The Common Good, Part I

Last year, I left off my treatment of the role of government in respect to social justice (the right order of human society) by affirming that “The first role of government then is to provide for, promote, and take part in right worship, so as to give to God what belongs to God. When a government fails to honor God it turns away from the foundation of its own authority and tends to make itself the absolute source of authority.” This fits with my starting point for this whole examination of the matter, rooted in the teaching of Genesis 2, that the first and most fundamental human relationship is dependence upon God.

Still, seeing as how there is little likelihood of any major government in the worldly honoring God according to the truth of the Catholic religion, what is the point of even discussing the matter?

First, it reveals the radical failing of modern government, precisely because God has been excluded; second, it keeps us from an idealistic enthusiasm regarding governments and helps us take seriously the words of the Psalmist put not your trust in princes (Ps 146:3); third, it gives us a realistic view of what can be accomplished in contemporary politics (limitation of real evils, accomplishment of limited goods, and carving out a space for the freedom of religion). The more we realize how radically disordered our system of government is, the less we will be inclined to look to our government for the solution to problems, the more we will want rather to limit the role of government in human life.

In any case, we need next to turn our attention to the next basic principle of government: care for the common good.

It is very important to grasp that the common good is a good in which everyone truly shares, thus it truly unites people.

A pie is not a common good because each person has his own part of the pie. What can be common is that we are all sitting in the same room together, enjoying being together and eating together.

The Holy Eucharist is the greatest common good in which we can share in this life because even though the ‘bread is broken’, even though there are many hosts, we all partake of one and the same Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It will be helpful to consider some other simple ways in which we experience a real common good in ordinary life.

Players on a sports team share the common good of the one team. Their contribution is different; their reward is not identical; but all share in the good of the team; all suffer together in a loss, all rejoice together in a victory. The victory is the common good towards which all their common effort is directed.

A family also has a common good. 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.

So also a nation has a common good. We could say that a sign of the realization of the common good is found when there is a widespread sense of pride in belonging. The more Americans feel good about being American the more we can be sure that there is a real common good in which they are sharing. The more they feel downtrodden or humiliated precisely because they are American, the more we can be sure that the common good has not been attained. The more people feel like they truly belong, the more there is a common good in which they are sharing; the more people feel alienated and marginalized, the more evident that the common good is suffering. When the nation is deeply divided, they are evidently not united by the common good.

One caveat is in order: if the feeling good about being American, if the sense of belonging, is rooted in an illusion or a lie, then they have attained only to a deceptive and illusory common good. The attainment of a deceptive common good will become a source of division.

So we need to ask: in what consists the true common good of a nation? That will be the responsibility of good government, guiding the nation towards the true common good.

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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.

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