September 09, 2015

Rescuing the real Common Good

By Deacon Keith Fournier *

I waited to write this first column until after Labor Day in the United States of America because people begin to pay attention after Labor Day. If you plug the phrase “common good” into a search engine you quickly discover it has been coopted. C.S. Lewis, in his "Studies in Words" called such a misuse, verbicide.

The phrase common good is at the heart of the social teaching of the Catholic Church. However, many Christians do not even know there is such a body of teaching. Sadly, such a lack of knowledge has contributed to what the Second Vatican Council called a "separation between faith and life." 

This separation was called "one of the greatest errors of our age" in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World issued by the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church. The phrase also became the framework for the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life

"It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible.  "There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture.” 

An Extreme Example

I will date myself with a reference to the 1972 film, The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Let me set the stage. The movie opened with a scene from the baptism of an infant. The main character Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, is a godfather to his sister's baby and must answer questions based on the ancient Creed of the Church to confirm the propriety his role as godfather to Connie's baby. 

The questions are intended to ensure that he will be an example and teacher; one who will help the parents in their mission to raise the child to follow Jesus Christ in the Church.  But the director juxtaposes another action happening simultaneously outside of the four walls of the Church building which demonstrates a contrary choice made by Michael Corleone. At the same time as he is participating in the baptism, his henchmen are carrying out a murderous attack on a rival gang at his explicit direction.   

This scene reveals an extreme example of this separation between faith and life in Michael Corleone. This separation is usually revealed in more subtle ways. For example, “oh, that’s just business” or “that’s just politics”. All too often, people attempt to justify moral incoherence with the excuse that their faith is a "private matter". Christian faith may be profoundly personal, but it is most assuredly not private. It is public. We are called to live out our professed Christian faith in every area - not only in what we call our “private” life but in our public life and our relationship to others. 

We are, by both nature and grace, social — called into social relationships. That is because we are created in the Image of a Trinitarian God who is One — but not solitary. We are called to build a social environment conducive to authentic human freedom and human flourishing for everyone. That is what is meant by the common good. 

Just as the human person is an integrated whole and you cannot separate the soul and the body, so, in an analogous way, the social order and the body politic is an integrated whole. There is a moral basis to a truly free society. You cannot separate moral values from our common life together or from any segment of the social order. To be a Christian is to live a new way of life. 

Christianity is a Way of Life

Before they were called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26) the followers of Jesus were referred to as the Way. Prior to his encounter with the Risen Lord on the Road to Damascus the Apostle Paul writes of having persecuted “this Way” (Acts 22: 3-16). The early Christians knew that living faith is always expressed in a new way of living. 

An ancient first century manuscript entitled “The Letter to Diognetus” was a defense of the early Christian lifestyle.  It is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its treatment of the duties of citizenship (CCC 2234-2246). This letter expresses an integrated vision of living as a Christian. Here is an excerpt: 

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. …They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not expose them … They share their meals in common, but not their wives. … They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. 

…They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect Doing good they are punished as evildoers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life.... In a word, what the soul is in a body, the Christians are in the world...." 

The Soul of this Age

We need to become the soul of this age. The Christians in Rome were living in a culture beset by many of the same problems we face when Paul wrote these words “...I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect”. (Romans 12: 1-2)

We need a re-formation of how we view Christian citizenship and our participation in the economic order, the political arena and our full participation in society. There has been some poor teaching in the area of moral theology which has exacerbated this confusion. 

The Catholic Catechism summarizes the duties of civil authorities and of citizens in its section entitled “Life in Christ”. It presents what can be called an integral approach; calling believers to live the Christian life in a morally coherent manner. Faith is a light which is meant to preside over the entirety of our life. This requires a continued and conscious effort to infuse the values informed by faith into the social arena. That means we need to make sure we understand what the Church really teaches. 

One of the mistakes commonly made concerns the meaning of conscience.  Again, the clarity of the Catechism is of great importance concerning moral conscience. People speak as though “conscience” equates with “feelings” or is an aspect of our opinion. We must educate our consciences to ensure they conform to the truth revealed in the Natural Law and expounded upon in Revelation. Not only do our consciences need to be formed, they can become deformed. 

That mistake is especially evident in the way in which some Catholics and other Christians approach political and economic participation. 

We are to view the entirety of our lives in a morally coherent manner.  “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. The education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (CCC 1783,1784)

Social Teaching is for all 

The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church offers principles to all who seek to build a truly human and humane society. The teaching is called social because it speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions. Contrary to the relativism of our age, it claims there are unchangeable truths which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason. 

These truths are revealed in the Natural Law, “present in the heart of each man and established by reason. This law is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties." (CCC 1956) 

It is here where we find the foundational human rights which must be recognized by the civil or positive law as rightfully belonging to all men and women if a society is to be called truly just. Rights are good of human persons, not ethereal concepts which can be changed at whim by the machinations of social, political, legal or verbal engineers. They are endowed upon us by the Creator, and not bestowed by the civil government, as the American founders expressed so clearly, standing on the shoulders of the giants of the Western Christian and Jewish tradition. 

The Compendium of Social Doctrine (paragraph 140) explains: The exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and unites all rights and duties. The natural law "is nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God. 

Thanks to this, we know what must be done and what must be avoided. This light or this law has been given by God to creation. It consists in the participation in his eternal law, which is identified with God himself. This law is called natural because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature. It is universal; it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason.
In its principal precepts, the divine and natural law is presented in the Decalogue and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life. Its central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good, and also the act of seeing others as equal to oneself. The natural law expresses the dignity of the person and lays the foundations of the person's fundamental duties.

Social truths such as the dignity of every human life, the nature and ends of marriage, the moral foundation of freedom and primacy of religious freedom, our obligations in solidarity to one another – all provide a framework for structuring our social life. These are not just “religious” notions. In future columns I will consider contemporary moral, social, economic and political issues in light of the principles of Catholic social teaching in an effort to rescue the real common good and help to enlist faithful citizens in effective social action.

Deacon Keith A. Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A member of the clergy, a Roman Catholic Deacon, he is also constitutional/ human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. He has long been active at the intersection of faith, values and culture and currently serves as Special Counsel to Liberty Counsel. Deacon Fournier is also a Senior Contributing Writer for THE STREAM

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.