TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 6: Love, Justice, Mercy, and Social Responsibility

Question D: Does the Common Good Take Precedence over the Good of Each Person?

The Church’s teaching on social justice very often speaks of the common good of political society. In its name the Church rejects reducing justice to the mere fulfilling of contracts and other requirements of fairness in private dealing. For example, John XXIII teaches that “it is in the nature of the common good that every single citizen has the right to share in it—although in different ways, depending on his tasks, merits and circumstances. Hence every civil authority must strive to promote the common good in the interest of all, without favoring any individual citizen or category of citizen.”36 In trying to determine what justice requires, the limited interests of particular corporations, industries, classes, or any other parts of a political society cannot be given such weight that other parts are ignored.37

At the same time, the Church’s teaching treats the common good of political society as instrumental to the full good of persons: “The common good of society consists in the entirety of those conditions of social life under which men and women enjoy the possibility of achieving their own perfection in a certain fullness of measure and also with some relative ease” (DH 6; cf. GS 26, 74). Although social duties sometimes can require extreme self-sacrifice, people are not simply parts of society. The state exists for its citizens, not, as totalitarians imagine, citizens for the state (see 11.B.2.b, below).

Although both ways of talking about the common good are sound, they nevertheless can seem incompatible. According to the first, the common good seems to take priority; according to the second, the good of the individual. As what follows (in 2) will show, the inconsistency is merely apparent.

1. Common Good Will Be Understood in Terms of Basic Goods

Common good sometimes is used to refer to purely instrumental goods. For example, members of a family share their home, and members of a political society share a system of roads, parks, and so on. These things can be considered elements of the common good, taking common good in a wide sense.

In the following analysis, common good is used in a more restricted sense to refer only to one or more of the basic human goods (see CMP, 5.D; 9.A.1.j, below), considered insofar as they underlie community. So, unless the context makes the contrary clear, goods such as property and liberty (that is, freedom to do as one wishes) should not be understood in what follows as elements of the common good. This does not imply that property, liberty, and other instrumental goods are of little or no human significance. In truth, they are important: while property in itself does not perfect persons, it is a necessary means to pursuing most of the basic human goods which do; and while liberty is open to both good and bad use, without it people lack many opportunities to act intelligently and freely, and so cannot live decent human lives. Yet vital as they are, instrumental goods such as property and liberty simply are not the foundations on which human community can be built.

2. The Common Good and the Good of the Person Are Not at Odds

The ultimate principle for integrating the good of the individual and the common good is the relationship, clarified by God’s self-revelation, which ought to exist between any communion of persons and the distinct individuals who share in it.

a) Divine unity and the distinction of persons are not at odds. The Trinity is not reducible to its members considered in their distinction from one another. Rather, the three divine persons, united in their mutual communion, are God, and God is perfectly one in his reality, goodness, and love. Yet the three divine persons really are distinct, not merely parts of a larger whole. Their distinct personhood is in no way diminished or lessened by their being together the one God.

b) Human persons and society are to be like the Trinity. God reveals that he has created human persons in his own image and likeness, made them by nature communal as he himself is, and called them to membership in his divine family (see GS 24). So, for humankind too, personal reality and fulfillment cannot belong to one individual apart from others. As Vatican II teaches: “God did not create human beings for life in isolation, but for the formation of social union” (GS 32). A human person can be fulfilled only by sharing in communion with the divine persons and other created persons:

 Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when he prayed to the Father, “that all may be one . . . as we are one” (Jn 17.21–22) opened up vistas closed to human reason. For he suggested a certain likeness between the union of the divine persons and the union of God’s children in truth and charity. This likeness shows that the human person—the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake—cannot fully find himself or herself except through a sincere gift of self. (GS 24)
In this passage, the phrase, “the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake,” calls attention to the fact that, although human persons are communal by nature, their distinct personalities, created by the divine persons on the model of their own selves, cannot be subordinated, as if they were mere parts or instruments, to any community.

c) The common good and the individual’s good include each other. The common good is a good or set of goods in which a community’s members share. Indeed, in the case of communities formed by their members’ choices, the common good is that for whose sake the many individuals form the community and act together. And in choosing to act for the common good of any community, each member also at the same time acts for his or her own good, which can be called his or her “proper” good (from the Latin word proprium). Proper good here does not mean suitable or legitimate good, but simply the benefit he or she personally hopes to receive in and through the common action. Thus, rather than excluding the goods of a community’s members, the common good embraces their proper goods just insofar as these are shares in the common good; from the point of view of the members of any society, its common good contributes to their proper goods.

