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Bishop Strickland . . . Recovering And Serving The REAL Common Good

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Part 2

The values, principles, and truths we proclaim are good for all men and women. They are a part of our common human vocation and provide the glue for building a truly just social order. They require respect for the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death, protection and promotion of the first cell of society, marriage and the family and social order founded upon it, and respect for authentic human freedom, which includes the first freedom, religious freedom. They must be worked into the leaven of society so that we may share this bread with every man, woman, and child. This is how we serve the REAL common good.

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In addressing what are called the “Social Issues,” the Catholic Church offers truths and principles intended to guide all Christians in forming their conscience so that they can then properly approach participation in the culture, including political participation. Only with a properly formed conscience can they exercise the duty and right to vote in a manner which is consistent with their baptismal vocation.
Christians are called to live an integrated life wherein our faith informs every aspect of who we are and how we live our lives with others. We are, by both nature and grace, social — called into relationship. 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.
Just as the human person is an integrated whole and you cannot separate the soul and the body, the body politic is an integrated whole. There is a moral basis to a free society. You cannot separate moral values from our common life together. To do so threatens the moral foundations of a free society. It is also contrary to our call to serve the common good.

The Common Good

This concept of “the common good’ is integral to understanding our Christian vocation and the social obligation that flows from it. Sadly, it is too often misunderstood. Concern for the common good lies at the heart of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church. If it has been misused, and it has, we who are Christians need to take it back and re-present it by articulating a vision for a new Catholic action.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 1905-1927) and the social encyclicals treat it thoroughly. The following paragraphs from the Catechism summarize the concept:
“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’ The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority. It consists of three essential elements:
“First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his vocation. In particular, the common good resides in the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as ‘the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard . . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.’
“Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Development is the epitome of all social duties. Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.
“Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense. Each human community possesses a common good which permits it to be recognized as such; it is in the political community that its most complete realization is found. It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.”
As Christians we are called to live in society. We are supposed to be concerned about creating a truly just society so that we can, as much as is possible, foster a social environment which is conducive to authentic freedom and human flourishing, for everyone. This task is not new. It has been a part of the self-understanding of the mission of the Christian community from its inception.

Christianity As A Way Of Life

Before they were called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26) the early followers of Jesus Christ were often referred to as “the Way.” The Apostle Paul, in recounting his own conversion, speaks of having persecuted “this Way” (Acts 22:3-16) prior to his encounter with the Risen Lord on the Road to Damascus.
This expression “the Way” revealed a profoundly important aspect of the understanding of the early Christians. They believed and proclaimed that the Christian faith was to be expressed in a new way of living. It still is. Our relationship with Jesus Christ and membership in His Body, the Church, is meant to effect change in every aspect of our life as human persons and influence the way in which we participate in civil society. That includes our social and political participation.
There is an ancient Christian manuscript entitled The Letter to Diognetus which most historians date back to sometime between AD 65 and AD 125. It contains an insight concerning the relationship of Christians to the world which, though seemingly simple, is the key to understanding the heart of the matter. The letter was an “apology,” which means a defense of the early Christian faith and lifestyle. It was addressed to an anonymous pagan inquirer into the Christian faith.
It was written by an unknown author. Its importance is underscored by the fact that it was one of the documents favored by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council and quoted quite often. They use it as the foundational basis of their teaching on social involvement in the documents which address the role of the Church in the modern world. It is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its excellent treatment of the duties of citizenship (nn. 2234-2246). It is regularly referred to in social encyclicals and explanatory sources.
I excerpt a portion of this letter for two reasons. First, because it shows that the conditions which we face as Christians at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium are not all that different than those faced by our early brothers and sisters as they were called to transform the cultures of the First Millennium. This is important to know. There is a tendency among Christians to forget our history. Second, because it expresses an integrated vision for social participation.
“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.
“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 cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.
“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 The World

