The second principle that arises out of the Papal Encyclicals, and one which has been a major theme that runs throughout Roman Catholic social thought since their inauguration, is that of the Common Good.
The Common Good
The principle of the common good runs throughout the social encyclicals, starting with Rerum novarum. Leo XIII did not so much explain what it is, but assumed it. “Civil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general.” (§51) He further acknowledged that “although all citizens, without exception, can and ought to contribute to the common good in which individuals share so advantageously to themselves, it should not be supposed that all can contribute in a like way and to the same extent.” (§34)
In Quadragesimo anno, Pope Pius XI equated the common good with social justice. “To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods… brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.” (§57-58) Pope John XXIII came closer to defining the common good in Mater et magistrate, when he referred to the responsibility of public authority to “take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality.” (§65) Further; “as for the State, its whole raison d’etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order.” (§40) In Pacem in terris, he further argued that “every single citizen has the right to share in it” (§56) and that it “is best safeguarded when the personal rights and duties are guaranteed.” (§60)
Gaudium et spes, which came out of Vatican II, was much more specific in defining the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” (§26) In Populorum progresso, Pope Paul VI nuanced it, stating that “if certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.” (§24)
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace taught that the common good stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people and it remains common because it is indivisible (§164); it involves all members of society (§167), although its demands may change according to social conditions (§166); that the responsibility for attaining the common good also belongs to the State, whose existence is predicated on the common good (§168) and whose responsibility it is to harmonize different interests for the common good (§169); and that the common good is not an end in itself, but only in reference to the ultimate ends of the person (§170).
The move towards individualism effectively began with the Enlightenment. Since that time, Western society in particular, has placed increasing emphasis on the individual over society. Since the 1960s, this move has accelerated. But not only has the individual been placed over society, in many cases he or she is being placed over the family. This self-centredness has increasingly considered service towards others as unnecessary or even wrong. This has created a much more divisive society with an ‘us against them’ or ‘me against the world’ mentality. Individual accomplishment is celebrated, while giving to those who are in need, has come to be seen as an enabling crutch.
The problem with this attitude however, is that we are social creatures and always have been. To discount the contributions or benefits of society toward our well-being is not only disingenuous, it is also deceptive. In a comment made by President Obama a couple of years ago, he rebuked corporate America by saying “you didn’t build that.” His intention seemed simply to point out that every one of us has been given something in our past that we were not responsible for, whether it was by a teacher in our youth or by the construction of the roads that connect our factories with the market. He was quickly and decisively excoriated by the business community. This seems to be a clear case in which the contributions of society towards the individual has been wrongly dismissed out of hand in favour of an elevation of the individual as superior. One could argue that the road was paid for through taxes or would have been better built by private hands, but the reality is these were in fact contributions made by society as a whole.
In return, then, we also have a responsibility to contribute back to society. We are all products of our history, and there should be a willing response by individuals to contribute to the society which has supported us and particularly to support those who may not have enjoyed the same benefits of history as we have. When Jesus came, he gave his life as a gift for those who do not deserve it. While on earth, he was a servant leader, seeking to lift up those in the community who needed it most. We would all do well to live by his example, and consider our actions within the larger context of the common good.