d) This relationship of mutual inclusion takes two different forms. How the common good and the proper good of a community member include each other differs according to the different sorts of community.

i) In open-ended communities, the common good embraces the proper goods of community members primarily insofar as their very relationship and cooperation enable them to participate personally in various aspects of the basic good of communion of persons, such as justice, love, and peace, which, although they cannot be divided and appropriated, are needed by each member for his or her fulfillment. And the proper goods of each person include the common good inasmuch as persons are fulfilled only by their morally upright action and genuine, mutual self-giving, which constitute the justice, love, and peace of the community as a whole.

ii) In a community established to pursue definite and limited concrete goals, the common good and the proper good of a member embrace each other in two ways. First, the common good of justice in interrelationships and interactions within the community includes each member’s being justly treated by the others, which contributes to his or her proper good, while the good of each member’s just personal conduct helps make the community as a whole good. Second, insofar as attaining their common purpose allows the members to divide and appropriate the fruits of their effort, the common purpose includes the personal objective of each and pertains to his or her proper good insofar as achieving the purpose is a necessary means to the objective. For example, an investment partnership’s common purpose of making profits embraces each partner’s proper good insofar as profits are divided and assigned to each one’s account, while each partner’s purpose of making a profit includes the success of the joint enterprise insofar as that is a means to his or her profit.

3. Open-ended Communities Call for the Attitude of Solidarity

While solidarity appears in previous Church teaching, John Paul II uses the word in a refined and specific sense: that specific moral attitude or virtue by which individuals fulfill themselves by including the common good in their proper goods.38

a) Solidarity is commitment to the common good. The moral ground of every open-ended community is the essential incompleteness and interdependence of human individuals, their need for one another not merely to achieve specific and limited objectives, but for fulfillment as persons. Such interdependence requires sharing in goods precisely as common. The appropriate response to the requirements of the common good is not merely sympathy for others but solidarity—true self-giving which, if mutual, constitutes communion.

Solidarity, in the first place, is a firm and enduring commitment both to other persons and to the good, so that what is realized through common effort really will benefit others as well as oneself. This commitment implements love of neighbor, for it undertakes the work of love: to serve others rather than dominate them, to sacrifice oneself for them rather than exploit them. Solidarity is itself implemented not only by accepting and doing one’s part in common action, but by encouraging others and supporting them in doing their parts, without infringing on their proper spheres of responsibility.

b) This new concept is useful for the Church’s social teaching. While not ignoring the need for commitment to the common good, previous Church teaching has regularly taken it for granted, and has not introduced a concept specifying this basic commitment.39 It is an act of justice, but since love of neighbor is necessary in order to do justice, solidarity more profoundly implements love. Also, whereas previous teaching neglected to clarify the relationship between commitments and the acts that implement them, John Paul II’s teaching on solidarity clarifies the need for a firm and lasting self-determination, which shapes all of one’s social action.

The word solidarity also has certain rhetorical advantages. It can be understood, at least to some extent, by persons who lack explicit Christian faith, yet it does not limit the required moral trait to a merely natural virtue, which would prescind from charity. Moreover, it connotes the social character of the very good to which it refers: persons existing in solidarity act together—in a real sense, the community acts. Thus, the word helps overcome the mistaken idea that even virtues concerned with actions bearing on others can be realized as character traits of isolated individuals.

4. The Common Good of the New Covenant Community Is a Special Case

The common good of the divine-human communion formed by the new covenant is related in a unique way to the personal good of each created member.

a) This common good takes priority over that of each person. Here it is true that the common good is greater and more God-like than the good of individual created persons. For the new covenant communion is the incipient kingdom, which includes divine persons as well as the complete personhood and fulfillment of the created persons who share in it.

But this priority of the good of the kingdom over the good of its members does not imply what an analogous priority would in any other community. Indeed, in a certain sense it is not a priority at all, for it does not mean that Christians are limited, damaged, restricted, or deprived of anything for the kingdom’s sake. All that must be given up is sin and what really harms and limits a human person. Hence, one’s total subordination, if it can be called that, to the kingdom’s good (the fulfillment of all things in Jesus) will be one’s own total fulfillment as well.

b) This common good takes priority over every other common good. Inasmuch as the kingdom includes and transcends every other true good of created persons, the common good of the new covenant community takes priority over every other common good. As Paul VI points out, Jesus attributes such essential importance to the kingdom that everything else becomes incidental: “The kingdom of God is to be considered, therefore, as the absolute good so that everything else is subordinate to it.”40