Christians are still called to be the “Soul of the World” in our age. That beautiful phrase has implications for how we approach every area of our life, including our political participation. We are called into the world to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ until He returns. We are invited through our baptismal vocation to live the entirety of our lives differently. In so doing, we invite our neighbors, by both word and witness, to consider the truth of faith we proclaim.
We were baptized into the Mystical Body of the Resurrected Jesus Christ, the Church, and no matter what our state in life, we are invited to participate in her missionary activity. That mission includes service to the social order. One aspect of this service is political participation. To respond to this invitation faithfully, fruitfully, and effectively, requires that we understand the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church.
Often it is helpful to examine the models of engagement which inform how Christians approach the social order. The primary purpose for the social mission of the Church, which includes political participation, is not to somehow “protect” Christians against the “world” or even to somehow advance the “power” of Christians within human society, but rather to promote the common good. That is the classical “apologetic” for authentic social and political action and public service. We are to be “in the world” to transform it from within. This is why we vote and this is why we should be politically involved.
Another of the oldest references in the Christian tradition to this concept of the common good is found in the “Epistle of Barnabus,” an early Christian Church document dating back to AD 130, where we read: “Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good together.”
Living out this concept of serving the common good calls for a Christian social “hermeneutic.” That is a theological and philosophical term that means a lens through which we view the very meaning of human existence and all our efforts in human society. Christians should, if they understand the Christian faith, know that we were made for family, for community, and for social participation. We are capacitated by grace to give ourselves away in service to others, in and for the Lord.

The Real Common Good

The phrase “common good” has been too often used improperly. For example, some who hold errant positions on the fundamental human and civil rights issue of our age, the right to life at every age and stage of human existence, often claim that the so called “right” to abortion serves the “common good” because it promotes their definition of privacy and choice. Taking innocent human life, at any age and stage, never serves the real common good. Nor is the real common good ever served or promoted by undermining marriage, and the family, and the social order founded upon it.
These are just two examples of the co-opting and misuse of the phrase “common good.” It must not continue. The meaning of the phrase “common good” must be re-presented by Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and all people of goodwill. It must be rescued from some who have stolen it. It must be re-presented in its true meaning. We need to recover the real common good.
Though the phrase is found within Catholic Christian Social Teaching, this concept of the common good is also one of the foundation stones of the political philosophy and patrimony of Western civilization. It informs the authentic understanding of human freedom. Freedom must always be exercised with reference to the moral truths revealed by the Natural Moral Law.
And every exercise of our freedom has social consequences. It brings with it responsibility for one another and, a special obligation to give a love of preference for the poor and the needy. This understanding of serving the real common good is woven through the development of the social order. Remember, “Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order.”
Contrary to the individualism, instrumentalism, and atomism of the current age, the real common good requires us to acknowledge that the individual is not the measure of all things. True freedom and human flourishing are found in relationship. Nor are human freedom and flourishing ever achieved by retreating into our little enclaves and fighting to protect “us” against them.
The real common good is never served by calling right what is always wrong. For example, giving people an alleged “right” to take the life of a child in the womb. It is never served by failing to care for the poor, in all their manifestations. It is never served by attacking marriage and the family. Remember the Catechism definition: “First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such.”
Christianity introduced the very concept of “person” to our civilized discourse.
Classical Christian thought insisted we cannot be fully human without living together in family and community because we are social by nature and Divine design. Classical Christian thought insisted that we are bound to one another by an obligation in solidarity. We really are our “brothers’ keeper” and have a duty to one another, and especially to the poor.
Finally, that we should be good citizens. We have a duty to participate in the social order — as Christians — and find a way to build a just society with all men and women, even those who are different than us or with whom we do not agree.
Remember, “Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself.” That group includes our fellow citizens. We are called to help build an authentically just and human society wherein others can live freely and flourish. By exercising our citizenship in fidelity to the values, principles, and truths offered by Catholic Social Teaching we serve the real common good.
Our nation, indeed, the whole world, is desperately in need of an authentically Christian social, cultural, and political movement to advance the real common good. Such an effort should re-present the classical Christian worldview in its call to social, political, cultural, and economic participation. It should be led by Catholics and grounded in the authentic Social Teaching of the Catholic Church.
The values, principles, and truths we proclaim are good for all men and women. We must support laws which serve and protect the real common good. These values, principles and truths are not simply “religious” — in the sense that they are to be held only by those who hold to a distinct religious tradition. They are a part of our common human vocation and provide the glue for building a truly just social order.
They require respect for the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death, protection and promotion of the first cell of society, marriage and the family and social order founded upon it, and respect for authentic human freedom, which includes the first freedom, religious freedom. These values, principles, and truths are to be worked into the leaven of society so that we may share this bread with every man, woman, and child. This is how we serve the real common good, of all and for all.

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