Lesson 3: The Common Good

The Common GoodI was surprised, even startled, at the response to last week’s lesson. I thought I was laying the foundation for examining Pope Francis’ ideas about social friendship. I simply wanted to maintain that he built on the definition of love in Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in constructing an institutional ethic. However, everyone latched on to my mention that his critics felt he was engaging in a cultural war. All week, people talked to me about cultural warfare.

Clearly the divisions in our society are deeply troubling us all. It began with our inability to talk with one another about certain political issues. It continued even when we all faced a common enemy in the COVID pandemic. And, it eventually deteriorated into violence.

All this challenges those of us who support the Pope’s call for a new kind of institutional ethics. Can we work for a common good if we are in a cultural war? The Pope makes proposals for a new kind of politics and a new kind of economics, but that surely demands some basic shared cultural values.

It seems to me he is asking us to change the conversation. Rather than debate about abortion, sexuality, and freedom, he claims Christians should prioritize asking whether any project including those associated with these three includes care for all people, focusing specifically on the poor and vulnerable. He is not advocating any economic theory or political system, just asking us to evaluate every one of them by this criterion.

He employs a second biblical story, the Tower of Babel, to explain the situation he is addressing. It claims people are unable to speak with one another, because their pride motivates them to want to have more than others. The city tries to build a tower into heaven where of course they could steal divine treasures. The idea is not to share these but to gain superiority over other cities. The Pope reminds us that the Bible uses this as a classical example of evil. With this in mind, we should be talking more about sharing, not competing.

When we engaged in this during my weekly discussion group, people instinctively began speaking about human rights. They quickly were discussing whether food, water, housing, health care, and education were basic human rights that government should ensure for all their people. The conversation went on to consider if this should include a guaranteed income when we consider how modern technology eliminates jobs.

When we talk about the government caring for the vulnerable, we do well to remember this extends beyond people to the environment. Paul referred me to a Time magazine article on the new donut theory of economics practiced in Amsterdam. It tries to balance providing what everyone needs to live a good life with environmental limitations. The article notes “By and large, people in rich countries are living above the environmental ceiling. Those in poorer countries often fall below the social foundation.” The theory tries to reconcile this.

The Pope repeatedly insists if we are to build creative institutions based on our common good, we will have to get beyond reducing everything to economic values. As long as we judge everything by cost effectiveness, we shall always find change to be too expensive. That leads him to talk about the need for transcendental values, another controversial topic.

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