Ananias and Sapphira just a few sentences later, the serpent of greed and falsehood lurks even in the Church, and still more in the world, due to original sin. So communism was doomed, since a perfect sharing of everything in common is beyond our capacity this side of the eschaton. Communism’s attempt to make it happen through force could and did only end in epic slaughter, gulags, famines and a police state.
Only the Holy Spirit can make saints. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot made only huge piles of corpses. The communist claim to abolish property and class merely wound up concentrating property and power in the hands of the communist rulers and robbing everybody else of the property that attends the dignity of the human person.
Yet, for a paradoxical reason, this is also why the Church is suspicious of unrestricted capitalism. Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.
Part one of the series can be found here.
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- st. augustine
- mark shea
- jesus christ
- dignity of the human person
- common good
- catholic social teaching