In Search of the Common Good, Part II: “Classical Voices,” pp. 91–163

[1] The second section of In Search of the Common Good is entitled “Classical Voices.” As the title of this section suggests, the essays are devoted to examining the concept of the common good as it has been understood in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the body of teachings of the Catholic Church referred to as “Catholic Social Teaching” (CST), and the place of the common good within public discourse.

[2] The introduction and the first essay of “Classical Voices” are authored by noted ethicist and Notre Dame professor Jean Porter. Porter’s essay “The Common God in Thomas Aquinas” seeks to understand, “a distinctively premodern approach to social ethics” (96), the influence that Aquinas’s understanding of the common good has had in the development of CST, and the theological aspects of Aquinas’s articulation of the common good.

[3] Porter’s treatment of the common good in Aquinas draws primarily on his most mature theological work, the Summa theologiae (ST). Porter identifies two primary areas of thought in which Aquinas locates the common good. Firstly, Aquinas treats the common good in conjunction with political authority and, secondly, in conjunction with his understanding of virtue. Porter begins her discussion of Aquinas’s treatment of the common good in relation to political authority by noting that Aquinas understands the human condition in terms of both its pre- and post-lapse states. As a result, there are elements of human existence that are not wholly derived from the state of sin. Thus, according to Aquinas, political authority now enjoys the challenge of governing subjects who, because of sin, do not always will what is good for themselves or the community. The fact that the governing authority governs on behalf of the common good is not something that is established by sin, but by human nature as such, which would be served by the common good whether in a fallen state or not. Had man not sinned, the common good would still be a component of man’s social existence. Hence, Aquinas draws a distinction between the private or individual good and the common good, associating the latter with the responsibilities and authority of the governing body whose task it is to protect it. Porter also points out three essential elements in Aquinas’s understanding of the relationship between the common good and the political authority to make laws:

The first is that positive law takes its point, and therefore its legitimacy, from its orientation to the common good . . .Second, positive law can only be promulgated by someone who has legitimate law-making authority-and this authority stems from the legislator’s responsibility to act for the common good. Finally, not everything can be justified through an appeal to the common good. A decree that places inequitable burdens on different persons is unjust and therefore not a valid law, even if it is genuinely oriented toward the common good. (109)

[4] Porter explains that for Aquinas, public authorities, for the sake of upholding the common good, are able to perform certain actions that private citizens are not. The public authority can, for example, “kill those who are guilty of a capital offense . . .the soldier may kill enemy soldiers because he is acting on the authority of the ruler . . .[and]seize property from infidels, in pursuit of a just war, or for the sake of the common good.” (110)

[5] Besides its relation to the exercise of legitimate authority, Porter demonstrates that Aquinas treats the common good in conjunction with the life of virtue, especially the virtue of justice. Without ignoring the important nuances between the individual good and the common good, Porter notes that in Aquinas’s system of virtue, ” . . . just persons are the principal part of society . . .” by which he means ” . . .that the well-being of upright citizens is the raison d’être of a community, in such a way that a community that attacks its own citizens has undermined the common good.”(114) As a result, the common good of the community “is constituted, in part, by the boundaries of justice. These boundaries include fundamental norms of respect for individual well-being.”(114)

[6] Porter’s essay, too briefly recounted here, offers the reader a helpful introduction to the common good in Aquinas, as well as the wider theological nuances of his political theory and virtue based ethics.

[7] The second essay in “Classical Voices” is “The Common Good in Catholic Social Teaching: A Case Study in Modernization” by Denis McCann. This essay offers a broad depiction of the common good in the patrimony of social documents and teachings promulgated by the Catholic Church over the last 100 years. McCann’s central hermeneutic for discerning the Catholic Church’s understanding of the common good is “modernization.” As a result, he attempts to explain the nature of the common good, as taught by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, in terms of what he perceives to be phases of modernization and resistance to modernization. McCann uses this hermeneutic of modernization to divide his essay into four chronological stages: “(1) Resistance (1830-1907), (2) Critical Engagement (1891-1958), (3) Accommodation (1958-78), and then (4) Consolidation in the[n] current pope John Paul II, which combines elements of all three (1978-).”(126)

[8] McCann introduces the first phase of modernization, the “Resistance,” by referring to a document of Pius IX, which does not mention the common good. However, relative to modernization, McCann explains that this document displays, “the overall impression . . . of impotent rage against impending doom.”(129) When treating the meaning of the common good according to Pius IX’s successor, Leo XIII, who authored Rerum novarum in 1891, a seminal document in the history of CST, McCann notes that rather than being explicitly defined, “the common good [in Rerum novarum] thus presupposes an unequal or-as Aristotle would have it-a proportionate distribution of political, economic, and social goods.” (132) Oddly, McCann makes scant reference to the industrial revolution and its challenges to human dignity and the dignity of labor which were clearly linked to Leo’s promulgation of Rerum novarum.

[9] The second phase, “Critical Engagement,” is best represented by Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno (1931), written on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum novarum. McCann treats this document as an “illuminating representative of CST’s development within the Catholic Church’s ongoing struggle with modernization.”(132) McCann rightly points out that in the face of the development of fascism and laissez-faire economics, Pius XI highlights the important obligation that the state has in defending and promoting the common good, particularly by recognizing the natural right of its citizens to private property.

