A Confusion about the Common Good

In the not too distant future, I am hoping that someone much brighter than I will perform the heavy philosophical lifting that it will take to state precisely what is wrong with the current approach that our Church is taking to the present crisis.

This is precisely the time for a philosopher (perhaps even a Theologian!) to spring into action. It is high time for the philosopher to crawl back down the tunnel from the realm of pure light and make yet another attempt to draw the rest of us out of the cave.

Plato's Cave - danieldeanschuler.com

As we wait for that supreme act of condescension perhaps we can make a few guesses as to what the philosopher might say to us in this moment of crisis.

But first let us acknowledge the apparent goodwill of those who are in leadership positions, political leaders, bishops, clergy, and everyone that has been forced to make decisions or obey others in an attempt to protect health and life.

Second, let us also acknowledge the heroism of all those people who acting in the service of others at risk to themselves (particularly doctors, nurses, healthcare providers, and civil servants of all kinds) work tirelessly to protect us. It’s easy for the rest of us who sit safely in the comfort of our own homes, and who may be more or less distant from the actual real suffering to downplay or minimize the gravity of the causes that have impelled the nearly universal suspension of our daily activities – even the public worship of God.

Nonetheless, something seems to be amiss aside from the pestilence itself. We suddenly find ourselves confronted with laws, rules and regulations of all kinds, which taken together have had the startling effect of stripping entire nations of freedoms to conduct regular business, work, gather, attend worship services, obtain marriage licenses, have funerals, and in extreme cases…to even take a morning jog!

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On the one hand, the ground for these stringent laws is clear (i.e the protection of human life). On the other hand, something seems vaguely out of order. But what is it? Isn’t the protection of human health the highest good, the summum bonum? Are not all laws ultimately grounded in life?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be yes. In shutting down all non-essential businesses, the governor of New York declared,

“I want to be able to say to the people of New York — I did everything we could do,” Cuomo told reporters at the state Capitol. “And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”

Now if this same governor had given the same argument to curtail any business in New York that cooperated in the destruction of unborn human life, then perhaps we might argue in his defense. (Oddly, one great benefit of the Coronavirus is that the New York legislature has suspended its own activity for the current session making it impossible to make further progress on such life-promoting legislation as the so-called “death with dignity” bill. Every cloud has a silver lining).

Nonetheless, leaving aside the governor’s own curious inconsistencies, his reasoning for suspending the ordinary lives of New Yorkers is very compelling. And it is even more compelling when we consider that the draconian laws to which we have all yielded might very well save many lives – maybe even our own life or the lives of those we love.

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But again, this reasoning seems to be premised on the basis that laws which significantly curtail fundamental human activities are justified if they are ordered to the preservation of human life. It is difficult to find any reason to disagree with this premiss.

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Interestingly, however, the classic definition of law, so influential in the western world does not make a specific appeal to human life as the highest good. St. Thomas Aquinas famously articulated that definition in his treatise on law saying,

the definition of law …is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.

St. Thomas, like no other, enunciates the essence of law clearly and perfectly because he defines law in terms of all of its causes. Formally, law is an ordinance of reason. It is promulgated in either written or spoken words. A law is made by “him who has care of the community.” And the final cause, the purpose, the that for the sake of which all law is directed is the common good. His definition could not be more perfect and in following Aristotle’s doctrine of causes we are assured that his definition is grounded in nature itself.

Isn’t it interesting that the definition of law does not read,

an ordinance of reason for the protection of human life etc?

One might think that it would have.

Instead, we are confronted with the notion of the “common good” as the basis and purpose upon which all laws must be grounded if they are to have legitimacy.

Now, as fate would have it, we just happen to live in an epoch when nothing could be more misunderstood than this very term (i.e. common good). What the common good is appears to have arrived at its nadir in our collective understanding- and precisely at a moment when a correct understanding is most needed.

That’s unfortunate, because if all law is ordered to the common good, and no one appears to understand the common good, then we do have more than a small problem.

We will not belabor the point, but I suppose it might be worth saying that the notion of the common good is a rather difficult one to understand. It is of such importance to civilized society that Our Lord established a Church to be its guardian. In times past when we could rightly expect our legislators and those to whom we entrust the care of the community to have been educated in perennial philosophy, the obligation of knowing what the common good with any precision was not incumbent upon the common citizen.

With an increasingly secular society and the continual erosion of liberal education, we could at least trust that the Church itself would be an effective safeguard and teacher of the common good. In this way, the Church is not only the guardian of souls, and the dispenser of Christ’s sacraments, but is also the protectress of civil society, for she is the guardian of the common good.

St. Michael the Archangel - Saints & Angels - Catholic Online

And what is the common good? First, let us say what it is not.

