The Neo-Thomist Theory of the Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching
26 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2014
Date Written: 2014
The notion of the common good is among the most durable political ideas in western political thinking, serving as a goal for practice and thus also as a kind of justification. It has its remote origins deep in the tradition of western political philosophy as an aspiration to transcend the narrow interest in one’s own satisfaction that is the essence of tyranny. It is at the root of Plato and Aristotle’s conception of the political itself and is later recontextualized in medieval Christian political theology — seen especially in the thought of Thomas Aquinas — in at least two different modes: as an element of a speculative natural theology according to which the political is a part of the order of divine providence, and in practical discussions of particular moral and political problems. The aspirational sense of the common good remains ubiquitous and explains a good bit of its rhetorical power, but is often little more than a vague injunction or truism, hortatory but without content. A more precise account of the common good has been articulated in the official statements of Roman Catholic social teaching since Pope John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical letter, Mater et magistra and especially in the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes. Those documents formulate the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” This definition can be said to focus on society as a kind of useful good and accordingly puts its moral emphasis on the substantive good beyond the instrument, namely the person. This seems in some respects a difference — is it a difference of emphasis or more one of substance? — from the earlier Thomist view.
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