The Common Good
July 2008

A Nation for All

by Duane Shank | July 2008

Politics in the United States, especially in an election year, often seems to be a contest of competing special interests.

Politics in the United States, especially in an election year, often seems to be a contest of competing special interests. “What’s in it for me?” has replaced “What’s good for the country?” Partisan polarization has replaced the search for solutions to our deepest problems. But rather than dwelling on the problems, A Nation for All shows a better way—a politics and culture dedicated to seeking the common good.

“Common good” is a phrase now used frequently by politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum. But what does it mean? Where did it come from? And how does it relate to our current political and social debates? Chris Korzen of Catholics United and Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good offer a primer on the origins and relevance of the concept, both for those already familiar with it and those for whom it is new.

The book begins with three foundational chapters. First comes a discussion of the philosophical and theological origins of the phrase, from Aristotle to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The authors summarize Catholic social teaching, highlighting key themes, popes, and principles. From Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor) in 1891 to Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) in 2006, the church has consistently taught the dignity of the human person and the obligation of societies and governments to see that what benefits each individual also benefits everyone. The third chapter contains a succinct overview of the relationship between church and state in the Catholic tradition.

Kelley and Korzen then apply this to current realities. They review the success of the Religious Right in attracting Catholics in the 2004 election to a narrow set of issues, calling it a “low point for U.S. Catholics.” Looking to the future, what would “voting Catholic” mean? The authors suggest three principles: First, “inform your conscience”—what does social teaching have to say about issues and what are the candidates’ positions? Second, “use prudence”—how should moral principles be applied to less-than-perfect choices? And third, “vote for the common good”—which candidate’s views center on what would best benefit everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable?

THE BOOK’S FIFTH chapter, “Agenda for the Common Good,” is a discussion of how to “construct and support public policies that address the moral concerns that are important to our faith and the common good.” The authors cite some of the most pressing moral concerns of our time and how Catholic social tradition can be brought to bear in solving them. There are constructive ideas here on making progress toward resolving poverty, abortion, the global climate crisis, health care, war, and immigration.

Finally, how do we practice the common good? How can we live and act in ways that truly reflect a concern for one another? Principles of conviction, civility, compromise, and persuasion are choices we can make in our personal relationships rather than cowardice, destruction, obstruction, and coercion. And those choices would move us all from the politics of division to a politics of the common good.

Although the authors note that the book is in large part for and by members of the Catholic Church, they also add that “adherents of many other faiths … will find much to take away from these pages.” In that they are right. At its heart, the Catholic social tradition of the common good is a social tradition for all Christians. It is the particular history and gift of the Catholic Church, but it is one from which we can all learn. And there’s no better time than an election year to begin.

Duane Shank is senior policy adviser at Sojourners.

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