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White House
Campaign 2008

The Presidential Candidates and the Common Good

By Deacon Keith Fournier
We should only support Presidential candidates who defend the right to life

The Presidential Candidates and the Common Good
By: Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium,LLC


Yesterday, a new candidate emerged on the American Presidential playing field. Along with only a few others, he has the courage to speak of real first principles at an absolutely critical time, when our beloved Nation is struggling for her soul and attempting to chart a path for a better future. He seems, at least so far, to be unafraid to speak of the fundamental human rights issue of our age, the inalienable right to life and the real first freedom among all of our cherished freedoms, the freedom to be born. In doing so he stands with only a few among those already declared in either major party. This fact reveals how vitally important it is for those of us who understand the truth concerning the fundamental human rights issue of our age to be fully informed and active in the political process. We must review the presidential candidates in light of the common good.

Much of my career as a first amendment lawyer, policy consultant, writer, and activist has been spent in efforts to bring one dimension of the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, what is called her “Social teaching”, into the public policy debate by helping to make it understandable and accessible to others. I have done this in order to influence the building of a truly just society. I believe that the Social teaching of the Catholic Church is not simply for Catholics, other Christians or even just “religious people”, it is for all people. It offers principles with which those who desire to serve and advance the true common good can build a more just social, economic, political, legal and cultural order.

Sometimes, this teaching has remained hidden, like the proverbial treasure in the field. Many Catholics, other Christians and other people of faith and good will, did not even know it existed. Others have attempted to co-opt its intended use as a series of principles intended to guide those trying to govern justly and have offered it instead piecemeal in an effort to bolster their own political agendas, utilizing a sort of “proof text” approach and picking and choosing which part of the teaching they will accept or reject. This does a serious disservice to the teaching by failing to articulate its principles within an integrated vision of the human person, the truly human and just social order. Or, the teaching has simply been dismissed, either by dismissing its normative value its value (e.g. “…it’s for religious people”) or its universal applicability.  

I predicted in a series of articles I wrote that the 2008 Presidential campaign would find candidates, campaigns and related interest groups using a phrase which is a part of the patrimony of this body of teaching, the “Common Good”. This is now happening. My concern is who will define the authentic meaning of this concept? Some have written to me, in response to my articles, reminding me that the concept of the “common good” is part of the political patrimony of most great civilizations and was not invented by the Catholic Church. I know that. However, the Church has taken the wisdom derived from every good development of that concept and incorporated them it within an understanding of the human person and his or her fundamental dignity, purpose and social calling. Let us consider now the historic roots of this social teaching and its purpose. .

Roots and Reason  

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council referred to the Church as an “expert in humanity” because she “walks the way of the person”. Because of her solicitude for all men and women, the Church offers these social principles because she believes that, as a part of her mission to continue the redemptive work of the Lord, she should assist those charged with the task of civil governance in their work of building a just society. The principles found within this social teaching address every area of social life. These insights and tools for governance are desperately needed in this hour.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Church which is His Body on the earth walks in His footprint. As a society in her own right, she lives in the midst of every age, with one foot in this passing world and another in the eternal. She offers insights for every age, and principles for action addressed to the citizens of every Nation, concerning how to live with one another in a manner that promotes the fullness of social life. She offers wisdom on how to structure human society in order to promote true justice and human flourishing. She exists to serve the various societies within which she resides and is committed to improving the social conditions of all men and women by promoting authentic social and economic justice, both nationally and internationally.

With the publication of the compilation of the Churches Social Teaching entitled “The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church” (“Compendium”) everyone who desires to do so can now go right to the sources of this body of compiled teaching and read it for themselves. This is, in my opinion, a huge leap forward in the potential that this teaching has for serving the common good! In the past, it has too often been viewed as the domain of a few who, with mixed results and sometimes mixed motives, have interpreted it for others. The introductory chapter to the Compendium sets forth the ground for the entire work. “Jesus came to bring integral salvation, one which embraces the whole person and all mankind, and opens up the wondrous prospect of divine filiation.”

