A proper understanding and application of Catholic social doctrine is critical to the survival of the Church in the West. This is especially true in regard to the United States, embroiled as it is within what is arguably the most turbulent election year it has ever faced. Many Catholics are ill-equipped to navigate the complex political landscape of twenty-first century America in a manner that is consistent with the teachings of the Church. Intentionally or otherwise, Catholics often align themselves with political candidates or platforms that run contrary to the common good of society. Some have even twisted the definition of Catholic social teaching out of its proper context, thereby reducing it to being merely about earthly prosperity and material goods with little or no recognition of higher, eternal goods. In other words, many Catholics are simply unable to “perceive the proper relationship among moral goods.” To arrive at this proper relationship, it is first necessary to arrive at a proper understanding of what Catholic social doctrine is, particularly in its aspects of the common good and the definition of justice.
The Common Good
Pope St. John XXIII describes the common good as a principle that, “touches the whole man, the needs of both body and soul … Therefore, it follows that the civil authorities are to endeavor to effect the common good by ways and means proper to them, that is, while respecting the right order of things.”
The common good therefore, is a good that pertains to more than the material needs and comforts of this world. By its nature, it extends also to the spiritual needs of man; needs that
should play an important role in matters of public policy. While encompassing both the material and spiritual dimensions of man’s existence, the common good also implies a just distribution of these goods among men. The unjust denial of these goods to the human person would constitute a violation of human dignity. Yet even a term such as “dignity” can be easily misunderstood by those who are not well versed in the study of Catholic social doctrine. Before proceeding further with this discussion, it is therefore necessary to clarify the meaning of the common good as it relates to human dignity and the rights which proceed from it.
Dr. Brian Benestad describes the spiritual and material dimensions of the common good as the “substantive” common good and the “instrumental” common good. The instrumental common good is most commonly associated with Catholic social teaching today and it refers to finite goods that can only be shared in a limited quantity, such as roads, schools, and wealth. The substantive good on the other hand refers to goods that are infinitely sharable, such as truth, love, virtue, and ultimately God Himself. It is the substantive common good that quickly gets forgotten in the midst of twenty-first century political debates. One reason for this according to Benestad is that, “the Council [Vatican II] doesn’t specify clearly enough what its definition of the common good means. When it gives specific examples of the [instrumental] common good, it lists things that would be the object of any procedural republic.”
The Catholic Church does however, “keep trying to persuade people that seeking the [instrumental] common good requires attention to truth, justice, love, virtue, and the duty of thesocial order [substantive good].” In view of this fact, the Second Vatican Council at least went as far as to clarify that that government in power has an obligation to make the substantive common good available to its citizens by utilizing its authoritative power in a just manner. The government however, cannot do this effectively if it does not possess a proper understanding of justice. It is to the definition of justice therefore to which we must now turn our attention.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines justice in its simplest terms when it says that justice, “is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” This definition, while applicable in most situations, requires further clarification in the study of Catholic social doctrine. To that end, the Catechism distinguishes between different types of justice when it describes commutative justice, legal justice, and distributive justice.
“Commutative justice regulates exchanges between persons and between institutions in accordance with a strict respect for their rights.” It is the type of justice which ensures the protection of property rights, the paying of debts, and the fulfilment of civil contracts.
Legal justice is similar to commutative with the exception that is it focused primarily on a person’s obligation toward the community as whole, rather than to one individual or an institution.
“Distributive justice regulates what the community owes its citizens in proportion to their goods and needs.” This is the type of justice to which we most frequently refer when discussing Catholic social doctrine, and it is the most heavily misunderstood by contemporary society. This misunderstanding can be largely attributed to society’s overreliance on rights language for its recognition of what is just and unjust. The problem that this poses is that there is very little basis in modern society to determine what is a right and what is not, who has rights and who does not, and which rights are higher than others.
On this point, Benestad argues that we should replace the language of rights with the language of virtue, since virtue presupposes a foundational ordering of rights, which are derived from the dignity of each person as created in the image and likeness by God. Specifically, Benestad says that, “unlike virtue, rights can be misused. They have been increasingly invoked to justify abortion, euthanasia, suicide, physician-assisted suicide, and marriage between people of the same sex. People can appeal to rights as a justification for not making any contributions to the communities in which they live.”
The language of rights therefore, is inherently flawed without a proper understanding of where these rights come from. As such, it is difficult for Catholics to argue against public evils like abortion on the basis of rights because the argument will quickly deteriorate into a battle over whose right is more important. In attempting to argue for the common good, such a Catholic may only succeed in undercutting his own position.
