Commentary: Coronavirus and the Common Good
I have heard so many different comments about the Coronavirus. Some seek to downplay its significance. Others seem to see the New Apocalypse on the horizon. Some see a political ruse at play to weaken this candidate or another. And, of course, many are hoarding hand sanitizer and other products.
What is the stance of a Christian during the current situation? As with so many issues, the usual polarizing battlegrounds are drawn. But is there a framework that could help us to deal with this reasonably and rationally? There is. Christianity is well poised, through the power of its thinkers, to suggest a way forward not only for this crisis, but for the current polarization that we experience. What is it? The Common Good.
It was Pope John XXIII who provided a definition that is often cited for the phrase Common Good. He defined it this way in Mater et Magistra: “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”
What this suggests is something relational. It is a way of defining a distinction between the individual and society. Let’s begin (as all good Dominicans do) with some distinctions.
SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS
Private Good – just for me. (it could be something I own, like clothing. Since it is intended for me, it is not available to the rest of the community at the time I am using it.
Common Good – goods for all in the community. This is a good we can enjoy without depriving others of the good.
Common good is that which allows us to share in virtue. Consider honesty, for example. It is good for all in society to be honest. My being honest, however, does not prevent others from being honest because I am using it. It directs us to our ultimate end, goal or purpose, namely God.
It is also important to note, that certain basic essentials are to be available to the population. I am not exercising my virtue if I ignore the homeless, for example.
Fr. Bonaventure Chapman, OP, provides a good explanation of the common good. (https://www.dominicanajournal.org/st-thomas-and-the-common-good/)
“The common good is not some utilitarian calculus of the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Nor is it some this-worldly Utopian social scheme. The common good is God; it is achieved through ordering all actions with his divine governance and providence, each thing in its own proper place and with its own proper significance.”
So what does this mean practically? Consider this question. Why should I help the homeless? Well, since God is generous, and I am going to reach my ultimate purpose in living with Him, then what I need to do is to cultivate this virtue in the proper way. If I can (and most of us can) to grow in virtue, and to act in accordance with my final end or goal, I should help.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers three considerations that might be helpful here. (They can be found in paragraphs 1907 to 1917.)
First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his vocation. In particular, the common good resides in the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as “the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard . . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.”
Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself, and it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.”
So, there are certain aspects of society the government must make available. (A side note – this does not mean the government needs to specifically provide for all of this – the government must create the society where these things are possible for all people. Aquinas and the Church uphold the right to private property, etc.) So, if the opportunity for these things is important, then equally important is to provide the reasonable opportunity for those people who may not have these basic needs met. That means as a society must provide food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family responsibility to help people obtain these basic rights.
Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. There is then, a place for the need to provide for the peace people need to thrive.
To this end, individuals have a responsibility and must participate in the promotion of the common good as well. How is it we do this?
First what does it mean to participate in the promotion of the Common Good?
Consider paragraph 1913 in the Catechism. “”Participation” is the voluntary and generous engagement of a person in social interchange. It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person.
And in 1914, “Participation is achieved first of all by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth, man participates in the good of others and of society.”
This means we should, to the degree possible, take an active part in the public life. This is especially true in a country like the United States, when we enjoy so many freedoms.
Further, it is important we all recognize the need for renewed conversion, so that all of us might work for accountability. “Fraud and other subterfuges, by which some people evade the constraints of the law and the prescriptions of societal obligation, must be firmly condemned because they are incompatible with the requirements of justice.”
What does this mean in terms of the Coronavirus and the response to it? First, we need to recognize that there are probably things about this virus of which we are not yet aware. For example, Italy, which faces a high number of cases, receives 13% of revenue through tourism. If they cannot contain the virus soon, not just by the number of people who have it but also with the confidence of the people who would travel there, the results could be disastrous for their economy.
Secondly, we need to recognize that the issue is not only the total number of cases, but who it is that is contracting the virus. Part of the issue in Italy is a concern for having enough hospital beds for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It has been estimated the death rate for those over 80 is 15% (at least in China).
Thirdly, rather than blaming each other for held political beliefs, we need to engage in real, respectful dialogue. We need to insist upon it. We need to seek real solutions to this issue. That will require a lot from all of us. We are not prone to such behavior these days.
The bottom line is, as people living on earth, we are in this together. The drop in oil prices impacts oil workers in the United States and elsewhere, who make their living on oil. You might not get the Coronavirus, but fellow citizens could die. That should sadden all of us. This might put the US and the world into a recession, and the pain from that would not be minimal.
We are currently in an environment where we are too much governed by fear. This did not just begin with the Coronavirus. We have been afraid for a while. We fear refugees, migrants, immigrants, those who disagree with us, those who look different than we do. We need to hear carefully the words of Saint Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The reality is that it is hard to live in a community. No one gets their own way all of the time. People will disagree with us. We can legitimately be worried about having enough for ourselves that we do not want to give to others. But these attitudes do not build virtue. And if we don’t build virtue, we do not grow in our faith.
Maybe the biggest takeaway is that we need to realize that God is the Common Good for all of us. It is union with God, in the Beatific Vision that is the destiny of every one of us. That means, as I tell my students, the earth revolves around the sun, it does not revolve around you. Most of us will not get sick with the virus, or even if we do, we will survive. But the challenge is to remember the least among us, for that is the instruction given to us by Jesus. The least among us are also at higher risk for getting the virus. The old, the infirm, the sick. We need to look past our own needs and see the needs of others, especially when it is difficult. And for heaven’s sake, wash your hands.
Music: His Eyes Are Fire by Loewenklang