The Common Good of All

By Dylan Pahman
June 11, 2014

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.”