What is “the common good”?

Catholic teaching discourages us from using politics to pursue our private advantage, urging us to orient our civic engagement to “the common good.” But what is the common good? University of Dayton theologian Vincent Miller explored this concept in a recent America magazine article, “What does Catholic Social Teaching say about the economy? It’s more complicated than you think.”

Miller was responding to free market ideologues who argue that economic prosperity is a sound measure of the common good, and laissez-faire government the best way to achieve it. But, as Miller points out, this is virtually the opposite of the common good as Catholic doctrine explains it. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tells us that

The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future. Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good [164].

Living in a cynical century where “politics” is portrayed as nothing more than a fight among interest groups, we can be forgiven if we struggle to understand this idea. The Church fathers, Miller reminds us, imported the notion of the common good from the Greeks and Romans. Both saw politics – the pursuit of the common good – as a high calling. A man in ancient Athens or the Roman Republic who devoted his life to accumulating wealth was considered contemptible. One who wished to be honored by their peers would devote himself instead to politics, where he would provide for the common defense, commission public works of art and construct temples to the gods.

The Church, bringing the teachings of the Gospel to bear, has enriched the concept of the common good enormously. But private transactions between buyer and seller – however valuable they may be in satisfying genuine needs for both involved – are irreducibly individual. As Miller concludes, “Market economies have much to offer society when oriented toward the common good. For Catholic social thought, it is the task of politics to promote and set limits to the market so that it can serve the common good.”

By the way… With generous support from CCHD, our friends at Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative are part of a consortium working on a project called Bargaining for the Common Good. The premise is that public employee unions will go beyond seeking their own interests alone, and work with community and civic groups to formulate bargaining demands that satisfy worker justice while meeting community needs and concerns for quality public services.