The common good is not what is advantageous to the most. It is not in the words of one Dominican,

some utilitarian calculus of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Nor is it some this-worldly Utopian social scheme.

I think it is safe to say that we are habituated to thinking that the common good consists in the greatest material welfare for as many people as possible. By material welfare, we think mostly of the goods of the body- things like health, beauty and wealth. We also, of course, think of mere human existence. It’s rather difficult to enjoy any good if one is not alive.

Economic Welfare - Economics Help

But as good as all these things are, as laudable a goal as it is to attempt a universal distribution of wealth and healthcare and the means for obtaining a higher standard of living, we nonetheless are greatly mistaken in saying that this amounts to achieving the common good. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church we find,

The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. 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…

The common good is something that is shared and attained in a community. Rather than a private good like health or beauty, or government stimulus checks, a common good is something at which a community aims as a community. As a choir director, I always think of the transcendent beauty of sacred music that can only be attained when a choir is working together perfectly- voices are well coordinated in sufficient numbers so as to give rise to a beauty in which each partakes but is shared by all without any diminishment.

The Lyceum | The Schola Cantorum

Every community appears to have a common good to which it is directed. We can think of the good that is pursued by any organization, business, or community as a common good. In his excellent lecture on the common good, Professor John Goyette exemplifies this well, saying,

The soldiers in an army all work together for the sake of victory. Or the sailors on a ship all work together to bring the ship safely to port. Or to use an example closer to home, children are a common good of the family. In these examples we have a single end that is pursued and enjoyed by many.

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Rather than the private good of each individual, the first notion that we should have of the common good is that it is something that in being shared is not diminished. The common good does not grow less by being distributed.

Clearly then, the common good cannot be a material thing like wealth, houses or money. All these things do suffer diminution when they are shared.

But there are common goods and then…there is The Common Good. St. Thomas explains,

[Aristotle] says that the city is a perfect community; and this he proves from this, since every association among all men is ordered to something necessary for life, that community will be perfect which is ordered to this, that man have sufficiently whatever is necessary for life. Such a community is the city [civitas]. For it is of the nature of the city that in it should be found everything sufficient for human life … that men not only live but that they live well insofar as by the laws of the city human life is ordered to the virtues.

Commenting on this passage Professor Goyette says,

The perfect human community, then, is self-sufficient not only because it allows men to flourish materially, but, more importantly, because it makes the good life possible by ordering men toward the life of virtue…Aquinas faithfully represents and endorses Aristotle’s view that man by nature is a political animal, that he reaches his natural perfection by participating in the civitas.

Thus we might say that if we consider man only in virtue of what he is by nature the civitas, the state, the “Polis” is the common good. And this common good is achieved and shared only when its citizens live virtuous lives.

polis | Definition & Facts | Britannica

But we are not mere creatures of nature. We are also creatures of grace, and therefore we strive to attain a common good which is not a mere common good of this or that earthly community but is rather The Common Good of the universe.

Debate intensifies over speed of expanding universe | Science | AAAS

It should now be clear that the common good is nothing more, nothing less than God Himself. He is the Alpha and Omega. He is the single goal of every creature and of every human act and endeavor. God is the reason for everything, the reason for our very lives, our health, our business, our civil body politic, our everything! He is the Good in which we all desire to share, and when we become partakers of Him, He does not grow less. On the contrary, when we partake of Him, it is we that increase.

Now, what is the end of this consideration?

Very simply it is this. As we consider the stringent measures that any society must adopt in directing its citizens to the common good, as we ponder the actions and laws that a society needs to undertake and enact especially during times of crisis, we must always measure those actions, those laws, by the common good.

In other words, every measure must be taken so as to ensure, protect and promote the Common Good. But as we have noted human life, or human health, itself is not the common good. There is something greater than these, namely God. And it is the goal of human life to partake in the worship and glorification of God. This is the whole goal of every society: to worship God as the common good. And the highest expression of this activity in which we can participate is to worship God at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Now suppose an army was going into battle and the general made an announcement such as,

“Whatever you soldiers do for the next indeterminate amount of time, make certain that none of you fight as an army. You may all work individually but there shall be no coordinated activity so as to obtain victory”

Or suppose a choir director said,

“OK people, I don’t know how long this may last, but we will not be singing as a group anymore. We will not sing so as to obtain the transcendent beauty that is only achievable by working together. “

In other words, it would appear that while every community or organization might establish rules and laws that are ordered to promoting the attainment of the specific good for which this or that organization exists, there is something radically wrong when an organization makes a law that forbids the very reason, the raison d’etre for its existence.

Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an ...