The Christian faith is not simply about “saving souls”, but offers the fullness of salvation for the entire human person; body, soul and spirit. Similarly, the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Catholic Church do not pertain only to “religious” or “spiritual” matters but rather speak to the entire human experience in the very real world. As expressed within the Compendium: “At the dawn of this Third Millennium, the Church does not tire of proclaiming the Gospel that brings salvation and genuine freedom also to temporal realities”. Rooted in a Christian cosmology and anthropology, the Social teaching of the Catholic Church addresses the fabric of social relationships between persons, families, human communities, nations and the international community.

In an age of false “humanisms”, the Catholic Church asserts that it is in Jesus Christ that all men and women can find a true and authentic humanism. In one of the seminal works that inform the corpus of the Social Teaching entitled “Gaudium et Spes” (“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.”

However, the roots of this body of teaching called the “Social teaching” go back to “the beginning”. In the first Book of the Sacred Scriptures, the Book of Genesis, the “Book of the Beginnings”, we find within the doctrine of creation the clear beginning of the social doctrine of the Church. The Creation story reveals that we were made by the Creator for relationship, with God, with one another, and with the created order. This is the first essential contribution of the Social Teaching. The human being will not find his or her fulfillment or true freedom in isolation. We are constituted for relationships. We form societies to not just somehow “protect” ourselves from the other but to become who we were created to be. In the words of the sacred text “…it is not good for man to be alone”. (Genesis 2:18)

Throughout the Old Testament we find clear social instruction concerning social relations. However, it is in the great event that forever changed human history, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh, that we find the fullness of the truth concerning the human vocation, and the invitation to all men and women to find true happiness and human flourishing through a relationship with the Father, in the Son and through the Holy Spirit. That relationship is then to be lived out within the Church, which is the seed of the kingdom to come, for the sake of the world.

The Christian faith proclaims that fullness of humanity is revealed in Jesus Christ, who is true God and True man, the New Adam, the One in whom the new creation has begun. Through His Life, Death, resurrection and ascension, heaven is brought to earth and earth is brought to heaven. Christians are incorporated into Him in and through Baptism, and made new. They are then sent into the world as a part of His Body, the Church, to continue His redemptive mission. It is in and through His Paschal Mystery, His life, death and Resurrection, that we find the deepest meaning of all of human existence revealed and the path to the fullness of salvation opened up to all.

The New Testament is filled with this “Social teaching” For example, the Sermon on the Mount contains the very essence of all of the moral and social teaching of the Christian faith. Jesus Christ, in His sacred humanity is the Social Teaching- made visible in its complete perfection. How he lived, loved and related to others is the pattern for all truly human relations. The Church proclaims the truth about Jesus Christ - that He came to redeem the whole person - and to begin a new creation – both of which begin now and will be completed and fulfilled in the resurrection of the body and life in a new heaven and the new earth.

In the history of the early Church we also find the roots of the development of Christian Social teaching in the writings of the early Fathers. In the last one hundred or so years, the teaching office of the Catholic Church has continued to expound, develop and update this beautiful patrimony of social doctrine. Contemporary Catholic Social teaching is often associated with the promulgation of Pope Leo XIII’s “On Capital and Labor” and the trajectory of modern papal encyclicals since. They include the writings of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and, of course, the extraordinary contributions of Pope John Paul the Great.

Christians are called to inform their entire lives, personal, familial, social, cultural, economic and political, by their faith and thus to live “…an integral and solidary humanism”. The Social teaching is meant to inform and influence social, economic, political and cultural life, through the work of Christians who not know it and have committed themselves to live by it, making it the foundation of their work in service to human society and the common good. This teaching is called “social” because it speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions. It reveals principles and truths that can be known by all men and women - because they are revealed in the Natural law.

