This is the first in a four-part series on St. Thomas and Catholic Social Teaching.
Thomistic Reflections on the Common Good
Prayers of the Faithful, especially around election times, often include a petition like this: “That all elected officials and government leaders may enact laws in accord with the common good, we pray to the Lord.” After the perfunctory response, you may muse: “What is the common good?” Bonum commune, the common good, is one of those weird concepts that seems self-evident but upon further reflection is a bit mysterious in meaning. Perhaps a good way to start defining it, in the venerable tradition of negative theology, is by saying what the common good is not. This, at least, is the route the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church takes:
The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. (164)
But things get a little fuzzier when some kind of positive definition is offered, a definition stemming from a whole host of magisterial texts (see footnote 346 of the Compendium for these references):
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 fulfilment more fully and more easily.’ (164)
So the common good is the “sum total” of “social conditions” which allow people to “reach their fulfillment.” Is there a doctor in the house who can help unpack this? Perhaps a doctor communis to explain the bonum commune?
St. Thomas’ notion of totality and general justice
While St. Thomas doesn’t have a specific question on the common good, one can tease out his thoughts on it from a number of places, particularly his discussion of law and legal justice. In the treatise on Law in the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas writes: “Actions are indeed concerned with particular matters: but those particular matters are referable to the common good, not as to a common genus or species, but as to a common final cause, according as the common good is said to be the common end” (ST I-II, q. 90, a. 2, ad 2). This text allows us to make more precise our notion of the common good as found in the Compendium of Social Doctrine and the teaching of many popes.
As the magisterial documents make clear, “sum total” cannot mean a mere aggregate of things, nor some utilitarian calculus of the greatest possible conditions for the greatest number of social beings. Well then, what kind of “total” is it? For St. Thomas, it is an ordered totality, a totality of parts working together in one uniform way for a common goal. The common aspect in common good is not a catalogue or IHOP restaurant menu with a million individual options all present for the choosing; it is the organic unity of varied and sundry parts working together for one end.
St. Thomas explains this organic notion of totality or wholeness in his discussion of general justice:
Justice, as stated above [ST II-II, q. 58, a. 2] directs man in his relations with other men. . . . Now it is evident that all who are included in a community, stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole; while a part, as such, belongs to a whole, so that whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole. It follows therefore that . . . all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good. It is in this sense that justice is called a general virtue. And since it belongs to the law to direct to the common good, as stated above [ST I, q. 90, a. 2], it follows that the justice which is in this way styled general, is called ‘legal justice,’ because thereby man is in harmony with the law which directs the acts of all the virtues to the common good. (ST II-II, q. 58, a. 5)
Justice is the virtue that directs men’s actions toward one another and toward the good of all, the good of parts and the good of the whole, as St. Thomas would say. And the common good is the good of the whole social body, the whole body of the universe actually, so that all actions in some way are directed towards it. Eating ice cream is for the common good! Clipping your fingernails? For the common good! All these individual actions make up the ordering of the universe to this common good, the end of all things. Fine and commonly good, but what is this end? What is the common good as an end of all actions?
The end or goal of all our striving
The Compendium of Social Doctrine calls this end “fulfillment,” but perhaps the terminology of St. John XXIII in Mater et Magistra 65 is clearer when he speaks of the common good in terms of “perfection.” Perfection, now that is a notion for which St. Thomas has plenty of predicates. What is this perfection of the common good? St. Thomas waxes eloquent:
It does not belong to the First Agent, Who is agent only, to act for the acquisition of some end; He intends only to communicate His perfection, which is His goodness; while every creature intends to acquire its own perfection, which is the likeness of the divine perfection and goodness. Therefore the divine goodness is the end of all things. (ST I, q. 44, a. 4)
There it is: the common good is God; nothing more, nothing less. Because God is one, he is his goodness, and therefore he is the perfection of all things. This idea is part of the famous exitus-reditus motif of the Summa theologiae: all things come from God as their source, and so all things must return to him as their end. God is the unique source and the unique end of all things. As T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end,” and, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
God is the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. The common good, all our social striving, all our individual acts, are to conform to this end, the divine goodness of God as revealed through natural law and eternal law, through those things grasped by our finite intellects and those things grasped in faith through revelation. The common good, for St. Thomas and the Catholic Church, can be called the good of the universe. Moreover, this created common good is oriented toward the uncreated common good, the good of God, God himself. Herein, each thing plays its finite part in the infinite drama of creation, redemption and final consummation. Each thing plays its part in an ordered fashion; since God is perfect, his perfection is expressed in a multitude of finite things from amoeba to rocks to tropical parrots to persons. And it is this last group, human persons, that in some way encapsulate and transcend the order of all other things. For it is persons that God created to share in his eternity and persons whom God redeemed through the passion and resurrection of his Son, Jesus.
Because of this, St. Thomas can write the following in his treatise on kingship, De Regno:
Yet through virtuous living man is further ordained to a higher end, which consists in the enjoyment of God, as we have said above. Consequently, since society must have the same end as the individual man, it is not the ultimate end of an assembled multitude to live virtuously, but through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God. (107)
The difference St. Thomas makes and why politicians still disagree with each other
The common good is not some utilitarian calculus of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Nor is it some this-worldly Utopian social scheme. The common good is God; it is achieved through ordering all actions with his divine governance and providence, each thing in its own proper place and with its own proper significance.
If this is the case, why are there so many disputes between politicians and plebeians? Why the contentious elections of these officials for whom we are praying? With such questions, we focus our sights upon a terrestrial common good known classically as the political common good. The disputes between politicians and plebeians that fill our TV screens involve this common good of the political order. So, why all the fighting? One reason is that the political end does not always determine the exact means–there may be a number of ways to get to the same end, and it is not always easy to see which one, if any, is best. A second reason, of course, is sin and concupiscence. As hard as it may be to admit, politicians are not immune from these things.
The uncertainties of the political realm indicate the difficulty of attaining the common good in this world. At the heart of this difficulty, there is a mystery involved, the mystery of our creaturely status. We are creatures who do not know God perfectly in himself and who do not even know ourselves perfectly. In light of this precariousness of our knowledge, the great Teutonic Thomist Josef Pieper warned against the absolute adequacy of any exhaustive proposal for the common good:
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,’ for the sake of which man exists and which he has to realize in his life if it is to be said of him that all his potentialities [his perfections] have been brought to fruition. This and nothing else is the meaning behind the assertion so stubbornly defended by Socrates: that he did not know what ‘human virtue’ was and that he had still to meet a man who knew better. (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 98)
All the same, intellectual warnings rarely stop Thomists from proposing things, and thus I leave it to my fellow friars to fill out this Thomistic reflection with more specific principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
Image: Jacek Yerka, Loading Cities