Find essays by keyword, title, or author name

The Common Good of All

The Second Vatican Council succinctly defined the Roman Catholic conception of the common good 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.” It continues to say (in 1965) that in our present era the common good “takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race.” Among “those conditions” that constitute the common good, it includes

everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.

Above all, it emphasizes that “the disposition of [social] affairs is to be subordinate to the personal realm and not contrariwise” (Gaudium et Spes, 26). All these are laudable goals. However, when it comes to the “universal complexion” of the common good “with respect to the whole human race,” the means advocatednamely a world political authorityseems suspect, at least imprudent if not altogether mistaken.

For example, Pope John XXIII writes, with respect to the universal character of the common good:

Now, if one considers carefully the inner significance of the common good on the one hand, and the nature and function of public authority on the other, one cannot fail to see that there is an intrinsic connection between them. Public authority, as the means of promoting the common good in civil society, is a postulate of the moral order. But the moral order likewise requires that this authority be effective in attaining its end. Hence the civil institutions in which such authority resides, becomes operative and promotes its ends, are endowed with a certain kind of structure and efficacy: a structure and efficacy which make such institutions capable of realizing the common good by ways and means adequate to the changing historical conditions.

Today the universal common good presents us with problems which are world-wide in their dimensions; problems, therefore, which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity. Consequently the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority (Pacem et Terris,136-137).

We can assume, then, that to some extent the pope believed the U.N. to have deficient “power, organization and means” to ensure the common good of all in this way, since though it already existed he still felt the need to raise such a call.

But I would worry about a U.N. or any other global political authority endowed with such great power and means. If nation states have failed to ensure the global common good, as the pope admits, why should we expect a global government to be free from error in this regard? The only difference would be that the mistakes of such politicians would necessarily have global consequences. I like my U.N. nearly ineffective and mostly powerless, thank you very much. If anything, to ensure subsidiarity, the larger the political authority, the less power and means it should have.

We have here a problem that stems from a particular conception of political authority: the notion that “[p]ublic authority” is “the means of promoting the common good in civil society” (emphasis mine). This teaching has continued to the present day with Pope Benedict XVI. In Caritas in Veritate, he writes:

To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth (67).

Benedict even explicitly says that he thinks that because the U.N. is inadequate to this task, it should be reformed in such a way that it would be “vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights” (emphasis mine). For my part, I remain skeptical that the U.N. is now or ever shall be capable of responsibly wielding such power.

The problem here comes from too closely identifying the good of political authority with the common good. Of course, the state ought to serve the common good, but in its own, limited capacity, ensuring good order and justice. Furthermore, while I wholeheartedly agree that there is a universal common good that we ought to serve, and that in our globalized age we ought to give extra attention to this fact, I strongly disagree that this necessitates the sort of world political authority called for by Rome. The state, though vital to human flourishing, is not the only “means of promoting the common good in society.”

As a corrective, I think Christians and others who respect the Roman Catholic tradition of social thought (as I do) might find some insight from the Orthodox saint Nicholas Cabasilas. Toward the end of his spiritual classic, The Life in Christ, he writes,

This is the most generous form of pleasure, that one should share in the pleasure of another soul, and not merely desire for oneself and one’s own benefit, nor take pride merely in that which is one’s own, nor love one’s own gain alone, but consider oneself rewarded by the triumph of others. In this, man goes beyond his nature and becomes like God who is the common good of all (emphasis mine).

Now this, I think, is a much better starting point. God is the common good of all. As St. Augustine prayed, “our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” In particular, Cabasilas says that when we rejoice in the good of another, we become “like God.” This would be the opposite of envy, which St. John of Damascus defines as “pain over the good fortune of others.” And it would be the same as at least one understanding of love, which Aquinas, following Aristotle, defines as “to will good for someone,” and thus, we may add, to rejoice at seeing one’s will so fulfilled.

In particular, Cabasilas does not have in mind material goods, but instead writes that “the virtuous man … realizes that goodness alone is worthy of love.” He thus gives priority to the spiritual in the context of highlighting the centrality of love in the life in Christ, furthermore writing, “we have joy in ourselves to the extent that we love.” And it is this joy-giving, willing-and-rejoicing-in-the-good-of-another sort of love that “God is” (1 John 4:8). Thus, in this way we become “like God,” and most effectively promote the common good of all. As such, we may say that though I have “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 have not love, “it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). This is not to say that we should not hope for and work for these conditions, but rather that they ought to be put in their place.

