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Whose Vision of the Common Good?

Deacon Keith Fournier

September 16, 2008


The Presidential campaign of 2008 is upon us. The candidates are lining up; the rarified air of “the beltway” is filled with political talk, the metro-plex area surrounding Washington DC is experiencing the influx of all who “set up shop”. Offices are being set up in Old Towne Alexandria and the other favorite haunts, consultants are being chosen, teams are being formed and themes are being developed. I am familiar with the process because I have participated at the intersection of faith, culture and politics for years, informed and inspired by my Catholic Christian faith.

I have tried to take one particular treasure of the Church, her Social teaching, and make it accessible to others in order to influence the building of a truly just society. In furtherance of this effort I started and led several organizations. I also cooperated with other Christians and other people of good will. I have written numerous popular pieces and have been published in various venues. Sadly, I have also had ideas, names, and concepts that I developed in this effort taken by others and used for purposes which I did not intend.

But, I guess all of that is simply par for the course as they say when you deal with anything that touches the political arena.


The Social teaching of the Catholic Church is NOT simply for Catholics, other Christians or even just “religious people”. It is for all people and all Nations. Its principles are offered by the Church to those who seek to build a truly just society and promote the Common Good. The Church, who is an “expert in humanity ”and walks the way of the person (inspired words of the Second Vatican Council), offers these insights because she is called to continue the redemptive work of her Lord which includes the promotion of social justice.

This body of teaching called the Social teaching is not “left” or “right”, “liberal”, “conservative” or “neo-conservative”, Democrat or Republican. In fact, efforts to co-opt this body of teaching by each of these groups in the past have brought me to a decision. In this upcoming political season I will commit myself even more to the task of making this teaching known and offering it as a framework for the debate which will accompany this campaign. I make this prediction: the entire Presidential campaign of 2008 will be framed around a wonderful phrase which is at the heart of Catholic Social teaching and good political philosophy.

That phrase is “The Common Good”.

Years ago, I founded two organizations bearing that name. I wrote a multitude of articles attempting to summarize much of this teaching, organizing it around what I called the four pillars of participation, life, family, authentic freedom and solidarity. I wrote numerous articles articulating that this Social teaching is “whole life/pro-life” (respecting the dignity of every human person from conception to natural death, through every age and stage), pro-marriage and family, pro-freedom (as both a freedom from and a freedom for), pro-poor and pro-peace.

Because of my bedrock belief in the important principles found within Catholic Social teaching and its integrated approach, I have repeatedly rejected efforts to use it improperly. For example, I distanced myself from the errors which I saw in the so called “religious right” movement. My opposition was expressed in an article I wrote entitled “Requiem for the Religious Right” which still circulates widely on the internet. With the rise of the so-called “neo-conservative” movement, and its attempts to co-opt the Social teaching to promote its war effort, I publicly opposed and exposed this effort as well, writing numerous articles defending the Church’s position and opposing the initial foray into Iraq as incapable of being supported, even under a “Just War” analysis.

Needless to say, I have upset some folks.

Yet, I will not and cannot stop in my work because I am totally convinced that it is this Social Teaching which is capable of paving the path to truly promoting the “Common Good” in our time.


This wonderful term is being co-opted once again. I will give just two of many examples.

An organization calling itself both “Catholic Alliance for the Common Good” and “Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good” (using another label for a failed organization with which I was once associated) is presenting itself as the guide for those who truly want to understand and apply the social teaching of the Catholic Church to policy and political participation. In my opinion, some of their positions are consistent with the Social Doctrine of the Church; some others are not and promote a partisan agenda. Setting themselves somewhat in opposition to this group is another organization calling itself “Catholics for the Common Good” (started by a man with whom I once associated, who I sadly believe took a name I once proposed as well as concepts I developed) is also attempting to position itself as the keeper of the Common Good.

Both majority American political parties, Democrat and Republican, as well as some of their candidates are starting to use the term as the Presidential campaign heats up. I welcome all of this activity - if it leads to a truly vibrant debate in the public square concerning what truly constitutes promoting the Common Good.

In this series of articles, I will consider the real Social teaching of the Catholic Church. Fortunately, that teaching no longer requires self appointed experts to interpret. It is compiled in one very well written and resourced volume offered by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace of the Vatican, entitled the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church”.


The introductory chapter to this “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church” sets forth the ground for the entire work: “Jesus came to bring integral salvation, one which embraces the whole person and all mankind, and opens up the wondrous prospect of divine filiation.” One aspect of this “integral salvation” involves efforts to transform the entire social order. Christian faith is not simply about “saving souls”, but offers the fullness of salvation for the entire human person; body, soul and spirit, lived within the social and political and economic community: “At the dawn of this Third Millennium, the Church does not tire of proclaiming the Gospel that brings salvation and genuine freedom also to temporal realities”. Rooted in a Christian cosmology and anthropology, the Social teaching of the Catholic Church addresses the entire fabric of social relationships between persons, families, human communities, nations and the international community.

In an age of false “humanisms”, the Catholic Church acclaims that it is in Jesus Christ that we find a true and authentic humanism. In one of the seminal works that form the corpus of the Social Teaching, “Gaudium et Spes” (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, literally translated “Joy and Hope”) the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.”

The roots of this body of teaching called the “Social teaching” go back to “the beginning”. In the first Book of the Sacred Scriptures, the Book of Genesis, we right find within the doctrine of creation the clear beginning of the social doctrine of the Church. It reveals that we were created for relationship, with God, with one another, and with the created order. Throughout the Old Testament we find clear social instruction concerning social relations.

