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The Principle of Common Good in the Catholic Church's Social Doctrine

The Principles of the Catholic Church’s Social Doctrine

In order to engage our English speaking readers in an exploration and discussion of the Catholic Church’s Social Doctrine, Participatory Democracy will be posting the Principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine as they appear at the Compendium authored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the dawn of the twenty first century.

These are permanent principles that constitute the heart of Catholic Social teaching, and as such, they carry a profoundly moral significance, since they refer to the ultimate and organizational foundations of life in society.

 We chose to begin with the Principle of the Common Good, though the four principles (the Dignity of the Human Person and the principles of Subsidiarity and Solidarity are the other three) must be appreciated in their unity, interrelatedness and articulation. 



a. Meaning and primary implications

164. The principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people. According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily”.[346]

The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future. Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good.

165. A society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of the human being at every level is a society that has the common good — the good of all people and of the whole person[347] — as its primary goalThe human person cannot find fulfillment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists “with” others and “for” others. This truth does not simply require that he live with others at various levels of social life, but that he seek unceasingly — in actual practice and not merely at the level of ideas — the good, that is, the meaning and truth, found in existing forms of social life. No expression of social life — from the family to intermediate social groups, associations, enterprises of an economic nature, cities, regions, States, up to the community of peoples and nations — can escape the issue of its own common good, in that this is a constitutive element of its significance and the authentic reason for its very existence[348].


b. Responsibility of everyone for the common good

166. The demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights[349]. These demands concern above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State's powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom[350]. Nor must one forget the contribution that every nation is required in duty to make towards a true worldwide cooperation for the common good of the whole of humanity and for future generations also[351].

167. The common good therefore involves all members of society, no one is exempt from cooperating, according to each one's possibilities, in attaining it and developing it[352]. The common good must be served in its fullness, not according to reductionist visions that are subordinated by certain people to their advantages; own rather it is to be based on a logic that leads to the assumption of greater responsibility. The common good corresponds to the highest of human instincts[353], but it is a good that is very difficult to attain because it requires the constant ability and effort to seek the good of others as though it were one's own good.

Everyone also has the right to enjoy the conditions of social life that are brought about by the quest for the common good. The teaching of Pope Pius XI is still relevant: “the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered property less, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice”[354].


c. Tasks of the political community

168. The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason that the political authority exists[355]. The State, in fact, must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression[356], in order that the common good may be attained with the contribution of every citizen. The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life. Hence the necessity of political institutions, the purpose of which is to make available to persons the necessary material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods. The goal of life in society is in fact the historically attainable common good[357].

169. To ensure the common good, the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice[358]. The proper reconciling of the particular goods of groups and those of individuals is, in fact, one of the most delicate tasks of public authority. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that in the democratic State, where decisions are usually made by the majority of representatives elected by the people, those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority. 

170. The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it[359]. This perspective reaches its fullness by virtue of faith in Jesus' Passover, which sheds clear light on the attainment of humanity's true common good. Our history — the personal and collective effort to elevate the human condition — begins and ends in Jesus: thanks to him, by means of him and in light of him every reality, including human society, can be brought to its Supreme Good, to its fulfillment. A purely historical and materialistic vision would end up transforming the common good into a simple socio-economic well-being, without any transcendental goal, that is, without its most intimate reason for existing.