Ironically, considered in this light what we need most of all to promote the universal common good is not a world political authority, but a world spiritual authority: the Roman Catholic Church is selling itself short! Personally, I prefer the Orthodox Church when it comes to world spiritual institutions, but there is plenty of room for coexistence between world religious bodies, and perhaps, in this case (by some unexpected miracle), reconciliation (someday). In the meantime, promoting the religious freedom necessary for people to be able to seek out the good life and find it in Christ, and most importantly, preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments so that the life in Christ is there for them to find, ought to be considered the most fundamental of all “those conditions of social life” necessary for people to realize “their own fulfillment.”


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • I’m curious, Dylan, would you repudiate the Byzantine Empire? I’m only half-kidding here because I think there are not-a-few similarities between the words of the Holy Fathers and the Byzantine Empire at her height. It was in a loose sense international and wielded a great deal of power in that sphere. I am not equating the UN with the Byzatine Empire (and goodness knows, no way those bureaucrats deserve even their parking tickets paid for…), but a well-regulated international order among nations does not necessarily need to (or imply) a world government.

    • Dylan Pahman

      It had its positives and negatives. Weber goes too far in classifying symphonia as Caesaropapism, but there definitely was a problem with a political authority that had too much power as well.

      In his sixth novella, the Emperor Justinian says, “The priesthood
      and the Empire are the two greatest gifts which God, in His infinite
      clemency, has bestowed upon mortals; the former has reference to Divine
      matters, the latter presides over and directs human affairs, and both,
      proceeding from the same principle, adorn the life of mankind….”

      On the one hand, he acknowledges that it is not just the state which has the care of the common good. On the other hand, the rest of the novella goes on to give imperial requirements for bishops and priests, which seems like a bit of an overreach of power to me. In fact, many martyrs of that period are due to the wrong people getting the state on their side (see, e.g. the monothelite and iconoclastic controversies). I also think the strict, institutional division between “Divine matters” and “human affairs” could be (and at times was) problematic.

      I would agree that “a well-regulated international order among nations does not necessarily need to (or imply) a world government,” but I’m not sure alternative readings of the papal statements in question could hold up. (I’d be very interested in hearing someone try though.) The popes’ logic is pretty clear and valid. I just disagree with the premise that the state is the primary keeper of the common good.

  • Dan Hugger

    Cabasilas officially made it on to the reading list with this post. What’s interesting to me as I unpack this is that it re-frames the discussion of the common good away from something that must be established, secured, and protected and toward something that is already present, given, and shared.

    • Dylan Pahman

      Yes, that sort of thing is what struck me about it as well. Unfortunately, he only says a little bit in this regard (as I said, this is toward the end of the book), but it is a lot to think over.

  • Gabriel S. Sanchez

    It seems to me that you are missing the point of how international law — and its attendant institutions — actually works. (For those curious, I have addressed that issue, briefly, on EP before:

    While I do not share in the faith of certain popes that the present international order is capable of resolving the high-level collective action and socio-economic problems they have addressed, to the extent the international order — what Pope Benedict XVI calls generally a “world political authority” — would or could address such matters, empirical reality dictates that subsidiarity would have to apply since whatever terms this authority develops are inevitably going to be applied by each individual state in accord with its particular legal and political system. In fact, this happens all of the time. When the World Trade Organization, for instance, sets rules limiting subsidies and the countervailing measures (duties) a state can be apply to a foreign-produced subsidized product, the WTO isn’t carrying out the heavy administrative task of assessing each subsidized product and countervailing measure. That is left to the procedures of each state. It is only when two states — two WTO members — disagree about the degree of subsidization (e.g. the U.S./EU dispute concerning Airbus and Boeing) or the level of a countervailing measure being used (states sometimes have an incentive to exaggerate the subsidization of a foreign-produced product in order to ramp-up the duties they will apply to said products) that the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism kicks in. But by and large, states are expected to play by, and administer, the rules themselves at the local level. A “world political authority” is not as frightening as you make it out to be and the larger it is, the more dependent it will be on lower-level institutions, particularly intra-state institutions, to carry out (or not) its work.

    • Dylan Pahman

      Thanks for your comment.

      I am aware of how the UN and WTO currently work. What seems odd to me is that the popes’ dissatisfaction with this is that the U.N. in particular (though presumably other world political institutions as well) is not powerful enough and is in need of increased means of action. How do you understand the popes’ call for a more powerful U.N. with increased means of action? In what way do they want it to be more powerful? What are these increased means?

