1.3.3 The common good: two complications

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Unit 1 Contents


We are giving special attention to ‘the common good’ here, not only because it is one of CST’s main principles, but also because it is a central concept in this module on ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’, even more so than it is in Module A.

However, before we move on to other CST principles, we need to note two distinctions, both of which complicate the meaning of the common good – just what you need!

(i) Two senses of the common good: ‘social conditions’ and ‘goal of society’

There are in fact two senses of the temporal common good in CST.  The meaning I outlined on the last screen is only one of them.  In a moment you will be asked to do some short readings on the common good, but it will be helpful first to be aware of these two meanings.  This is because some of the main documents of CST don’t distinguish them clearly.

A recent Vatican document, written by the International Theological Commission (ITC), does bring out this distinction helpfully.  It talks about ‘two levels’ of the common good – which really means two senses of the term.  It says:

By the fact that human beings have the vocation to live in society with others, they have in common an ensemble of goods to pursue and values to defend. This is what is called the ‘common good’…

At a first level, the common good can be understood as the ensemble of conditions that allow a person to be a more human person.  [This is] articulated in its external aspects – the economy, security, social justice, education, access to employment, spiritual searching, and other things…

At a second level, the common good is that which assigns an end to the political order and to the city itself. The good of all and of each one in particular, it expresses the communal dimension of the human good.1

The common good as explained on the last screen is, in terms of this quotation, the “second level” common good.  In this sense, the common good goes beyond justice, and is “the communal dimension of the human good”.  In this sense, the “goal of life in society is… the historically attainable common good” (Compendium, #168, italics added).

In contrast, the common good at the “first level” is an “ensemble of conditions” that can be seen as necessary for attaining the common good at the “second level”.

It is this “first level” common good that is being referred to in a statement in Gaudium et Spes (1965) which is often quoted in other CST documents.  This says that the common good is,

the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily (Gaudium et Spes #26).2

To sum up, on one hand the common good is a set of ‘social conditions’ that enable something else to happen, namely human fulfilment; on the other, it is the ‘goal’ or end of human social life.

You might be thinking: ‘The first explanation of the common good on the last screen was hard enough to get my head around. And now there’s this complication, which means there are two meanings.  I’m lost!’

If that’s what you’re thinking, fine.  It’s not a big problem – because as you continue, things should become clearer.

One reason I have introduced this complication here is that being aware of these two senses or ‘levels’ of the temporal common good might mean you understand the following readings more fully than you would have done.  You have the possibility of seeing what otherwise can appear to be ambiguities or tensions in what they say about the common good.  It seems to me that the distinction to which the ITC document draws attention could enable what both the following readings say about the common good to be put more clearly – because they both run together the two senses we have just looked at.

As you read these, you could have this question in mind: at each point when the text is referring to the common good, is it speaking about the ‘first level’ sense of social conditions, or the ‘second level’ sense of the goal of human social life?


Readings (7pp)

1.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, ##1897-1917, article on ‘Participation in Social Life’ (Part 3, Sec. 1, Chap. 2, Art. 2) (4pp)


The first section in this reading is about authority, which we shall study later in the module.  The second section is directly on the common good.  The third is about participation in society.

2.  Compendium, ##164-170, section on ‘The Principle of the Common Good’ (Chap 4, sec II) (3pp)





On the face of it, the tension between the two ‘levels’ or senses of the common good is plainer in the second reading, from the Compendium, than in the first.  Compare statements from the first two sections of this:

According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily”. (Compendium, #164, quoting Gaudium et Spes, #26; italics original)

[T]he common good [is] the good of all people and of the whole person…  The human person cannot find fulfilment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists “with” others and “for” others. (Compendium, #165; italics original)

Would you agree that the first of these quotations presents the ‘first level’ sense of the common good, and that second one reflects the ‘second level’ sense?


A second reason for introducing this distinction of two meanings of the common good at this point is because it can help us to see more clearly how ‘justice’ and ‘the common good’ are related.

