October 11, 2020

Intersecting Realities: The Common Good, Jesus' Ethic, Politics and Catholic Social Teaching- Marilyn Sunderman rsm

The common good, the ethics of Jesus, politics, and Catholic social teaching are intersecting realities. Pursuit of the common good in government and society entails working to make accessible to all persons what they need to lead a truly human life. Jesus’ ethic of love and justice provides a framework for government which exists for the sake of the pursuit of the common good. Citizens’ engagement in the political process contributes to the attainment of the common good.  Hospitable dialogue is a method for forging the common good and each person’s political decision-making calls for the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by the virtue of prudence. Rooted in Jesus’ ethic, Catholic social teaching establishes a set of moral principles for informing political discourse and decision making.


            In the Christian tradition, the notion of the common good was discussed by St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century.  In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle and St. Augustine’s thinking regarding the common good. In contemporary times, various popes have written about the common good as the fundamental principle upon which governmental politics should be based. 

            At the heart of understanding the meaning of the common good is the reality that we humans are beings whose lives are interrelated and interdependent and that, indeed, we are each other’s keepers.   The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes the following statement:  

By common good is to be understood the sum total of social conditions which allow people either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.  The common good concerns the life of all. [1]

            In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI (now Emeritus) reflects that

Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good.  It is the good of ‘all of us,’ made up of individuals, families, and intermediate groups who together constitute society.  It is a good that is sought … for the people who belong to the social community. … To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity. … The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them.[2]

Promoting the common good entails laboring to secure the well-being of all persons by seeking to protect the dignity and rights of all.  According to Jesuit theologian Thomas Massaro, “Everyone has an obligation to promote the common good by making whatever contributions are necessary to improve the lives of all.”[3]

            Pursuit of the common good embraces the global community.   As Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley emphasize:

The common good provides for the health, welfare, and dignity of all people and promotes the best interests of everyone, not just the few. … It also focuses on helping those who need it most: the poor and vulnerable. [4]

All of Earth’s people have the right to adequate food, housing, education, basic health care, transportation, access to culture, freedom of communication and expression, and protection of religious freedom.   The universal common good also includes practicing good stewardship of the environment. 

            God intends that the global human community collaborate in creating a world wherein love of one’s neighbors consistently finds expression in laboring to ensure the common good.  In his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI succinctly states that

To wage war on misery and to struggle against injustice is to promote, along with improved conditions, the human and spiritual progress of all, and therefore, the common good of humanity.[5] 


             Indissolubly bound together, love of God and neighbor constitute the core of Jesus’ ethic.  During His public ministry, Jesus applied His message of love to the religious, social, political and economic issues of His day.  Jesus began His ministry by declaring that He intended to bring good news to poor persons, release to captives, and freedom to the oppressed. Jesus lived at a time when Israel was under Roman imperial governance.  Roman rulers exacted exorbitant taxes from the people of Israel to such an extent that they were forced to sell their land and labor for Romans who assumed ownership of former Jewish property and became wealthy at the expense of impoverished Jews.   

According to Chris Marshall, Jesus’ ministry

… was characterized by a prophetic denunciation of the injustices and social evils of the prevailing social order, on the one hand, including a strident declaration of divine judgment on the existing centers of power responsible for oppression and injustice, and, on the other hand, on the calling together of an alternative community to live according to the standards of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace and, thereby, to model and effect the renewal of Israel as a whole.[6]

            Jesus, the prophet of God’s justice, concerned Himself with pursuing the common good in His society.  Jesus stood in solidarity with those on the margins of society: outcasts, destitute persons, women and children, and sick and possessed people.  Jesus insisted that weak persons be honored, wealth be shared, and authentic leadership express itself in service of others.  Jesus taught His followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, care for the sick and afflicted, and comfort victims of injustice. 

            In His beatitudinal teaching, Jesus called blessed those poor in spirit who are attentive to others’ necessities.   Jesus championed the pure of heart who proclaim truth fearlessly.  He spoke of those who seek peace, not war, and He pointed to those who hunger and thirst for a justice that entails protecting the dignity and rights of all. 

            Jesus’ ethical teaching and praxis serve as a blueprint for Christian engagement in the pursuit of the common good vis-à-vis the political process. According to Chris Marshall,

Any modern political programming that marginalizes racial, ethnic or social groups, and which ignores or exacerbates the plight of the weak and downtrodden to promote the interests of the strong is diametrically opposed to the politics of Jesus.[7]

            The Christian task is to translate Jesus’ vision of the common good into governmental policies in the here-and-now.  Today, those who embrace Jesus’ ethic are called to establish and endorse political systems that incorporate His values, especially His concern for those who are most vulnerable in society.  For example, practitioners of the ethics of Jesus are called to challenge government officials to develop and implement social policies that aid refugees who have no place to call home and sick persons languishing or dying because they lack health insurance.  In a word, followers of Jesus continue to employ His ethic of love and justice when they oppose any social or political conditions and institutions that are contrary to His ideals...   


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), #1906, 517. 

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate.  Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/holy father/benedict xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf  ben-xvi enc, 2. 3. 

[3] Thomas Massaro, SJ, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012), 85.

[4] Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley, A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division (San Francisco, CA.: Jossey-Bass, 2008) 80.

[5] Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, #76 quoted by Kendall A. Ketterlin in God and Washington: The Meaning of Human Dignity, Freedom, and the Common Good. (Columbia, Mo.: K2 Publishing, 2010), 5.  

[6] Chris Marshall, “A Prophet of God’s Justice:  Reclaiming the Political Jesus,” Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought & Practice (August 2006), vol. 14, issue 3, 35.

[7] Marshall, “A Prophet of God’s Justice,” 36. 

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Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph's College of Maine, is the author of Humanization in the Christology of Juan Luis Segundo.  Marilyn has published numerous articles and reviews regarding the writings of Thomas Merton. Recently, she published Poems, Ponderings, Pencillings, a compilation of poetry she composed over the years, meditative reflections and drawings.  Currently, she is researching the theology of hope in the works of Gustavo Gutierrez and the spirituality of creativity in the artistry of Georgia O'Keeffe. 

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