Father WIlliam J. Byron, S. J.
March 19, 2008 • Center Club, Baltimore, Md.
President, St. Joseph's Preparatory School
Former president of The Catholic University of America
I recall with admiration at this moment two great men who have gone home to God but who will always be part of the Mount—your late president George Houston, whose grave on the mountain I hope to visit soon, and my dear friend Monsignor Andrew J. McGowan, who died here in a Baltimore hospital last year and whose wit and wisdom are remembered with affection in your board room. I miss them both and I trust that neither would object to a presentation now, in this political season, on politics and the common good.
"Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good" is the carefully chosen title of a new Washington-based organization that aims to link the tradition of Catholic social teaching to political debate in the United States. Care has been taken not to misrepresent this organization as officially and formally Catholic.It is just a modest movement involving ordinary Catholics who are familiar with the Church's social doctrine and intent on letting the light of that doctrine shine on the issues that too often divide us as a nation.
When invited to serve on the advisory board of Catholics in Alliance, I asked how they understood the notion of the common good? In processing the wide-ranging replies, I found myself going back to a baseline description sketched out in the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, where the common good is described as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach fulfillment more fully and more easily" (No. 26).
Those "social conditions" have a way of emerging as topics for debate every four years in American presidential politics. For instance, in the latest statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility" (www.faithfulcitizenship.org), the bishops write: "As we all seek to advance the common good--by defending the inviolable sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until natural death, by defending marriage, by feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, by welcoming the immigrant and protecting the environment--it is important to recognize that not all possible courses of action are morally acceptable. We have a responsibility to discern carefully which public policies are morally sound. Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended" (No. 20).
The bishops go on to say, "All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors--basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work--is universally binding on our consciences and may be legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means" (No.25).
In effect, the bishops are saying that there is need to connect the Church's social credenda (that which is to be believed) with the Church's social agenda (that which is to be done), and this agenda will coincide, often point for point, with the issues that find their way into political party platforms and partisan debates. Differences will, of course, surface on the recommended ways to move toward the desired ends.
A helpful step in framing the questions for debate, it seems to me, is to start thinking about a time-honored expression in Catholic social thought, the "social question." What is the social question in our day? For Pope Leo XIII in 1891 the social question focused on the condition of the working classes, on the right of workers to form associations, to organize themselves into unions and other protective arrangements against assaults on their human dignity from the new industrialization and the threat of socialism. In 1967 Pope Paul VI said in Populorum Progressio, "Today the principal fact that we must all recognize is that the social question has become world-wide" (No.3). But what precisely was then and is now, the question?
At the most general level, I think the social question should be stated this way: How can the human community of persons, neighborhoods, and nations live together in peace secured by justice? The protection of fundamental human dignity requires that the question be asked at all times. The organization of human life requires that it be asked, as I shall point out below, in all areas of human activity.
In family life, the social question, as I see it, is how to shore up the interpersonal commitments that make marriages permanent and thus create an environment of stability for spouses and children. It is in this context that the political question of same-sex marriage emerges as a challenge to a Catholic understanding of the common good.
But what about commitment and cooperation in the world of work? Take your pick of the most urgent or pressing social question today in the economic arena. Our Church puts the poor in a preferential position, we talk about an option for the poor, preferential protection for the poor.
As economic life grows more complex, the danger of damage to human fulfillment and dignity rise accordingly. Both the economic organization and the task it exacts can stifle human initiative. And economic progress can cause dislocation and un- or under-employment. This is the "stuff" of a good social question. Another formulation of the social question in the economic sphere would ask how we might contain the virus of materialism in the world community and in all of its separate political and familial parts. And, of course, the globalization of markets is an unavoidable part of the social question in our day.
In Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII remarked that women "will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person in domestic and public life" (No.7l). The contemporary workplace poses threats to reduce both men and women to "mere material instruments." But with an eye to women at work today, we might ask, in our effort to articulate the social question: What is the meaning of woman in any society? Why is the value of woman an issue in contemporary society? Why is it a struggle today for women to assert their rights and assume duties worthy of their full human personhood?
Everyone in the Catholic faith community should have something to say about the social question, raising the right questions and forming workable answers. We should, of course, get to work on the personal task of making sure our personal values are right, that we keep the commitments we make, that we respect life in all its forms, and that the territory between our ears and beneath our feet can, so far as it is in our power to choose, be marked by the reign of justice and peace. But that is not enough. We have to move outward. We have to avoid the trap of withdrawal from the fray. That's why Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good came into being.
Every significant social question can be traced to fault lines in human institutions. Only by working within those institutions can the fault lines be repaired. Only by participation in human processes, political for the most part, can we create new institutions that will provide just exchanges, promote just relationships, and foster peace.
Applying what the Church likes to call the "social question" to the broad range of "social conditions" that figure in a Catholic understanding of the common good, which, as has been noted, looks to the fulfillment of human potential, it is evident that responsible Catholic citizenship will be engaged in this political season not only with the issues already mentioned (employment and the economy, marriage and family, respect for life, food and hunger, housing and homelessness, immigration, the environment) but also with education, healthcare, culture, crime, capital punishment, terrorism, justice, war and peace.
In the tradition of Catholic social thought, "solidarity" is a moral category that relates to the common good. An "alliance" for the common good is one way of encouraging solidarity and turning that powerful notion as a searchlight on social problems that await a political solution.
Underlying all this is a Catholic commitment to the principle of human dignity. This is the bedrock principle of the entire body of Catholic social thought. It is also a principle to be preserved by all participants in all stages of the political process that is ours to follow in pursuit of the common good.
William J. Byron, SJ. is author most recently of Individuarian Observations: Essays in Catholic Social Reflection (University of Scranton Press).