However, this does not mean earthly affairs lack their proper autonomy: “If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which we must gradually discover, put to use, and regulate, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy” (GS 36). Nor may faithful Catholics neglect their responsibilities toward the common goods of lesser societies: “Whoever in obedience to Christ seeks first the kingdom of God receives from that a stronger and purer love for helping all his or her sisters and brothers and for perfecting the work of justice under the inspiration of charity [note omitted]” (GS 72).41

5. Both the Common Good and the Good of the Person Take Precedence

In lesser, merely human communities, the common good should not take absolute precedence over the good of each person, as it does in the kingdom. Even in political societies, the good of the person as a member of the society is subordinate to the common good of the society as a whole; but this subordination does not imply that the attainment of collective ends can ever justify sacrificing what is essential to the whole fulfillment of any person.

a) The good of the person as a whole takes precedence. No mere human community’s good includes the whole fulfillment of any of its members. That is why the Church regards political society’s common good as comprised of goods instrumental to the fulfillment of persons. Such a society is not constituted to organize cooperation for the sake of that common good which ultimately and completely fulfills persons, and it may not even contribute in any positive way to that part of their fulfillment which is most important, namely, their relationship with God (see DH 3, 6). So, the common good of political society must be subordinated to its members’ total fulfillment.42 It follows that the authority of political society is strictly limited; beyond those limits, it should respect the freedom of persons (see DH 7).

b) A society’s good takes precedence over the good of its members. Still, insofar as any society’s members are its members and some aspect of their good is part of its common good, their good is subordinate to the common good.43 For since their good in that respect cannot be realized apart from the common good, and since the common good also includes the good of every other member as such, their good cannot be realized fairly unless every other member of the society fairly shares in the common good. That is why the Church insists, against every kind of selfishness, that the common good should prevail in society over individual, class, group, and other particular interests.

6. The Common Good Is Not an Independent Principle of Justice

The fact that human goods can and sometimes must be pursued, realized, and shared in as common goods underlies the possibility of communities of all sorts. In this sense, each community’s common good is the principle of its very being, and so of all the moral responsibilities pertaining to it. However, the common good is not an independent normative principle—not, that is, a source of responsibilities over and above the basic human goods, the first principle of morality, and its specification by the modes of responsibility (see CMP, 10.3).

a) The moral principles of justice are sufficient. The common good provides the reason for developing or accepting common structures and participating in cooperative actions. But not all social structures and actions are just, and the common good’s priority itself does not settle what is just; it only requires that the community’s structures and actions be just. Their justice is determined by the moral principles previously explained (in B), which include the other modes of responsibility as well as fairness. Specifying all that people must do when acting in respect to others, these moral principles specify the duties arising from any undertakings, including one’s social roles. Hence, the common good provides no additional principle of justice.

b) Common instrumental goods are not moral principles. An important part of what is often considered any society’s common good consists in goods which are merely instrumental. For example, a dwelling place and its furnishings are part of a family’s common good, and public lands, roads, and buildings are part of a political society’s common good. But inasmuch as such goods are not basic human goods, the moral responsibilities which pertain to them are in no way grounded in them as principles, but instead are grounded in the basic human goods they serve.

c) The moral implications of different common goods are different. The moral implications of different common goods differ, not precisely insofar as they are common goods, but insofar as they involve different aspects of the various basic human goods pursued by communities of persons. This can be seen by comparing the common goods of different sorts of community. A family’s common good includes the intimate communion of family life, sharing together in family prayer and apostolate, the health and safety of every family member, and the personal development of each as husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, sister, or brother. The common good of a political society includes the civic friendship of fellow citizens, defense against external enemies, maintenance of domestic tranquillity, promotion and regulation of economic activities, and so forth (see 11.B.2.a). Since the common goods of the two sorts of communities are so different, family responsibilities are very different from civic responsibilities. The same kind of difference appears in individuals’ responsibilities insofar as they pursue different goods. For example, one’s responsibilities with respect to taking care of health differ from one’s responsibilities in respect to doing good work.

7. There Are Good Reasons to Speak of the Common Good

If what has been said is so, one might wonder: Why does the Church’s teaching talk about the common good at all? Why not simply talk about justice, assuming that justice is rightly and fully understood?

a) The common good is the principle of community. No community can function unless one or more persons act for a common good. All responsibilities of community members as such depend on the community’s common good. Thus, the concept of the common good is irreducibly necessary in any treatment of society and social responsibilities. Even if justice is rightly and fully understood, it is impossible to understand its requirements for a society and its members without focusing on and speaking of that society’s common good.

