Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Common Good "Begins and Ends in Jesus"

ONE OF THE FOUR PRINCIPLES OF THE CHURCH'S social doctrine is the principle of the common good. The principle of the common good has its basis from the underlying "dignity, unity, and equality of all people." (Compendium, No. 164) Every aspect of social life must be related to and directed to the common good if social life is to have its full meaning. Phrased negatively, no aspect of social life which detracts from the common good has human meaning: it somehow diminishes the dignity, unity, or equality of one or more persons.

The common good may be broadly and generally defined as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily." (Compendium, No. 164) The notion of flourishing is not to be understood as material well-being alone, though it certainly includes it. The notion of human flourishing is a concept which includes the moral and spiritual flourishing of a people, either as a group or as individuals.

The common good is something different than the summation of individual good or the good of the collectivity. It is a concept that comprehends both the parts and the whole. Therefore, the notion of the common good is not to be viewed as an individualistic or atomistic concept, as if it were merely a utilitarian "greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of individuals" concept. It is not simply the good of each person totaled up one-by-one. Neither, however, is it to be viewed in a collectivist or communistic sense without regard to individuals. It is not the good of the whole irrespective of the individuals which are a part of that whole. The common good is not simply the collective good.

The notion of the common good is therefore a synthetic concept which embraces both the good of each individual and the good of the whole, both "the good of all people and of the whole person." (Compendium, No. 165) "Belonging to everyone and to each person," the common good, "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." (Compendium, No. 164)

The common good reconciles the good of community, the bonum commune communitatis, and the good of the individual, the bonum commune hominis. It therefore never sacrifices the good of the individual for the good of the collective. It would never cry out like the wicked high-priest Caiaphas that it is good for one man to die for the people. (Cf. John 18:14)

Importantly since it is often forgotten, the common good also embraces future generations. (Compendium, No.166) We must not saddle future generations with our sins or burden them with our profligacy. We are custodians for the future. We have a patrimony--a spiritual, social, material, and cultural capital--to bequeath to our children which we are obliged to consider in living our lives today. It is never eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. (Cf. Eccl. 8:15, Isaiah 22:13; 1 Cor. 15:32) There are those of our kind that will exist in the morrow and to which we have a moral obligation.

The fundamental principle of individual action is that it must aim to the good. Analogously, the fundamental principle of social action is like unto it: "the actions of society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good." (Compendium, No. 164) The common good may be seen as the moral good writ large: "The common good . . . can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good." (Compendium, No. 164)

However, the common good of society "is not an end in itself." It is not, in other words, to be an idol. It is not something to viewed in a purely material way, as if man lives by bread alone. That is one reason--of many--why the Marxist or other collectivist notions of the common good are vicious.

Believers know that the common good "has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation." They also know that "God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimensions." (Compendium, No. 170) In fact, Christians have the further insight that all individual and collective effort "begins and ends in Jesus," as it is "thanks to him and in light of him [that] every reality, including human society, can be brought to its Supreme Good, to its fulfillment." (Compendium, No. 170)

The common good is frequently analogized with the good of a human body. For example, this is how St. Paul understands the Church in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26. The one body is composed of many diverse and separate parts--eyes, hands, head, feet, and so forth--which must work harmoniously and with respect to each other for both their individual and their corporate good. Their integral interconnectedness is what allows him to say: "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it. If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy." (1 Cor. 12:26)

It is, in fact, vicious for a person to consider his individual good alone without regard to others around him. It is obvious that the "human person cannot find fulfillment in himself, that is part from the fact that he exists 'with' others and 'for' others." (Compendium, No. 165) We are members incorporate in the human community as a whole. More concretely, we are intricately part of a complex economic, political, cultural, social, and familial web of relations. Each of these various levels of associations has its common good which makes a demand of us.

"No expression of social life--from the family to intermediate social groups, associations, enterprises of an economic nature, cities, regions, States, up to the community of peoples and nations--can escape the issue of its own common good, in that this is a constitutive element of its significance and the authentic reason for its very existence." (Compendium, No. 165)

"The common good therefore involves all members of society." In fact, "no one is exempt from cooperating, according to each one's possibilities, in attaining it and developing it." (Compendium, No. 167)

To be sure, in seeking the ideal of the common good we must be careful of a number of pitfalls which make it difficult to attain in the concrete. We must take care that we do not reduce the common good to the good of our group or own own good. There is a constant temptation to seek one's own good as if it were the good of others. Like a pirate, self-interest constantly seeks the opportunity to elbow in and commandeer the ship of the common good.

There is an obligation upon each individual to consider the common good of those groups of which he is part. But there is also an obligation upon civil society--in particular the political institutions, especially those of the State and subordinate authorities--to consider the common good. The State and subordinate authorities must consider the common good of those within its charge. In fact, it is precisely for the common good that political authority exists. (Compendium, No. 168) The use of political authority for something other than the common good, that is for the private good of some group or for the good of the ruler, is unjust. It is an abuse of political authority. Regarding something other than the common good makes a mockery of authority. As St. Augustine expressed it in his great work The City of God (IV, 4), "without justice," remota iustitia, that is without reference to the common good, "what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers?"*

"To ensure the common good, the government of each country," regardless of how it is set up, "has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice." (Compendium, No. 168)

Significantly for democratic theories of political society, the common good, in fact, is more important than majority rule. The common good trumps the will of the majority where the will of the majority conflicts with the common good. For this reason, the elected representatives in a democratic state "are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all members of the community, including the minority." (Compendium, No. 169)

*Augustine, De Civitate Dei, IV.4 ("Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?")

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