Europe’s Common Good

Patrick Riordan SJ: Europe’s Common Good: the Contribution of the Catholic Church

The following article was first published in 'Europe’s Common Good: The Contribution of the Catholic Church'. Orientalia et Occidentalia, 4, pp. 279-294 (2009). 

[NB This page contains two major articles. Scroll down below this paper for 'A Blessed Rage for the Common Good.']

You can also follow links to read more of Patrick's thoughts on Europe in blogs for Thinking Faith. One from July 2015 explores Greece: Solidarity and subsidiarity in action and another from February 2016 asks Whatever Happened to Solidarity?  Patrick's final blog before the June 2016 referendum explored Our Common Goods in the European Union.


Religion: Problem or Promise?

The Role of Religion in the Integration of Europe

The gradual expansion of the European Union is a project of constructing not only a set of institutions but also more intangibly a consciousness of solidarity transcending national, cultural and linguistic divisions. There is a widespread recognition that religion is very important in this process, and the Christian Churches have been invited to reflect on their contribution and responsibility. A major conference on Christian Culture, held in Vienna in 2006, illustrated how seriously this responsibility is taken. Jointly organised by the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, the conference brought together scholars and Church leaders from east and west to deliberate on the ‘Mission and Responsibility of the Churches’ under the heading: Giving a Soul to Europe.[1] I want to reflect on one particular aspect of the contribution made specifically by the Catholic Church to this project of construction. It should be emphasised how narrow is my focus here, since I am concerned with only one element of a broad range of real and possible contributions by the Church, and I am overlooking the ecumenical context which situates the Catholic Church’s contribution alongside and jointly with the efforts of other Christian Churches.

The concept of the common good is an important element of the Catholic intellectual heritage. It offers a distinctive perspective which is in marked contrast to the individualism which characterises the rhetoric of liberal democracy. Where the predominant political culture is predicated on the valuing of human liberty, with emphasis on individuals’ rights and contractual obligations, talk of the common good seems startlingly different, and frequently provokes a defensive reaction. When Christian voices speak of the common good in a European context, therefore, they bring a fresh perspective and invite a deeper reflection and dialogue on the common project. I wish to focus on the notion of the common good in relation to the European Union. With the many member states, each with its own history and culture, we have to recognise that there is a common good corresponding to each of them. There are many common goods in the European cooperative networks, at least as many as there are member states. But is there a common good of the European Union itself? What is it? How might we know it? Who is responsible for formulating it and for promoting it? These are background questions to the specific question I wish to address, namely, how does the Catholic narrative fit in with the narratives of the European Union? How does the Catholic rhetoric formulated in terms of the common good cohere with European discourses on its common goods? What can the Catholic perspective offer to the project of construction in the European Union?

A project both political and moral

The expansion of the European Union and the development of the relevant institutions is above all a political matter. An analysis of this political process requires a theoretical account of politics, and for that I rely on Aristotle. Not only was Aristotle the first thinker to separate out conceptually the political as a distinct form of rule; his ideas remain relevant and continue to be fruitful in the discussion of politics.[2] At the same time, the choice of Aristotle is convenient for a discussion of the Catholic Church’s contribution to the European project. This is because the Church has received through St Thomas Aquinas an Aristotelian way of thinking. The structure of her language of the common good is borrowed from Aristotle, but the Christian Church fills that language with its own content based on its biblical vision of human fulfilment in the Resurrection. There is, of course, always a danger associated with the use of Aristotle, because of the widespread rejection of ideas often associated with his way of thinking. Teleology, metaphysical biology, a view of science built on syllogistic necessity, predetermined natures, these are typical of the points raised against Aristotle. This is not the place to defend him against such challenges, all of which are well founded. But it is important to note that these criticisms, when warranted, are not the full story, and that there is much in Aristotle’s thought which remains useful, especially in the political context, as I hope my argument will show. At this point the reader is simply asked to put aside any prejudice against Aristotle, and consider his account of politics, his outline of what makes for the common good of political cooperation, and how the Catholic Church adopts this way of thinking for her own purposes.

