Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

On playing the game of Common Good with a crooked deck

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 02, 2024

As a follow-up to Phil Lawler’s analysis of The dangerous Vatican enthusiasm for the WEF, I’d like to emphasize a major principle. Call it Practical Social Principle 101: Organizations and movements which find themselves in opposition to Christ cannot promote the common good. Or let me put it in a more practical human way: Organizations and movements which, in carrying out their missions, reject or undermine the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, as known through Divine Revelation and the natural law, cannot promote the common good.

This is true across the board. It is possible, of course, to be unaware of the whole truth while still recognizing some correct moral principles, and so to promote genuine goods in a moral way that is beneficial to both individual persons and the social order as a whole. But it is not possible to promote the common good through a program which is based on both the acceptance of some moral and spiritual principles and the rejection of others. We have a perfect example of this in American politics today (not to mention the politics of most other governments and international organizations). Thus, we can promote the common good by advocating improved ways to provide food for the hungry, but we cannot promote the common good by advocating improved ways to feed the hungry while at the same time undermining the goods of human sexuality, marriage and family life.

One could enumerate many different examples of this principle: The common good cannot be effectively promoted by any program that includes opposition to one or more of the moral principles which are essential to the common good. And since these moral principles are best known through Divine Revelation and the natural law, one of the greatest of the signs that warn against the effectiveness of any person, program or organization is its implicit or explicit opposition to the fullness of the moral law. This is exactly like trying to harness two opposing forces in order to move in one direction, but without changing the direction of the force that is pushing the wrong way. In broad terms, a perfect example is to promote human prosperity and happiness while refusing to honor and protect its basis in marriage and the family. Or, to reverse the same example, it is impossible to promote the common good through a strengthening of marriage and family life while promoting and protecting a privately “lucrative” economy that is rooted in secularism, consumerism, gambling and sexual perversion.

Catholic social principles

What is true of the personal moral law is also true of the moral principles that govern societies in accordance with this same common good. These principles are largely matters of genuine common sense, but they have been articulated most clearly in the social teachings of the Church. For example, the Church’s social teachings uphold not only the principles of the universal destination of goods and solidarity, on the one hand, but also the principles of subsidiarity* and the dignity of the human person, on the other. In other words, the common good is best served by men and women who:

  • are supportive of human life in the context of human families;
  • are appropriately and fairly compensated for their imitation of their Creator in human work;
  • are able both to own property and to exercise legitimate responsibility over their own affairs;
  • are willing and able to participate together at the lowest feasible levels in formulating just policies and mechanisms to ensure the peace and prosperity of the entire community of which they are a part;
  • will include in their dispositions a special care for those members of the community who are particularly weak or vulnerable;
  • and will prize solutions which encourage a range of intermediary efforts and institutions, rather than ceding their natural human responsibility and authority to ever higher and larger levels of bureaucratic government—a process which in our contemporary culture consistently undermines the foundational social principles of both subsidiarity and solidarity.

Note how these social principles provide the conceptual limits for a proper understanding of human dignity. Human solidarity is not defined by some Marxist ideology which puts individual persons at the mercy of the State; nor is subsidiarity defined by some Randian individualist autonomy. Rather, both principles are honored through the dignity of human persons exercising personal authority over their use of goods while participating in the decisions and actions which assist those less fortunate and shape the common good of the community of which they are a part. Indeed, solidarity and subsidiarity are inseparable, as are the universal destination of goods and the right to private property, including a just wage. And of course a genuine conception of the common good is inseparable from an understanding of the nature of that unique dignity possessed by the human person.

Now it so happens that both the personal moral law and the broader moral principles governing human social life can be known through the natural law, and therefore these moral laws and social principles can be perceived through nature. But it takes no particular genius to recognize how often these laws and principles are misunderstood or swept away by either mere selfishness or passionate ideologies which turn one particular principle or goal into a weapon against the others—thereby destroying within the social, political and economic orders the very balance of what it means to be fully human. We are fortunate that Divine Revelation reaffirms these laws and principles and also establishes on earth an authority in the Catholic Church which can, when exercising its formal power to teach, clarify all of this for us. Thus we can make more rapid progress in understanding these laws and principles by studying the Church’s teachings.

Moreover, we can also know that no program can possibly have good results if it operates in opposition to any of these fundamental moral and social principles.

Principle 102

I said that Principle 101, at least for the purposes of this essay, is that organizations and movements which find themselves in opposition to Christ (or the moral teachings of the Catholic Church) cannot promote the common good. If we agree to this Principle 101, then we should also recognize its corollary—call it Principle 102.

Principal 102 is simply this. The Catholic Church should be very careful not to encourage organizations and movements which, while having some good purpose, also accept as a starting point ideas and goals which run afoul of Principle 101. It is fine for the Church to encourage any particular good that any organization claims it wishes to pursue. But the Church must always be both Mater et Magistra—Mother and Teacher—and she cannot be both without attempting to purify that organization’s conception of reality. She is bound by Christ to attempt rescue by pointing out those encumbering beliefs, attitudes, goals or allowances which must inescapably undermine and destroy the particular good the organization has in view.

It was St. Paul who wrote, “If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” This necessity is laid upon the whole Church, and especially upon her leaders. In a word, the Church always courts grave danger when she praises and encourages organizations which, while claiming to play the game of Common Good, actually play it with a crooked deck.

* Subsidiarity: The principle that what can be done at a lower level in a social system should not be done at a higher level. In other words, social, economic and political problems should be addressed at the most local level at which their resolution is possible. Note that, while usually applied to government, this principle does not imply that it is always some level of government that should be used to solve every problem. A culture with strong intermediary institutions—that is, a healthy, non-bureaucratic culture—will often have other options.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Feb. 03, 2024 7:06 AM ET USA

    The example I use when explaining subsidiarity to nonCatholics is that regular waste collection should not be an issue for state or national government bureaucrats. The city or county is where that should be handled. And when in doubt, it is always helpful if said cities and counties keep their trash tightly bottled up and not forwarded to Washington DC or their own state government.