To overcome this problem, a Catholic should argue for virtue instead of rights. Since justice is itself a cardinal virtue, this course of action makes sense. Instead of trying to argue for the substantive common good by using the muddled language of society, we must change the terms of the debate and introduce universal concepts like Aristotelian natural law as well as virtue and justice as defined by the Church. In this way, we will be able to establish a hierarchy of goods which will determine how we should respond to significant moral and societal issues. By anchoring ourselves in the concrete language of virtue and natural law, Catholics will no longer be steamed rolled by the arbitrary, subjective language of rights, which tends to be based more on personal desire than any objective standard of morality.
Now that we understand the nature of the common good (substantive and instrumental) and of justice (giving others their due), we can apply what we know about the language of virtue to some of the ethical dilemmas facing our nation today in order to establish “the proper relationship among moral goods” spoken of by the USCCB.
Hierarchy of Goods
“The common good therefore involves all members of society, no one is exempt from cooperating, according to each one’s possibilities, in attaining it and developing it.” From this statement, it is clear that the substantive and instrumental common good are intended for all members of society. To exempt anyone from the goods that are due to him would constitute a grave violation of justice. This happens all too frequently in cases of abortion, where a human being is prevented from achieving his fullest potential through the premeditated ending of his life. The only proper approach to take with abortion according to Catholic social doctrine is for society to outlaw the practice. Since abortion is a violation of human dignity as a creation of God and is contrary to Aristotelian natural law, the unborn child has a right to life which cannot be superseded by any so-called “right” that the mother may have in regard to her child.
What we have already begun to see here is a hierarchy of goods, based on virtue, which determines the correct course of action for society to take as a whole. There are some lesser goods (secondary matters) which can be debated in the political sphere, such as immigration policy or the minimum wage, but there are also higher goods (primary matters) which cannot be debated without contradicting the reality of human existence. As Pope St. John Paul II once wrote, “no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights [derived from God], since this would do violence to their nature.”
The Catechism explains why certain issues can be debated while other cannot be when it says that, “The demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights.” Thus, each time period possesses its own unique social conditions which affect the debate over smaller matters of justice and the common good, but these smaller matters must themselves be oriented toward the preservation of man’s fundamental dignity as a creation of God. In other words, immigration policy or the minimum wage can be debated as long as the proposed solution to these problems does not harm the dignity or nature of the people. Issues like abortion cannot be debated because no matter what form its application takes, abortion will always do violence to the dignity of human beings. The only proper solution in this case therefore, is to end abortion altogether.
Similarly, the practice of same-sex marriage cannot be permitted in any form according to Catholic social teaching because it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of human beings and of marriage itself. According to Pope Benedict XVI, “Marriage and family are rooted in the inmost nucleus of the truth about man and his destiny.” This statement serves as a clarification of John Paul II’s earlier reflection that, “man has been made in the image and likeness of God not only by his being human, but also by the communion of persons that man and woman have formed from the beginning.”
Marriage has always been understood in natural law to be a procreative union between a man and woman. Since men and women are rational beings, marriage is the only proper mode of reproduction available to them. Two people of the same sex cannot unite and reproduce as people of the opposite sex can. As such, same-sex marriage inherently contradicts human nature, both in its rationality and in its natural reproductive capacity. The negative effects on human persons which same-sex unions produce will inevitably culminate in much broader negative effects for society as a whole. According to the hierarchy of goods therefore, which is being weighted by virtue and natural law, same-sex marriage cannot be permitted in any society for any reason. The desire of two persons for a sexual relationship cannot supersede the laws of nature and of human dignity to which all people are bound.
Making use of the same principles, we can quickly discern that other common practices of our era, such as euthanasia and assisted suicide, are morally incompatible with Catholic social teaching. The latter two practices fundamentally disregard the dignity of human life (a higher good) in exchange for the relief of suffering (a lesser good). As such, society has a vested interest in banning such practices.
As for the more recent issues of cloning, fetal stem-cell experimentation, and various forms of biotechnology, these cannot be permitted under any circumstances as they reduce human dignity to the point where it becomes a mere tool for scientific advancement. Many of the scientists performing these practices are placing themselves in a position to “play God” by manipulating His creation in ways that do violence to its nature.
The death penalty on the other hand, presents an example of an issue which can be permitted under certain conditions but not others. While the taking of any human life is violation of his dignity, the hierarchy of goods based on virtue suggests that the death penalty can be permitted if there is no other way to ensure the greater good of keeping society safe from the condemned criminal. This idea is a slippery slope however, as it is also a principle of sound morality that we can never perform an evil so that good may come of it. This is why the Church today proposes that the death penalty be abolished as we now have modern means of detaining criminals and preventing them from harming society. Accordingly, the Catechism clarifies that, “If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
There is a delicate balance in play here between the restoration of justice, the protection of the common good, and the dignity of the human person. As with every aspect of Catholic social doctrine, the question we face is whether the action before us is truly just and virtuous.