      Secondly, how would you address the central point of my argument, which is that while the popes’ logic is valid the premise of the state as “*the* means of promoting the common good in society” is false? This is the point of the essay. Change the premise and the logic leads elsewhere than to a need for a more powerful and well-endowed world political authority, as I have argued.

      • Gabriel S. Sanchez

        Context — and age — is key here. When John XXIII was writing, the post-war world, specifically post-war Europe, was still quite optimistic about the capabilities of international law and institutions to peacefully and harmoniously address questions which have long vexed mankind. That faith, particularly in the economic arena, was renewed in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union; the establishment of the WTO and other sophisticated regional trade accords (e.g., NAFTA); the deep economic and legal integration of the European Union; etc. I suspect that Benedict XVI, no less a child of the 20th C. than his predecessors, held fast to their faith in international law. And so when they write about such things, they write more with an eye to the “best case scenario” than present realities. Sure, one can fault them for it, but they are men of Europe and even prior to the formation of the United Nations, EU, and so forth, Europe had a longstanding tradition of international law that goes back to the Byzantine appropriation and application of Roman law, not to mention subsequent canon law developments (particularly in the West). None of that makes what they write concerning the need for more institutions wrong per se, but what’s missing from the encyclicals you noted is a plausible account of how one establishes them or, absent their establishment, works within the contemporary limits of the international order. That task should probably be left to others.

        In rereading Benedict XVI’s words, I think one has to emphasize “effective” in the expression “effective power.” He is not calling for granting the UN powers that are unrelated to the task at hand and, were someone to work through the principles of Benedict’s encyclical, they would, arguably, reach the conclusion that a more effective UN is not a more centralized, but rather de-centralized and subject-specific, UN. We already have a model for this. The International Civil Aviation Organization is the official UN organ that addresses matters related to international air transport and it has a very good track record of resolving coordination and cooperation problems with respect to safety, communications, licensing, and air traffic management. It is a UN institution with the “effective powers” to carry out such tasks, perhaps because it also doesn’t try to, say, combat world hunger or resolve maritime disputes. (There is a separate and somewhat-to-fairly effective UN organ for that as well: The Convention on the Law of the Sea and its attendant tribunal.)

        All of this is a long way of saying that “effective powers” does not necessarily mean lengthening the UN’s current menu of problem areas within the present framework. It very well could mean — and probably should mean — developing fresh organs to address the various phenomena John XIII and Benedict XVI have identified with an eye to the fact that “effective power,” depending on the phenomenon to be addressed, is going to look different across institutions. The popes haven’t spelled out the particulars in their encyclicals because, well, that’s not their job. So I wouldn’t get too frustrated over the fact that those encyclicals don’t come packaged with a hundred-page roadmap of how an international institution, and its governing treaty, ought to be formulated and, from there, function.

        [More to come in reply to your post, but I need to move on to something else for a few.]

      • Gabriel S. Sanchez

        To continue…

        It seems to me that you are reading the Church’s magisterium too narrowly here, which inevitably leads to some confusing results. In order to simplify matters, let’s start with the first principle upon which everything you have quoted rests upon, namely “[t]he political community and public authority are based on human nature and therefore . . . belong to an order established by God” (GS 74 sec. 3). As such, when the Church, through her pontiffs and bishops, teaches about the common good and the promotion of that common good through public authority, it is not just any public authority with any conception it calls the common good, but a public authority which is rooted in God’s established order with an eye to the common good which arises out of the order. The Nazis had political authority and an understanding of the “common good” (a perverse one), but that doesn’t mean that we just accept and approve of that.

        Moreover, it seems to me that despite quoting what the Church teaches as comprising the common good — which is not incongruent with, but certainly not squarely directed at, the common good Cabasilas is discussing — and role of public authority in promoting it, you assume the Catholic Church is vacating the premises with respect to her divine mission of promoting the common good Cabasilas points to, namely God. But if you look into the philosophical and theological history of Catholic thought, “common good” does not have a unipolar meaning. So, really, I am not entirely sure what it is you are fussing about here.

        • Dylan Pahman

          A brief(-ish), incomplete response:

          “[V]acating the premises” is not the same as “selling themselves short.” Basically, my complaint is too much state, not enough church, not that they are advocating all state, no church. I trace the origin of this to the premise I indicated (to be more specific: an incomplete definition of the common good has led to a lopsided understanding of who is primarily responsible for it). The fact that the RCC does not view its place as the or a primary keeper of the common good, but does view this to be the place of public authority (albeit only one rightly established, as you point out) is a problem. They have artificially dissected their own vocation from their definition of the common good, even while still seeking to fulfill that vocation. But God, I would (and did) argue, *and* the love that makes us “like God” are the most important aspects of the common good, and this ought to change the priorities of their discourse concerning how the common good is achieved on a universal level.

