The notion of “the common good” may be the most familiar concept of Catholic social teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church cites it as the first principle of CST, and as something “to which every aspect of social life must be related” (164), and as the “primary goal” of society (165). It may also be one that is subject to the most misunderstandings. What exactly is the common good? And whose responsibility is it? And what actually serves it?

The Compendium states:

The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it… (164)

This claim must be understood if anything else is to be grasped: the common good is not the “aggregate good.” It is not a matter of adding up the individual goods of each person. It is something distinct from (though not separate from) any individual’s good. In teaching this, I often draw on the example of a sports team. Individual players have goods they seek, like being fit, scoring runs, and the like. And of course it benefits the whole when people accomplish their individual goods. But not always. This is because the individual goods do not somehow add up to the ultimate goal: winning. In team sports, winning is the common good – or perhaps one could further cite the good of ongoing competition and the integrity of the sport. Seeing that winning is the common good of the team illustrates that individual and common goods need not be seen as zero-sum. Part of one’s individual good is presumably winning, but it would be equally foolish to suggest that somehow a team could “win” if members did not pursue individual goods.

The importance of distinguishing the common good is above all illustrated in how we think about our connection to the others on the team. As the Compendium puts it, “the human person cannot find fulfillment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists with others and for others.” There is no way to win by yourself. This means that if someone else on the team is struggling or frustrated, what do you do? You help. If they are performing well, what do you do? Congratulate them enthusiastically. Fundamentally, this approach defuses destructive competition, which refuses help and envies the success of others. If you are sad, I am sad. Even more crucially, it means that we do not look on other persons and society as simply means – as instruments for an ultimate goal that is solely ours.

Students get this analogy – they see how pursuing the common good as a team is good for everyone, and how team dynamics change dramatically if anyone is not pursuing the common good. Similar dynamics may be seen (ideally) in families or even in businesses. The problem comes in inviting students to see society in this fashion. This is difficult, and it is difficult because to a significant extent, we have organized our society to insure maximum individual happiness, and minimize the extent to which we must function as a team.

The Compendium describes the responsibility for the common good – first and foremost resting on every individual – to reside especially in the State. The State “must guarantee the coherency, unity, and organization of civil society” because individuals and smaller groups “are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life” (168). In particular, the State must “harmonize” and “reconcile” different interests “with the requirements of justice,” a task which is “one of the most delicate tasks of public authority” (169). Sadly, we often simply do not see the State as assuming this role, because we think it exists merely to serve individual interests. Instead, as Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, the modern state is more like the telephone company. How can such a way of thinking about the State lead to any kind of sense of coherence and unity?

We shy away from the more robust definition for two reasons. One, we simply do not (and perhaps cannot) experience a group of 300 million people as a team. As with the Church, it is difficult to experience the larger communion of the universal Church if we do not experience this kind of “team spirit” at local and diocesan levels. That is to say, experiencing the State as a team really does require similar kinds of more local experiences. Pure experiences of abstract nationalism all too often represent dangerous fascism. Thus, to see the common good, we must not simply look to Washington, but must look to neighborhood, city, and state.

The second reason – more problematic – is that we may fear that any such team effort will result in a loss of our autonomy. And, if we think about freedom and autonomy in the “bad” way that Pope John Paul II describes in Veritatis Splendor, we are correct. This teaching does mean that we can’t live in a way that pretends my happiness is independent of the team and its other members.

Americans can have great difficulty in this. Alexis de Toqueville described what he discovered in America as “individualism”:

a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.

While Americans have also manifested a more communitarian strain, being inveterate “joiners,” our sense of individualism has often held the upper hand, written as it is into our founding documents. Note that Toqueville does not mean pure selfishness; he freely acknowledges care for “family and friends.” Libertarian individualists can and do care deeply for certain others; what they lack is a sense of responsibility for the team.

Now, it should be added that, if a notion of the common good is not libertarian, it is also not totalitarian. The common good assumes overriding importance in terms of my private delights and needs, but it does not ask me to renounce my personhood, nor to triumph over other nations. Any common good is not itself ultimate, “not an end in itself,” but is rather referred to “the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation” (170). In this way, after highlighting the importance of the State, the Compendium deeply qualifies it. The State – whether Rome or America – is never ultimate, and when it begins to act as if it is, problems result. Here we can return to our sports analogy: what happens when a team adopts a “win at all costs” mentality? Well, we know what happens. One, the competition is destroyed and demeaned, often through undermining the integrity of the game itself. And two, within the team, individuals and their dignity are ruthlessly sacrificed to achieve the goal. The common good, as central as it is, is not ultimate. Analogous to the previous point, it is sometimes hard to know in a religiously pluralistic state how the society is to honor its own limitations. If God is merely private, then how can the State acknowledge transcendence? How can it be humble? Whatever “endowed by their Creator” or “one nation under God” mean, they at least hint at a kind of humility and qualification on our national hubris.

Thus, “the common good” while not the ultimate good, is nevertheless the central aim of our social lives, as affirmed by Gaudium et Spes (#75). We do not exist for ourselves. Pursuing our own private goods, while it may have some positive spillovers, eventually degenerates into an order where only the strong survive, where only those who “play to win” can “make it,” and where every shared enterprise is merely a vehicle for my own personal advancement. In many ways, all our social problems can be seen in the light of our temptation to believe in this awful myth of “survival of the fittest.” The human race is one, and God seeks for us to become more and more one with all, and especially with the weakest. If as ordinary Americans, we find it so difficult to aim at the common good, we might think more deeply about why we have social structures that don’t enable it. Is it because, deep down, we don’t believe that others are in fact truly our brothers and sisters, united with us and possessed of the same dignity as ourselves? Is it believe, in short, we see (some) others as enemies, who we cannot and should not love? If so, the Compendium calls us to conversion – a different vision – and a society of structures that might promote this vision, rather than one where only the strongest thrive.