Published in the National Catholic Reporter Online, Friday, August 25, 2006
Left seeks to revive 'common good' as new strategy
By JOE FEUERHERD
Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, James Madison, John Courtney Murray, John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI. And ... Ned Lamont?
Yes, Ned Lamont.
The 52-year-old Connecticut telecommunications executive turned political insurgent is among the left-of-center office seekers and policy advocates who are attempting to repackage an ancient concept -- the “common good” -- for the 21st-century electorate.
“Let’s send some leaders to Washington, D.C., to start fighting for the common interest, and start fighting for the common good,” bellowed Lamont from the Four Points Sheraton ballroom podium as he addressed cheering supporters the night of his Aug. 9 primary victory against three-term incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman.
While not a uniquely Catholic notion, the idea of the common good is the centerpiece of the church’s social teaching, a topic treated by saints and popes repeatedly over the centuries, and with particulate emphasis in recent decades. “The common good comprises the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily,” according to Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World promulgated by Paul VI in 1965. And Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, his December 2005 encyclical: “The promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the church deeply.”
Democrats seeking “values voters” and liberal Catholic activists, concerned that the church’s social teaching has been reduced in the public mind to outlawing abortion and banning gay marriage, are attempting to expand what it means to promote justice. They are pushing for universal health care, opposition to Republican-backed tax cuts, support for a higher minimum wage, wariness of war as a foreign policy strategy, and environmental action.
If Democratic charges of Republican corruption, incompetence and selfishness are the political low road, the common good represents the rhetorical high road.
- “No political party ‘owns’ America’s morality or values -- a fact some in Congress and the White House still have to learn,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told a July 31 gathering at the Center for American Progress, the liberal Washington think tank that has emerged as the leading proponent of the “common good” as a resonating political theme. Reid’s topic was abortion. Prevention of unwanted pregnancies, he said, is the “common ground” for pro-lifers and supporters of legal abortion. “It’s time to unite, and move forward with an agenda that works for our common good,” Reid said.
- “Our new direction will advance a common agenda, seek common ground, and apply common sense in the service of the common good,” declared House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi as she announced the party’s “New Direction for America” June 16. The agenda “to put the common good first for a change” includes health care, energy independence, education, deficit reduction and protection of Social Security.
- At its mid-June “Take Back America” conference, the left-wing Campaign for America’s Future unveiled its “Agenda for the Common Good.” Among the speakers: Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill.; Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. “The Common Good Agenda charts a new direction of politics guided by the sense that we’re all in this together,” said Robert Borosage, codirector of the campaign. Kerry told the crowd, “Our one biggest idea, the one that makes us Democrats, is not to stand for selfishness but to stand for the common good.”
“It’s the buzzword of the liberal Democrats who are trying to counter the great advances made by the religious right,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Washington-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. “Political liberals in the Catholic church are disappointed that the issues of marriage, abortion and embryonic stem cell research have been appropriated by the religious right.”
Conservative Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took the argument a step further in his bestselling 2005 book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. Liberal policy prescriptions, wrote Santorum, are designed to subvert the common good. “They think of society as fundamentally made up of individuals guided by elite and ‘expert’ organizations like government, not the antiquated, perhaps uneducated, independent family,” wrote Santorum. Liberal policy makers “want society to be individualistic, because a society composed only of individuals responds better to ‘expert’ command and control.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Further, said Catholic conservative Michael Novak, author of Free Persons and the Common Good, while the notion of the common good provides a framework for thinking about the role of government, it does not translate easily into specific legislative remedies. He pointed to the welfare reform proposals pushed by conservatives and opposed by liberals in the 1990s that, he argued, alleviated poverty to a greater extent than otherwise would have been the case.
Novak took issue with those who argued that the proposed reduction in the estate tax, recently rejected by the Senate, amounted to an obvious violation of common good philosophy. Asked Novak: Who is to say that the government is more likely to use the revenue generated by the estate tax for good purposes than would the beneficiaries of the inherited wealth?
It is true, said Alexia Kelley, executive director of the newly formed Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, that people of goodwill can come down on different sides of controversial issues. But that doesn’t mean, she quickly added, that the concept of the common good is so elastic as to be useless.
Kelley -- a 10-year veteran of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, author of Living the Catholic Social Tradition: Cases and Commentary and, for five weeks in late 2004, religion adviser to John Kerry’s presidential campaign -- points to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, released by the Vatican less than two years ago.
“There is a very clear articulation of the role of government in society, which is to uphold the common good and to make sure that the basic conditions are met for people to participate with dignity,” said Kelley.
She continued, “The common good is eroded when basic social and economic conditions are not met. That’s pretty clear -- there’s not a lot of ambiguity in Catholic social teaching.”
With an initial annual budget of $500,000-plus, a membership that includes 15 Catholic partner organizations (including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, and the Franciscan Federation), five full-time staff members in Washington, Boston, and Columbus, Ohio, the alliance plans to have an impact when issues related to the church’s social teaching are debated in the public square. Two key components of that effort: a speaker’s bureau of prominent Catholics prepared to give “rapid response” to television producers and journalists looking for a Catholic perspective, and an outreach effort to parishes and church social justice networks.
Initially, the alliance is focused on five areas: “economic burdens on the American family, a war that seems to have no end, children who live in poverty within our own borders, lack of effective policies to build a culture of life, and the increasing threat of global climate change.”
On a practical level that meant opposing the recent Senate Republican initiative that linked an increase in the minimum wage with reductions in the estate tax. “Legislation currently before our lawmakers fails a basic moral test of fairness and honesty,” the alliance declared in a statement released Aug. 2. “Using a modest increase in the minimum wage as political cover, this bill offers massive handouts to multimillionaires. Worse yet, this bill will inevitably shift more of the nation’s tax burden and national debt onto the already strained shoulders of the middle class.”
But what of those like Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute who quotes John Paul II to say that legal abortion is the greatest civil rights challenge facing the United States? The alliance’s Web site notes, “Life does not end at birth; nor should our work to protect and preserve it.”
“To me and to the church, the No. 1 issue is abortion, and they just give it the back of their hand,” said Ruse. An individual’s decision about how best to achieve economic justice, for example, is open to the prudential judgment of individual Catholics, he said, while abortion, traditional marriage, and embryonic stem cell research are not debatable.
“Catholic doctrine is not all about abortion,” said Kelley. “There are issues that are at different levels, but our faith is broad and deep.”
The alliance’s Web site notes, “The Catholic church believes that every human life -- whether young or old, guilty or innocent, born or unborn -- is both precious and sacred, thus making the preservation of human dignity of the utmost importance. It remains as the fundamental foundation for all principles and elements of social teaching.”
Debates about what constitutes the common good will no doubt continue. But there are more immediate questions: Is the common good a winning theme? Will it change minds and votes?
Supporters of the idea of equating the common good with liberal policy prescriptions take heart in a poll released in early June by the Center for American Progress. Seventy-one percent of voters strongly agree that “Americans are becoming too materialistic,” 68 percent agree “that government should be committed to the common good and put the public’s interest above the privileges of the few,” while a like number believe that “government should uphold the basic decency and dignity of all and take greater steps to help the poor and disadvantaged in America,” according to the data.
Similar findings were recently touted by the Campaign for America’s Future, which hired Democratic pollster Stanley Greenburg to assess the appeal of the common good. Borosage, the campaign’s codirector, offered a cautionary note in the book accompanying the poll’s release.
“A common good strategy cannot simply be a rhetorical posture -- it must be grounded in bold alternatives to our current policies,” he wrote.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
August 25, 2006, National Catholic Reporter
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