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Laudato Si': "The Common Good"

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

I remember well the political uproar in my youth when a Dutch bishop stated that if someone was too poor to feed her children, she could steal a loaf of bread. 

The Labour prime minster was not amused. Questions were raised in parliament. The poor, however, did not feel offended, and Dutch catholic bakeries introduced a new type of bread, the sales of which were to support the charity works of the bishop among the poor. 

In Laudato Si' we encounter the principle of the Common Good in close relation with the preferential option for the poorest (LS 158). The Second Vatican Council defined the common good as 'the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment'. 

What does this mean? A couple of years ago, Pope Benedict XVI explained the Common Good as follows: ‘It is the good “of all of us”, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it. To desire the common good and to strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity' (Caritas in Veritate, 7).

According to the Catechism, the Common Good presupposes respect for the person, the social well being of the group, and peace (CCC 1906-1909). In Laudato Si', Pope Francis writes 'the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the worlds goods...' (LS 158).

Bishop Martinus Muskens (1935-2013) of the diocese of Breda knew his classics: what he had said about stealing a loaf was the radical consequence of the spirituality of the Common Good and the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods. He had learned this as a boy from his penny-catechism. 

This catechism probably took its lead from Saint Thomas Aquinas. In Question 66, art. 7 of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas is dealing with precisely the question of whether someone may steal in times of stress and need. Wouldn't that upset the natural ordering of society as willed by God?

To begin with, Thomas points out that we all have a responsibility to alleviate suffering. Each individual is to decide how to manage his or her property in such a way as to supply the wants of the suffering. But, as Pope Francis has helped to remind us on many an occasion, this does not mean that we only have to give when we ourselves experience an abundance, it might mean that we have to give at a real cost to ourselves. But the principle goes even further, writes Thomas. If a person is in imminent danger (dying from hunger) and he cannot be helped in any other way, then a person may legitimately supply his own needs out of another's property, and in such a case there is strictly speaking no theft or robbery.

Indeed, we are all failing in our commitment to the Common Good, in our justice and in our charity, if people find themselves in situations like that. And it is no good blaming God, as Thomas warns in his academic sermon on the Rich Man (Luke 16.1):

People usually say: “God is not just”. Is God unjust because he is distributing things to us and not give the same to everyone? Is God unjust? Is it not unjust that a thing is unequally portioned to us. Why, then, do you have abundance and does someone else beg, but by distributing well you may obtain the reward of life, and he may be crowned with the trophies of patience? But are you not a looter by keeping for yourself the things entrusted to you to be distributed? It is the bread of the poor that you hold in your hand, the tunic of the nude which you keep in your room, the shoe of the unshod that decays in your possession; you have the silver of the needy that you have hidden underground. Regarding these things, you could have given as much as your injustices are many."

The Common Good makes clear how we are all connected, and responsible for the well being of others. Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis both have made clear that this responsibility extends to the future generations (LS 159), and our common home: earth. Contributing to the Common Good is not only something that we can do out of our own abundance, but something that will come at our own expense. Real almsgiving, wrote Pope Benedict in 2007, might mean giving all. But then again, isn't that what our Lord has done for us?  

Br Richard Steenvoorde O.P.

Br Richard Steenvoorde O.P.


Clare Richards commented on 20-Oct-2015 09:36 AM
Thank you Brother Richard for such a clear and fine article.

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