The Common Evil: Does It Exist As Well as the Common Good?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

When we search for the phrase “common good” in the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, we find it is mentioned one-hundred and fifty-two times. Briefly the spine of this notion is the following

165. 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. The human person cannot find fulfillment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists “with” others and “for” others….

166. …. [The demands of the common good] concern above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom….

social_doctrine170. The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation. God is the ultimate end of his creatures and for no reason may the common good be deprived of its transcendent dimension, which moves beyond the historical dimension while at the same time fulfilling it….

After explaining that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of the principles and the content of the social teaching of the Church, the notion of the common good comes in second place, then subsidiarity and solidarity in third place (CST 160). When all of these ideals are in place and linked harmoniously together and actualized by virtuous persons, then the political, economic and familial societies in principle flourish together with individual human fulfillment in grace and virtue. Human rights and duties are respected and the poor and marginalized are in theory enabled to rise above their lot in life. When these foundations are voided by the political, economic, cultural classes with bad law and order, then the structures of moral evil pervade making personal growth in wisdom, love and care for others exceedingly difficult if not sometimes heroic. When greed, envy, pride, lust, are the goods guiding pillars of a society or a person, this leads to a culture of the envious and self-centered looking for pleasure as the common good, but reason and faith, call this stew an illusory good. The natural law is then replaced by technocracy and man is defined by genetics, chemicals and environment lacking in free will. So, the populace thinks it can choose to become what individuals think will fulfill them. So enters a collective or “common evil” eating out the moral values inherent in human nature and thereby society itself. Cardinal Muller, the head of CDF, recently called this deep problem the dictatorship of relativism and the globalization of indifference.

If human nature is meant to seek communion with and for persons in a self-gift, respecting rights and duties to one another, then the forces of a common cultural evil thwart and presents a teleology of the human person in such as way that it enables the more powerful to dominate the less so. People are to be used rather than loved for their own sake. Instead of loving the good of others and bringing them truly good things, persons become stepping stones either to sexual pleasure, or further power, or riches, luxury, superfluous or worldly goods to the cultural exclusion of God and spiritual goods of virtue and grace. Human life becomes a “thing” to be manipulated according to the more powerful’s personal goals and designs. This means that one has a right to destroy in the womb this object when inconvenient or if elderly and useless, a leech on the community to be euthanized when seemingly useless for one’s personal or societal ends.

In today’s modern world here in the USA and Europe, there is a battle within the populace going on between a person-centered common good, and a selfish-centered apparent common good, which is really toward a common evil co-existing and undermining the common good of a society. This is especially seen working itself out with widespread pornography, abortion and euthanasia of young and old. With the demise of the middle working class, more are entering into the poverty level especially with single mothers caused by easy divorce, young people living together without commitment to each other or offspring, or a hookup culture together with the excessive mobility of people no longer staying at their job nor understanding work as a vocation rather than simply a means to get income.

There is a saying often on elevators or dispensers of food and drink, “out of order.” So, when a society is no longer held together by a belief in God, the laws of nature (also known as evident commandments from God), then we find a common good being slowly or quickly absorbed by a common evil like a poison or a frog in water slowly boiling. Behind most grave sins, one finds an increase on the dispositions of the capital vices such as pride, vainglory, greed, envy and acedia (often called sloth). These are the seedbeds of the common evil because they tend to produce vices that eventually cause wars against other nations, the middle class, the poor, the family and children. Science becomes an end unto itself without bioethical norms of the natural law to guide experiments on human beings. Some in the medical profession, likewise, tends to take more risks than reasonable or ignore their patients except in making out endless reports to protect themselves from being sued. Large corporations tend to set up their wares in poorer countries that pay a pittance so that they can sell their products at home at a very reduced rate thereby undermining competition with lesser known smaller companies producing the same product.

In other words, the true common good is an ideal which should shape society in terms of reasonable health, prosperity and virtue while the anti-ideal is the “common evil” chipping away at the person centered way of life with a for-profit lifestyle, which, as Pope Francis and Popes before him have warned, is harming the environment and thereby robbing persons of the future who also depend on earth for food, drink and medicine. He says as much in Laudato Si’:

82. Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus….

The New Evangelization has new work cut out for it and it isn’t pleasant.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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