[10] The third phase, “Accommodation,” includes the period of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the sixteen documents issued by the Council, Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) offers the most formal definition of common good that can be found in CST. “The common good,” explains Gaudium et spes, “embraces the sum of those conditions of social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection.” (par. 74) McCann sees in this definition “a crucial accommodation” (138) to modernization because here “the common good is understood teleologically.”(ibid.) Such an assertion is difficult to understand because the notion of good (bonum) has consistently been seen in the Christian tradition to be teleological. Thus, why McCann deems the teleological thrust of Gaudium et spes’ definition to be an accommodation rather than a continuation is not obvious.

[11] The final phase, “Consolidation,” treats the pontificate of John Paul II. McCann identifies a certain innovation in John Paul II’s exposition of the common good; namely, the placing of the common good in its properly theological horizon, which thus reveals the eschatological character of the common good. One wonders how McCann can deem this fact to be an “innovation” when CST is understood by the Church to be a part of her moral theology? Also, McCann wholly omits John Paul II’s promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains a very helpful section on CST and an entire sub-section on the common good.

[12] The reader of McCann’s chapter will learn something about the common good in the modern documents of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. But, McCann’s hermeneutic of modernization seriously inhibits his ability to recount for the reader the substance of what he is trying to explain. Also, now that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has issued the English edition of its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana: 2005), McCann’s essay finds itself dated-and challenged.

[13] The final essay of the section on “Classical Voices” is “Public Discourse and Common Good” by Robin Lovin. Lovin’s essay provides an interesting comparison between Thomas Aquinas, Whig-Thomist John Courtney Murray, and noted political philosopher John Rawls. The discussion focuses on the place that common good discourse-as understood by these diverse thinkers-has within the tradition of Western democratic liberalism. “My proposal is,” explains Lovin, “that liberal theory and the common good raise complementary concerns about our political life, and both have a place in an account of the variety of forms that public discourse takes.”(148) The problem is, of course, that the public discussion, let alone public pursuit of the common good, “requires a degree of agreement that is rare in modern pluralistic societies.”(148) This problem is further accentuated by the fact that modern liberalism grew out of a conscious desire to provide an alternative to the forced unanimity that the Colonists of the New World sought to escape. As a result, Lovin notes that modern democracies tend to focus on “minimal agreement and shared procedures, rather than common goals.”(148)

[14] In contrast to modernity’s quest to minimize or avoid public discussion of the common good, Thomas Aquinas held that the very purpose of civil laws, when enacted by those who possess due authority, is to safeguard and promote the common good. This position marks a strong contrast between the way that a classical Christian view, as represented by Aquinas, and a contemporary outlook differ in how they understand law and governmental authority. Whereas Aquinas sees law and authority as a divinely ordained means of protecting the common good, modern liberalism’s primary focus is on the rights of individuals. Rawl’s contribution to this discussion is that he recognizes the irreducible pluralism of democratic society and thus without jettisoning the notion of the common good and its place within public discussion, he jettisons the idea that it be based on any set of shared societal goals. Rather than identify the common good with shared goals, which would, in the end, suffocate pluralism, Rawls advocates the concept of “public reason.” Lovin explains that, “‘public reasons’ for Rawls are in the first instance, simply those reasons that give persons in a society reasons to think that the laws under which they live are legitimate.”(153) This, according to Lovin, establishes a certain loose continuity between Rawls and Aquinas. “[W]hat Rawls and Aquinas have in common,” he explains, “is that each thinks it is important that people have reasons to obey the law, and indeed, having those reasons is essential for the law to be legitimate.”(153) What John Courtney Murray, who was a noted Catholic theologian at the Second Vatican Council, adds to this issue is his understanding of “civil argument.” Civil argument is “an ongoing process that defines the political community.”(156) The point of such discourse is not to bring a cessation to public discussion about the common good, nor to advance one notion at the expense of all others, but to foster a continued public discussion “by which we arrive at agreement about what the constitution means for the moment, in our present situation.” (156)

[15] Lovin’s presentation of these various positions on the common good and its place in public discourse offers a helpful and concise locus for anyone seeking to learn more about the parameters of the discussion and the major thinkers who have contributed to it. Unfortunately, Lovin fails to mention the deep criticisms that Murray’s thought has received. David Louis Schindler, for one, in his Heart of the World, Center of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), has raised trenchant questions regarding Murray’s thought, questions which impinge on the veracity of Lovin’s assessment. Also, one could certainly argue that Lovin has imposed the common good onto what is actually a debate about the true meaning of freedom. Lovin seems to think that the problems raised by the common good stem from the pluralism of democracy, when in fact, one could ask whether or not this is the consequence of the exultation of freedom as the ultimate arbiter of morality, public or otherwise. The place of individual liberty in current public debates about abortion, euthanasia, same sex unions, inter alia, serves as case in point. Finding a place for the common good in public discourse will offer little help if citizens in western societies accept a notion of open-ended liberty.

[16] The second section of In Search of the Common Good, “Classical Voices,” gives the reader some exposure to the social vision of the Catholic Church and tradition, particularly in its Thomist strain. But, with the exception of Porter’s essay on Aquinas, the title “Classical Voices” is a bit misleading. There is no substantial treatment of Augustine, Bonaventure, or any other major “classical voice” of the Christian tradition. The three essays of this section do not work well together, thus leaving the reader who is searching for the common good amidst the classical voices with a fair number of unanswered-perhaps even unasked-questions.