Rerum Novarum launched the movement called Catholic social thought. Successive popes and other Christian thinkers picked up on Leo’s themes, defining the common good 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.” Two ideas are particularly significant in this definition. The common good is measured by fulfillment or flourishing—by human beings becoming all they are meant to be. And the common good is about persons, both groups and individuals—not just about “humanity” but about humans, and not just about individuals but about persons in relationship with one another in small groups.
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Essential to the common good, all the way back through Aquinas to Aristotle, has been the insight that the best forms of human flourishing happen in collectives that are smaller than, and whose origins are earlier than, the nation-state. Family above all, but also congregations, guilds, and clubs—these “private associations,” with all their particular loyalties, paradoxically turn out to be essential to public flourishing. If we commit ourselves to the common good, we must become more public in our thinking and choices, and at the same time not too public. The common good is sustained most deeply where people know each other’s names and faces—especially when it comes to the care of the vulnerable, who need more than policies to flourish.
Seeking the common good in its deepest sense means continually insisting that persons are of infinite worth—worth more than any system, any institution, or any cause. Societies are graded on a curve, with the fate of the most vulnerable given the most weight, because the fate of the most vulnerable tells us whether a society truly values persons as ends or just as means to an end.
And the common good continually reminds us that persons flourish in the small societies that best recognize them as persons—in family and the face-to-face associations of healthy workplaces, schools, teams, and of course churches. Though it is a big phrase, “the common good” reminds us that the right scale for human flourishing is small and specific, and that the larger institutions of culture make their greatest contribution to flourishing when they resist absorbing all smaller allegiances.
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First, the common good can give us common ground with our neighbors. We may not agree with them—indeed, Christians don’t always agree with one another—about what exactly human flourishing looks like. But the common good is a conversation starter rather than a conversation ender. It can move us away from pitched battles over particular issues and help us reveal the fundamental questions that often lie unexplored behind them. In a time when many conversations between people with different convictions seem to end before they begin, we simply need more conversation starters.
But equally important, the common good allows us to stake out our Christian convictions about what is good for humans—and to dare our neighbors to clarify their own convictions. “In the simplest sense,” Bradley Lewis said, “the common good is God. It is God who satisfies what people need, individually and communally.” Adopting the language of the common good means owning this bedrock Christian belief and proclaiming it to our neighbors. If we are not offering our neighbors the ultimate common good—the knowledge and love of God—we are not taking the idea of the common good seriously.
Perhaps best of all, the common good is a matter of choices, not just ideas. And those choices are often local, not grand social schemes. My decisions about where to live and what to eat and buy, as well as what to grow and create, whom to befriend and where to volunteer, whom to employ and how much to pay, aren’t just about my private fulfillment. They will also either contribute to others’ flourishing or undermine it.
Indeed, all things that are truly good are common goods, meant to be shared and enjoyed together. And if the return of “the common good” reminds us of that truth and that hope, and shapes the way we live among our neighbors, it will have done a world of good.
— What’s So Great About ‘The Common Good’? (Christianity Today)