The common good: isn't that just a weasel word?

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 01, 2015

I suspect I'm not the only one who, when learning about Catholic social teaching, has at times found the phrase "the common good" to be frustratingly vague. As a college student, I suspected that it was nothing more than a weasel word which could be used to get away with anything.

After all, I could probably come up with an argument for why the State should finance my musical career for the rest of my life - not for my own personal benefit, you understand, but for the common good of those who would otherwise be deprived of the fruits of my delicate genius.

While simple religious submission will lead us to admit that the "common good," as spoken of by the Church, is not a weasel word, that does not necessarily help us gain a clearer understanding of what the common good actually is. Fortunately, I recently came upon a post at Dominicana, the blog of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., which examines the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on the matter.

I haven't quite wrapped my head around it, so you should go read it yourself, but if I had to attempt to sum it up:

  1. According to the Church's social teaching, "The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity." Rather, it indicates "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily."
  2. While the common good is not merely the sum of particular goods, all goods, and all virtuous actions, are in some way directed to the common good.
  3. If the common good has to do with allowing people "to reach their fulfilment," yet it is not the sum of particular goods, this fulfilment must be understood as the same for each individual and for society as a whole - hence, it is called common.
  4. Since virtuous acts are particular goods, they are not in themselves the common good. The common good is the perfection to which all are called, which is not merely virtue but God Himself, to whom all particular goods and virtuous acts are directed.
  5. Since God (the common good) is a mystery, and we, ordered to the common good, are ourselves mysteries, it is impossible to fully understand or attain the common good in this world. Hence the difficulty of coming to agreement in political matters even among the most virtuous men, much less in a corrupt world. In the words of Josef Pieper: "No one can give a truly exhaustive account of what man himself 'fundamentally' is, and consequently it is just as impossible to give an exhaustive account of everything contained in man’s 'good.'"

Thomas V. Mirus is a pianist, composer, and occasional amateur comedian living in New York City. He produces and hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Feb. 04, 2015 3:29 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Thomas Van. In Dr. Arthur Hippler's book, Citizens of the Heavenly City: A Catechism of Catholic Social Teaching, he cite's Augustine, who taught that a common good is one that is not diminished as it is shared out. Nothing material (food, water, money, clothing) could be a common good (though they may serve it). Rather, things such as love, justice, peace, and truth are common goods. The more I share in them, the more there is of them. God is the greatest common good.