Social justice resumed: The common good as ‘living well together’

Last year I had been writing a series of reflections on ‘social justice’ as ‘the right order of human society’. I took as my starting point the harmonious order that existed in Eden before sin and observed that first there was the right order of man beneath God, then the right order within the human soul, then the right order between man and woman (the first social relationship from which all others derive), and finally the right order between man and the physical world in which he lives, over which he had been given dominion by God.

I left aside the interior order of the human soul because this does not really belong to the realm of ‘social justice’ and wrote about the right order of God through the right worship of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is actually the cornerstone of all true social justice; the right order of marriage, which is the 2nd key element in social justice; then I wrote about work, through which man relates to the environment.

Finally, I began writing about government and the common good, which any just government must serve. I continued that theme into January, but I interrupted my series of essays starting January 17 in order to reflect on the significance of the Capitol riots of January 6. I completed that series of essays on Palm Sunday.

On Easter Sunday I wrote about walking in the ‘newness of life’ the life of grace and the law of God, summed up in the Ten Commandments.

This gives me an opportunity now to wrap up my treatment of the common good and then start a new series of essays on the interior order of the soul, guided by the commandments.

Today, let me give a brief review of what I spoke of in writing about the common good.

I exposed some misconceptions of the national common good that have plagued American history, but concluded that the real strength of the country, which has sometimes been served by the democratic system of government, has been a strong family life rooted in the morality of the Ten Commandments.

Of course, it was not just a matter of isolated families, but families living together in neighborhoods, which were part of larger networks of communities, all of which was bound together by shared values and mutual support.

I wrote about the realization of the common good of a family: “We could call it ‘happiness’, not the happiness that each one has apart, but precisely the unique happiness that comes from belonging to a ‘happy family’. What makes for a happy family? Mutual love and living well together. Again, each member of the family has a different role to play, but each member shares in the happiness that comes from the well-being of the family.”

As we move from families, to neighborhoods, to larger communities, to the whole nation, we could expand on that view of the common good and speak of the ‘happy nation’ characterized by citizens, members of families and neighborhoods, who by a large have good will one for another and who seek to support each other in living well together, not everyone in the same way or to the same degree, but each one according to his proper place in the whole fabric of the nation.

“Living well together” turns out to be the key to the common good. Yet living well together is only possible if there is a shared vision of ‘the good life’.

Further, the national common good cannot be conceived simply in terms of the living well together of individual citizens because the well-being of those citizens is inseparable from their belonging to the smaller communities of family and neighborhood, communities in which the members know each other personally.

Further, just as not every member of the family has an equal role, since the parents have authority over the children and the older children must help the parents in taking care of the younger children, the same is going to be true in neighborhoods, larger communities, and the whole nation. There will be leaders of different sorts and there will be people in positions of authority.

The key, though, is the shared vision of ‘the good life’.

Again, American pluralism and individualism undermines the common good on precisely the point of ‘shared vision’. The pursuit of happiness becomes one thing for one person and another for another person. In the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking with the authority of the Supreme Court: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Planned Parenthood v. Kennedy) That principle actually renders impossible the attainment of any true common good. Even worse, it renders the very notion of the common good unintelligible. It tells us that essentially, we have nothing at all in common.

If, however, we return to a consideration of the Ten Commandments, we can discover contained therein a teaching on the human good. (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.