The argument

My argument is constructed around three main points. First, the key concept of the common good, and the way in which it is used in the Catholic narrative is heuristic. Second, the project of construction articulated in a philosophy of constructivism, does not exclude realism. Or in other words, a social contract approach in the social and political arena does not preclude a moral law. That the process of expansion of the European Union proceeds by bargaining and negotiation does not rule out the possibility that there are real values guiding the process. Third, the voice of the Church in making her contribution to the European process must be polyphonic, or perhaps better, she must speak with several voices, and in several registers. The Church must be able to speak with a prophetic voice, clear, unmistakeable, unambiguous, for instance, in protecting the value of human life and in asserting the obligations to respect human rights. But at the same time, she must have a conciliatory voice, signalling willingness to collaborate in a common project and to make her contribution in the name of a common humanity.

It is not easy to sustain this required range of voices, because some voices can appear to be in tension with each other. The conciliatory, cooperative voice seems to suggest willingness to compromise, while the prophetic voice rejects any possibility of reneging on the commitment to principles. The assertive confidence required for the prophetic message does not help when the focus is on collaboration. While the values of human rights and human life in particular can generate strict norms protecting them from violation, the requirements for the construction of appropriate structures and institutions to promote human goods are not so easily or clearly formulated. For a Church which is used to speaking with a clear voice, participation in the collaborative effort requires considerable humility about what the Church has to offer, since its positive contribution to the tasks of construction will always be open-ended, heuristic, pointing in a direction rather than presenting completed conclusions.

Contrasting rhetorics

I begin my argument with this third point, though I will return to it later. In Aristotle we find a style of rhetoric which is in marked contrast to that which often holds sway in the sciences of the social. There is a style of rhetoric in German scholarship and social analysis which says of something that it is “nothing other than,” “Nichts anderes als.” Some Y is said to be nothing other than some X in another form. Feuerbach on religion is a classic instance. “God is nothing other than human nature projected outside of itself and idealised.” So for instance, Marx says that natural rights to property are nothing other than the property interests of the bourgeoisie asserted in a language which deceives the victims of those interests. This rhetorical style doesn’t have to be reductionist, but it lends itself to such use. It is linked to reductionism in contemporary human sciences, which seek to explain various Ys in terms of Xs: human community and cooperation explained in terms of the survival and reproduction of the genes, for example.[3] The grounding of obligations in forms of contract, as we find in social contract theories in political philosophy, or contractarian theories in ethics, is subject to the same reductionist tendency. Contracts are entered into because of the expectation of benefit. So it can be said that the obligation to fulfil one’s part of the bargain is “nothing other than” the pursuit of self-interest.

There is another style of rhetoric associated with Aristotle, which attempts to explain something by saying it is always more than something else. So, for instance, in exploring what it is to be a good human being, Aristotle focuses on performance as the key to goodness. He compares the human performance with the performance of the good flautist. What is it to do well as a flute player? Being a good human being is to achieve comparable excellence, but that excellence is always more than the achievement in just one sphere as is accomplished by the musician. This path of reflection becomes clearer when Aristotle discusses the difference between being a good citizen and being a good man. A good citizen is considered good relative to a constitution which specifies what is good and worth pursuing. But some constitutions are limited in their view of the human good, so a good citizen may, tragically, achieve excellence in a reduced conception of human flourishing (the “good Nazi,” for example). The truly good citizen is also the good human individual, because a member of the best constitution which articulates an accurate account of human good, the good life. Comparisons of constitutions with one another reveal the limitations, and Aristotle’s discussion is a classic case of the rhetorical style of “always more than.” The best constitution is more than a non-aggression pact, and more than a mutual guarantee of rights, and more than the contract for the exchange of goods and services.[4] What is it then? Aristotle does offer further reflection, but he does not completely get away from this way of thinking about that which is sought, which is always more than what is easily tied down. For instance, in dealing with the good life, he explores the different notions of friendship, and these reveal the same directional dynamic of being more encompassing, more comprehensive. 

