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Getting a CAT scan of the common good


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I’ve challenged myself to try to understand the idea of the common good and, as a common writer, to pass along my findings in a way that appeals to the common reader. For what good is an idea if its substance is not susceptible to a common appreciation? It’s quite common nowadays, especially in the political world, to refer to the common good. Is it just a content-free slogan that vibrates the eardrums in a pleasing manner?

The Catholic Church takes particular interest in the idea, so my quest is to figure out why. To figure out the “why,” one must explore the “what” behind it. The common good is presented as the answer to a problem. Thus, our understanding should, if this search goes well, light up like a CAT scan once we identify the type of problems the idea of the common good seeks to address.

In the index to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the landmark 2004 publication of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the term “common good” garners almost a hundred entries. The term merits a section all its own in the Compendium, in the discussion of the “four permanent principles of the Church’s social doctrine.” (Compendium, Chap. 4, no. 160.)

Along with “the dignity of the human person,” “subsidiarity,” and “solidarity,” the “common good” serves, according to the Compendium, as one of the “primary and fundamental parameters of reference for interpreting and evaluating social phenomena, which is the necessary source for working out the criteria for the discernment and orientation of social interaction in every area.” (No. 161.)

In simpler terms, “the common good” is one of the key yardsticks for measuring the moral health of societies big and small. The difficulty, acknowledged by all who study the idea, is pinning down the measurements to be used. It’s as if the yardstick industry could not come to some agreement about how long a “yard” should be. One company’s “three-feet” may be another company’s two-and-a-half feet.

Let’s take a step back. In referring to the common good as a measurement of “social phenomena,” the Compendium makes an important point. Part of our daily reality as human beings is the encroachment of other human beings. We live on the same field. We breathe the same air. We use the same minerals, chemicals and gases that nature produces. Because you exist, I am not alone. Because you have needs, and I have needs, and because we both are prone to act in sometimes mutually exclusive ways to meet our own individual needs, conflicts will happen.

It is this social interaction, and the disputes that result, that have captured the Church’s attention. The Compendium discusses what it calls a particularly significant implication of the common good—its role as a helpful guide on the rightful use, ownership, and sharing of natural goods. And as usually occurs when the Church looks at a problem, Scripture is consulted.

In a section on “the universal destination of goods,” the Compendium refers to the Book of Genesis, which according to the Church’s interpretation, reveals that “the original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits. God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone” (No. 171, quoting Pope John Paul II.).

This clues us in as to where we’ll find the meaning of the common good from within Catholic teaching. The meaning will be rooted in Scripture, as reflected upon through philosophy and experience. Indeed, according to the Compendium, the common good has a “transcendent dimension” and “this perspective reaches its fulfillment by virtue of faith in Jesus’ Passover, which sheds clear light on the attainment of humanity’s true common good” (No. 170).

Before going any further into our inquiry about the common good, it should be noted that all levels of human interaction, all shapes and sizes of social relationships, raise issues of common goods and goodness.

Hence, at stake will be social interactions as varied as taking a number to determine the order and timing of getting a haircut in Roanoke, Indiana, participating in a crowd “wave” at a baseball game in Fenway Park in Boston, preparing a family meal, conducting delicate diplomacy between two international superpowers, and planning for a celebration of the Eucharist.

An understanding of the common good should be adequate enough to enable anyone, when assessing any of these or any other interaction, to know how to act for the common good in such circumstances.

Will it be possible to solve the “two-and-a-half foot long yardstick” problem? Is there a way to describe the common good that has some uniform substance? That’s the topic for later discussion.

In the meantime, consider this: if the common good is applicable to any social encounter, then its core meaning will apply to experiences that we all undergo. So one might profitably spend the period of waiting for the next installment of this series on the common good by reflecting on just how many different social arrangements one participates in during any given day. Ask yourself if any rules appear to apply to all of the interactions you have with others.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director of Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference

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