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Engaging The Common Good Is One Way For Us To Show Our Love For God

Engaging The Common Good Is One Way For Us To Show Our Love For God November 8, 2021

Eddy Van 3000: Aquinas From Mechelen (Belgium), Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts / flickr

St. Thomas Aquinas, understanding that God is the beginning and the end of every particular good, that is, God is the source and summit of every good, nonetheless stated that there are many ways in which we could engage the good, and each way is of value. Thus, when talking about the good proper to humanity, he said:

But the proper good of man must be considered in various ways, according as man is understood under various aspects. The proper good of man as man is the good of reason, in that to be a man is too be rational. But the good of man considered as an artist is the good of art; so also considered in his political character, his good is the common good of the state.[1]

Since these are proper goods for us, pursuing them connects us with God, This is because, as James said, they come from God: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17 RSV). It is possible, of course, to pursue these goods in an inordinate fashion, to engage them without their connection with the greater good. The fact that they can be and are often abused does not mean we should deny their value, for if we did that, we would have to deny every other particular good, for they can be similarly abused. Reason is good, but it has its limits; beauty is good, but we must not assume if someone is beautiful, that means they are of good character; politics, indeed, is good, but it must be aimed for the common good, and the common good itself  must take into consideration the fullness of the good and how it applies to the state and everyone in it.

As God’s divine activity is the source and foundation of every good, God can be called “the good” itself.  Why? Because God’s activities reveal to us who God is. And since God is “the good,” God is to be loved with all our heart and soul. Everything which exists has been given its existence, a good, by God, and so by the fact that they  have the good of existence means we should love and honor them for that good. Nonetheless, we are not to treat particular goods which participate in “the good” as if they are “the good”;  we must recognize that their good is relative, and so the love and honor we give them is relative. This is why honoring and loving our neighbor, supporting them with justice, is itself proper; this is also why we cannot avoid society, for we are called to participate in it, indeed, to love it in relation to the goodness which it has been granted. This leads to the conclusion that engaging in politics, embracing work for the common good, is truly a work for someone who loves God.

Nonetheless, Aquinas reminds us, when we act, when we seek after and honor the good found in creation, we must always make sure the means we use are just. Thus, when we engage politics, and the love for the common good involved in them, we must not ignore the dictates of justice, but rather, fulfill them. “But to love the good of any society involves a twofold consideration: first, in the manner in which it is obtained; secondly, the manner in which it is preserved. “[2] If we, therefore, look to help the rich and powerful more over than the poor and needy, we are not looking after the good of the state, we are not looking for the common good, but only helping those who have already taken more for themselves than is just and right. This is because, as Jerome pointed out, it is nearly impossible for someone to be extraordinarily rich without some injustice being involved in the accumulation of the wealth:

It is almost impossible for the rich man to be  rich without robbing the poor. That is the meaning behind the words: ‘He lurks in ambush with the rich.’ Whenever the rich persecute the Christians, we may say that the devil is lurking in ambush with them. ‘He lies in wait to catch the poor; he catches the poor and drops them off into his net. With his noose, he brings them down.’ This is the ungodly one; this is the devil. ‘The poor,’ not only in riches, but also in spirit: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ ‘With his noose he brings them down.’ Whom? The poor, of course. [3]

If someone inherits a great amount of wealth, they might not, of course, have been the ones who acted unjustly. What they do with it will determine whether or not they will be seen to be just or unjust. If they do not use such wealth for the common good, if they do not put it to work to help society as a whole, if they use it only for themselves and their pleasures, then they continue the injustice which led to the accumulation of that wealth and are to be held accountable for it. For if they accept such wealth, they inherit the responsibility which comes with it, and so have a duty to make sure it is used to repair whatever harm was done in its accumulation. Thus, the words of Origen, while true for all, place greater expectations on those who are wealthy than those who have little to no means of their own: “If you ever see a poor person being harmed, do something about it. When that person is harmed, stand by him. He is despised because of poverty; the just person is at his side.”[4] And, in case we try to find reasons why we should not honor our responsibility to the poor, we need only think of what St. John of Kronstadt said:

Watch yourself when a poor man, needing help, asks it of you. The enemy will endaevour at that time to chill your heart, and fill it with indifference, and even scorn, towards him that is in want. Overcome in yourself these un-Christian and inhuman dispositions; incite your heart to compassionate love towards this man like unto you in all respects, to this member of Christ and your own – “for we are members one of another” – to this temple of the Holy Ghost, in order that Christ the Lord may love you and help you too; and, whatever the needy may ask of you, fulfill his request according to your power. [5]

Since, of course, not everyone is virtuous, not everyone seeks after the common good, the state, which is to serve the common good, must have power to collect from those who have inordinate amounts of wealth so that it can make sure wealth is being used for the sake of the common good:

It is necessary, moreover, that in the state there should be a means of collecting a public fund, which in part should come in accordance with the law governing contracts, partly from fines inflicted for malicious prosecution, partly from the estates and spoils of rebels, partly from other sources; and that this public fund should be secured in part for those who are not able to make a living owing to infirmity and old age, and in part for teachers of law and medicine, and in part for public uses. [6]

We must recognize the good of the state lies in its ability to promote and support the common good; to deny the state this ability is to deny it also of its responsibility. It is to deny a proper good, and with the rejection of that good comes evil and the injustices which follow it. This is not to suggest that the state is absolute, nor that everything a particular state might want to do is good or just. What it means is that we must not deny the value of the state, the good of the state. And, as we have said previously, we must not deny that good just  because we find it abused in some situation or another. We must, rather, work for its proper use and so encourage reformation when such abuse is there. And, because the common good is a part of the good which we must seek to preserve and protect, those who are virtuous will pursue it, even if it costly to them. Indeed, such self-sacrifice shows us that they truly love the common good for the goodness itself and not out what they selfishly hope to attain from it for themselves:

But to love the good of any society so that it might be had or possessed, does not constitute the political good. Thus does a tyrant love the good of the state in order to dominate it, which is to love himself more than the state; for he desires this good for himself, not for the state. But to love the  good of the state so that it might be preserved and defended, this is indeed to love the state, and this constitutes the political good. So much is this so, that men would expose themselves to dangers of death or neglect their own private good, in order to preserve or increase the good of the state. [7]

Humans are social beings, and in their social relations, they must work for and preserve the common good. The  pursuit of social justice does not turn us away from God, but rather connects us with God, for through its pursuit we pursue the good which finds its fulfilment in God. To neglect or reject that pursuit is to neglect or reject one of the goods which has been given to us by God, and if we do that, we would dishonor God. This is why we cannot and must not pit “salvation of souls” against the work of social justice. The two go together. And if they go together, than to ignore social justice is to promote the evil which damns souls.

 


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, On Charity. Trans. Lottie H. Kendzierski (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1960; repr. 1984). 28 [ Art. II].

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, On Charity, 29 [ Art. II].

[3] St. Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume I (1-59 On the Psalms). Trans. Marie Liguori Ewald, IHM (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 36-7 [Homily 4].

[4] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms: Codex Monacensis Graecus 314. Trans. Joseph W. Trigg (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2020), 445 [Homily Psalm 81].

[5] St John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ. Trans. E.E. Goulaeff (London: Cassel and Company, Ltd., 1897; repr. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2000), 102.

[6] Roger Bacon, Opus Majus. Part II. trans. Robert Belle Burke (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928), 661.

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, On Charity, 29 [ Art. II].

 

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