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The Common Good: A Catholic Case for Liberalism

The Common Good: A Catholic Case for Liberalism

The idea of the “common good” is central to Catholic thought. It’s also solidly compatible with liberalism.

V. Bradley Lewis

The ancient and venerable idea of the common good is quickly becoming identified with political tendencies that ill become its status as a perennial normative touchstone of Western political thought. In a surprising turn in the culture wars, some figures on the right have adopted it as a cudgel for purging conservatism of so-called “right liberals.”

Much of this project has taken place on social media platforms, but it has made its way into more traditional venues as well. The dominant protagonists are often Roman Catholics: They invoke the common good as a signature feature of Catholic social and political thought, one that can be used to sharpen the edges of political conservatism not just in America but beyond it as well (when, for example, they point to Hungary as an example). The tactic is informed by the judgment that liberalism—not just in the parochial American sense but classical liberalism—has failed and that we have reached a post-liberal moment.

The liberalism of mainstream conservatism is manifested in a set of dispositions: a tendency toward compromise and a willingness to play by rules that preclude progress by, much less victory for, the cultural and political Right. In contrast, perhaps the most distinctive element of “common good conservatism” is its self-conscious rejection of liberal institutions and its insistence that religious conservatives should actually defend and advance the common good through state action, both legally and administratively. It would be a serious mistake to take this emerging position as representative of the tradition of modern Catholic political thought, since modern popes, a Church council, and the most important Catholic theologians and political philosophers have already embraced liberal political institutions.

The idea of the common good is both very ancient and, at a certain level, an intuitive commonplace of political discourse. The phrase that could be literally translated into English as “common good” was first used—only once and somewhat ambiguously, as far as I can tell—by Herodotus, although it plays a more important role in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (and why Athens lost!). It was used once by Plato, but much more frequently and prominently by Aristotle, who was the first to identify it as the principal aim of political association and political action. Most important, he appealed to it in his massively influential classification of different political regimes.

True constitutional regimes—kingship, aristocracy, and the mixed republic—aim at the common good of their cities, that is, at the good of all the inhabitants. These regimes are contrasted to their perverted mirror images—tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, this last meaning a regime in which the many rule exclusively for their own good by expropriating the property of wealthier classes and rejecting limits on what they can do. (It is rather different from our modern idea of democracy.) All of the latter regimes aim only at the good of their respective rulers or ruling classes. In this sense, Aristotle simply intends to establish that sound government is directed toward the good of all, not just the good of the rulers themselves. But it is not merely a commonplace: Most cities in the classical Greek world were democracies or oligarchies, ruling in the interests of only their own factions. The notion that government should exist and act for the good of all the governed was more critical and subversive than one might first think.

The “common good” also meant, however, not just an aspiration of government but the end or good that was common to all citizens in their own lives. Aristotle held that this good, which he thought was commonly agreed to be “happiness” or “flourishing,” consisted of a full life of virtuous actions. Moreover, he held that the laws of the city should aim to form citizens of virtue so that they might best achieve that good together. Aristotle’s view was, frankly, paternalistic; one can see why it is especially attractive to those who reject liberalism. Note, however, first that for Aristotle and the classical Greeks, the moral horizon of human life extended only as far as the city: There was no standard beyond the city to which one could appeal. Second, the political community—the polis—was not just ethnically and religiously homogeneous but intimate in a way that modern political communities are not. Plato and Aristotle both insisted that the best city had to be small: Only in a small city could citizens know one another’s characters and take an effective interest in the moral lives of all their fellow citizens. No less a liberal than John Stuart Mill admitted that in small societies that were constantly at war, paternalistic laws were justified.

Modern nation-states, we shall see, are very different kinds of communities.


St. Thomas Aquinas was as influenced by Aristotle’s political ideas as he was by many other aspects of the thought of the man he called “the philosopher.” At the same time, these Aristotelian ideas were distinctly refracted and subject to particular types of emphasis by Aquinas’ Christianity. One of these influences came from Aquinas’ other great teacher, Augustine of Hippo, for whom politics was subordinate to spiritual life. That is, the political community was in fact not the extent of the moral horizon of human life; the city of man was transcended by the city of God. A symbol of this perspective was Augustine’s relative lack of interest in the question of forms of government and his relatively restricted sense of what law and government can do relative to the moral formation offered by the Church, to say nothing of grace.

