IntroductionWhat is the “common good?” For some, this has been a rather tenuous and difficult term. The famous novelist and playwright Ayn Rand once said, “Throughout history, no tyrant ever rose to power except on the claim of representing ‘the common good.’ Napoleon ‘served the common good’ of France. Hitler [was] ‘serving the common good’ of Germany. Horrors which no man would dare consider for his own selfish sake are perpetrated with a clear conscience by ‘altruists’ who justify themselves by-the common good.” The phrase “common good” has been misused and abused time and time again. But this negative connotation, this hiding behind a blanket term as a justification for injustice, is not the only definition one may find of the “common good,” and certainly not the one used in Catholic Social Thought.
Others may define the “common good” in relation to philosophy, politics, social implications and so forth - i.e., the popular conception of the common good as being a good share by the society or a community. Particularly in the United States, many people have become increasingly individualistic. But as Thomas Merton and others have said, no man is an island - we live in society, and rights are only common - or good is only common - if it is available to all. The United States tends to promote individualism - liberty and freedom for the individual. But the Church would say that it rejects extreme individualism in an effort to promote the common good.
It is not wrong to say that the individual is wrong to attain self-happiness or good for oneself, but rather, “A common good suggests that you and others are not simply isolated individuals pursuing isolated goals, but also that you and your neighbor are not simply cogs in a larger social collective. Rather, there is a shared good that belongs to everyone.” There are several key concepts in Catholic Social Thought that would challenge modern political systems: the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, and justice. This common good works against the molds of injustice, inequality, and alienation to foster a better common life for the people.
Catholic Social Thought and Common GoodIn fact, Catholic Social Thought contends that seeking the common good is integral to our dignity as human beings. The question arises, then, about why it is integral to dignity. At a speech in 2004, Hilary Clinton said, “Many of you are well enough off that … the tax cuts may have helped you. We're saying that for America to get back on track, we're probably going to cut that short and not give it to you. We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.”[3
Essentially, the common good is making sure no one misses out. For a working definition of what the Church sees as the common good, we turn to Gaudium et Spes. This Vatican II document declared that the “The common good... [is] the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” In other words, the common good is intended to create human flourishing. The common good can be viewed in four ways: basic rights, respect for persons, interpersonal flourishing, and social integration. CST sets forth critical principles for informing political discourse in policy making.[7
The notion of the common good has roots in both religious and secular traditions and teachings - CST, the Protestant social gospel, Judaism, Islam, as well as in the Constitution itself, which says that government should exist to promote “the general welfare” of the people.[8
Today, as aforementioned, although the Church sees individuals and groups as responsible for promoting the common good, it also recognizes the role of the state. It declares that “its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order... the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman.” On the other hand, the state is also, one would argue, largely responsible for setting into motion “structures of sin.” The role of the state in this must be recognized.
One example of these “structures of sin” from United States history would be that of racism. When slavery was abolished as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation, the structures in which people were viewed through the lens of racism were still in place. This is why, nearly one hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still fighting against segregation and why we still fight against racial profiling and racist attitudes today. The structures of the past can and do effect the future, and we are each called as individuals and as communities to promote the common good and work against the “structures of sin” that have been put into place.
By dismantling these structures, effectively building bridges and not walls, so to speak, human flourishing can increase and not decrease. In the past, the Church has used images of a musical ensemble or sports teams, both of which lead to human flourishing. One may suggest the image of a Spring flower coming into full bloom. It is no longer sprouting, but it is shining forth - it has bloomed. The downside of this is that sometimes, forging laws on human flourishing can lead to intrusive political authority. These pitfalls can be avoided by recapturing the common good as a principle. Many Catholic leaders are attempting to find ways to pose questions in ways that can inform all parties as well as improve available policy options and choices available to both citizens and to policy makers.
Now, one of the things that the common good has been criticized for is that it is - ironically - not “fair,” as seen in Hilary Clinton’s words concerning the common good. There are some who are paid higher wages, because they had access to higher education, and therefore must pay higher taxes to help those who are not able to contribute to society. Yet it is precisely this kind of unfairness that the common good is working to eliminate, and one of the ways the Church continues to promote and advocate for these structures changes are through the three key social virtues of solidarity, subsidiarity and justice.
