Is the “common good” another name for the Golden Rule? What should the common good mean for Catholics? — J. B.
When put into practice, the Golden Rule — “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” — contributes to the common good, but the two are not the same.
We find the Golden Rule in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of St. Matthew (7:12), but it is a maxim found in many different religions and cultures, dating at least as far back as Confucius, the Chinese philosopher in the fifth century before Christ. It is sometimes stated positively, as in the above quotation, but sometimes negatively, “do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated”, or even, “what you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself.” As a practical principle of action, it recognizes and honors our common humanity and the bonds that unite us to one another. To that end, it is an antidote to much that stands in the way of realizing the common good, especially our tendency toward putting ourselves forward and disregarding the needs of others.
But the common good is a genuine and substantial good to which we human beings are naturally ordered and in which we find our fulfillment. We are ordered toward this good because we are social beings, created to be in relationship with others in our family, in our civil society, and, for us Catholics as members of the Body of Christ. When the good of any of these is accomplished, each person in the group is given what he most needs and most naturally desires. In other words, our completion as individual human beings is realized in the flourishing of the whole to which we belong. That means, for example, that my particular vocation within the larger whole—let’s say as a father within a family—will take precedence over any merely private good I might seek. And the overall good of the family will, more than anything else, determine my own deepest fulfillment.
Note that it belongs to the nature of the common good that it is shareable. It is the kind of good, moreover, that does not diminish by being shared. I might choose to give you half of my candy bar, but sharing something that is mine, properly speaking, does not make something a common good. If we were to admire a beautiful sunset, on the other hand, the sunset is hardly diminished by our common gaze, and its beauty is shared by both of us. The beauty and goodness of God’s creation is a common good.
The most shareable things belong to the realm of the spirit. That’s why those of us who live in countries founded on principles set forth at the beginning of the modern period find ourselves in something of a bind when it comes to the common good. The founding principles of our countries aim principally at protecting and fostering the bodily, material interests of the private individuals who live in them. According to this view, people join together in political regimes not for the sake of seeking a substantive good that they could not realize on their own. Rather, it is to create those conditions that maximize their individual needs for security, comfort and “self-realization.” If there is such a thing as a “common good,” it is the end result of each individual’s pursuing his own self-interest, “feathering his own nest,” as it were.
This leads, of course, to boisterous economic activity, but not to the satisfaction of the deepest human needs. Our families, schools and churches were expected to be a bulwark against the excesses of regimes founded on these principles. It’s not entirely clear that the confidence placed in these institutions has been able to withstand or moderate the powerful attraction of materialism and individualism. That’s why the Church’s mission to witness to an alternative way of understanding what makes us truly human is so urgent and so challenging.
This Catholic vision is closely tied to a rich notion of the common good.
It says that we are not in the first place autonomous individuals, free to dispose of our lives as we see fit, but members of a larger whole to which we are attached by bonds of affection and gratitude and obligation. Ours is a shared life, a life of interdependence and solidarity, with full recognition of what we owe to one another and of our responsibilities to one another. In this way we build up that common life without which the most important dimensions of our humanity cannot gain expression. Each of us has a part to play, and the flourishing of the whole depends on each playing that part faithfully and well. Note the mutual relation here. The good of the whole depends on the active participation of each of the parts, and each part of the whole finds its deepest fulfillment in the realization of the common good.
For us Catholics, the common good is most truly and deeply realized in our membership in the Body of Christ. By virtue of participation in the sacramental life of the Church, especially in Baptism and in the reception of holy communion, we are incorporated into the one Body of Christ, made up of many parts. In the living out of our particular vocations and in the special ways in which each of us lives out the paschal mystery, the Body of Christ is being built up. The depth of communion is stunning. When one of us suffers, the whole body suffers; when one of us has reason to rejoice, the whole body rejoices. In this regard, the notion of a purely private sin is a misnomer, insofar as the integrity of the “common” is always at stake. The same applies to the fruits of our efforts to live a virtuous life. The whole body benefits.
God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the most shareable of goods, and each of us is created in the image of a God who is an exchange of love. In a world marked by so many forms of dehumanizing isolation and dislocation, we bear witness to all that ties us to one another and, in a particular way, to the weakest in our midst. As Catholics, the sharing of God’s love is our common task and our common destiny.