A useful image for this “always more than” is an accordion which can be drawn in or out, compressed or stretched. What is its maximum extension? When the topic is friendship, or community, or any other human reality, we can wonder about the fullest sense, which includes everything and leaves nothing out. But Aristotle does not tell us what that is. He has to rely on terms which are open-ended, and his approach is programmatic. The community which is united by pursuit of the good life seeks more than survival, more than simply the satisfaction of basic needs. The more is expressed in further terms which elude strict definition. Excellence in the performance of characteristic human activities is virtue, and the virtues are suggested as comprising the more of the good life. Again, by contrast with the view of obligation rooted in contract typical perhaps of the “nothing other than” style of rhetoric, we have here a more extensive sense of moral obligation, guided by an aspiration to excel, to be the best, to be as good as one can be. So a requirement specified in terms of the minimum that is necessary (“do no harm”) falls short of striving to do the best that can be done. These diverse styles of rhetoric in the sciences of the social might be contrasted as minimalist and maximalist, as reductivist and inclusivist.

Granted that the language is vague and open-ended, it must still be given some precision in order to be meaningful. By what criteria are the characteristic activities and the standards of excellence to be determined? Aristotle in the second chapter of the first book of the Politics suggests that a political community is founded on agreement on what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, lawful and unlawful, beneficial and harmful. “Political” for Aristotle names the best type of constitution, so we have here an example of a maximalist, best-case analysis. How is this agreement to be understood? Is it something already achieved, or is it something which is still in process of emerging? Is the agreement imposed by authority, or is it freely adopted by the participants? Obviously with Plato his teacher in mind, Aristotle elucidates in subsequent chapters that the agreement which sustains a political community is not imposed by an all-knowing philosopher king but must be worked out by deliberation between citizens who are free and equal.[5] No one of them has the answers, and all are equally entitled to offer their view on what would constitute the good life. Aristotle’s emphasis on agreement between free and equal citizens presupposes a conversation in which they explore together what would constitute a decent human life, a life worth living. Such a conversation is presupposed also in his specification that it is the capacity for reasoned speech which equips humans for political existence.[6] The political conversation is a joint exploration in search of the good life, which can be seen as the common good of the partners. As such it names something which is not yet known in its entirety, but which is still in the process of being discovered. 

Although unknown, some things about the good life, a decent and worthy human life, are known, so that it can ground criteria for excluding false candidates. These are the criteria operative in Aristotle’s own classification of constitutions. He distinguished constitutions in terms of the number of those who engaged in sharing responsibility for rule, one, few or many. And he distinguished further in terms of the purpose of the rule exercised, whether for the good of all, the common good, or for the good of the rulers, whatever their number, one, few or many. The best constitution of all is that which excludes no competent person from participation in rule, and which functions to pursue the good of all, not just the well-being of the rulers.[7] Aristotle’s objection to democracy as he saw it was that it was rule by many, but in their own interests. Generalising from this discussion, I suggest we can formulate two criteria for identifying the common good of political community. First, do not exclude any persons from enjoyment of the good; and second, do not exclude any aspect of the human good. “Heuristic” is the term for such a concept, naming what is not yet known, but which we are striving to discover and come to know.

From Aristotle I draw an understanding of politics as at root a conversation, a pursuit together of answers to questions about how we are we to achieve appropriate order in our cooperation and in our economic, social, cultural and political existence? I suggest that this provides us with an approach to understanding the European Union. However, the story does not have to be told in this maximalist way. There are alternative narratives. For instance, there are some who still wish to say that “the European Union is nothing other than ‘the creation of a world in its own image’ by the bourgeoisie,” to quote Karl Marx from the Communist Manifesto. This suggests that the Union is only a common market, created as a space for capital to function without hindrance in pursuit of profit. Another story suggests that the European Union is the creation of a power block in a new world order, and according to this story the European Union should become a military force as well as an economic reality. These are minimalist accounts, against which the maximalist vision reacts with the aspiration that the European Union is “always more than” the merely economic, or merely a global power block. This vision is challenged to say what that “more” could be. To what extent is that “more” a cultural reality, comprised of shared values, whether religious or humanist in origin, and comprised of visions of a decent human life?


