“In keeping with the social nature of man, the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1905).
This short but important paragraph from the Catechism highlights some essential aspects of our lives as Catholics, particularly the social demands of the Gospel. Our Catholic faith and our discipleship of Jesus demands that what we profess and say in prayer should be manifested in our actions — both our personal actions and the collective actions of society.
First, we hear about “the social nature of man.” This phrase can be understood from what ancient philosophers wrote — such as Aristotle, who taught that man was social by nature — as well as what we can learn from divine revelation. As He is creating Adam, we hear God speak in Scripture, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God did not create us to be isolated, but rather to be in communion (not coincidently, like God, who Himself is a communion of persons by his own nature). This is why the creation of Eve is so essential; nothing else in this world can replace the interpersonal relationships we have with family and friends. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in these times of quarantine has been the diminishment of living out this social dimension.
But every time we are with other people, demands are placed upon us. We have to seek the good of others and not simply our own. When we live together, travel together, or work together, we are forced out of our own comfort zone of simply being concerned with ourselves and turning our attention to the “other” I am with. This reality is most aptly seen in marriage and family. Young people who marry and become parents speak about a radical transformation in their outlook on the world. They are concerned about things they once took for granted — like bad drivers, ratings of schools, and neighborhood crime rates. No longer are they simply seeing the world through the eyes of “what is good for me,” but they now evaluate the world by the standard of “what is good for my family.”
The macrocosm of the family is the larger community, whether it be a neighborhood, city, state or entire country. While each part of the community has a primary responsibility for its own family, they cannot be blind to the needs of the whole. This concern for the whole is called “the common good.” Concern for the common good is not optional for Catholics. We have a demand to take these notions into consideration as we live our lives. Those who do not care for the goods of others, who are only concerned for their own good, are called selfish. But we are called, in imitation of Jesus Christ, to “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.” (Phil 2:5). Therefore, this paragraph from the Catechism concludes by teaching us that “the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good.”
Concern for the common good is not optional for Catholics. We have a demand to take these notions into consideration as we live our lives. Those who do not care for the goods of others, who are only concerned for their own good, are called selfish. But we are called, in imitation of Jesus Christ, to “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.” (Phil 2:5).
The definition of the common good is laid out in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: it 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.” It contains three parts: respect for persons, the social well-being and development of communities and the whole, and peace (CCC 1907-1912).
The primary care of all society has to be for the human person. All our efforts have to be anthropocentric (person-centered) because man is the pinnacle of creation. God has given the authority and responsibility of the world into the hands of the human family for our flourishing. There can be no just social policy or personal decision that subsumes the good of man to some other good. We possess an inalienable dignity that comes from God. Therefore, it can never be taken away. As we evaluate what issues to take most seriously in our social and political causes, the Church teaches us that those which most directly attack these foundational rights of the human person are the gravest threat.
Persons must have the freedom to exercise the responsibilities that come hand-in-hand with these rights. If we are created in the image and likeness of God, we must be free to learn and know about the world and about God. We must be free to live a life in accord with what we have come to know as true. This freedom is both a restriction on the state (or any other individual) to respect this right as well as a demand on the individual to take seriously the responsibility of a fully integrated life. If I am free to follow God in my conscience, I am duty-bound by conscience to follow him unreservedly. Individual rights cannot exist without the corresponding individual responsibility.
The common good demands that different groups are able to co-exist in a larger community. This is most simply played out in neighborhoods where families must co-exist with each other. But it also is necessary in a diverse place like our country. Different cultures and religious communities must learn how to live together for the common good. If one community is committed to thriving at the expense of another, the common good is not achieved. One way this should shape our social outlook is that a common good economic system seeks to benefit all, and not simply one class or community. The Catechism teaches that while we seek this balance, there are certain goods that must be accessible to all for their human flourishing: “food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.”
Finally, the common good requires peace. The Christian notion of peace is not simply the absence of war, but the rightly ordered just order. This is not a pacifistic notion that one never has the right to personal or communal defense. Instead, it is a realization that war and strife are always a loss. When they can be avoided, we have a commitment to do so, since Jesus taught us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Mt. 5:9).
While the common good requires collective action — a commitment from the community as a whole body — it most seriously demands personal action consistent with these goals. The whole community begins with the actions of the individual. And when we meet our Lord on Judgment Day, it is our actions (“in my thoughts and in my words; in what I have done and what I have failed to do”) for which we will be accountable.
Pope Francis wrote his latest encyclical on this topic of the common good earlier this month. In this work, he reminds us all time and again that we cannot abdicate our responsibility for building a more just and peaceful society by only looking out for ourselves; we need eyes to see a common brotherhood of mankind, a “fratelli tutti.” The world, our country, and our local communities need you and me to be men and women who are radically and sacrificially committed to the common good.
Fr. Stephen Pullis is director of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Department of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship.