In his general audience of September 9, 2020, Pope Francis catechized the faithful about the nature of the common good. There are three points to note.
First, the Pope used this opportunity to teach us that there is a deep, structural connection between the Church’s teaching about the nature of God, the calling to Christian charity, and the legal and political orders. The facile manner in which many people today pretend that the Church’s message of brotherly love, of living a life of holiness and sacrifice for others, has no connection with what She has perennially taught about law and political order. It is as if some Catholic commentators fear an allergic reaction if they resort to juridical language in teaching the faith, so they prefer exclusively the allegedly more dulcid-sounding tones of merely “pastoral” (i.e. a-political) rhetoric. Pope Francis shows that this is a false alternative. Everything the Church does and teaches, both about politics and about personal virtue, is ordered and connected to the same end.
The Holy Father forcefully reminds us that “love is not limited to the relationship between two or three people, or to friends or to family, it goes beyond. It comprises civil and political relationships …, including a relationship with nature.” There is an essential link, in the mind of the Church, between the vocation to divine charity and the principles that structure our social and political life, an essential connection between Christian vocation and law. “We know that love makes families and friendships flourish; but it is good to remember that it also makes social, cultural, economic and political relationships flourish, allowing us to construct a ‘civilisation of love.’” Indeed, “one of the highest expressions of love is specifically social and political.”
The second point is that the Pope has restated clearly the Church’s ancient teaching on the necessity and goodness of universal political order and world government. Referring to the current pandemic, he said that
A virus that does not recognise barriers, borders, or cultural or political distinctions must be faced with a love without barriers, borders or distinctions. This love can generate social structures that encourage us to share rather than to compete, that allow us to include the most vulnerable and not to cast them aside, that help us to express the best in our human nature and not the worst.
A universal problem requires a solution at the universal level. This is the ultimate meaning of the principle of subsidiarity. The alternative would be attempts at solutions that “bear the imprint of egoism, whether it be by persons, businesses or nations.” We “must,” the Sovereign Pontiff said, “build this civilisation of love, this political and social civilisation of the unity of all humanity. Otherwise, wars, divisions, envy, even wars in families.” And the principle of this civilization is the same across all levels of political order: “What is done in the family, what is done in the neighbourhood, what is done in the village, what is done in the large cities and internationally is the same, it is the same seed that grows, grows, grows and bears fruit.” And what is it that “is done”? What is the common principle? It is the central tenet of the Church’s ancient political magisterium: the primacy of the common good.
This leads to the third point: the Pope’s admirable recapitulation of that venerable principle:
The coronavirus is showing us that each person’s true good is a common good, not only individual, and, vice versa, the common good is a true good for the person. (see CCC, 1905-1906). If a person only seeks his or her own good, that person is egotistical. Instead, the person is kinder, nobler, when his or her own good is open to everyone, when it is shared. Health, in addition to being an individual good, is also a public good. A healthy society is one that takes care of everyone’s health, of all.
The common good is not the “good of the State,” where the State is viewed as a kind of person, standing separately from its members, such that the citizens’ individual goods can be seen somehow as separate from, or even in competition with it. The common good “is a good that is not diminished by being shared.” It belongs properly to each individual as their good. As Pater Edmund Waldstein explains, in accordance with the Holy Father’s teaching:
[T]he common good is a personal good. The subordination of persons to this good is thus not enslaving. They are not being ordered to someone else’s good (the good of ‘the nation’ or ‘humanity,’ considered abstractly), rather they are ordered to their own good, but this is a good that they can only have together in a community.
“To build a healthy, inclusive, just and peaceful society we must do so on the rock of the common good,” Pope Francis enjoins us. Let us “be careful not to build on sand,” let us not be “devotees of Pontius Pilate, washing [our] hands of others’ suffering” — including at the level of political order. We are called, therefore, to a genuine apostolate of politics, an effort to order all political life such that it may realize the common good as articulated by the Church’s magisterium. This concerns laymen especially, Indeed, as the Code of Canon Law reminds us, echoing the Second Vatican Council, laymen are are “bound by a particular duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel and thus to give witness to Christ, especially in carrying out these same affairs and in exercising secular functions” (c. 225 § 2).
This is not new. As the Holy Father reminds us, “[i]f you read history of humanity you will find many holy politicians who trod this path.” One thinks of great Christian rulers like St. Louis, St. Ferdinand, St. Henry, St. Leopold, St. Stephen, St. Edward, and more modern examples like Gabriel García Moreno and others.
In this excellent catechetical lecture, the Pope brings back to mind the absolutely essential connection between the Christian message and the political apostolate, between grace and law. He concludes with this: if we follow this teaching, “through our gestures, even the most humble ones, something of the image of God we bear within us will be made visible, because God is the Trinity, God is love, God is love.”