The common good of the European Union is a heuristic notion. Think of the union as engaged in a conversation which is open-ended. The Church enters into this conversation, hoping to make its own contribution about the “more.” But it must be careful not to short-circuit the process. To avoid this it requires humility. But also it needs to appreciate what is going forward. For this it must have a proper understanding of the liberal stance which relies on a rhetoric of contract. It must master the relevant literacy and be at home in it, without being confined to it. Otherwise it is in danger of following a romantic or nostalgic line. The Church can be tempted to adopt a communitarian vision, which MacIntyre warns against, which would deny the pluralist and complex variety of cultures, languages, histories and religious commitments which make up the reality of Europe and postulate a single European society as the basis for the Union.[8] The other danger facing the Church is to follow MacIntyre in handwringing regret about the inadequacies of political institutions constructed on the liberal model of contract.[9]

The Magisterium’s use of the concept of common good reflects its nature as heuristic. A basic distinction of the common good between human fulfilment and the conditions for human fulfilment makes this clear. Reference to integral fulfilment of the human, both as individual and as social, draws on the development in Catholic thought achieved in the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes (1965).[10] The Bishops of the Council were aware that many contemporaries could not share their faith based language of beatitude or the vision of God, and so in the hope of fostering dialogue and of encouraging collaboration for the sake of humanity, they spoke instead both of ultimate fulfilment, and of the conditions for that fulfilment. Expecting that atheists and believers in other faiths could all have their own visions of ultimate fulfilment, they hoped that a considerable range of agreement could be found on what might be the conditions for that fulfilment, economic, social, cultural and political. They proposed that the notion of the common good “embraces the sum of those conditions of social life by which individuals, families and groups can achieve their own fulfilment in a relatively thorough and ready way” (GS §74).[11] Widespread collaboration between men and women of good will could be achieved in pursuit of the common good so understood.

How the Church uses the criteria

The institutions of the European Union belong among the conditions which are constructed to enable individuals and communities to achieve their fulfilment. The Church’s contribution here also is constrained by the desire to achieve collaboration with others who are guided by different visions of that fulfilment. But the language of fulfilment is not vacuous. The two criteria identified above allow for a serious critique of flawed attempts to specify that fulfilment, and the Church’s interventions, whether on the global or European scales, can be understood in terms of these criteria. The first is the concern that none be excluded from the enjoyment of the good; and the second is that no aspect of human well-being be excluded from consideration. Of course the voice of teaching in the Church does not appeal to abstract philosophically formulated principles. Instead, it relies on its own resources of revelation and tradition to present a challenge which is both an invitation to be guided by a vision and a call to conversion from what is contrary to that vision.

In the language of the Church the first requirement that none be excluded is rooted in a biblical perspective which has found expression in the “preferential option for the poor.”[12] One example of this is the perspective of the prophets, from Amos to Isaiah, which saw the plight of the poor in the land as the test of the fidelity of the people to the covenant, especially the royal authorities. Another is the ministry of Jesus, especially as depicted in the Gospel of Luke, for whom the reality of poverty is important. Jesus not only proclaims that the poor are blessed, or that he has come to seek out those in need. His actions and life, and ultimately his death identify him with sinners, the rejected, the marginalised, the weak and the poor to show that the kingdom of God is theirs. This biblically based imperative carries over into the way the Church has dealt, for instance with the question of private property, insisting on the universal destination of material goods and the obligations of property owners to use their wealth for the benefit of all, especially those in need. It is evident also in the way in which the magisterial teaching has concentrated on the impact of social, economic and political developments on the vulnerable. From Pope Leo XIII’s concern with the dehumanisation of human labour caused by the industrial revolution, to Pope John Paul II’s reiteration of the same concern in Laborem exercens that workers not be treated merely as an instrument of production but rather as the end for the sake of which wealth is created, the Church has looked to those who lose out when reviewing economic affairs. When engaging with actual policy debates within the Union, the Church has been most vocal on such issues as the treatment of migrants, and the relationship with the developing world.[13] Of course “the option for the poor” is not identical with “the common good,” but I suggest that it can be translated as an application of this one criterion which ensures the coherence of talk of the common good, that none be excluded.