Solidarity, Subsidiarity and JusticeThese social virtues of solidarity, subsidiarity and justice are central to the realization of a just political community that is working for the common good. What do these three terms mean in light of CST? We may define solidarity as: "The appropriate balancing of responsibilities and functions among the parts of a social order. It has its origin in the Catholic understanding of community, which perceives a community not as so many individuals connected by contracts, but as a corporate whole—a moral and cultural body that, like any body, is comprised of limbs and parts the differences of which contribute to the good of the whole. The ethic that pertains to the unity of the body is called solidarity. The ethic that pertains to the role of the parts is subsidiarity. And the good of the whole by which solidarity and subsidiarity are measured is called the common good. In the complete sense, this understanding is referred to as the Mystical Body of Christ. Romans 12:4-5 puts it this way. 'For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.' But, Catholic teachings encourage us to promote such an understanding in all human associations. Hence, the Church argues that subsidiarity (like solidarity and common good) is an ethic to apply even to political governance."
The principle of subsidiarity can apply to a variety of areas in life, one of which is private property. Today, state and public ownership of property is increasing. This may be due to the higher demand of public authority to extend its activity into different spheres, but in this discussion or private and public property, the principle of subsidiarity must be borne in mind. There must be safeguards so that the State does not over-extend its ownership beyond the needs and demands of the common good, otherwise private property - private ownership as a whole - could be dissolved.
The Church has spoken of solidarity as a duty, one which is not simply the desire to change but the will to incite and enact change, as well as a call to commitment and servitude. According to Mark’s gospel, those who wish to become great must become a servant, and those who wish to be first must be last – they must become a servant to all (Mark 10:43). But solidarity is also spoken of as a principle. This principle is intended to let us walk in “their” shoes in order to learn how to help others. The message of the gospel is transformative, and when we engage in social justice we not only attempt to avoid evil but overcome it entirely. It is concerned with building the kingdom of God on earth and through God’s love in our lives, loving our fellow brothers and sisters and bringing justice and love to all the nations.
This justice is seen as a social virtue insofar as it is seen as the remedy of injustice. Mater et Magistra spoke of this remedy, noting that the aim of humanity must be to “achieve in social justice a national and international juridical order, with its network of public and private institutions, in which all economic activity can be conducted not merely for private gain but also in the interests of the common good.” On a theological level, we see God as just. In the Hebrew Bible, he establishes just laws in the form of the Ten Commandments, and in the New Testament, John the Baptist believed that Jesus was the fulfillment and enactor of justice itself. Therefore, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament we find a consistent message of justice and the enactment of justice. Dr. King later defined just and unjust laws by contending that a just law is one which builds up the human personality, whereas an unjust law is one that tears down the human personality. Out of this context, we began to consider social sin.
Social sin is responsible for the “structures of sin.” For example, we may purchase products which have actually been made by children in sweatshops or products that have been made with material gained from a brutal war – and by purchasing these products, we are also supporting these efforts. This is engaging in social sin. Purchasing chocolate that comes from child slaves and child laborers in the Ivory Coast is a social sin. The previously mentioned example of racism is another prominent example of social sin, as is the treatment of Native Americans in the colonial period.
Catholic teaching on social justice, then, is not an attempt at focusing on the individual at the cost of the entire community, but using the individual to help the entire community – specifically those who are in poor economic and social standing based on the dignity of the human person. In the Christian tradition, this comes down to a three-fold process: 1) taking the situation into consideration and observing it; 2) reflecting upon the Scriptures; 3) then acting out of love and social justice on behalf of other. In order to have these three social virtues, there must be a proper balance. Again, this necessary balance is also carried out by the State.
