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Some object that referencing “the common good” is vague—that it is a way of hiding political judgments behind the veneer of philosophy. They suspect that what is “common” merely represents the private interests of the few pursuing the lowest goods, and that the way to resist ideology is to opt out of any public philosophy of the common good. But what if the opposite is true? What if the weaker your notion of the common good, the more vulnerable you are to ideology? If Charles De Koninck is right, and I think he is, it is precisely our false, aggregate notions of the common good that make us most vulnerable to ideology. 

Russell Hittinger’s recent Aquinas Lecture, “Catholic Social Teaching: Tradition or Pottage,” asks this question in a different context. Hittinger examines how Catholic “social doctrine” has gone from a clear, strong, philosophically coherent whole to a “confetti of principles.” His diagnosis concerning the ecclesial common good can also illuminate our assumptions about what is required to defend the political common good against ideology. 

Hittinger’s lecture reviews how Catholic social doctrine was first handed on from Pope Leo XIII to Pius XI under a “common philosophical infrastructure,” went underground from 1940–1958 under Pius XII, and then reemerged with John XXIII and Paul VI in a new global context. In this context, a bewildering array of new principles and values was brought into Catholic social teaching, often through a simple method of accumulation. Pope John Paul II attempted to deal with this proliferation of principles, especially through his desire to “strengthen principles” in light of the gospel with the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

Pius XI was the first pope to speak of the Church’s “social doctrine” as a unified set of teachings. While it’s not always easy to see the complexity of Catholic social doctrine as a unity today, it did start out as a “whole.” Pius XI said a coherent Leonine teaching had been handed down to him, one which his predecessor Pius X had also understood. Hittinger says these popes could see the Church’s social doctrine as a whole because they all shared “a common philosophical infrastructure,” a broadly Thomistic, neo-scholastic set of distinctions that “aided a common elucidation of themes.”

Yet Hittinger sees “warning signs” beginning with Pope Pius XII. Pius was well-schooled in the same philosophical infrastructure, yet issued no social encyclicals from 1940 until his death in 1958. Pope John XXIII began writing social encyclicals again, but no longer “to all bishops,” as was the Leonine custom. Rather, he addressed them “to all men of good will.” This shift of address drastically changed the scope and coherence of social doctrine, since it no longer assumed the shared philosophical infrastructure and distinctions that had been essential to the tradition. 

Hittinger sees this shift exemplified by Paul VI’s 1971 apostolic letter, Octagesima Adveniens. Here Pope Paul admits the new difficulty, and counsels a kind of de-centralized, or even synodal, approach:

In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel's unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church (Octagesima, 4). 

It may seem ironic that the shift from addressing “all bishops” to addressing “all people of good will” would make it more difficult to utter a unified message, but it’s exactly the kind of turn that liberals celebrated. They preferred to take Paul VI’s interest in developing the Church’s social doctrine in a more contextual way, in order to “liberate” social doctrine from the older neo-scholastic system of “unchanging principles” and instead select the Church’s “principles and values” according to differing needs in diverse communities. Hittinger says this was a real moment for “cafeteria Catholicism” on social doctrine—the origin of the “Mater si, Magister no” approach, which held that the Church should continue to act as a mother in the modern world, but no longer engage in detailed moral instruction. After the liberal criticism of Humanae Vitae, Hittinger suggests, Paul VI called for a truce that would let a thousand principles bloom. 

Pope John Paul II saw this problem clearly. Social doctrine had become divided between a supposed pre-conciliar “rigid” understanding of unchanging principles and a post-conciliar “discernment of doctrine in varying pastoral contexts.” To tackle this false division, John Paul II insisted that social doctrine had not simply leapt from the mind of Leo in 1878, but neither had a new doctrine been woven out of new conciliar cloth by 1978. Rather, the whole of Catholic social doctrine rests upon eternal principles articulated in the gospel and throughout the whole tradition, “especially in the arguments of the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas.” John Paul II saw that to simply accumulate principles without seeing their coherence was actually a symptom of the “crisis of truth” afflicting the world and the Church’s social doctrine. He understood that if the Church continued on that trajectory it would eventually imperil its own authority, unity, and mission in the world. 

