We are confronted by jarring images these days.
Who would have imagined in February that today we would see millions of Americans wearing face masks on routine trips to the grocery store? Who could have envisioned the sight of armed militants intimidating lawmakers in a state capitol?
These are troubled times, and it’s a good moment to reflect on “the common good” and what a powerful message images can send about our commitment to it.
Government for the common good is a bedrock part of Catholic teaching with roots going back centuries.
The common good is the reason that the political authority exists, according to Catholic social teaching.
Here are some benefits of our commitment to the common good: free public libraries, public schools that serve all equally, fire departments that arrive despite your neighborhood’s wealth, police, public transit, safe drinking water, access to voting rights. The list goes on and on.
We don’t always agree on what best serves the common good. You may oppose a school bond if you think the project is frivolous or the budget hasn’t been well thought out or the property taxes that will result are too much of a burden. Weighing the benefit to the common good, you vote against the bonds.
But if that bond issue passes, are you free to decline to pay the increase in your property tax? Nope, because the electorate decided what was for the common good.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (No. 1906).
Some social conditions, like that bond issue, are decided by a vote of the people. Sometimes, as in the case of some restrictions surrounding behavior during COVID-19, our elected officials make the call. We have a right to disagree peacefully, but we also have the duty to consider what best serves the common good.
The catechism says, “Public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person” (No. 1907). That’s why we Catholics endeavor to protect the lives of the unborn and work for just treatment of people at our border. It’s why we decry injustice when the majority of people who have lost employment during this crisis are lower-paid workers, and when people of color contract COVID-19 out of proportion to their numbers in our population.
While the common good defends our individual rights, it constantly reminds us that we’re in this together.
Images carry great weight. Intimidation by bringing weapons into a capitol building is wrong and sends a message about our nation: that we’re lawless, prone to violence, have no respect for just authority and no concern for the common good. It’s the opposite of legitimate protest.
Wearing a face mask also makes a statement. It says you care about the elderly, those most threatened and the grocery clerk who must work to support her family.
Wear your face mask. Wear it even if your employer or governor or mayor or neighborhood grocery hasn’t required it. Wear the mask because you want to send a message to those who won’t, who think they’re above the law or don’t care about the common good.
Catholicism is not our private Sunday morning religion. It’s our public way of life. In the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them.”