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The Common Good
At the foundation of Catholic Social Teaching is the concept of the “common good.”
Here is a definition drawn from Pope St. John XXIII and quoted in the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes: 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.”
By common we mean all people. To pursue the common good is to work towards the greatest good for all persons, not the greatest good for the greatest number and certainly not the greatest good for only a specific group of people. There is a difference between the good for a majority of people and the good for all people.
One example that is sometimes used to illustrate the common good is a sports team. The common good of a team is to win, or maybe to protect the integrity of the game. Certainly, a team wants individual players to perform well and to improve, but ultimately the common good of the team is to win. This sometimes requires star players to make sacrifices in order for the team to work together to win.
Then, of course, there is the role of the coach in a sports team. The coach must protect the common good of the team (that goal of winning) not just the individual players and their individual goods.
Likewise, it is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society and its citizens.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes three essential elements of the common good:
- Rights: The common good presupposes respect for the person as such. The public authories (government) must respect and protect the rights of the human person. In other words: respect people.
- Needs (Prosperity): The common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Public authorities should make accessible what is needed to lead a truly human life, for example: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, information, and the right to establish a family. In other words: help people.
- Peace: The common good requires peace. Public authority should ensure a morally acceptable means of security and defense of its people. In other words: protect people.
In addition, however, we also pursue a Universal Common Good.
The world today is increasingly interderpendent, meaning, we all rely on other countries for our own well-being. Though we may live in different parts of the world, we are all a part of one human family and, therefore, we seek a universal common good.
This means that nations must also help humans who are not from their country. This is why the Church works toward assisting refugees and migrants who are displaced from their homes.
Jesus taught the Golden Rule to his disciples: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12).
From this law is drawn the great wisdom of the common good. To seek the common good is to seek to fulfill Jesus’ command to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.