The Common Good
In October 1996, with an eye to the forthcoming General Election, the Bishops of England and Wales released The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching (13,000 words), plus detailed notes on the use of the document in study groups. A brief revised summary was produced in 2001 (see Bibliography).
According to this document, the first principle and focal point of the Catholic social vision is the dignity of the human person. God became flesh as a human being, and Christ challenges us to see and serve him in our neighbour, "especially the neighbour who lacks what is essential to human flourishing" (there is a "preferential option for the poor"). Catholic Social Teaching develops through history, and now embraces democracy and universal human rights, while emphasizing the dependence of both on a system of common values. Observance of the Church’s social teaching is not "optional"; it is part of her moral teaching in general, based both on natural law and Revelation. Social and political liberation are an aspect of evangelization.
"God is a divine society of three Persons", and our social nature is an aspect of the divine image in us. Human society can be structured either to facilitate or to frustrate personal development. A well-constructed society will give priority to family life, and will integrate the "vertical" principle of subsidiarity with the "horizontal" principle of solidarity. The former favours the dispersal of authority "as close to the grass roots as good government allows"; the latter stresses interdependence and common responsibility. These principles must be applied to Britain’s relations with the European Union and participation in the international economic order (overseas aid, resolution of debt crisis, restriction of arms sales, encouragement of the poorer economies through regulation of the market). There must also be a "religious respect" for the integrity of creation and the "environmental common goods" which belong to all humanity, present and future.
The common good cannot exclude any section of the population: for example by poverty, even relative poverty. Governments must "arbitrate between the sometimes conflicting demands of a market economy and the common good". While the "centrally commanded economies" have shown themselves to be oppressive, inefficient, wasteful and unresponsive to human needs, the Church also "rejects belief in the automatic beneficence of market forces", which are "just as likely to lead to evil results" (to create an alienated "underclass", to encourage selfishness rather than service, to foster consumerism, etc.) unless "regulated in the name of the common good" within an ethical and legal framework. Social services "need other incentives than mere profit". The free market has undermined a sense of moral responsibility in the mass media. In the world of work, employment is more than a purely commercial contact, and the worker’s rights are superior to those of capital. The Church encourages partnership in business, membership in trade unions and a just minimum wage.
Politics is not an ignoble profession, despite the prevailing climate of suspicion and contempt among and towards politicians. Candidates in an election should be chosen for their general character and attitude, since they will have to represent the electorate in varied and unpredictable circumstances, not on the basis of a single issue such as abortion. It is true, however, that Britain has become a "culture of death", and Catholics must try to awaken the conscience of the majority against "the use or disposal of human life, as a means to another end". The Bishops discern a "national mood of pessimism"; a "weakening of the sense of mutual responsibility and a decline in the spirit of solidarity, thanks to the "growing priority of technology over ethics", "things over persons" and "matter over spirit". "For these threats to be resisted, the political arena has to be reclaimed in the name of the common good."
[This precis is reprinted by kind permission of the Catholic University of America Press, from the forthcoming new edition of The New Catholic Encyclopedia.]
See also Vote for the Common Good (Bishops’ Conference of England and wales, 2001), and A Spirituality of Work (2001) from the Committee for the World of Work.