The Common Good and Christian Ethics
by David Hollenbach
Cambridge University Press. 269 pp. $23 paper
It is practically axiomatic for Catholic social doctrine that there are common goods which are irreducibly social, and which are not “public” merely by virtue of being utilities for private consumption. David Hollenbach, S.J., who assisted the American bishops in drafting their 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, was chagrined to discover that “a central concept being advanced by the bishops’ letter—the common good—was nearly incomprehensible to most of the people the bishops sought to address.” In his new book, The Common Good and Christian Ethics, he wants to convince the reader not only that the common good is intelligible, but also that a politics of the common good is achievable for a pluralistic, commercial republic that values the utility of temporary partnerships and toleration of cultural and religious differences.
Late in the book, Hollenbach reminds the reader that the notion of a “common good” is analogical, comprising quite different kinds of community. Even so, he almost always speaks of the common good. One reason for this rather stiff expression is that he usually has in mind what the ancient thinkers meant by “polity,” a word that corresponds roughly, and sometimes misleadingly, to what we mean by the state. According to Aristotle, polity is born in the soil of necessities, but it aims at the good life. An inherent feature of the good life is the deliberation of free and equal citizens about how to live their lives together. The overarching theme of The Common Good and Christian Ethics is the worthiness of republican government, albeit one that is qualified and chastened by certain modern realities.
Common goods, Hollenbach argues, are shareable, communicable, and “non-rivalrous in consumption”—“goods we must share in common if we are to have them at all.” Moreover, common goods are not “extrinsic or external to the relationships that exist among those who form the community or society in question.” Hollenbach clearly and usefully distinguishes the common good from a good that has only the unity of an aggregate (“general welfare”), as well as from goods that are deemed “public” only insofar as they bear upon the well-being and rights of individuals (“public interest”). Common goods, as he conceives them, always are rooted in the sociality of society. “A key aspect of the common good can be described as the good of being in a community at all.”
A criticism often made against the left is that “social justice” is a pretext for redistribution of property. For Hollenbach, social justice is not chiefly an exercise of distributing things or utilities, but rather of expanding participation in inherently valuable social activities. This is very close to the classic definition of social justice sketched by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno. Hollenbach does not ask whether there are merely private goods, and in what sense they are private. I was surprised that he did not dig more deeply into Catholic social doctrine for the idea of a “universal destination of all goods”—an idea that is controversial, but favorable to his own line of thought.
One of Hollenbach’s purposes is to show the limited applicability of toleration. A modern liberal polity, he concedes, is rightly wary of the kind of consensus and solidarity that marked the old regimes. Yet historical contingencies are not “eternal truths.” Hollenbach argues that a liberal polity is capable of more than a quiet enjoyment of private goods supplemented by toleration of the lifestyles and religions of others. Toleration presupposes the good of a social order that allows persons to live their lives without undue disturbance. Furthermore, toleration is not apt to capture how we think about some social goods. We don’t tolerate exclusion of citizens from those activities most distinctive of citizenship, such as free and equal deliberation about how we should live our lives together. With regard to the political common good, we do not tolerate de jure exclusion from goods that “must be shared if they are to be had at all.”
This seems obvious enough, at least to this reviewer. But Hollenbach’s argument goes further. In his view, we ought not to tolerate de facto impediments to participation in the common good. His survey of the plight of the urban poor takes this route. The problem of the urban poor cannot be remedied simply by racial toleration, nor even by recirculating monies and utilities. Hollenbach proposes that what is needed is solidarity, shared social forms and life among citizens in the inner city and the white, suburban enclaves. Merely external interdependencies are not enough to constitute a common good.
At a certain level of generality, this is not an implausible position. Hollenbach promises to keep theoretical considerations “close to the ground on which social interaction unfolds today.” I should note, however, that he does not grapple with a really tough case like affirmative action. Smart and nuanced arguments for affirmative action are based not on diversity but on solidarity. Hollenbach reproaches the tolerant, liberal society for underestimating the practical possibilities of solidarity. Though sympathetic with this criticism, I was disappointed that he did not help the reader deal with the complexities of affirmative action policies. What kinds of solidarity comport with a republican government such as ours?