About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in America, Aquinas, Common Good, liberal education, Modernists, philosophy, Socrates, The Mass and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Confusion about the Common Good

  1. Barbara Fischer says:

    Something along the lines of “Divide and Conquer”! The latest Laws take us one further step along the slippery slope of not recognizing that God is real and truly present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I have often wondered how people could think that they would get “germs” from receiving communion.

    • marklangley says:

      I am thinking about St Norbert right now. Do you remember the story about how he drank the precious chalice after a poisonous spider fell into it? Apparently, there are rubrics that direct a priest about the proper way to deal with flies and spiders falling into the precious blood, so not everyone has to exercise heroic virtue- but to cancel communion because of the fear of getting a potential virus would probably make even St. Norbert blush.

  2. William Schmitt says:

    Mark, thanks for the wonderful post. I will bet that getting the appropriate graphics was a common project with a wonderful wife. You might have mentioned that in C.S. Lewis’ hell, everyone practices social distancing and Napoleon lives miles away from his neighbors. More seriously, we need to figure this out before Easter!

    • marklangley says:

      Thanks, William! As a matter of fact, I do make certain that my wonderful wife does give at least tacit approval to everything. I think it is becoming increasingly clear that canceling all liturgical activities in which the faithful can participate is an enormous mistake. Someday we are going to blush just telling the story. (I’m thinking ahead trying to imagine myself waxing eloquent about how we fought the battle of Coronavirus – (channeling my inner Kenneth Branagh/Henry V)

      If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
      To do our country loss; and if to live,
      The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

  3. Joseph R Gonzalez says:

    Thank you, Mr. Langley. If I have understood you correctly, you assert that something is radically wrong when an organization makes a law that forbids the very reason for the organization’s existence. You seem to intend to imply that our current restrictions are an example of this, since they seek to preserve the material good of our own health, but prevent us from acting virtuously in society with each other, prevent us from worshipping God in church, etc. Assuming that this accurately reflects your train of thought, I am inclined to disagree. If I have misunderstood you, then please disregard my comments.

    In Aristotle’s Categories, he gives four or five different senses of priority. The second sense of priority is that of irreversible being. For example, 1 can be without 2 but 2 cannot be without 1, thus 1 is prior to 2 in this sense. I seem to recall a lecture in which the Wise Man, God rest his soul, explained this with what I think is a relevant example. He said ‘I ask my students, “Which is better, to breathe or to philosophize?” They naturally reply, “To breathe is better.” When I ask them why, they say “Because if you can’t breathe, then you can’t philosophize or do anything for that matter.”‘ Then he explained ‘My students were wrong to think that breathing is better than philosophizing. Philosophizing is better than breathing. But they were correct in realizing that breathing, being necessary for philosophizing, is prior to philosophizing in this second sense of “prior.”‘

    As I understand it then, breathing and philosophizing are both goods. Each is prior to the other but in different senses. Philosophy is prior to breathing in the fourth sense of prior, i.e. it is better and more noble than breathing. On the other hand, breathing is prior to philosophy in the second sense of prior, i.e. breathing is necessary in order that philosophy may happen, and philosophy only happens when breathing happens, just as 1 is necessary in order for 2 to be, and 2 never is without 1.

    So to return to our current situation…it seems to me reasonable to say that the health of the individual citizens, while not itself constituting the true Common Good, is nevertheless prior to the Common Good in this second sense of “prior.” It is necessary that the citizenry be alive and healthy in order for the citizenry to achieve the common good, just as it is necessary that a man breathe in order that he philosophize. Now if a philosopher took a hard fall to the ground and suddenly found that he either couldn’t breathe or that breathing was very difficult, and a doctor rushed over to assist him, it would not seem to me unreasonable for such a man to put off philosophizing, perhaps putting it off indefinitely until he can begin to breathe again. In putting off philosophy to focus on regaining his breath, he is not denying that philosophy is the greater good, but he is acknowledging that the breathing is prior, in the second sense. Likewise, it seems reasonable that the state and the Church would heavily restrict social interaction, worship, etc. given the current threat to our health, since health is a good that is prior to social virtue in the second sense, even though social virtue is prior to health in the fourth sense. Thus the state safeguards the common good by securing those material goods which are necessary for the common good to be realized. And while I share your sorrow at our current, very limited ability to pursue the Common Good together, practical wisdom consists not merely in knowing the right thing to do but also in knowing the right time to do it.

    • marklangley says:

      Thank you, Mr. Gonzalez for your always intelligent thoughts which now grace my blog. Lionandox is/are flattered. And especially so since you have bothered to enunciate Aristotle’s doctrine from chapter 12 of his Categories on the senses of “before.”

