header icons

The Common Good and the Body of Christ: St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Worker Movement

by Ade Bethune

This is the thirteenth article in the series on the saints and philosophers who influenced Peter Maurin and Dorothy in the development of the Catholic Worker movement.

The Catholic Worker is neither liberal nor conservative. As the editors
 of the Houston Catholic Worker have insisted with determined constancy, the Catholic Worker embodies the radical discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Worker, for example, appears conservative in its claim that abortion is wrong and appears liberal in its practice of welcoming immigrants. That the labels conservative and liberal can be mixed and matched so quickly suggests that these labels are banalities. In order to be struck by the vision of the Catholic Worker, particularly of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, we must look back to the Catholic tradition which predates the political situation of the United States and its presumptions of rugged individualism.

A compelling alternative to this individualism assumed by both liberal
 and conservative party politics is St. Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the
 common good. The doctrine of the common good teaches that the 
individual person is a member of a larger body. Just as the goal, or
 end, of each individual member of a community is the common good of that larger community, so also the goal, or end, of each organ and muscle in our body is the common good of the overall person. The function of a
 liver, for example, is to reduce the level of toxic elements for the health of the overall body. But, the goal of the liver is the good of the person. Within the human body, the particular role of each organ works harmoniously, or at least is supposed to, to produce the common good of the body. So humans have their particular functions and goals within the wider society, but the ultimate goal of each of us is the good common to all of us. The analogy to the human body is only partial because the organs of the body do not have the same dignity as the person. But it does help us to understand how we are not simply individuals who happen to be stuck in this world with other individuals who happen to be stuck with us.

We are all ordered, by God, to the same good. Moreover, we attain this 
good in life with others and not by ourselves. This should not be 
surprising for as Aristotle observed, even before Aquinas, humans are by nature social animals. Therefore, our happiness, or the perfection of
 our natures, will include this social dimension. Parents and children, 
as a microcosm of society, naturally have a sense that their individual
 good is the good of the family. The goal of a father includes that his
 children reach their spiritual and material potential. When a father 
pursues his own ends to the exclusion of meeting these needs, we can
 rightly say that he fails to reach his own potential.

The contemporary contrast to the Catholic doctrine of the common good is the idea of the public interest. The rhetoric of the public interest 
suggests that everyone has his or her own private interest and that the
 public interest is the sum total of these private interests. This is one often overlooked factor in the current problems of the family. Contemporary society tells the members of the family that they have their own interests and that these will most likely conflict. So the
 father comes to view his children as detractions from his career, that
 is, from his private interest. Moreover, on the larger scale of the 
liberal democratic (here including both liberals and conservatives)
structure of the United States the connection between the private and
 public interests is most often artificial and superficial. The politics 
of the United States focuses on preserving the rights of the individual 
to determine his or her own interests. Since private interests are,
 just that, private, the public interest is reduced to the commitment to
 an ever-increasing Gross National Product. As the Gulf War made clear, national and international economic interests determine the nations
 against which the United States will wage war.

Against this idea of the public interest, which so quickly is reduced to 
economic interest, the Catholic doctrine of the common good rejects 
economics as the axis around which society must revolve. Ironically, 
the culture of individualism cannot keep the human person at the center
 of society. The signs of the times are the contemporary malls or
 Walmarts, where it is people who revolve around material goods. St.
 Thomas Aquinas insists, however, that material goods have no other
 purpose than meeting the needs of humankind. A certain amount of
 material goods are necessary to live a good life, but they are not
 sufficient. Thus, the common good is not simply the sum total of each
 person’s particular economic good, but is in reality the final goal of
 the individual person. The doctrine of the common good keeps the human person at the center of society and orders material goods so that the each person can live a good life.

In the same vein as the Social Encyclicals, the doctrine of the common
 good rejects both communism and unbridled capitalism. The former
 deprives the person of ownership of goods and the latter ignores the
 proper use of goods. The extremes of communism and capitalism both deny the spiritual element of the human person; by this reduction of the
 human good to economics, and economic goods to material goods, they are equally totalitarian.

The production of material goods becomes the criterion of a good
 society. And it should be noted that the fall of Soviet communism is now viewed as its failure to produce goods as effectively as the capitalism of the West. Capitalistic nations voice no criticism over the materialism of communism; rather, capitalism is celebrated as the greatest method for the production of goods. Capitalism may have won this skirmish with communism over productivity, but it continues to play the same materialistic game.

Instead of placing the increase of the Gross National Product at the
 center of society, the doctrine of the common good recognizes the
 development of the human person as the central criterion. The common
 good of the community can only be attained as each member attains his or her particular good. So as parents we serve the common good by raising our own children and helping out those children who cross our path. The common good, however, is not served by having an exclusive concern for children in general. Consider again the analogy of the human body: the liver can only serve the body by exercising its particular function of reducing toxic elements, not by having some general non-specific function. The doctrine of the common good embodies a personalist approach in which we love our neighbor particularly, not merely humanity in general. Just as love of humanity is worthless if we do not love this neighbor before us, the common good demands that we strive for the particular goods of those neighbors. Here “neighbor” is not an abstraction consisting in everyone, everywhere, at all times, but initially these very people who are near to us. And as the parable of
 the Good Samaritan teaches us, if we are caught up in ourselves we will
 overlook the needy ones whose paths we cross everyday. To work for the common good requires that we help this particular person dying on the road, or this particular hungry person, or this particular person seeking the truth of the Catholic faith. The common good is sought
 through the traditional works of mercy here and now.

The doctrine of the common good becomes supernaturally transformed into the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ. St. Paul expounds the 
doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ in which baptized Christians
 form one body of which Christ is the head: “As a body is one though it
 has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one
 body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one
 body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free person, and we were all
 given to drink of one Spirit” (I Corinthians 12: 12-13). As the Church
 we are the Body of Christ; individually we are members of that one
 body. That humans find redemption and perfection through incorporation into the Body of Christ presupposes that humans naturally are ordered to one another in an organic corporate whole. In other words, the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ builds on the doctrine of the common good. Or, even more to the point, once we have been instructed by God’s
 revelation in Jesus Christ that Christians are incorporated into the
 Body of Christ, it becomes easier to see that our individual lives on
 this earth are directed to the common good.

The Mystical Body of Christ is a much more profound reality than any
 earthly community. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist the 
members of Christ are in reality connected as one body. The doctrine of
 the common good teaches us that the goal of our individual lives is the
 good of the larger community in which we live. But the Body of Christ
 extends through all time and space so that we are joined with the saints
 of biblical and later times. What is foreshadowed in the common good is fulfilled in the reality of the body of Christ.

So those of us who are Christians, let us recognize that we are one body
 and continue to give ourselves to the care of other members of the
 body. Let us share our material goods with those who are in need. And let us call others into the one body of Christ, and teach those who are only potentially members of the body of Christ that they are already connected to another through the common good. The individual bent on accumulation of material goods may end up with a two-car garage and a
 nice fence to keep out the neighbors. But she will deny her fundamental
 reality as a person created by God with personal duties to God, herself,
 and her neighbor.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 6, November 1997.