The common good makes demands on both the national and the international level. On the national level, it demands “employment of the greatest possible number of workers; care lest privileged classes arise, even among the workers; maintenance of equilibrium between wages and prices; the need to make goods and services accessible to the greatest number; elimination, or at least the restriction, of inequalities in the various branches of the economy—that is, between agriculture, industry and services; creation of a proper balance between economic expansion and the development of social services, especially through the activity of public authorities; the best possible adjustment of the means of production to the progress of science and technology; seeing to it that the benefits which make possible a more human way of life will be available not merely to the present generation but to the coming generations as well.” On the international level, it demands “the avoidance of all forms of unfair competition between the economies of different countries; the fostering of mutual collaboration and good will; and effective co-operation in the development of economically less advanced communities. These demands of the common good, both on a national and a world level, must also be borne in mind when assessing the rate of return due as compensation to the company's management, and as interest or dividends to investors.”
The Church, in its social mission, would argue that even a leadership role among nations “can only be justified by the possibility and willingness to contribute widely and generously to the common good.” This is important for a number of reasons. If the “common good” is not important to the leader, then agriculture, industry and services will likely plummet. There are many people living in less developed areas, and each of these individuals must be treated with affirmation of dignity and respect for their person, so that they too may have a role in their own economic, social and cultural advancement.
But the attitudes and “structures of sin” are only overcome if each person is committed to the good and the well-being of our neighbor. This “neighbor” includes everyone. This is also why the Church maintains that each nation must have a moral responsibility for other nations, which should lead to a deepening of international structures and relationships. These international relationships, largely as a result of modern globalization, could have the equality for all people as its foundation. This is why Pope John XIII wrote that “The economically weaker countries, or those still at subsistence level, must be enabled, with the assistance of other peoples and of the international community, to make a contribution of their own to the common good with their treasures of humanity and culture, which otherwise would be lost for ever.”
An early church father, John Chrysostom (AD 347–407), once wrote, “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good... for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” Chrysostom’s point is that the Church must live in solidarity, promote subsidiarity, and promote justice. By promoting justice, we are promoting peace, and by promoting these social virtues, we can hope to effectively promote the common good.
Application and AnalysisThe common good as a concept is relatively easy to see as a positive. But when the common good is applied to a current issue, many are finding it difficult to always implement. There are a number of current issues and topics that tie in directly to the notion of the common good as outlined above - both on the local level and on the global level. But one example worth exploring concerns vaccines which have recently been seen as being required for the “common good” - and not all agree.
Some believe that when it comes to vaccinations, the common good takes away the freedom of choice. If the common good requires people to be vaccinated, this seemingly removes their "freedom." But this raises other questions - what about the rights of the children? Our votes help legislators to represent the demands of the people in determining and passing laws that protect the common good.[24
A recent example of the need for vaccinations is helpful here. As discussed by the Catholic Sun, a Catholic News Network, there was recently a nationwide measles outbreak which began in an amusement park in Southern California.[26
The Catholic Church has raised a number of moral concerns about vaccinations over the years. There are many vaccinations which have been made with human cell lines derived from voluntarily aborted fetuses. That has been the major point of contention with vaccinations. Another concern was the alleged link with Autism. Dr. Paul Braaton, the former president of the Catholic Medical Association, has recently said that “There are a lot of concerns regarding vaccines. Some of them may be overblown. The link with autism we now know came from some bad science and manipulated research out of England, but the problem is that the pharmaceutical companies didn’t adequately address these concerns as they came up.” Braaton is referring to a 1998 study on children who refused to vaccinate their children against measles - the results of which have now been debunked, as he noted. This is one of the major reasons for the hesitation on the part of many parents now, because of this study and others like it, causing the parents to not immunize their children.
Regarding the human cell lines in aborted fetuses, in 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life released a study titled “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses” to help those struggling with the moral implications of getting such vaccines. Using these vaccines, it said, carries out “a form of very remote mediate material cooperation” with evil, but it noted that practicing Catholics are permitted to use these vaccines in the absence of ethical alternatives. This is one of the reasons why both Catholics have a responsibility to push for the creation of morally alternative vaccines. At the same time, the Pontifical Academy also said these families should not to sacrifice the common good of public health as well as the well-being of children and pregnant women simply because there is no substitute. Robert Saxer, the former executive vice president of the Catholic Medical Association, said that “the bottom line is that vaccines derived from abortions should mainly be avoided and used only when alternatives are unavailable. But there is really no reason why those alternatives should be unavailable. The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines have the ability and know-how to produce versions of these vaccines which do not depend on cell lines from aborted fetuses... They should be pressured to develop those vaccines to meet the health needs of those who have religious and ethical objections to abortion.”