In the great event that forever changed human history, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh, we find the fullness of the truth concerning the human vocation, and the invitation to all men and women to find true happiness and human flourishing through a relationship with the Father, in the Son and through the Holy Spirit. That relationship is lived out within the Church, which is the seed of the kingdom to come. The fullness of humanity is revealed in Jesus Christ, who is true God and True man, the New Adam, the One in whom the new creation has begun.

Through His Life, Death, resurrection and ascension, heaven is brought to earth and earth is brought to heaven. Christians are incorporated into Him in and through Baptism, and made new. They are sent into the world as a part of His Body, the Church, to continue His redemptive mission. Through His Paschal Mystery, His life, death and Resurrection, we find the deepest meaning of all of human existence revealed and the path to the fullness of salvation opened to all.

The New Testament is filled with “Social teaching” For example, the Sermon on the Mount contains the very essence of all of the moral and social teaching of the Church. Jesus Christ, in His sacred humanity is the Social Teaching- made visible in its complete perfection. How he lived, loved and related to others is the pattern for all truly human relations. The Church proclaims the truth about Jesus Christ - that He came to redeem the whole person - and to begin a new creation – both of which begin now and will be completed and fulfilled in the resurrection of the body and life in a new heaven and the new earth.

In the history of the early Church we also find the roots of Christian Social teaching in the writings of the early Fathers. In the last one hundred or so years, the teaching office of the Catholic Church has continued to expound, develop and update this beautiful patrimony of social doctrine. Contemporary Catholic Social teaching is often associated with the promulgation of Pope Leo XIII’s “On Capital and Labor” and the trajectory of modern papal encyclicals since. They include the writings of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and, of course, the extraordinary contributions of Pope John Paul the Great.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Church which is His Body on the earth walks the way of the person. As a society in her own right, she lives in the midst of every age, with one foot in this passing world and another in the eternal. She offers insights for every age, and principles for action addressed to the citizens of every Nation on how to live in peace. She offers wisdom on how to structure human society in order to promote true justice and human flourishing. She exists to serve the various societies within which she resides and is committed to improving the social conditions of all men and women by promoting authentic social and economic justice, both nationally and internationally.

Christians are called to inform their entire lives, personal, familial, social, cultural, economic and political, by their faith and thus to live what the Compendium calls an “ integral and solidary humanism”. In short, the Social teaching is meant to inform and influence social, economic, political and cultural life, through the work of Christians who not only know it but have committed themselves to live by it, making it the foundation of their work in service to human society and the common good. This teaching is called “social” because it speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions. It reveals principles and truths that can be known by all men and women - because they are revealed in the Natural law.

The Introduction of the Compendium addresses all men and women with these words: “To the people of our time, our traveling companions, the Church also offers her social doctrine. In fact, when the Church ‘fulfills her mission of proclaiming the Gospel, she bears witness to man, in the name of Christ, to his dignity and his vocation to the communion of persons.”

The Social teaching of the Catholic Church is offered precisely to inform and influence social, economic, political, legal and cultural life. This influence will be brought to bear through the labor of informed Christians who understand this teaching and believe that it is not only for religious people but truly advances the common good. Having committed themselves to living by it, they then make it the foundation of efforts in pursuing social justice. This decision to act as leaven within culture is viewed as a part of their response to their Baptism, which brought them into participation in the Divine Nature and enlisted them in the ongoing redemptive mission of the Lord.

This teaching addresses such truths as the dignity of every human person, the sanctity of every human life, the primacy of true and authentic marriage and the family founded upon it, the nature of (and obligations attendant to) the exercise of human freedom, and human solidarity, our obligations to one another and most especially to the poor in all of their manifestations. The Church also proposes ordering principles such as subsidiarity, which can assist in developing good governance, in its’ myriad of expressions and polities. It addresses war and peace, economic justice, our relationship to the goods of the earth and the environment. It offers principles to help guide national as well as international policy and relations. This teaching is called "social" for a purpose. It addresses the formation, role and proper place of social institutions and the relationships among people.

This Social Teaching of the Church is a dimension of Moral Theology. That fact has been underscored in the modern magisterial documents and is set forth with crystal clarity in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It was succinctly expressed in the Second Encyclical letter of the pontificate of the late Servant of God John Paul, entitled On Social Concerns:

“It will thus be seen at once that the questions facing us are above all moral questions; and that neither the analysis of the problem of development as such nor the means to overcome the present difficulties can ignore this essential dimension. The Church's social doctrine is not a "third way" between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own. Nor is it an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and of the Church's tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching on man and his vocation, a vocation which is at once earthly and transcendent; its aim is thus to guide Christian behavior. It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.”


As the voices grow louder and more organizations line up to present to the public their version of the “Common Good”, I will use this column to explain and break open the Catholic Church’s Social teaching by looking directly at the Compendium.

As the Presidential Campaign of 2008 unfolds, we all should ask an important question. As the phrase “Common Good” rolls off the tongues of candidates and appears in organizational titles, we need to ask Whose Vision of the Common Good is being promoted.

My task in this column will be to do just that.


Deacon Keith Fournier is a member of the Clergy, a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia currently serving at St. Benedict Catholic Church. He is a constitutional lawyer and public policy advocate. He was the first President of “Catholic Alliance” and the founding Executive Director of “The American Center for Law and Justice” (ACLJ), a Public Interest law firm. He is the founder of “Common Good Foundation” and “Common Good Alliance” and was a co-founder of “Your Catholic Voice”. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville (B.A., Theology and Philosophy), the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University (M.T.S., Theology) the University of Pittsburgh School of Law (J.D.) and is currently a Ph.D. student in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of hundreds of articles on issues of faith and culture and the spiritual life and eight books. His latest book is entitled, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life".

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