According to Benestad, “the economic system of a country exists to provide the framework in which work takes place and exercises a great influence on all employers and employees.” The Church can only advise us on economic matters insofar as they pertain to moral principles which affect the dignity of human beings. As Pope Leo XIII says, “If I gave my approval to particular points on matters essentially economic, I would be restricting the liberty of men in an area where God left them entirely to themselves.” Those areas in which the Church can intervene however, will determine the proper solution to a variety of modern economic problems, such as a just wage, private property, and immigration. In this vein, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clarifies that, “the development of wealth and its progressive increase, not only in quantity, but also in quality; this is morally correct if it is directed to man’s overall development in solidarity and to that of the society in which people live and work.” In other words, a good economy according to Gaudium et spes, is one which “both respects and promotes the dignity of the human person and the welfare of everyone in society.”
This is fundamentally the reason that the Church condemns such economic regimes as communism and socialism, which strip away man’s ability to increase his own wealth, position, and prosperity. He is reduced to being a mere cog in a vast machine of economic progress from which he will never reap any benefits. The Church has intervened on many occasions to say that man has a fundamental right to the possession of private property. Cardinal Hoffner expresses the reason for this when he writes that, “Christian tradition has pointed again and again to the fact that God’s providence has distributed wealth and natural resources unequally among the people of different lands and races.” While communism and socialism attempt to equalize society by removing class distinctions based on wealth and prosperity, historical evidence and the natural order of human civilization suggest that such equality is actually contrary to human dignity and inevitably results in disorder. According to the Cardinal, “a centrally administered community of goods threatens the freedom and dignity of man”by taking incentive away from the workers and concentrating power in the hands of the administers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Church also condemns unbridled capitalism in its pure form, as it places self-interest above the common good of society. Benestad outlines how Pope John Paul II frequently emphasized the need for “individuals to avoid being led astray by the civilization of consumerism and learn how to live their lives in solidarity with others.” Thus, while it is contrary to the dignity of man to be prevented from pursuing his own interests, these interests must also be balanced against the common good of the whole society. This is the principle which allows us to examine secondary economic issues such as the minimum wage and immigration with a correct moral compass.
In its simplest terms, a just wage is one which allows a man to provide for the material needs of himself and his family. This fact is balanced against the needs of the company to sustain itself financially. Pietro Pavan and Teodoro Onofri outline six basic principles for determining a just wage when they write that a just wage, “Must be sufficient to ensure what’s necessary and fitting for the worker,” for his family, for the acquisition of private property, and for the pursuit of more noble goods while simultaneously ensuring the productivity of the company, and contributing to “the requirements of the common good” of society.
As for the issue of immigration, the Church has little to say about its proper application, except that, “the right of reuniting families should be respected and promoted.” It is generally understood that a nation has the right to regulate its immigration policies according to the needs and protection of its citizens. The Church does however, insist that the dignity of immigrants and their families be respected in this process. Accordingly, the U.S. and Mexican bishops have outlined five basic principles by which the treatment of immigrants should be governed.
Immigrants should seek opportunities within their own countries beforehand, they have the right to immigrant as a means of supporting their families, nations should control and protect their borders, refugees should be given asylum, and undocumented immigrants must still be treated with the dignity that is proper to all human beings.
Based on the preceding principles, it is clear that a nation should never deport an illegal immigrant if doing so would separate him from the family for which he is responsible, as this would only harm the common good of society. At the same time, nations must work to prevent such situations from developing by properly securing their borders.
As we can see, the substantive and instrumental common good are crucial factors to be considered when exploring solutions to predominantly economic problems. While many such problems can be solved in any number of ways, there are some which can only be solved correctly by the application of the Church’s principles on the dignity of man in his nature, as well as the preservation of justice and the common good of society. This is true in matters of both private and public economics, with private meaning the economic decisions of individuals or local groups, and public meaning the overall governing policies of a given regime.
The Compendium states that, “Political authority exercised at the level of the international community must be regulated by law, ordered to the common good, and respectful of the principle of subsidiarity. International law must not be allowed to steam roll national, state, or local law. There are instances where international law must intervene on behalf of a failing or inadequate national or local government, but such interventions must never attempt to usurp the proper authority of the national or local government it seeks to aid.
An example of such usurpation can be found in the United Nations’ efforts to force the practices of sterilization and contraception upon underdeveloped countries in exchange for food and medical supplies. The Compendium strongly denounces this in saying that, “All programs of economic assistance aimed at financing campaigns of sterilization and contraception, as well as the subordination of economic assistance to such campaigns, are to be morally condemned as affronts to the dignity of the person and the family.”
Such affronts can be easily perpetrated by a global governing body, which has led many to view such a body with suspicion and fear. Many are afraid that international law will amass too much power and will thereby trample upon their fundamental human rights, such as the right of religious liberty. Perhaps no better example of this can be given than the question of how international law should address the crisis in the Middle-East, now dominated by the Islamic terrorist organization known as ISIS.
