Academic journal article Theological Studies

Fostering a Catholic Commitment to the Common Good: An Approach Rooted in Virtue Ethics

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Fostering a Catholic Commitment to the Common Good: An Approach Rooted in Virtue Ethics

Article excerpt

MORE THAN 40 YEARS HAVE PASSED since the close of the Second Vatican Council. At this remove, it seems sadly but undeniably true that the world has not answered the council's call to read the signs of the times by the light of the gospel so as to bring about the renewal of human society. (1) The vision of social justice put forward in Gaudium et spes remains compelling, but the Church has proven itself unable to leverage the political will necessary to make significant progress toward the realization of that vision. This article considers what obstacles stand in the way of promoting a politics of the common good in the United States, and suggests that linking the vision of Catholic social thought to the practice of key Christian virtues offers one way to facilitate its concrete realization.

Those who hope for a renewed commitment to the common good in American society face two enormous challenges, one intellectual, the other more practical. The former is rooted in a profound doubt in our ability to say much of anything with certainty. (2) Under the influence of Michel Foucault and other postmodern thinkers, we have grown skeptical about our ability to know anything about the world including the shape of the common good. (3) This epistemological skepticism is compounded by an acute awareness of the growing diversity of visions of the good life embraced by people around the globe. (4) John Rawls has proposed that, given the present diversity of the world, a shared vision of the good is impossible. (5) Others have gone further to assert that the pursuit of a common good can even serve as a means of oppressing some members of the community. For example, Judith Shklar argues that the public, civic pursuit of any comprehensive vision of the good will be at the expense of those who lack the power to define and enforce their own definition of the highest good. (6)

The intellectual obstacles to the development of a politics of the common good will not be my focus here. Others have already capably addressed these criticisms. (7) In fact, these intellectual concerns have loomed so large in the field that more practical concerns regarding such issues as formation have suffered from relative neglect. Therefore, I aim primarily to address the second, more practical, challenge facing those who would advance a politics of the common good, namely, that most Americans, as well many persons in other countries, hold a radically individualistic view of the world.

Adela Cortina provides helpful categories for describing this trend, arguing that the bonds of human community are typically understood according to one of two dominant paradigms: contract or covenant. (8) If one views the nature of human community through the lens of contract, human relationships are understood to be artificially created on the basis of calculating reason; in contrast, a covenantal paradigm sees humans as social by nature, as naturally members of a community rather than members on the basis of free, calculating reason. (9) Cortina observes that in the last two centuries, the contractual paradigm has become increasingly dominant, to the extent that contract has come to be seen as the basis even for social arrangements traditionally founded and interpreted under a covenantal model (e.g., the family). (10) The result of this shift in the United States has been a dilution of the general public's sense of responsibility toward one another and diminishing expectations regarding society's obligations to support the common good or general welfare.

Rather than using the image of contract, David Hollenbach describes the same phenomenon as an "eclipse of the public." (11) He cites data provided by the General Social Survey, which found that two-thirds of Americans regard morality as a "personal matter." This belief can be interpreted as a refutation of one of the most fundamental assumptions in the common good tradition, namely, that the good of the individual is inseparable from the good of the community of which she or he is a part. …

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