Hollenbach also glides over the most sorely contested issues of social morality. Noting that he has no intention of sorting through all of the controversies about natural law, Hollenbach writes: “I presuppose that ‘natural’ means ‘reasonable’ in the light of careful reflection on the full range of human experience. Thus what is affirmed as natural must ‘make sense’ in the light of critically appropriated experience.” It is pointless to quarrel with an author’s definition, especially one that contains words like “careful” and “critical.” But whether there are moral norms distinct from prudence is an important question. What is nonnegotiable, except for free, equal, and mutually respectful dialogue? Do any of the inherently valuable social forms, such as marriage and family, have fixed boundaries that are not amenable to revisions ensuing from mutual deliberation and “critically appropriated experience”? Even non-governmental societies like churches are treated primarily as training grounds for common goods that are described in terms of equality and respect. I could find little ontological density in Hollenbach’s discussion of the sociality of society or societies.
Anyone who picks up this book for the sake of its title will be disappointed. For Hollenbach doesn’t have much to say about Christian ethics. He is mainly interested in establishing 1) that religious societies are not necessarily a threat to a political common good—indeed, that they are training grounds for it—and 2) that a religious tradition like Catholicism has positive resources motivating its congregants to act for a common good. It is hard to imagine that anyone but the most hard-core secularist would find these points disputable. Some readers will be annoyed that every example provided of “good” or “safe” religion is on the left of the political-cultural spectrum; unsafe religion, of course, is “fundamentalist,” defined as “reaction to the presence of others with different ultimate convictions.” The Moral Majority and the guitar-strumming Communione e Liberazione will be surprised to find themselves grouped with Hamas and Hezbollah. The author evinces not the slightest irony about the fact that his own list would qualify, given his definition, as an exercise in fundamentalism.
The discussion of the Christian contribution to the political common good and social justice is so flat and unnuanced that one is not sure if it represents the author’s own theology, or whether he didn’t think it necessary to present Christian social thought with any specificity. Protestant social ethics makes hardly a cameo appearance. When he treats the Catholic tradition, elementary distinctions are often missing. For example, on the relationship between solidarity and charity, Hollenbach contends that anything beyond the minimum for the very existence of the political common good should be regarded as “supererogatory acts of citizens.” We cannot suppose, he reckons, “that all citizens will consistently love God with all their hearts and love their neighbors as themselves.” In a footnote, he observes that Thomas Aquinas did not develop the distinction between minimal and maximal requirements of the common good “in a fully adequate way.” But he surely knows that Thomas held that the two great commandments are a matter of justice; indeed, they are summary and matrix of the natural law, not merely of the beatitudes. They are not per se supererogatory. Hollenbach reminds the reader that the “fullness of charity” will be realized only eschatologically. True enough, but the same pertains to justice, and it doesn’t clarify how the two great precepts are incumbent upon conduct this side of the heavenly kingdom.
It is true that affirmative precepts require prudential application, and in matters of polity this requires a judgment about what the positive law can legislate and enforce. But when the polity can only command X, it doesn’t necessarily imply that doing more-than-X is supererogatory. Perhaps Hollenbach wishes to remove the great commandments from justice in the strict sense of the term. Perhaps he means that they are binding only in the mode of supernatural charity. It is hard to say, because he does not elucidate the issue. I doubt, however, that he wishes to reduce the morally obligatory and supererogatory to what is prescribed or merely allowed by human positive law in view of the contingent features of the political common good. What about those suburbanites who have little or no interest in sharing their lives with the impoverished of the inner city? Without further qualification, Hollenbach’s position will guarantee that the bishops’ pastoral letters will not move hearts and minds.
I was also puzzled by Hollenbach’s insistence that the Christian vision of the human good is “particularistic” rather than “universal.” To give but one example, he says that the Christian community must “combine fidelity to the particularistic vision of the human good rooted in the gospel with a commitment to discerning the common morality needed in a pluralistic but interdependent world.” Christians, of course, could not quarrel with the sociological fact that Christianity is a particular religion. Admitting different ways we could conceive of Christianity as a part of some other whole, it doesn’t seem quite right to suggest that it is particularist in the sense of ethnicity, language, custom, or culture. In regard to a particularist vision of human goods becoming universal by virtue of dialogue, I found Hollenbach’s use of the conciliar document Gaudium et Spes tendentious and inadequately qualified. One wonders why the Council bothered to begin its constitution on the Church with the words Lumen Gentium (“light to the nations”). Hollenbach seems more interested in showing that Christians are safe participants in the public square than he is in exploring what they might bring to the notion of solidarity, even as it pertains to the terrestrial city.
Russell Hittinger holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa and is author, most recently, of The First Grace: Rediscovering Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (ISI, 2003).