The Common Good And/or the Human Rights: Analysis of Some Papal Social Encyclicals and Their Contemporary Relevance

By Maina, Wilson Muoha | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Common Good And/or the Human Rights: Analysis of Some Papal Social Encyclicals and Their Contemporary Relevance


Maina, Wilson Muoha, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: It is notable how some papal social encyclicals have interchangeably used the terms 'common good' and 'human rights.' This article analyzes the papal common good teaching and its contemporary shift to include human rights. I also explore the differential nuances between the common good and the human rights. Human rights as advocated by civil societies are understood as arising from a conception of the nature of the human person. The common good has been expressed in practical ways through human rights, especially the right to work and receive a just wage. The papal social encyclicals are viewed here as relevant to our contemporary world where extreme capitalism and unrestrained consumerism have led to the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few people.

Key Words: common good, human rights, papal encyclicals, social teachings, Catholic Church, person, work

The words "common good" somehow summarizes the Roman Catholic social teaching. Under the terms "common good" are grouped together issues such as workers' rights, peace and disarmament, solidarity of the rich nations with the poor ones, and the responsibility of governments to promote social welfare. The church teachings on the common good have continually developed since the nineteenth century and are especially disseminated through papal social encyclicals and national bishops' conferences. From the encyclicals, a good society is one which caters for the integral wellbeing of all people.

Issues referred to as essential components of the common good apply to anyone who wishes a good life for themselves and others in their society. The inclusivity of the common good is pivotal in showing how all human beings relate, and most of all, the church using these two words (common good) helps show the relevance of the gospel in addressing human concerns. Through reasoning, people formulate what constitutes common good needed for human flourishing. By common good is referred the possibility of shared ideas and practices required for human living.

The common good tradition continued in the contemporary teaching in the Roman Catholic Church applies the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. In its turn, Aquinas' theology and philosophy is heavily influenced by the ethics of Aristotle.1 This is evident in Aquinas' work especially the Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles. Aristotle views human beings as possessing an ultimate end discoverable through reason. In Aristotelian thinking, the mind conceives the common good as the terminus or end of a tendency, purpose, aim, or intention. Politics itself is seen as having a purpose of the good life (eu zen). The goal of every just society is the achievement of the common good.2 In Chapter II of the Third Book of The Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas argues every agent acts for an end and that the ultimate end of all beings includes intermediate (temporal) ends.3 In a practically logical way, Aquinas maintains in Chapter III of the Third Book that every agent acts for a good, and in Chapter XVII he has argued that that which is the supreme good is supremely the end of all. There is one supreme good for all human persons and this Aquinas calls God.4

In addition, Aquinas argues the particular good is directed to the common good as its end.5 Jacques Maritain, a Thomistic scholar, notes human persons "...before they are related to the immanent common good of the universe, they are related to an infinitely greater good-the separated common Good, the divine transcendent Whole."6 And further, "The soul is filled with God. It is in society with God. With Him, it possesses a common good, the divine Good itself."7 The common good perspective has foundation not only in the Greek philosophy but also in the Judeo- Christian scriptures. From a biblical perspective, all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen.1: 26-27), and from this dimension is drawn the idea that all people share their common end which is God. …

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