The second criterion that no aspect of human wellbeing be excluded also translates the other major concern on which the Church in Europe has been most vocal. That has been the concern that the highest good of humankind not be excluded in principle from the public discourse about the point of the European Union.[14] This came out most clearly in the debates about the inclusion of a reference to God in the draft of the proposed Constitution.[15] But it has always been an element of the Church’s social thought. For instance, during the Development Decade of the United Nations, Pope Paul VI in Populorum progressio (1967) reflected on a Christian vision of development and explained how it had to include more than a vision of accumulated goods.[16] “Increased possession is not the ultimate goal of nations nor of individuals. … The exclusive pursuit of possessions thus becomes an obstacle to individual fulfilment and to man’s true greatness” (PP §19). The complete fulfilment of humans, both as individual and as social, requires a true scale of values which enables the relativisation of particular goods to the ultimate good of human existence (PP §18). He warned of a “stifling materialism” which could afflict individuals, families or nations, whether poor or rich. Pope John Paul II returned to this theme in his encyclical letter Centesimus annus (1991) marking the centenary of Rerum novarum. The pope focused on consumerism as the culture which elevates instrumental goods to the position of the ultimate good. Where Paul VI had lamented the tendency to see development solely in terms of accumulation of wealth, John Paul II regrets the preponderance of having over being. “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself” (CA §36).[17]

One might say that this reflects a preferential option for the religious dimension of human fulfilment. But insofar as the Church has always resisted a form of dualism which would denigrate the bodily, material dimensions of human life, she has advocated respect for the full spectrum of human good and wellbeing. This is consistent with the doctrine of Creation, emphasising the goodness of all that God had made. It is underlined also by the doctrines of the Incarnation and Redemption, the goodness of the human nature taken by the Incarnate Word, and the glory in the Resurrection of the body to which it is called. Christ’s ministry of teaching and healing showed him to be concerned about the complete wellbeing of people, their physical health, the quality of their relationships, their integration in their communities, and not least their grasp of his message about God’s love. This holistic concern for the human good has carried over in the forms of Christian ministry of education, medical care and social concern. When the Church addresses these matters more formally, as for instance in her statements on missionary work, evangelisation, charitable work or education, she constantly reiterates the fullness of wellbeing for which she strives. Integral human fulfilment excludes no dimensions of human wellbeing, just as it cannot exclude any persons or groups from fulfilment. A reference to Vatican II’s Decree on Missionary Activity makes the point well:

Christian Charity is extended to all without distinction of race, social condition, or religion, and seeks neither gain nor gratitude. […] As Christ went about all the towns and villages healing every sickness and infirmity, as a sign that the kingdom of God had come (see Mt 9:35ff; Acts 10:38), so the Church, through its children, joins itself with people of every condition, but especially with the poor and afflicted, and willingly spends itself for them (see 2 Cor 12:15). […] Christians ought to interest themselves, and collaborate with others, in the right ordering of social and economic affairs. They should apply themselves with special care to the education of children and young people through various types of schools, and these are not to be considered solely as an outstanding means for forming and developing a Christian youth, but as a service of great value to people, especially in the developing countries, one that is ordered to raising human dignity and promoting more human conditions. They should, furthermore, share in the efforts of those people, who, in fighting against famine, ignorance and disease, are striving to bring about better living conditions and bring about peace in the world. In this work the faithful, after due consideration, should be eager to collaborate in projects initiated by private, public, state or international bodies, or by other Christian or even non-Christian communities.[18]

When engaged in the dialogue within Europe, the Church’s appeal to the common good can be translated into the application of these two criteria, within the distinction between ultimate human fulfilment and the conditions to be put in place to facilitate that fulfilment. The Church will maintain a critical eye to discern who is in danger of being excluded from enjoyment of the benefits of greater cooperation, and she will advocate the fullest possible perspective on human wellbeing, including, of course, the religious dimension.

Constructivism and realism

To engage freely in an open-ended process of construction is not necessarily to betray the Gospel and the commitments to truth and values which are part of the Christian heritage. Many have feared constructivism as jeopardizing the realism which belongs to moral law. This is the context in which the contrast outlined above between contract theory and moral law is drawn, with a view to highlighting the inadequacy of contract. John Rawls’s writings on justice and political liberalism are relevant examples of constructivist thought. They have been criticised for their lack of a realist metaphysics.[19] For instance realists are dissatisfied with the idea that justice is what would be agreed by parties engaged with one another in a non-coercive, violence-free and prejudice-free, open conversation. The realist wants to say that something is just, because of the reality of justice and moral truth, not because it happens to be chosen by some people, however qualified or rational they may turn out to be.

