Un­der­stand­ing the Com­mon Good

The Church of England - - BOOKS / SUNDAY - Paul Richard­son

To­gether for the Com­mon Good Ni­cholas Sagov­sky and Peter McGrail SCM, pb, £25.00 (Or £22.50 from the CEN Shop) “Je­sus’ suf­fer­ing spurs Chris­tians to serve the com­mon good,” Arch­bishop Justin Welby told read­ers of the

Evening Stan­dard on Good Fri­day. Sud­denly ev­ery­one is talk­ing about the ‘com­mon good’ but what does this con­cept rooted in Catholic So­cial Think­ing re­ally mean? Any­one who wants to find the an­swer could do no bet­ter than read this col­lec­tion of es­says by Chris­tians of all per­sua­sions, as well as a Jew and a Mus­lim. It is edited by a Catholic and an Angli­can and car­ries a fore­word by Baroness Neu­berger.

It is im­por­tant to dis­tin­guish the com­mon good from the util­i­tar­ian com­mit­ment to seek­ing the great­est good for the great­est num­ber. Both Clif­ford Longley and Tehmina Kazi quote Vat­i­can II’s state­ment that the com­mon good is the ‘sum to­tal of con­di­tions which al­low peo­ple, ei­ther as groups or as in­di­vid­u­als, to reach their ful­fil­ment more fully and more eas­ily’.

As Longley points out, ‘ful­fil­ment’ is un­der­stood in the Catholic so­cial tra­di­tion as ‘in­te­gral hu­man devel­op­ment’ that in­cludes ev­ery as­pect of a per­son’s life. It is cru­cial to see that com­mit­ment to the com­mon good means not see­ing peo­ple purely as in­di­vid­u­als but as mem­bers of com­mu­ni­ties who flour­ish when the whole com­mu­nity flour­ishes.

As Longley ar­gues, the com­mon good makes the po­lar­i­sa­tion be­tween self­ish and al­tru­is­tic choices re­dun­dant. We ben­e­fit from the growth and devel­op­ment of other peo­ple.

It is not hard to see the kind of ques­tions that are pro­voked by talk of the com­mon good. One ma­jor is­sue in mod­ernWestern so­ci­eties is the ex­is­tence of plu­ral­ism. How can we come to a shared view of the com­mon good in so­ci­eties where peo­ple are com­mit­ted to a range of moral and re­li­gious be­liefs? Pa­trick Rior­dan tack­les this is­sue in a chap­ter dis­cussing the rel­e­vance of Aris­to­tle for the pol­i­tics for the com­mon good to­day.

He recog­nises the dif­fer­ences be­tween the po­lis as Aris­to­tle en­vis­aged it and the mod­ern demo­cratic state but ar­gues this does not mean all Aris­to­tle has to say is now ir­rel­e­vant. States that ac­cept the rule of law, con­sti­tu­tional con­straints on power and the need for rules about trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity have come to some agree­ment on the com­mon good.

He fol­lows Alasdair MacIn­tyre in ar­gu­ing that our talk of rights has no ob­jec­tive philo­soph­i­cal ground­ing but func­tions as a way to ex­press com­mit­ment to shared goods.

Some peo­ple have seen the po­ten­tial for a clash be­tween the com­mon good and the prin­ci­ple of sub­sidiar­ity. Philip Booth of the In­sti­tute of Eco­nomic Af­fairs, who is both a prac­tis­ing Catholic and a de­fender of the free mar­ket, draws at­ten­tion to a pas­sage in a pre­vi­ous work where Clif­ford Longley ar­gues that sub­sidiar­ity is less im­por­tant in Catholic So­cial Teach­ing than sol­i­dar­ity but in his con­tri­bu­tion to this book Longley says “sub­sidiar­ity is an equal and coun­ter­vail­ing force to sol­i­dar­ity, push­ing against cen­tral­i­sa­tion and col­lec­tivism” but he also ar­gues that prop­erly un­der­stood sub­sidiar­ity is at odds with ne­olib­eral ide­ol­ogy.

There are im­por­tant prac­ti­cal con­se­quences to this de­bate not all cov­ered in this book. It has been ar­gued that the wel­fare state de­vel­oped in Ger­many and North­ern Europe be­cause of Lutheran be­lief in the two king­doms which made churches more ready to con­cede ar­eas of power and ac­tiv­ity to the state than was the case in Catholic coun­tries.

In Ire­land, for ex­am­ple, large ar­eas of ed­u­ca­tion and health and so­cial care were left to the Catholic Church un­til quite re­cently.

In some ways con­tra­dict­ing this ar­gu­ment, Lord Glas­man ar­gues that the post-war set­tle­ment in Ger­many in which the work­force take part in cor­po­rate gov­er­nance and re­gional banks are re­stricted in the area where they can lend was shaped by Catholic so­cial teach­ing.

Arch­bishop Welby’s ad­vo­cacy of the com­mon good is an ex­am­ple of the way the con­cept has caught on among evan­gel­i­cals and Angli­cans. Jonathan Chap­lin looks at evan­gel­i­cal so­cial teach­ing and ar­gues that there was a retreat from so­cial ac­tivism in the first half of the 20th cen­tury but that evan­gel­i­cals re­dis­cov­ered their so­cial con­science in the 1960s.

He of­fers a ty­pol­ogy of five ways in which evan­gel­i­cals have sought to jus­tify so­cial ac­tivism and ar­gues that they re­veal ‘com­mon good en­thu­si­asms’ of a diver­gent na­ture. One im­por­tant fea­ture of evan­gel­i­cal­ism he high­lights is its readi­ness to adopt a ‘counter cul­tural’ stance, per­haps less com­mon in es­tab­lished churches or among Catholics who see grace per­fect­ing na­ture.

Mal­colm Brown’s chap­ter on the Church of Eng­land and the com­mon good of­fers a pen­e­trat­ing sum­mary ac­count of Angli­can so­cial teach­ing since Tem­ple. He sees a ten­sion be­tween a view that un­der­stands the state as guar­an­tor of the com­mon good and one that em­pha­sises the con­tri­bu­tion of lo­cal vol­un­tary groups. Tawney was more open to the need to go back to a preCon­stan­tinian Church than Tem­ple was.

Bravely, Brown puts his fin­ger on the cur­rent em­pha­sis on free­dom of in­di­vid­ual choice seen in such is­sues as as­sisted sui­cide as a prob­lem for at­tempts to elicit a shared un­der­stand­ing of the com­mon good.

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