The common good has been defined as ‘sum total of social conditions which allow people either as groups or individuals to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily’. This was the position adopted by the 2nd Vatican Council 1962-1965 – GAUDIUM ET SPES ‘The Church in the modern world. Working for the common good therefore requires us to promote the flourishing of all human life and all of God’s creation. In a special way, the common good requires solidarity with the poor who are often without the resources to face many challenges, including the potential impacts of climate change.
In 1997, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales issued a major statement ‘THE COMMON GOOD’ and this was prior to the general elections in Britain. That statement was aimed at bringing to attention challenges Britain was facing as the country was approaching general elections of that year. The statement received overwhelming attention from both Catholics and non Catholics and the result was change of government. The following were some of the issues highlighted by the Bishops in that document.
1. The need for moral guidance in the social and political sphere and the document said ‘ As Catholics we are not without resources in trying to meet the needs for moral guidance in the social and political sphere. There is abundance of wisdom in scripture, in the teaching of the early fathers of the Church and the writing of numerous Christian thinkers down the ages. Further, we have at our disposal the corpus of official doctrine known as CATHOLIC Social Teaching. Together with the relevant documents of the second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the statements of local and regional conferences of Bishops, the social encyclicals of various popes since 1891 represent a formidable body of insight and guidance. For Catholics it carries special authority. But it is available to all people of whatever religious persuasion, as they engage in the democratic process of their own societies”.
2 The need for the spirit of openness and of listening as well as teaching and the Bishops said “It is in this spirit of openness , and of listening as well as teaching that the Catholic Bishops conference of England and Wales looks ahead to the general elections that is expected in the coming months. This document is issued with our authority as bishops, teachers of the faith of the Catholic Church, both as a contribution to the common good of our society and a contribution to the general development of Catholic teaching. As political feelings inevitably become more heated and partisan, we judge this to be an opportune moment to try to maintain or even seek to raise the level of public debate. A national political debate conducted at the level of soundbites and slogans would not serve the national interest”.
3. That each person possess a basic dignity that comes from God and the bishops said “We believe that each person possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender, age or economic status. The test therefore of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human dignity and indeed human life itself. Policies which treat people as only economic units, or policies which reduce people to a passive state of dependency on welfare, do not do justice to the dignity of the human person. People who are poor and vulnerable have a special place in Catholic teaching; this is what is meant by the ‘preferential option for the poor’. Scripture tells us we will be judged by our response to the “least of these”, in which we see the suffering face of Christ himself. Humanity is one family despite differences of nationality or race. The poor are not a burden; they are our brothers and sisters. Christ taught us that our neighborhood is universal; so loving our neighbor has global dimensions. It demands fair international trading policies, decent treatment of refugees, support for the UN and control of the arms trade. Solidarity with our neighbor is also about the promotion of equality of rights and equality of opportunities; hence we must oppose all forms of discrimination and racism”
4That no law should be passed without considering its effects on families and the bishops said” there are other ways of structuring society which facilitate true human development and correspond to moral principles and demands. Such structrures can enable people to realize their dignity and achieve their rights. The human race itself is a “community of communities”, existing at international, national, regional and local level. The smallest such community is the individual family , the basic cell of human society. A well constructed society will be one that gives priority to the integrity, stability and health of family life. It should be a principle of good government, therefore that no law should be passed with possible social consequences without first considering what effect it would have on family life and especially on children. The principles behind the relationship between the different layers of this “community of communities” should be that of subsidiarity. In a centralized society, subsidiarity will mainly mean passing powers downwards, but it can also mean passing appropriate powers upwards, even to an international body, if that would better serve the common good and protect the rights of families and of individuals. Solidarity means the willingness to see others as another “self” and so to regard injustice committed against another as no less serious than an injustice against oneself. Solidarity expresses the moral truth that ‘ no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent , a part of the man”.