Muslims in the United States feel that their religious liberty is threatened by the radical behavior of ISIS in the Middle-East, as this behavior affects the general perception of Muslims here in America. At the same time, Christians are feeling that our religious liberty is being slowly stripped away from us as the federal government becomes more and more secularized and gains more power over the state and local governments. As Americans, we struggle to decide if we should go to war against ISIS; and as Christians, we are afraid that our own government will soon wage war against us. It is to the principles of Catholic social teaching that we must now turn our attention as we strive to determine the correct course of action in these or in any similar scenario.
The Church has always recognized the existence of a just war. This fact can be easily demonstrated in the canonization of various saints who were soldiers and had fought in wars. As to the question of whether a war against ISIS would be just, we must look to the wisdom of the great theologians and doctors of the Church.
According to Benestad, “Augustine set the stage for the development of just-war doctrine by his rich notion of peace, his understanding of war as inevitable because of sin, and his teaching that rulers have an obligation to protect their fellow citizens from unjust attack, even by the judicious use of force.”From Augustine’s teaching, it is clear that nations have the right to wage war in order to protect their citizens from unjust aggression or to alleviate an unjust oppression. Benestad explains how St. Thomas Aquinas further clarifies the parameters of a just war in his Summa Theologica, saying that, “Unjust war is an offense against charity. Soldiers fighting in a just war are practicing charity, since they put their lives on the line in order to protect the innocent and preserve the common good … three things are necessary for a war to be just: a decision by a sovereign authority, a just cause, and a rightful intention.”
The application of these principles is both intriguing and revealing because they provide a solid criteria by which we may determine whether the wars of the past were just, and which wars should be waged in the future. While it is true that religious liberty ought to be respected and preserved across the board, this liberty does not exempt anyone from the principles of justice, human dignity, and the common good.
In the case of ISIS, it might perhaps be just for the U.S. to wage war against them on account of the severe violation of human dignity they have committed against Christians in the Middle-East. The situation becomes more complicated however, in view of the fact that destroying ISIS would likely result in further destabilizing the region by causing another harmful regime to take its place. It now becomes a question of what will actually contribute to the common good and the restoration of justice. For my part, I believe that the solution is to wage war against ISIS in order to prevent them from committing further atrocities against human dignity. While doing so may likely produce the double effect of bringing another terrorist entity to power, I believe that the war would still be just on account of the rightful intention to protect the innocent people in the Middle-East. In simple terms, the rise of another terrorist entity in the future is not a certainty. What is certain is that innocent people will continue to be tortured and killed in the present if we do nothing.
The Church also recognizes along with most contemporary thinkers that self-defense is a just cause for war, both on an individual and national level, provided that the life of the attacker is respected insofar as possible. Benestad believes that, “Catholics should not embrace absolute pacifismin the face of aggression as this would demonstrate a lack of charity for oneself or one’s neighbor by not protecting him from an unjust attack on his dignity as a creation of God.
What this discussion is intended to point us toward are the principles of Catholic social doctrine by which we may establish a political and economic platform in conformity with Catholic teaching. While there is no such thing as a “Catholic vote” in the sense that every Catholic is going to vote the same way on every issue, these principles are the means by which Catholics should inform their conscience when voting for political policies or candidates. By maintaining a proper hierarchy among truth and goods, and by understanding the difference between essential doctrine and debatable opinion, we enable ourselves to see through the dense fog of our modern political landscape to arrive at the heart of the issues which so deeply affect our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens. By voting as Catholics ought to vote, in maintaining a proper relationship between justice, natural law, human dignity, and the common good, we have a chance to reshape society into a mechanism for the glory of God and the good of souls.
 USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 18
 Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 57
 Benestad, Brian J. Church, State, and Society, 94
 Ibid, 93
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1807
 Ibid, 2411
 Benestad, Brian J. Church, State, and Society, 53
 USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 18
 John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 421
 John Paul II, Message for the 1999 World Day of Peace, 379
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1907
 Benedict XVI, Address to Institute for Studies on Marriage, May 11, 2006
 John Paul II, Catechesis on Love, November 14, 1979
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267
 Benestad, Brian J. Church, State and Society, 315
 Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891
 Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 334
 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 332
 Hoffner, Christian Social Teaching, 170
 Ibid, 170-71
 Benestad, Brian J. Church, State, and Society, 319
 Pietro Pavan and Teodoro Onofri, La dottrina sociale cristiana, 156-59
 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 298
 U.S. and Mexican Catholic Bishops, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, nos. 34-38
 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 441
 Ibid, no. 234
 Benestad, Brian J. Church, State, and Society, 408
 Ibid, 426