The phrase “common good,” ubiquitous in the writings of Aquinas, can mean different things. In the most basic sense, it means a good that is sharable—and for Aquinas, the greatest and most shareable good was God, the common good of the entire cosmos. The good represented by unity with God was also a good common to human beings, as was a life of virtuous action.

Aquinas was acutely aware, however, that coercive law was limited in its ability to make persons act virtuously, since genuine virtue depends upon free choice. Law, therefore, was intended mainly to establish a level of civil peace and justice that enabled persons to live together and pursue the good through their own actions. He was under no illusion about how much human perfection could be produced by the political life. The specifically political common good was limited to peace, justice, and an order providing a context for living well. His idea of limited government would not likely have been as limited as ours, but it certainly would have been more limited than it was for Aristotle. Moreover, while the political institutions and practices of Aquinas’ time were more like ours than Aristotle’s, they were still different. Europe was overwhelmingly Christian. The modern state had not come into being.

When Pope Leo XIII called for a recovery of the thought of Aquinas in the wake of the European disorders that followed the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, the Kulturkampf, the Risorgimento, and the consequent abolition of the Papal states, neo-Thomistic philosophers and theologians had already been working on the application of Aquinas’ ideas to contemporary politics. Beginning in the 1840s, Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio—a Jesuit thinker whose father had been friendly with Joseph de Maistre, a hero of later integralists—began the process of developing a line of Catholic political theory that was influential in Leo’s inauguration of modern Catholic social teaching in his 1891 encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum. Among Taparelli’s most important ideas was that of subsidiarity, intended to explain and safeguard the development of both sacred and secular free human association against the monopolization of social life by the state.

Later Jesuit thinkers built on Taparelli’s foundations and worked out a conception of the common good intended to enshrine the dignity of human persons, including the protection of the fundamental rights of the family and the Church from the power of the modern state, understood in roughly Weberian fashion as a juridical agency for the maintenance of order over large, internally complex pluralistic societies. This work eventually culminated in the formulation of the political common good by the Second Vatican Council. The Council, along with the 1965 pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, and, just as important, its Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, defined this common good as the “sum total of conditions by which individuals and groups can more fully and easily achieve their perfection.”

This formulation is not individualistic: It comprises both individuals and groups. Nor is it in any way neutral as to the end of human life: It assumes a Catholic view of perfection, a life of moral and intellectual virtue culminating in unity with God. But its focus on the conditions of virtue entails a recognition that the state cannot itself achieve these goals and that modern societies include many persons who do not share the Catholic view. Though there is no hint of relativism, there is a recognition that modern societies are pluralistic and that the basic work of civic life must include cooperation with people who have very different first principles. The greatest secular political achievement of this project was doubtless the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in part by the Lebanese Christian philosopher and diplomat Charles Malik and tirelessly championed by the best-known Catholic thinker of the 20th century, Jacques Maritain.

Crucial to this thought was the adaptation of basic classical and Christian ideas about the social nature of the human person and the growing appreciation of the high value of human freedom to the institutions and practices of modern politics, especially the modern state. The state is, as Weber held, impressively efficient as a means of administering large territories and huge populations with complex sub-political social lives. For this very reason, the state enjoys a fearsome concentration of coercive power, which can be used to defend human flourishing or crush it. This is not the classical Greek polis. Neither is it a medieval kingdom, much less a commune. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholic political thinkers were determined to have the classical notion of the common good inform and discipline the awesome power of the state, so that the state would serve man and not the other way around, as Pius XI memorably affirmed in Divini Redemptoris, his 1937 encyclical on Soviet Communism.

If liberalism is understood as a philosophical doctrine characterized by moral relativism, individualism, the liberation of any and all untutored human desires, and general skepticism, no Catholic can accept it—nor should anyone expect anything to follow from it but social decay. To the extent that the state is used to impose such views, it must be opposed. If, however, one means by liberalism a set of political institutions and practices comprised of limited government, free elections, the protection of basic human rights including religious freedom, and a market economy, Catholic thinkers have endorsed them all. The political writings of Maritain, Yves Simon, and the great American Jesuit John Courtney Murray explain these things in a way that is both consistent with and deepened by Catholic ideas. The same can be said of St. John Paul II, whose witness to and defense of human freedom was the most eloquent of all.

The Catholic notion of the common good is in no sense antithetical to liberal political institutions. On the contrary, it is the best way to make sense of them.

V. Bradley Lewis is associate professor of philosophy and a fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

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