Each main theme in Catholic Social Teaching contains a number of key principles, around which the ideas cluster. Two of the three principles present in the theme of Call to Community and Participation are in the title itself – Community and Participation. The third is the principle of the Common Good.
These principles are linked by practical realities, which function as their everyday expressions – ways of putting them into action. The three that are considered here are family life, service and social and political action.
We are not created by God to live alone. In the beginning, God created humanity male and female (Gen 1:27; 2:18), destined to live in community with one another and with God. This is not something that is added on to human nature, but is an essential part of it. We are relational beings and, as such, living in community is an essential expression of who we are. (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 1878-9; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, paragraph 149)
This is perhaps easiest to understand, for many, in the experience of Church. When people profess their faith during the celebration of mass, it is done in community together. This symbolism of common faith is powerfully represented at Easter, when baptismal promises are renewed. It is no less true, however, of life in society. As the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, one of the major documents of Vatican II, put it:
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. […] That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” paragraph 1, (1965)
A community shares a great deal. Its members may have a common history and a sense of a shared identity. They are bound together by cultural, political and economic structures, and express their shared lives in professional, political and recreational associations and groups. ‘This network of relationships strengthens the social fabric and constitutes the basis of a true community of persons’. (Compendium, paragraph 185) A Catholic understanding of community goes beyond these features, too, since it finds its fullest expression in communion – something that is willed by God and is, indeed, a gift from God. Christians are called ‘to the building up of a social, economic and political life that corresponds to God’s plan.’ (Compendium, paragraph 40)
Community does not just happen – it is something that men and women must work together to develop. (Compendium, paragraph 150) Each of us is called to do this in a way and at a level that is appropriate. (CCC, paragraph 1913-14) This is one way that the principle of subsidiarity is put into action. It ‘is among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church’s social doctrine’. (Compendium, paragraph 185). See Compendium, paragraph 186 for more details on the principle of subsidiarity.
Everyone should take part in the building up of community, as far as possible. (CCC, paragraph 1915; Compendium, paragraph 189) This is not an easy thing to do, and it is understandable that people sometimes become disillusioned with the social and political structures that enable participation in society and the Church. However, participating in the building up of community is one of the ways that Catholics live their lives at the service of the dignity of the human person. The authentic development of the human person is fostered by the pursuit of the social values of truth, freedom, justice and love. ‘Putting them into practice is the sure and necessary way of obtaining personal perfection and a more human social existence.’ (Compendium, paragraph 197)
Scripture – Romans 12: 4-12
“Just as each of our bodies has several parts and each part has a separate function, so all of us, in union with Christ, form one body, and as parts of it we belong to each other. Our gifts differ according to the grace given us. If your gift is prophecy, then use it as your faith suggests; if administration, then use it for administration; if teaching, then use it for teaching. Let the preachers deliver sermons, the almsgivers give freely, the officials be diligent, and those who do works of mercy do them cheerfully.”
The Common Good
In the UK, this is perhaps one of the best-known principles of Catholic Social Teaching, thanks to two excellent teaching documents produced by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales: The Common Good (1996) and Choosing the Common Good (2010). Vatican II defines it as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’. (Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” paragraph 26 – 1965). Pursuit of the common good is one of the ways in which Catholics practice solidarity: the common good is not just shared with those nearest to us, or even with all those in our own society; it is a universal principle, which fosters the unity of the whole human family. (CCC, paragraph 1911) In practising it, Catholics are called to have particular care for the weak and vulnerable, because they are our neighbours in a pre-eminent way (Luke 10: 25-37)
The common good is not something that only the leaders and rulers of society are called to pursue. Every member of society has a duty to develop it and equally, every member has the right to enjoy the benefits brought about by the common good, (Compendium, paragraph 167). This ensures that all of the political, social and economic structures of society are focussed on the good of the human person: ‘The order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, not the other way around.’ (Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” paragraph 26 – 1965)
Scripture – 1 Corinthians 12:12-22, 24-27
“Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink. Nor is the body to be identified with any one of its many parts….If one part is hurt, all parts are hurt with it. If one part is given special honour, all parts enjoy it. Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it.”
The family is the first place where we learn to become human, it is the ‘cradle of life and love’. (Compendium, paragraph 209) As a result it is, on the one hand, our primary experience of community and, on the other, ‘the first and vital cell of society’ (Compendium, paragraph 211). This places it at the heart of social life, such that participation in family life and society go hand in hand.
Since the ‘family unit is, in fact, born from the communion of persons’, being at the service of family life is one of the best ways that a society can be at the service of community. (Compendium, paragraph 213) Family life can, therefore, act as a bridge between the principles of community and participation in a practical, everyday way. Supportive communities are also important when families break down under the many strains and stresses of modern life.
‘In her whole being, and in all her members, the Church is sent to announce, bear witness, make present and spread the mystery of […] communion’. (CCC, paragraph 738) This message and mission is for all nations (Matt 28:18-20); we are called to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) Christian service is to be service after the example of Christ, who came as servant of all and tells us we must do the same. (Mark 10:41-45)
The fact that service is a bridge between community and the common good is seen in Jesus’ act of service during the Last Supper in John. (John 13: 1-15) John’s gospel does not tell of the sharing of the bread and wine. The self-offering of Jesus in this gospel is that of washing the disciples’ feet, an act of humble service. Whether our service is ecclesial, political, social or cultural, it is this example that we are called to follow.
Scripture – John 13: 1-15
“Jesus got up from table, removed his outer garment and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.
When he had washed their feet and put on his clothes again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’ he said ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.”
Social and Political Action
Linking the principle of participation to that of the common good is vital in order to avoid the risk of putting our priorities the wrong way round as we play our part in society. Participation in society is not adequately Christian if we enter into it only for what we can get out of it, in economic, political or social terms. ‘Participation is a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and with a view to the common good.’ (Compendium, paragraph 189)
One of the most everyday social and political action that people engage in is work, whether it is paid or voluntary.
Many people work in a context where they work with and for others. Because of this, the ‘fruits of work offer occasions for exchange, relationship and encounter.’ (Compendium, paragraph 273) The global village in which we live and work also makes possible a real and vibrant connection between participation and the common good. Solidarity at this level gives workers the opportunity that, ‘working in similar contexts, spread throughout the world and interconnected, people will understand even better their one, shared vocation.’ (Compendium, paragraph 322)
Dr. Martin Poulsom SDB
Babette’s Feast (1987) – a great film about Community and service
Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers’ Movement.