      I do agree that there are times when we must restrict our actions from accomplishing those things which are before (in the fourth sense) so that we might attend to the things that are before in the second sense (like breathing in order to do philosophy). And I think that is the best argument that can be made in the present circumstances.

      Your line of reasoning appears to especially apply when in fact someone has – say been (actually) struck by a trolley and needs to attend to the business of learning to breathe again before he can attend Mass- especially if he is incapacitated and may be “in traction.”

      But is it your opinion that the present circumstances warrant canceling the immediate actual spiritual good for millions – as well as the very purpose of our lives- to avoid potential bodily harm in the shape of the present virus?

      • Joseph R Gonzalez says:

        If I have intelligent thoughts it is because I have intelligent teachers.

        Based on the progressing knowledge which we are gaining of this chinese virus, I think the potential danger does warrant restricting the actual spiritual good for millions. My understanding is that while public masses and regular confession times are temporarily cancelled, Catholics may still receive the sacraments via private appointments with their priests. So the sacraments are not cancelled, but our regular access to them is restricted.

        However, I am very worried that 1) hospitals may adopt a policy of refusing to admit priests to see patients with the chinese virus and give those patients last rites, and 2) the bishops may not object if this happens. That would be intolerable.

        • marklangley says:

          I think you and I might agree that canceling the public worship of God for the faithful should only be taken as the very last resort after every other alternative has been tried and has been found ineffective- and only then if the cancellation has a definite limit (maybe two weeks maximum?)
          By “every other method” we might have to get creative. So for example- how about if everyone wears a protective plastic disposable suit and showers down before and after every service? Eh? I bet you did not think of that.:-) You and I can come up with 50 other alternatives that would work before we need to cancel the worship of God. How about every priest says 10 masses a day for a maximum of 50 people who all stand ten feet apart? Our church is big enough for that. Organists and ushers could wear protective gear to sterilize every pew in between….wait a second…let’s remove the pews and make everyone stand in taped off zones!
          Or perhaps – every priest says only five masses each day – and the Sunday obligation is temporarily commuted to various weekdays depending in zipcode. People could use signup genius to make certain that no more than 30 people were in the church at once.
          What about if we have Mass in such a way that the faithful must keep moving like we were all at Walmart?
          Actually, the more I think of this- the more I think it is absolutely ludicrous the public worship of God has been canceled for the faithful as if by civil bureaucrats whose rule of faith is “nothing is more important than the health of the body”:-)

          By the way- here are the words of a bishop that I think sees a little more clearly:

          https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/4826-exclusive-interview-bishop-athanasius-schneider-on-church-s-handling-of-coronavirus

          • Joseph R Gonzalez says:

            I think we might not agree on that actually. Priests can still say private masses (which have no less power) and the faithful can still receive the sacraments, just not in the same convenient way that we could before. Experimenting with other possibilities would seem to defeat the very purpose of the social distancing measures in the first place.

            I’m afraid that I find it difficult to take seriously His Excellency’s words “One can guarantee in churches the same and even better hygienic protective measures,” considering that Walmart employees are not placing hosts on people’s tongues. As for the author’s implication that His Excellency is encouraging priestly disobedience by finding ways to “be extremely creative about finding ways to celebrate Mass”…well I’m not surprised, given that this is a Lefebvrite publication.

          • petranchmom says:

            Excellent from beginning to end! Common sense would by now mandate Shepherds to provide options for the faithful to be present and participate in the Holy Mass. If the concern is the building and, disinfected pews, remove the pews [as you suggested] and stand [as families] the “social distance required” apart. If distribution by the Priest should not be permitted, perhaps a Spiritual Communion in His Presence with the Priest receiving. The floor would be the only item necessary to disinfect following Holy Mass. If the pews cannot be removed, perhaps an obliging parking lot where the Priest could be under a canopy and the faithful could stand as I mentioned.

            If our President wants us to be able to worship by Easter, one would think our Shepherds would seek ways for this to happen beginning Holy Week!

            God bless you, Mr. Langley, your wonderful wife and family! Please know you and your work are always in our prayers.

            • marklangley says:

              Pleased be assured that you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers as well Mrs. Gonzalez! Your family has always been an incredible example of love and joy for the rest of us! Plus- one day “Lionandox” is going to send out prizes for all its charter members among which illustrious members you are at the very top! 🙂

  4. Iris says:

    Thank you, Mr. Langley. This is the first time I have read any articles on this website, so I’m replying to this article now even though it’s a few weeks old. I wanted to say that your article seems particularly prescient now, given the current fear that singing, especially singing in groups, is dangerous and may transmit coronavirus. This fear has led pastors in my diocese to ban choirs altogether even as some churches are reopening.
    It is remarkable to me that more people cannot see the dangers of separating people from each other in this and many other ways.

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