I suggest that this polarity is not complete. It is not simply a matter of either – or, either constructivist or realist. It could be both. The process of construction is at the same time a process of discovery.[20] As we attempt to build a form of social and political life which is adequate and decent and worthy of humans, we discover in fact what is involved. If we survey the talk of the common good throughout history we can recover something of this drama of construction and discovery. The two criteria mentioned above are relevant here. The process of construction has been at the same time a process of discovery, as communities have attempted to overcome the restrictions in perceptions of who is included or excluded, and what aspects of being human are included or excluded. This has been the process of overcoming and abandoning the restrictions which Aristotle relied upon in excluding large categories of people from participation in the political process. Applying his own criteria against his theories, the exclusion of women, supposedly “natural slaves”, anyone engaged in trade or labour, and foreigners, has been exposed as based on prejudice. The same dynamic has driven the long, slow process through history of overcoming slavery, rejecting racism or any tinge of racial supremacy, the chauvinism of nationalism which could only promote one’s own identity by denigrating the identity of others, and other forms of chauvinism.

The common good is not a content from which the Church can deduce answers for her contribution to construction. Instead it names the answers which are sought in the process of learning. In line with this I like to suggest that we have a tradition of Catholic Social Learning, not teaching. The Christian Church is part of the dynamic of humankind’s learning how to cope with developing and changing circumstances. Of course she has her mission to speak of the call to holiness which is at the core of that dynamic. And this call remains the same in every time and place. But as Pope Leo noted in the title of his letter, Rerum novarum (1891), the Church has had to face new things, social realities never before encountered in human history, and has been obliged to, and continues to be challenged to respond to the new while remaining faithful to its mission and message. Those new things were new also for humankind, and were being interpreted in a distinctive way by Karl Marx and his various disciples. The inadequacy of that interpretation was a major target of the Pope’s writing. But it remains an issue for humankind to understand what was going on and what continues to go on in the economic, social, cultural and political processes shaping our world. We are learning, slowly perhaps, and also tragically, considering the enormous human cost of the “socialist” and extreme “nationalist” experiments. European history shows that we are very much still at the beginning stage in the understanding of many dimensions of human social order and what can be done. The Christian Church is learning too, and its learning is part and parcel of the learning of humanity. This can be seen in the series of papal encyclicals which comprise so much of the magisterial tradition. Their titles reflect quite clearly the concerns of their times to which the Popes attempted to respond, drawing on the traditions of the faith: Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891), reflecting on the challenge of new economic and social realities, John XXIII’s Pacem in terris (1961), sharing the aspiration for world peace in the midst of the cold war, Paul VI’s Populorum progressio (1967), addressing the challenge of development.


If the construction and expansion of the European Union is essentially a conversation, there will always be a tension between the two styles of rhetoric available, between the minimalist and maximalist perspectives. Given the legal and contractual aspects, as well as the economic, it will always be necessary to use the “nothing other than” language in saying what is going on. But the “always more than” rhetoric will be even more important. We have to preserve the “always more than” when speaking of freedom, desire, happiness, human goods, friendship, justice, peace, etc., so that our terms enable us to speak thinly or thickly. The Church will always be concerned to use the languages available to our political communities in such a way that we avoid the eliminative reductionism of “nothing other than” and keep open the perspective of the ever more. Augustine is the pioneer in this, in relation to the key concepts of peace and justice.[21] While he could affirm that the only true and complete peace and justice belong to the harmony achieved when humankind enjoys the glory of God, he could still recognise the genuine value of the temporal peace and justice which are the products of flawed human agents backed by coercive powers. The limited peace and justice achievable in human history point to the unlimited harmony of God’s kingdom realised fully beyond history.

The common good is like the accordion in the image I introduced above. It can refer to the minimum, as for instance, what is worked out in negotiation and is agreed in a contract or treaty, but it can also refer to the “always more than” so that the expansion of our language of the common good can reach to God and to life in companionship with God in the Resurrection. This means that the Church must be able to speak across the full range of the accordion, thick and thin. The common good can mean the ultimate end of human life, fulfilment, which is known in faith as life in God, in the Resurrection. This is the thick meaning. Also it has a thin meaning, when it names the conditions for human fulfilment. 

The Church speaks of the role and mission of the laity, particularly in politics, but does she sufficiently value and rely on the contribution of lay Christians in effectively constructing just and adequate institutions? The contributions made by lay Christians in the construction of Europe are acknowledged, of course. Schuman and Monnet were among those who played critical roles. Those with teaching responsibilities in the Church, the Pope and the Bishops, have the task of proclaiming the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, but lay Christians have the responsibility of translating that teaching into economic, social and political reality. Let the lay Christians exercise their responsibility as best they can, and let us trust them. 

