During the pandemic we often heard talk of actions taken for “the common good.” In this post we’ll take a look at what the Church has taught about this key principle of its social teaching.
The most well known recent definition of the “common good” can be found in Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. The Council Fathers said that the common good was:
“the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment,”Gaudium et Spes, 26
The Catechism echoes this:
“By common good is to be understood “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”CCC 1906
This definition may be a good start, but it seems a bit ambiguous. Taken alone, one could draw the conclusion that the common good pertains only to the temporal, or material good of persons. Now, it certainly must include material goods. The Gospel is clear about that:
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”Mt 25:40 RSV
But does the common good include the spiritual good of persons? The Gospel is equally clear that it does. The common good is mentioned thirty one times in Gaudium et Spes, but it doesn’t seem to link the concept to spiritual good. To get clarity on that, I think that we must look into the word fulfillment in the definition a bit more deeply.
The Catechism mentions three essential requirements for the common good that are laid out in sections 1906 through 1909. It says that the common good requires:
- Respect for the person. Each person should be permitted to fulfill his or her vocation.
- The social well-being and development of the group itself, making accessible to each person what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family.
- The common good requires peace, that is, authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security and defense of society and its members.
So the fulfillment mentioned by Gaudium et Spes can arguably be linked to the fulfillment of our vocations. Indeed. In a section unrelated to the common good, the Catechism reminds us:
“The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God; it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude.”CCC 1700
Divine beatitude. That is seeing God face to face.
If the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes is a bit vague, I’ve discovered that the Pope who convened the Council and the Pope who closed the Council were not. St. Pope John XXIII, in his 1961 Encyclical on Christianity and Social Progress entitled, “Mater et Magistra” said,
“To this end, a sane view of the common good must be present and operative in men invested with public authority. They must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality.”Mater et Magistra 65
Full development of human personality would certainly include spiritual development, I would think.
St. Pope John XXIII goes further in his 1963 encyclical, Pacem In Terris, On Establishing Universal Peace In Truth,Justice, Charity, And Liberty:
“Consisting, as he does, of body and immortal soul, man cannot in this mortal life satisfy his needs or attain perfect happiness. Thus, the measures that are taken to implement the common good must not jeopardize his eternal salvation; indeed, they must even help him to obtain it.”Pacem In Terris 59
St. Thomas Aquinas, when talking about the law in his Summa, says that the law is directed to the common good which is the common end. By the common end, St. Thomas means being with God for eternity. St. Pope Paul VI corroborates this in a discussion on political power in his 1971 Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, which he wrote on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of the Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical “Rerum Novarum” on the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor:
“Political power…must have as its aim the achievement of the common good. While respecting the legitimate liberties of individuals, families and subsidiary groups, it acts in such a way as to create, effectively and for the well-being of all, the conditions required for attaining man’s true and complete good, including his spiritual end.”Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, of Pope Paul Vi, 14 May 1971
Political power must act to create the conditions required for attaining man’s spiritual end. It must not only not jeopardize man’s eternal salvation, but must help him to obtain it. Have you heard anybody say anything like that lately?
I’d like to mention an additional aspect of the Church’s concept of the common good that differentiates it from the world’s concept of the common good. It is to be found in the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church:
“The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future.”Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, 164
The common good is NOT the aggregate of all persons’ individual goods. It’s not the “greatest good for the greatest number”, as if it was a mathematical optimization problem. Rather, it is the good that is willed and pursued by society as a whole.
In conclusion, we can accept the definition of the common good found in Gaudium et Spes as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment,” but we must acknowledge that the common good is not the sum of our individual goods, but is something we pursue together as a society. While it includes the temporal goods of food, clothing, health and work, our pursuit of the common good must also direct us toward the ultimate good of seeing God face to face.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1993). Vatican. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM
- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. (2006, May 26). Vatican. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_jus
- Mater et Magistra (May 15, 1961) | John XXIII. Vatican.va. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from https://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_15051961_mater.html
- Octogesima Adveniens (May 14, 1971) | Paul VI. (1971, May 14). Vatican. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_letters/documents/hf_p-vi_apl_19710514_octogesima-adveniens.html
- Pacem in Terris (April, 11 1963) | John XXIII. (n.d.). Vatican. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem.html
- St. Pope Paul VI. (1965, 12 7). Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes. Vatican.va. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html