I said on the last screen that the common good goes beyond justice.  In light of this, it makes fairly obvious sense to say that there has to be justice if there is going to be the possibility of the common good.  This is because if there are some people who are suffering injustice, they are not in a position to participate freely and fully in the manifold social activities that generate the common good.  So justice is a prerequisite of the common good.

But when we see the relationship of justice and the common good in this way, the difference between them starts to look rather like the difference between the two ‘levels’ of the common good found in CST statements.  This is because what justice requires, as a prerequisite of the ‘second level’ common good, sounds like the following: “the ensemble of conditions that allow a person to be always more a human person” and “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment…”.

If people have the conditions that enable them freely to take part in the activities that generate the common good, then they have what they need for the possibility of being fully human.  They have justice.

It is the common good at the ‘second level’ which really is the “historically attainable common good” in its fullest sense – “the goal of life in society” (Compendium #168, as quoted earlier).

In contrast, justice requires that human beings are not deprived of the possibility of human fulfilment or of participating fully in the generation of the common good.  Therefore the following two things seem to be the same:

  • justice
  • ‘the sum total of social conditions’ which allow people the possibility of reaching fulfilment.

I suggest that both of these can be seen as ways of describing the ‘first level’ common good.  If this is right, the common good, in this sense of the term, isn’t really different from justice.

We shall test this interpretation of what CST documents say about the common good at various later points in the module.

There is, then, ambiguity about the common good in CST.    Its documents use this term in two different senses, as distinguished in the ITC document.  Yet perhaps this ambiguity would be overcome if these were distinguished as justice – understood as the social conditions necessary if human fulfilment is to be possible – and the substantive common good – the end of human social life.3

(ii) The historical common good and the transcendent common good

Before we move on, we need to recognize another distinction, one which adds another dimension to our understanding of the common good.  As we have seen, when the common good is understood as “the goal of society”, it goes beyond justice.  On the last screen, I said that justice is a kind of minimum standard and, in contrast, the common good “is the best there can be (in this life)”.

But what, if anything, goes beyond the common good?  As quoted twice on this screen, the Compendium speaks of “the historically attainable common good” (#168).   This is “the goal of society” in this life, in human history now.  This is the historical or temporal common good.  What goes beyond this?

The answer is that what goes immeasurably beyond it is the transcendent or eternal common good.  This is perfected communion with God, the final reign of God that will come in the end, the ‘new heaven and new earth’ (Rev. 21).  The Bible has many images portraying the common good that is promised for eternity.  Another is that of a great ‘marriage feast’ (Rev. 19.7-9; cf. Module A, sec. 6.3).

But when the documents of CST refer to the common good, they generally use the term in its temporal or historical sense – although they see this as inseparable from the transcendent common good.  The connection is that the temporal common good is an anticipation of the eternal common good – it can begin to make this real now.  In a corresponding way, the eternal common good fulfils the promise in the temporal common good.  As the Compendium puts it:

God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it.  (#170)

We need to keep in mind, then, both the temporal and eternal dimensions of the common good.  The former will always fall far short of the latter, yet it can manifest the latter in part and can point towards it.  A challenge is to get the balance right between them, so that we can actually work for the historical common good, without having set up utterly unreal expectations that can only be dashed.

As just noted, when documents of CST use the term ‘the common good’, they are usually referring to its historical or temporal sense.  The reason for this is obvious: Catholic Social Teaching is concerned primarily about what justice and the common good require now, in the societies we actually live in.

As you work through the rest of this module, you should interpret ‘the common good’ as referring to its historical dimension, unless the text makes clear that what is meant is its transcendent dimension.


End of 1.3.3

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Module B outline

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  1. International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law (Vatican, 2009), #85, paragraphing and italics added.  This is accessible here.  I am grateful to Richard Steenvoorde for letting me know about this document. 

  2. This particular translation is from the citation of this text in Compendium, #164. 

  3. Clearly, justice in society is a common good: it can exist only for all of us together; it is irreducibly common.  In this way, it certainly makes sense that some major CST documents, not least Gaudium et Spes, refer to what seems to be the same as justice in terms of the common good.