As well as the variety of speakers, we need too the variety of voices, speaking in different registers. There is the prophetic voice, promoting and protecting important values: human life, human rights, the dignity of the person. But we must also cultivate the conciliatory cooperative voice, patient, humble, not insisting on the fullness of meaning of what the Church has to offer, but content to use the language which is open-ended, heuristic, trusting that God’s Spirit is working with and through the human spirit. Within the Christian community we need greater ability to work with each other as we speak in different registers with different voices. We do not all, always, have to be saying the same thing. Too often there can be bitter tensions as various members of the Church accuse fellow Christians of betrayal, simply because they are speaking in a different voice and often in a different conversation. The prophetic, collaborative and constructive voices have their different messages. Their speakers must be attentive to the complex and varied audiences and how they are likely to receive the message.

Pope Paul VI seemed to be conscious of this complexity. In his letter to fellow bishops during the Second Vatican Council, Ecclesiam suam, he made dialogue a pillar of his papacy, and he outlined the requirements which the engagement in dialogue demanded of the Church.[22]

It would indeed be a disgrace if our dialogue were marked by arrogance, the use of bared words or offensive bitterness. What gives it its authority is the fact that it affirms the truth, shares with others the gifts of charity, is itself an example of virtue, avoids peremptory language, makes no demands. It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines towards generosity. (§81)

The Pope added prudence as an important quality, emphasising the need for sensitivity in terms of the capacities of the intended audience. “The person who speaks is always at pains to learn the sensitivities of his audience, and if reason demands it, he adapts himself and the manner of his presentation to the susceptibilities and the degree of intelligence of his hearers” (ES §81). He mapped a series of four concentric circles of dialogue, most extensively with all of humankind, then with those who worship one God, with all Christians, and most narrowly, with fellow Catholics. Is there an inverse relationship between this image of the concentric circles, and the accordion I suggested above? The accordion can be most extended in that dialogue in the tightest circle in which most of the vision and content is shared, namely with fellow Catholics. But in the widest circle, the accordion will be compressed, though striving to extend from the shared agreement on what are human values and suitable institutions to seek the always more. Pope Paul’s words from the same letter provide a challenging programme for the engagement of the Church and of Catholic citizens in the construction of Europe:

All things human are our concern. We share with the whole of the human race a common nature, a common life, with all its gifts and all its problems. We are ready to play our part in this primary, universal society, to acknowledge the insistent demands of its fundamental needs, and to applaud the new and often sublime expressions of its genius. But there are moral values of the utmost importance which we have to offer it. These are of advantage to everyone. We root them firmly in the consciences of men. Wherever men are striving to understand themselves and the world, we are able to communicate with them. Wherever the councils of nations come together to establish the rights and duties of man, we are honoured to be permitted to take our place among them. (ES §97)


I began this paper by noting the limitation of my focus and narrowness of concern, namely, the Catholic Church’s contribution through its use of the concept of the common good to the construction of an expanded European Union. She has many other resources and rich concepts to offer. But despite the narrow focus, the language of the common good reveals itself as potentially all-embracing, since it highlights the way in which the European project is an open-ended conversation. It seeks the good life, a decent life worthy of human dignity. But to be true to the dynamic of this search the members of the Union should seek the good in such a way that none are excluded from participation, and the full potential of human aspiration is recognised. In her contribution to the project the Church speaks for these two requirements, representing an option for the poor or marginalised, and those likely to be overlooked, and reminding everyone that “bread alone” or security or the enjoyment of rights will not be sufficient to satisfy the longings of the human heart.

© Patrick Riordan SJ

Patrick Riordan SJ is Associate Director of the Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life. He teaches political philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, UK. 

[1] Donner une âme à l’Europe. Mission et responsabilité des Églises. Vienna, Pro Oriente; Paris, Istina, 2007.

[2] Crick, B., In Defence of Politics (2nd edn), Harmondsworth, Pelican, 1982; Kraut, R., Aristotle, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[3] Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989.

[4] Aristotle, The Politics, translated by T. A. Sinclair, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972, Book III chap. 9.