The key text for John Paul II was his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Gone is the language of “discerning doctrine” in various pastoral contexts. He speaks of the Church’s social doctrine as a coherent criterion for judgment and action that can help clarify problems and propose solutions to what are essentially “moral questions.” The Church's social doctrine is not an ideology or an instrument to be used in contrary ways in different parts of the world. Nor can it become the tool of either “liberal Capitalism” or “Marxist collectivism.” 

Instead, the Church’s social doctrine is something whole and true—it is “the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and of the Church's tradition . . . it therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.” 

In 1999, in Ecclesia in America, he dictated the need for a compendium of Catholic social doctrine that would “strengthen principles” without being weighed down by applications in various contexts. He wanted to produce an “approved synthesis of Catholic social doctrine” that would communicate the coherence of the whole in a way that could better serve the end of “the new evangelization.” 

Yet Hittinger argues that such a task proved extremely difficult. John Paul II's team, which took five years to compile the Compendium, accumulated principles and values without thinking through their coherence. Hittinger takes it as indicative of the problem that the vast majority of texts cited in the Compendium are from 1958 and beyond—thus they lacked the original “common philosophical infrastructure” which could have helped them see true and false developments of the Church’s social doctrine. Hittinger’s damning assessment is that far from strengthening principles and showing their philosophical coherence, the compilers of the Compendium achieve only “a confetti of principles.” As a result, it treats the Church’s social doctrine as something vague, like “social justice,” rather than the coherent philosophy for which John Paul II had asked.

Hittinger’s critical analysis comes to a head when he discusses the Compendium’s treatment of the common good. He notes that the older metaphysical definition of the common good—that which belonged to the common philosophical infrastructure of Leo XIII and Pius XI—had given way in the Catechism to a weaker definition lifted from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which suggested that the common good was concerned with “the sum total of social conditions.” But the compilers of the Compendium are aware that this “sum total” account differs from the older and more precise definition of the metaphysical primacy of the common good. So what do they do? As Hittinger observes, they don’t try to reconcile them, they just “juxtapose” them, like this: 

a. The common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.”

b. 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.

Hittinger thinks that the authors of the Compendium juxtapose these two passages without reconciling them because they don’t know how to do so. They are actually perpetuating the problem that John Paul II was trying to solve. The juxtaposition is not only lazy, but dangerous—in such juxtapositions, usually the weaker, less binding of the formulas wins out. This loss of philosophical coherence leads to a loss of moral authority, ecclesial unity, and evangelical witness.

Hittinger observes that “at best these are equivocations about what the common good means.” What was needed was not a mere juxtaposition, but a synthesis that strengthens rather than weakens principles. Hittinger even suggests an elegant way the Compendium authors could have done so. Rather than let a thousand principles bloom, they could have clarified that the first “broadly accepted sense” of the common good is not an aggregate definition at all but simply concerns “social conditions,” whereas the second is a definition of the common good in the strict and stronger sense. If they had done the work that John Paul II had asked for, Hittinger reckons, they would have secured the tradition instead of exchanging it “for a mess of pottage.”

Some might take this as a counsel of despair, but I take Hittinger to be issuing an invigorating challenge. If we want to guard ourselves against ideology and corruptions of our traditions, we need to strengthen principles through coherent philosophical definition and reflection. Hittinger concludes, “it is not only rigid thinking that’s vulnerable to ideology, but also weak thinking is vulnerable to ideology.” 

This is true for the political common good as well as the ecclesial common good. Skepticism that eschews a strong, coherent public philosophy will not help us. Only a philosophically coherent account of the American common good will save us from our descent into ideological incoherence. 

C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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