Editorial : Joined at the Hip – Justice and the Common Good

In a landmark pastoral letter issued in 1997, the bishops of England and Wales gave an excellent description of the relationship between social justice and the common good. At the time, the term ‘the common good’ was not as widely used as it is today, having fallen from favour after WWII. But it is often used again now, and by none more so than by Pope Francis. He rightly sees it as the basis for all social teachings, and devotes a whole section of his latest encyclical, Laudato Si’, to it. He frequently asks the question, ‘How moral is this action? How will it affect the common good?’

What is justice? The bishops gave a wonderful definition of justice as a precursor to discussing the Common Good. ‘In essence justice is an active and life-giving virtue which defends and promotes the dignity of every living person and is concerned for the Common Good insofar as it is the guardian of relations between individuals and peoples. Justice is at the same time a moral and a legal concept in that it fosters an equitable sharing of burdens and benefits. It makes whole and leads, not to division, but reconciliation. At its deepest level it is rooted in love and is tempered by mercy.’

What then is the Common Good? The famous theologian Thomas Aquinas taught, ‘that the common good is the end of each individual member of a community, just as the good of the whole is the end of each part.’ Vatican II (GS) defined it as ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment’. The English and Welsh bishops expanded this basic definition. They defined it as being ‘the whole network of social conditions which enable human individuals and groups to flourish and live a fully genuine human life. Far from each being primarily for him or herself, all are responsible for all.’

Building on Vatican II and the bishops’ pastoral, Pope Francis has promoted five basic principles in his latest encyclical, all of which have to be met for the Common Good to be achieved.

Protection and enhancement of the environment. The encyclical taught that issues around climate change, the environment and structured inequality within our worldwide economic structures, are now the biggest moral issues that the planet faces.

The principle of subsidiarity, which supports a dispersal of authority as close to the grass-roots as good governance allows. It prefers local over centralised decision-making. It has everyone working at their level of capacity.

The principle of solidarity, which implies the interconnectedness of all human beings, one with the other, regardless of race, gender, culture, age or religion. We form one human family. Solidarity teaches us to stand with one another, particularly when any of the other principles are being threatened –the environment, human rights or the option for the poor.

The protection of human rights, our understanding of which has been accelerating these past 70 years. No longer are we able to dehumanise various groupings of people because of their differences to us. Each person now has a certain legislated protection under charters from the United Nations which help protect the fabric of the Common Good.

To take a preferential option for the poor. Based on an understanding of the teachings of Jesus found in the sacred scriptures, this means the most vulnerable, the poorest economically and socially, the most handicapped and the weakest must be protected and respected as being especially loved by God if the Common Good is to be achieved.

The love of God and our neighbour, as sought in social justice and the common good, and spelt out above in the five principles, are joined at the hip. They are mutually dependent. One cannot exist without the others.

This is the Good News of Jesus for our world in our time. It is that simple. And that radical.

Jim Consedine

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