By Jeanette Arnquist
It is imperative that no one...indulge in a merely individualistic morality. The best way to fulfill one’s obligations of justice and love is to contribute to the common good according to one’s means and the needs of others, and also to promote and help public and private organizations devoted to bettering the conditions of life.
Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”), Vatican II, 1965 #30
We have taken as our starting point for this column that our God is a God of love. Out of that we have seen the importance of the principle of Catholic Social Thought called “Respect for the Life and Dignity of the Human Person.” The second principle we are going to explore is “The Common Good.” This principle also flows from our understanding of God as a God whose love for the human community pours out like a river. The Common Good focuses on God’s dream for the whole human community to grow and develop into the People of God.
St. Pope John XXIII describes it as “The sum total of conditions of social living, whereby persons are enabled more fully and readily to achieve their own perfection.” (Mater et Magistra – “Mother and Teacher” (1961), paragraph 65) This principle focuses on our social nature and the importance of a strong and healthy community for the development of individuals and groups. Community is very important in our understanding of our relationship with God. “We” are the Body of Christ, not “I” or “you” alone. There is a tension between the needs of the individual and those of the community. In this case, tension is good. Remember that it is tension that holds up a tent.
I think there are three ideas that help us understand the theology behind the Common Good. The first is that when one member of our community suffers, we all do. This is easy to understand when the community we are talking about is a small community that we are closely connected to, for example, our own family or faith community. It gets harder to feel the pain of another across the border or on the other side of the planet. It gets even harder when politicians and media portray “them” as the “problem.” And somehow it is harder when we are looking at a whole group of people that are suffering. At the same time, globalization compels us to view everyone on earth as part of one human community.
The second idea is that God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. The God of Love would not have created a world in which there are just not enough resources for everyone to develop and flourish or even live. If we read the Acts of the Apostles carefully we see that members of the early Christian community shared their resources in order that they might all benefit. (Acts 2: 44-45 and 4:32 – 35). In order to get our minds around this idea, we who live in the United States NEED to examine what we mean by “enough.”
The third idea is that the gifts and contributions of every person, of every community enrich us as individuals and as a human community. It is these very gifts, developed in community, given back to the community to promote the common good. The free flow of resources creates more resources. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Let’s face it, many of us who are reading this live in a place and time of privilege, a place and time when the idea of the Common Good is not valued. Politicians and advertisers promote “our way of life” as the ideal. We are told that more is better. But in reality, more is not better if we already have enough. We don’t often expand our vision to realize that for some of us to live the way we do, others must live a very different life filled with hardship, exploitation and few rewards or options.
From the perspective of the Common Good, the goal is not to acquire everything we want, but to work toward a world where everyone can have what the need.
Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity and Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tuscon, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.