Four Principles: Personhood, Common Good, Solidarity, Subsidiarity
With these four principles we can grasp human society in its entirety and consider this reality truthfully. They are interrelated and we, as human beings, must act in accordance with them. No human can reasonably situate himself outside of social life. We have responsibility through the Commandment of love of God and neighbour to help others, to serve the common good, to help every individual live a dignified life, and to protect the intrinsic rights of groups and associations.
This is covered in the previous section, under The Dignity of the Human Person.
Vatican II defined the Common Good as “the sum total of social conditions which allows people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.” It is about the progress of persons.
A society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of the human being at every level is a society that has the common good – the good of all people and of the whole person as its primary goal.
We must be interested in the good of all, even of people nobody thinks about because they have no voice and no power. The goods of the earth are there for everyone. The common good consists not only of the material or external good of all human beings; it also includes the comprehensive good of the human being, including even the spiritual good.
The common good of society is not an end in itself. It is only part of a bigger picture, the ultimate end of which is God. The common good, as a mere materialistic socio-economic ideal, would count for little without any transcendental goal.
The Common Good and Politics
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that “it is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.”
The common good, in fact, is the very reason that political authority exists.
It is the role of political institutions to make available to persons the necessary material, cultural, moral and spiritual goods required to allow each individual to achieve their full development. Among the duties of government is the need to harmonise different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice. It is an extremely delicate task but one of great importance.
The Universal Destination of Goods
God created the world for all and the goods of the world should in principle, be at the disposal of all and for the good of all, without preferential treatment. John Paul II in the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus states: “the earth, by reason of its fruitfulness and its capacity to satisfy human needs, is God’s first gift for the sustenance of human life.”
Every person has the right to what is vitally necessary and this must not be withheld from him. The Church accepts that there is a right to property and that there will always be differences in how much people own, but if some have more while others lack the bare necessities there is a need for charity and also for justice.
Is private property permissible? It is reasonable for there to be private property; through work and the acquiring of private property a person shapes the earth and makes a piece of it his own. Private property encourages freedom and independence and it also encourages the individual to preserve and care for his property. The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et spes, states that private property and other forms of private ownership of goods “assure a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom….stimulating exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty.”
It is, however, important that owners of private property make use of it in a manner consistent with the common good; that is, the good of all. Property includes intellectual property, knowledge, and technology. This is particularly important in the context of wealthy nations and their obligations to poorer nations.
Preferential Option for the Poor
The principle of the universal destination of goods requires that the poor and the marginalised should be the focus of particular concern. We imitate Christ by a loving preference for the poor, inspiring us to embrace the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without healthcare, and those without hope of a better future.
The Catechism (103) makes this abundantly clear: “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.” It further states (2248) that the Church, “since her origin and in spite of the failing of many of her members, has not ceased to work their [the poor] relief, defence and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.”
The Church’s love for the poor is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, the poverty of Jesus and his attention to the poor. The Church teaches that one should assist one’s fellow man in his various needs and fill the human community with countless works of corporal and spiritual mercy.
‘When we attend to the needs of the poor, we give them what is theirs, not ours. We pay a debt of justice.’ (St Gregory the Great, Regula Pastoralis)
Every task of society should be assigned to the smallest possible group that can perform it. Only if the smaller group is unable to resolve the problem itself should a group at a higher level assume responsibility. This idea is summed up in the principle of subsidiarity.
For example, if a family is experiencing problems, the state can intervene only if the family or the parents are overburdened and cannot resolve them. It helps to avoid too much centralisation. Being able to help oneself is an important component of the dignity of the human person.
Pope Pius XI’s encyclical letter Quadragesimo Anno, which introduced the principle, goes as far as to say that ‘it is an injustice and a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.’
It is the same for politics. Only where local government cannot resolve a problem by itself may the federal/central government claim competence.
We, as Christians, are called to participate in society so that we may contribute to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the community. We have a responsibility to seek and work for the common good, and with this in mind we must become involved in all areas of life, using our Christian values as a basis for our participation and encouraging others to do the same.
In a political sense, we may simply exercise our right and our moral duty to vote, or we may even contact our local elected representative to discuss a particular issue. We may even become a member of a political party. These, and many others, are examples of participation.
No human being can live for himself alone; he is always dependent on others. There are two complimentary aspects to solidarity: social principle and moral virtue. As a moral virtue solidarity determines the order of institutions ensuring no “structures of sin” dominate relationships between individuals and peoples and where they do exist purifying and transforming them into structures of solidarity. It involves very deliberate practical support for the wellbeing of all people. Vague words of compassion do not help, we are called to act!
Solidarity is a social principle because it is a matter of justice and it is directed to the common good, and a commitment to the good of others.
Next: The Family