The Common Good and the Global Commons


By Sister Michelle Balek, OSF for The Witness

When you hear the word “environment” what image comes to mind? Snow-capped mountains? A pristine lake? Perhaps a cool, green forest? A vast corn field or an open meadow full of colorful flowers? These are images that usually surface in our mind’s eye. Did you include human beings in your image? If not, you’ve missed a HUGE and important part of the environment! And this is precisely one of the points that Pope Francis makes in his encyclical, “Laudato Si” when he talks about an “integral ecology” where everything is interrelated, interconnected.

We are conditioned to think in “either-or” terms with so many things, and especially when it comes to the environment. It is pitted against humans, economic growth, jobs. Pope Francis throughout this encyclical calls and challenges us to an inner conversion that allows a “both-and” way of thinking and approaching the problems of today. Poverty and human need are not separate from caring for creation. As he states, “Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (Chapter 1:49)

Many of the Catholic Social Teaching principles are interwoven throughout this encyclical, and Pope Francis articulates them so well. He builds on the teachings of the Church from previous popes as well as bishops’ councils from around the world, and writes in a –pardon the pun – down-to-earth, easily understandable style, for all people, not just Catholics.

One Catholic Social Teaching principle that is foundational is that of the “common good.” It is mentioned at least 28 times and twice in subheadings. Pope Francis calls earth our common home, the “global commons,” and we are a single family. This principle gives rise to others: “In the present state of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.” (Chapter 4, IV:158)

Pope Francis goes on to extend this principle of the common good to justice between the generations. “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.” (Chapter 4, V: 159) This gives rise to the call to be good stewards of all God’s creation. In several sections, he further points out the need for far-sightedness, no quick fixes or piecemeal solutions that create more problems; in short, the need for a broader vision of reality and a deeper understanding of our relationship with God, God’s creation and each other because all is interconnected. He highlights St. Francis of Assisi as an example we can turn to in learning to live this understanding of our proper relationships.

Some say the Pope has no business talking about science, ecology and politics. He addresses this by saying: “Here I would state that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics, but I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate, so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.” (Chapter 5: III, 188) To foster an open and honest dialogue to reach solutions for the common good is the intent. In fact the word “dialogue” appears at least 25 times. He invites and challenges us, the global family, to dialogue with one another honestly and civilly: “I urgently appeal then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” (14)

In another section he states: “The Catholic Church is open to dialogue with philosophical thought; this has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason. The development of the Church’s social teaching represents such a synthesis with regard to social issues, which is called to be enriched by taking up new challenges.” (Chapter 2, I:63). Catholic Social Teaching is a framework to help us analyze and reflect upon our current global situation, the signs of the times, and point us in the direction of action we can take as individuals, families and local communities in keeping with Gospel values. This often calls for conversion and conversion challenges our sense of comfort and complacency because it calls us to be counter-cultural, as was Jesus and St. Francis. This is precisely what Pope Francis has done in this encyclical.

So let us read, study and reflect upon this urgent call, and dialogue to find solutions, and take action for the common good.

(Reprinted with permission by The Witness)