5 that Democracy is not a self sufficient system and they said “ The Church’s teaching now fully embraces two fundamental features of modern society about which it once had some difficulties; democracy and human rights. In the case of democracy, the church has been able to make its own contribution to political theory by exploring the limitations of the democratic process, for instance by warming that democralcy can never be a self fulfilling justification for poliices that are intrinsically immoral. Democracy is not a self sufficient moral system. Democracy; if it is to be healthy, requires more than universal suffrage; it requires the presence of a system of common values. If democracy is not to become a democratic tyranny in which the majority oppresses the minority, iti s necessary for the puvbliuc to have an understanding of the common good and the concepts that underlie it. Otherwise, they will be unlikely to support actions by public authority that are not to the immediate advantage of the majority. Furthermore , public confidence is undermined, and democracy subverted, when the members of public authorities responsible for the common good are not appointed democratically or on objective merit but in order to ensure that the authority in question has a political complexion favourable to the government of the day”.
6 That rights derive from the nature of the human person madein the image of God and they said” We repeat the warning the Church has given in the past, that human rights are sometimes advanced to support claims to individual autonomy which are morally inappropriate. Not everything said to be a ‘RIGHT” really isone. There is no “right to choose” to harm another, for instance. The proliferation of alleged “rights” can devalue the very concept. So can the amplication of rights without equivalent stress on durties, and without some concept of the common good to which all have an obligation to contribute. However that reservation must not be allowed to destroy the value of the principle itself; that individuals have a claim on each other and on society for certain basic minimum conditions without which the value of humanlife is diminished or even negated. Those rights are inalienable, in that individuals and societies may not set them at nought; in Catholic terms those rights derive from the nature of the human person made in the image of God, aand are therefore in no way dependent for their existence on recognition by the state by way of public legislation”.
7 That every member of the community has a duty to the common good and they said ”these rights are universal. The study of evolution of the idea of h uman rights shows that they all flow from the one fundamental right; the right to life. From this derives the right to those conditions which make life more truly human; religious liberty, decent work, housing, health care, freedom of speech, education and the rifght to raise and provide for a family. Catholic moral theology tells us that iti s the destiny and duty of each human being to become more full human. A society which observes human rights will be a society in which this true human growth is encouraged.
Every member of the community has a duty to the common good in order that thye rigfhts of others can be satisfied and their freedoms respected.Those whose rights and freedoms are being denied should bge helped to claim them. Indeed, human right hyave come to represent that striving for freedom from tyranny and despotism for which the human spirit has always yearned. We are aware that there are various proposals afoot to strengthen the protection of human rights in Great Britain,such as the framing of a Bill of Rights or the incorporation of the European Convention on Human rights into British domestic law. Some strengthening seems necessary, whatever the method chosen. This necessity is related to the need for a system of common values if our democratic society is indeed to be healthy. The Catholic Social teaching sees an intimate relationship between social and political liberation on the one hand and on the other, the salvation to which the Church calls us in the name of Jesus Christ. The spreading of that message of salvation is the task of evangelization. Evangelisation means bringing the GOOD NEWS of the Gospel into every stratum of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new. That must include liberating humanity from all forces and structures which oppress it, thought political liberation cannot be an end in itself. Evangelisation always requires the transformation of an unjust social order and one of its primary tasks is to oppose and denounce such injustices. All Catholics who engage in the political life or the nation are entitled to regard theselves as engaging in evangelization, provided they do so in accordance with the principles of Catholic teaching. One of the most important steps in the evangelization of the social order is the feeling of individuals from the inertia and passivity that comes from oppression,hopelessness or cynicism, so that they discover how they can exert greater control over their own destinies and contribute to the well-being of others. This has particularly relevance to day”. (to be continued)
The author is member of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace(CCJP) and current chairperson for the Jesuit Centre For Theological Reflection(JCTR) Kasama team. The author is also recipient of World Bank ‘award’ on good governance in road sector. Email; firstname.lastname@example.org