Religion & Liberty Online

On the Universal Common Good

Today at Ethika Politika, I examine the longstanding claim of the Roman Catholic Church that the universal character of the common good in our present era necessitates a world political authority. The problem, I argue, lies in the tradition’s too closely identifying the good of political communities with the common good.

The recently canonized Pope John XXIII, for example, states that “[p]ublic authority” is “the means of promoting the common good in civil society” (Pacem in Terris, 136, emphasis mine). And Pope Benedict XVI continued the call made by John XXIII for a “world political authority” in Caritas in Veritate, specifically recommending that the U.N. be “vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights” (57, emphasis mine). The problem with the U.N., to the popes, is that it is not powerful enough.

In response, I write,

I would worry about a U.N. or any other global political authority endowed with such great power and means. If nation states have failed to ensure the global common good, as the pope admits, why should we expect a global government to be free from error in this regard? The only difference would be that the mistakes of such politicians would necessarily have global consequences. I like my U.N. nearly ineffective and mostly powerless, thank you very much. If anything, to ensure subsidiarity, the larger the political authority, the less power and means it should have.

In the Fall 2012 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, Antonio Pancorbo made a similar point, writing,

Caritas in Veritate’s global political authority must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified manner in order to prevent the emergence of a dangerous and tyrannical universal power (cf. CV, 57). However, all political powers should already “be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together” (CV, 57). Reality, however, shows that this condition is rarely met, and the tendency, with continuous attacks on freedoms, is toward increasingly less regard for the principle of subsidiarity and a less effective division of powers. If satisfactory subsidiarity is very difficult to find in existing political authorities, how could a world political authority, with the huge accumulation of power it would involve, be expected to achieve it? Is thisproposal realistic? Does it not pose an excessive risk to the global common good?

As an alternative to the close association between the good of political authority and the common good, I instead offer an insight from the Orthodox saint Nicholas Cabasilas, who wrote that “God … is the common good of all.” Thus, I argue, “Ironically, considered in this light what we need most of all to promote the universal common good is not a world political authority, but a world spiritual authority: the Roman Catholic Church is selling itself short!” Indeed, it is my conviction that when people are enabled to truly pursue the kingdom of God, the common good benefits. Or, as Christ himself put it better, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Read my full essay at Ethika Politika here.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.