[5] Aristotle, The Politics, Book II chap. 2.

[6] Aristotle, The Politics, Book I chap. 2.

[7] Aristotle, The Politics, Book III chap. 7.

[8] MacIntyre, A., “A partial response to my critics,” in J. Horton and S. Mendus (eds), After MacIntyre, Oxford, Polity, 1994, pp. 283–304.

[9] MacIntyre, A., “Politics, philosophy and the common good,” Studi Perugini, 3, 1997, reprinted in K. Knight (ed.), The MacIntyre Reader, Cambridge, Polity, 1998, pp. 235–52.

[10] Vatican Council II (1965), Gaudium et spes: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in A. Flannery (ed.), Vatican II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, Dublin, Dominican Publications, 1996, pp. 163–282; references in the text are to GS and paragraph numbers.

[11] I discuss this at greater length in P. Riordan, A Grammar of the Common Good: Speaking of Globalization, London, Continuum, 2008, especially chapter 8: “Political Common Good and Catholic Social Thought”.

[12] Dorr, D., Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching, Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 1992.

[13] See the publications of the “Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.”

[14] See for instance the “Common Declaration by his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew I” on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Turkey in 2006. Their expressed concerns embraced both the role of the Christian faith in the history of Europe, and the conditions in the world of the poor, migrants, women and children. - 13k - 2006-12-04 – accessed 27/02/2009.

[15] See the statements of COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community in relation to the mention of God in the proposed constitution.

[16] Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio: On the Development of Peoples (1967), in D.J. O’Brien and T.A. Shannon (eds), Catholic Social Thought. The Documentary Heritage, New York, Orbis Books, 2000, pp. 238–62, referenced in the text as PP with paragraph numbers.

[17] Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus: On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum novarum (1991), in O’Brien and Shannon, Catholic Social Thought, pp. 437–88, §36.

[18] Ad Gentes Divinitus. Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, in Vatican Council II. Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Edited by A. Flannery, Dublin, Dominican Publications, 1996, §12.

[19] Brink, D.O., Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989. Appendix 4: “Rawlsian constructivism,” pp. 303–21.

[20] I discuss this in A Grammar of the Common Good, London, Continuum, 2008, pp. 94-102.

[21] von Heyking, J., Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World. Columbia and London, University of Missouri Press, 2001; Cf. also Markus, R.A., Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970.

[22] The encyclical letter is cited from the Papal Archive available on the Vatican website: -  accessed 27/02/2009. I am grateful to Dr Edward G. Farrugia SJ, whose contribution to the conference drew my attention to the riches of this letter.




A further major article by Dr Patrick Riordan SJ follows. We do not have permission to publish the entire article here but you can click on the link below and download it as a pdf file.

A Blessed Rage for the Common Good

Recent crises provoke appeals to the common good. Can the structures and procedures of liberal democracies belong among Gaudium et Spes’s conditions for human fulfilment? And are they to be respected even when they lead to undesirable outcomes? How can we integrate the notion of conflict as central to democratic politics, that is, a conflict which is not simply due to moral fault, or the inordinate pursuit of particular interests? The common good is not available as an already known quantity to determine correct solutions in conflict situations. Its core idea is heuristic, naming that which is being sought, but which is not yet known, although enough about it is known to be able to specify the programme for its discovery. Its two operative criteria are succinctly expressed in the themes of Populorum Progressio and Caritas in Veritate, concern for the development of every person and of the whole person.

Click here to download the full article.

The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Irish Theological Quarterly, 76(1) 3–19, 2011 by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Patrick Riordan SJ.



Recent publications by the author

(2013) In: McCrudden, Christopher, (ed.) Understanding Human Dignity. London: Proceedings of the British Academy, pp. 322-332. [Book section]

(2013) In: Riekmann, Sonja Puntscher, Somek, Alexander, Wydra, Doris, (eds.) Is there a European Common Good? Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag, pp. 46-66. [Book section]

(2012) In: Clements, Jane, (ed.) Talking of Conflict. Christian Reflections in the Context of Israel and Palestine. Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire: Matador, pp. 64-85. [Book section]

(2011) Milltown Studies, 68 pp. 21-36. [Journal Article]
(2008) A rich resource of ideas about how to apply Aristotelian ethics to modern society and modern life.

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