          Perhaps I can simplify: Why, when acknowledging that the common good “takes on an increasingly universal complexion” in our present age, is their first statement not, “and that is what the Roman Catholic Church is here for; let us tell you about the Gospel”? Why is it, instead, that we now have “urgent need of a true world political authority” more powerful than what we currently have? I realize that the context is important—perhaps that explains their mindset. What I am questioning, then, is that this mindset has yielded the clearest thinking in this regard. I do not think it has, and I’m not sure you really disagree.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            But here again I think you need to zero-in on the type of common good being discussed in the documents you cite. It is the common political good and the common political good, which is temporal, is the affair of the state (public authority), albeit not an affair which is divorced from the ultimate or cosmic common good: God. The Church teaches, and has always taught, that the state (public authority) cannot promote temporal ends which are contrary to the law of God, and it is the sole authority of the Church to instruct society on that law. So you’re right: The Church does not view its place as the keeper of the political common good. Your disagreement with that rings strange given your Orthodox convictions. What did Dostoevsky (foolishly) say about a Catholic Church that had arrogated to itself concrete public authority, again?

            The Catholic Church, no less than the Orthodox Church, continues — to use some language neither communion would probably avail itself of — “to promote the ultimate common good,” that is, God. For the political common good, to the extent it is truly good, comes from God, but it is not the duty of the Church to promote it (a less ambiguous word here might be “maintain” or “secure”). I think greater care needs to be taken with how the term “common good” is used. Temporal peace and God are both common goods insofar as all individuals can, in theory, partake of them both without depriving any others of their ability to partake as well, but temporal peace is not God and God is not temporal peace; the state is directly concerned with the latter (albeit guided by the authoritative moral teachings of the Church) and the Church is directly concerned with the former (albeit not in isolation from the state either).

          • Dylan Pahman

            “It is the common political good and the common political good, which is
            temporal, is the affair of the state (public authority), albeit not an
            affair which is divorced from the ultimate or cosmic common good: God.”

            Okay. Let’s grant that one can coherently speak about “the common political good, which is temporal.” I would echo your statement that “greater care needs to be taken with how the term “common good” is used.” The common political good is not the same as the common temporal good either, but rather the former is a species of the latter. This, I think, is not made clear by the popes; they seem to conflate the two.

            Furthermore—to return again to my point—does not the Church have an essential, even primary, contribution to the temporal common good precisely in promoting the “ultimate common good”: God (and, again, Godlike love)? It is not enough to say that the state ought to take its moral guidance from the Church. That would be ideal, of course. But the Church has its own, far more important, contribution to make—apart from the state; indeed, “in isolation from the state”—to temporal matters such 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.”

  • Sancrucensis

    The Cabasilas quote is very good, and agrees with much of the Latin tradition as well. The great Thomist philosopher Charles De Koninck’s wrote a lot about the God as the common good. This is a short letter of his that makes the point:

    And here is his book on the topic:

    So, I agree that the definition given in Gaudium et Spes is inadequate. Nevertheless, one has to distinguish different orders. God is the extrinsic common good of the universe. That is, he is the good of the community of all created things, but is not Himself one of those things. But there is also an intrinsic common good of creation, which is the representation of God found in the unity of peace, the harmony and order among all created things. I have written about this here:

    Now, I would agree that the Church is the most important community for promoting this common good. In the final restoration of all things it will be the Church that will be revealed in all her splendor as the bride of Christ, adorned with all that beauty of order in which the intrinsic common good of creation consists. But, till then there is still a distinction between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. That is, there is still a temporal common good. A peace that can be realized in natural life, a peace that is ordered to the peace of the Church, but not absolutely identifiable with it. And this peace should also mirror the glory of God by its unity, a unity which ought to encompass the whole human race. And therefore a world wide political authority is necessary. (I have written more about this here: )

    Most Catholic magisterial teaching on this is pre-modern, and assumes that this authority ought to be the Roman emperor (who ought to be subordinated to the world-wide ruler of the Church–the Roman pontiff). Like you, I too question the prudence of recent papal suggestions that the UN might fulfill this role. But the principle is I think entirely sound, and ultimately follows from the truth enunciated by Cabasilas.