The Catholic Medical Association has stated that they are not against vaccines, nor, it seems, is the Pontifical Academy for Life. The moral issue lies in the CST principle of human rights - specifically, the right to life. If on the one hand we are pro-life in regard to abortion but also proceed to consider the use of cells from aborted fetuses in making vaccinations to be moral, then there is an immoral double-standard at work. Vaccination itself is seen in CST as a moral good, as it is good for the “patients, and that it has benefited society greatly. We have a responsibility as moral agents to protect the common good and to immunize ourselves and our children against communicable disease.” But the social doctrine of the Church would also address the immoral usage of the human cells. Cases and issues such as this help us to see the social and moral complexity behind the common good. But these discussions are also necessary - for increasing awareness of morality and immorality, for increasing concern for the common good, for defending human rights at all ages, and for fighting for justice, not injustice. This is what CST speaks to - all the while remembering that it must be done in love.
ConclusionIn the 1620, Francis Bacon, famous philosopher and scientist, wrote a work called the Instauratio Magna - the "Great Renewal". On the cover of this work was an image of a ship sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, known today as the Strait of Gibraltar. In antiquity, the Pillars of Hercules were seen as the edge of the world, and no one went beyond this threshold. This image was intended to call to mind the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, which introduced the Europeans to new lands, to new peoples, and many other things. These discoveries - for Bacon - indicated what people could accomplish if they worked in the right way. His central message was “We can do this if we all just work together”. This is the common good. Waging war against injustice is intended to promote human flourishing on all levels - social, religious, economic, political, mental, emotional, and so forth. Just as “Rome was not built in a day,” neither shall peace be built in a day. The common good of humanity is intended to bring about peace, and “peace is something that is built up day after day, in the pursuit of an order intended by God, which implies a more perfect form of justice among men."
This justice is achieved by recognizing the dignity of all men and women and as a global society, working together for the common good of all. The Anglican Church has cited St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians as an inspiration that should bind believers and non-believers. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The Anglican Church, the Catholic Church and many others long for a better world that reflects St. Paul’s words. But one must not simply “think about these things,” but in order to have a better politics for a better nation, we need to act on these things.[36
] The concept of the common good has taken on many definitions and many forms, and it is clear that it is not altogether straightforward. Moral issues rarely are. But the duty of not only Catholics but all people is to promote the common good of all, which may yet one day lead us together, as Bacon so aptly put it - to crossing the threshold together.
 Cloutier, David. “Modern Politics and Catholic Social Teaching” in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. 98. Print.
 "Hillary: We’ll Take Your Money for ‘common good’." WND, 29 June 2004. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
 Pope John XIII. Pacem in Terris 54.
 Gaudium et Spes 26.
 Catholic Social Thought or Catholic Social Tradition.
 "Reflections on the Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching." YouTube, 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
 Wallis, Jim. "Whatever Happened to the "Common Good"?" TIME Society. TIME, 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
 Mater et Magistra: Christianity and Social Progress 20.
 Cloutier 103.
 “Reflections on the Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching."
 Schneck, Stephen. "What Is Subsidiarity?" Institute for Policy Research; Catholic Studies. The Catholic University of America, 2 June 2011. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. http://ipr.cua.edu/blogs/post.cfm/what-is-subsidiarity.
 Mater et Magistra 117.
 Ibid. 37.
 In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963.
 Ibid., 79-81.
 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: The Social Concerns of the Church 3.23.
 Mater et Magistra 151.
 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 5.39.
 "Vaccines Required for Common Good." LancasterOnline. 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
 Madden, Nate. "Catholics Urged to Remember 'common Good' in Vaccine Debate." The Catholic Sun. Catholic News Service, 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
 Benington, Joel H. "The Birth of Science." How Science Really Works. 1st Ed. ed. St. Bonaventure: St. Bonaventure University, 2004. 31. Print.
 Gaudium et Spes 78.
 Philippians 4:8.
 Hutton, Will. "Don’t Condemn the Church. Who Else Argues for the Common Good?" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 21 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.