Moreover, because many duties toward others presuppose community, people often try to rationalize violations of justice by ignoring or denying community. The Church therefore speaks constantly about the common good in order to recall attention to the reality of community, in this way reinforcing the responsibilities that follow from one’s role in it, from fairness, and from other moral principles.

b) Some exploit society for their own purposes. Existing societies are not in all respects genuine communities; to some extent they are arrangements by which some dominate and/or exploit others. By calling attention to the common good, the Church speaks out against injustice and defends the dignity of those dominated and exploited. For instance, after pointing out that individuals, families, and various groups cannot carry on a full human life by themselves, and so need a wider community to pursue their common good, Vatican II teaches: “The political community, therefore, exists for that common good. In that common good it obtains its whole justification and meaning. From that common good it derives the right which is original and specific to it [its irreducible and proper place in an objectively right order]” (GS 74). From this principle, the Council goes on to draw the conclusion that the political community’s authority should be employed in protecting the rights of individuals, families, and various other groups (see GS 74–75).

c) Justice is seldom understood rightly and fully. Oversimplifications of justice abound. One of the most common and important reduces it to a particular form of equality in exchange or in distribution, then uses this oversimplification to rationalize injustices. For example, some argue: The workers made a free contract to accept this particular (inadequate) wage, so they are not entitled to a living wage. Or: The handicapped and the elderly require a disproportionate share of the resources available for health care, so care for them should be strictly rationed. However, even if political society is in some sense constituted by mutual consent, it is not reducible to a mere contract (as is a community organized for specific purposes); moreover, it should respond to requirements of a people living together in a way fair to all, even if they are not members by an act of consent, for example, the retarded, small children, and those so disadvantaged they cannot participate in social affairs. Also, even if members of a political society are in some sense equal, it does not follow that the diversity of their needs may be disregarded in distributing benefits. Against the use of such oversimplified models to limit social responsibilities, therefore, the Church appeals to wider standards of justice, demanding their application throughout a society. The common good is a useful concept to express this appeal.

36. John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 272, PE, 270.56.

37. For example, John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 438–39, PE, 267.151, having stated other conditions for a sound economic and social policy, says: “But the justification of all government action is the common good. Public authority, therefore, must bear in mind the interests of the state as a whole; which means that it must promote all three areas of production—agriculture, industry and services—simultaneously and evenly. Everything must be done to ensure that citizens of the less developed areas are treated as responsible human beings, and are allowed to play the major role in achieving their own economic, social and cultural advancement.”

38. See John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 38–40, AAS 80 (1988) 564–69, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 10–11. Solidarity is not to be confused with conformism; it has room for loyal opposition, since its focus is not on social authority structures as such, but on the common good which underlies them: see Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, trans. Andrzej Potocki (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), 283–87.

39. Assuming it is informed by charity, the virtue of general (or legal) justice, as St. Thomas conceives it (see S.t., 2–2, q. 58, a. 5), comes very close to what John Paul II calls “solidarity.” However, this concept was lost in the later, tripartite division of justice, according to which legal justice, rather than ordering everything to the common good, merely orients the parts of a community to the whole, or even merely orients individual citizens in doing their duties toward the state. For a critique of this unfortunate development and a defense of the superior (and authentically Thomistic) position, see Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 184–86.

40. Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, 8, AAS 68 (1976) 10, Flannery, 2:714.

41. Ideally, there should be no conflict between Church and state (see GS 76). But in practice, as Leo XIII points out, Sapientiae Christianae, ASS 22 (1889–90) 387, PE, 111.6: “Instances occur where the State seems to require from men as subjects one thing, and religion, from men as Christians, quite another.” Leo, of course, teaches that in such cases the laws of Jesus and the just claims of the Church take precedence (see ASS 387–89, PE, 6–11). Yet the Church cannot simply absorb the state and preempt its proper functions, for although the Church is the incipient kingdom, she is not the kingdom absolutely; because the heavenly kingdom will include not only the goods which the Church now includes, but every good fruit of the nature and efforts of all those who have feared God and done what is right (see LG 9, 16; GS 39).

42. Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, ASS 22 (1889–90) 385, PE, 111.2, having affirmed the transcendence of human persons’ last end, deduces the subordinate role of society: “But what applies to individual men applies equally to society—domestic alike and civil. Nature did not form society in order that man should seek in it his last end, but in order that in it and through it he should find suitable aids whereby to attain to his own perfection.”

43. John Paul II, Address to Agricultural Cooperative (Faenza), 4, Inseg. 9.1 (1986) 1343, OR, 2 June 1986, 6, explains: “You know, therefore, that the good of the individual members can be made to coincide with that of all and that the common good is revealed to be greater than the sum of the individual goods; it is a good which surpasses in quality the sum of the single individual goods.”