These truths and principles are confirmed by - and expounded upon in - Revelation. Thus, this body of teaching is not simply “religious”, in the sense that it is intended only for religious persons. It offers insights that are of tremendous value to all men and women- and it offers them for every nation.
The Introduction of the Compendium addresses all men and women with these words:  “To the people of our time, our traveling companions, the Church also offers her social doctrine. In fact, when the Church ‘fulfills her mission of proclaiming the Gospel, she bears witness to man, in the name of Christ, to his dignity and his vocation to the communion of persons.” The reason for the social teaching is to serve the common good.

My History with the Social Teaching

I have been involved in the formation, growth, service and leadership of several organizations which have attempted to implement the principles found in the Social teaching. In each of these efforts I was motivated by a sincere desire to serve the common good. In 1991, I accepted the invitation to serve as the first Executive Director of an ecumenical public interest law firm called the “American Center for Law and Justice” (ACLJ) precisely because I wanted to use my law license to gather Christian lawyers together to defend the right to life, promote authentic liberty and defend the two parent marriage based family. I had spent the eighties practicing law and serving in the early recovery of Franciscan University. My pro-life convictions compelled me to do more to end the growing culture of death. I spent seven years growing and leading the law firm and participated in some of its early legal work all the way to the United States Supreme Court. It continues to operate, doing important legal work. During that time I also founded another association, “Liberty, Life and Family”, whose mission was to publish  a literary and apologetic Journal within which classical Christian social thought could be re-presented to the contemporary age.

In 1997 I accepted an invitation to serve as the President of one of the first efforts to organize lay Catholics to engage in public policy activism, Catholic Alliance. In re-forming the organization after a failed start, I committed it to Catholic social teaching and the common good. In framing the mission of the organization I developed what I called the “four pillars of social participation: life, family, freedom and solidarity”. Unfortunately, some of those who joined with me in Catholic Alliance persuaded me that no one would understand what was meant by “solidarity” as the fourth pillar. So, it was renamed “charity”. In retrospect, I believe that I should have insisted on solidarity and spent the time to educate people as to the full meaning of that concept and its profound social implications. There is a new organization bearing a similar name today which I had nothing to do with and which, at least on some positions, holds some positions quite at odds with my own. I caution my readers to always closely examine those who claim to be basing their positions on Catholic social teaching. Go right to the source.

Years later, after the demise of Catholic Alliance, I again tried to implement the four pillar approach. I founded two ecumenical organizations bearing the name “Common Good” - Common Good Foundation (501 c 3) and Common Good Alliance (501 c4), both of which are rooted in Catholic social teaching. In the charter of these organizations, as well as throughout my writings on public policy since, I have grouped the social teaching around what I call the “four pillars of participation; life, family, authentic freedom and solidarity”. I also participated in the founding and early development of an internet based educational effort sponsored by Catholic Online named “Your Catholic Voice”, similarly dedicated to social justice and the advancement of the common good. It was also built upon these four pillars. I believe that they provide a helpful thematic framework for educational and activist efforts to implement Catholic social teaching in the public square. There is another organization (started by a man who I once worked with in the early days of “Your Catholic Voice”, and to whom I communicated much of my work, insights and thought) which uses the phrase “common good” in its name with which I have no affiliation.  

Truth and Morality

Catholic Social teaching addresses fundamental and universal truths such as the dignity of every human person, the sanctity of all human life, the primacy of true marriage and the family founded upon it, the nature of - and obligations attendant to- human freedom, and our obligations to one another in human solidarity, including our responsibility to the poor, in all of their manifestations. These are not simply “religious” truths, in the sense of requiring revelation to prove them. They are revealed by the natural law which is accessible to all men and women and then confirmed by revelation. They are also moral truths, affecting every aspect of our common life. They should be guiding lights for everyone who seeks to enact and implement social, economic and public policy.

Among these principles is a political ordering principle called subsidiarity which can assist those charged with governance. Subsidiarity is a social ordering principle which pre-existed the American founders worthy articulation of the concept of federalism. Simply stated it insists that governance is “good” (meaning just and efficient) when it is closest to the governed. Thus, the application of the principle of subsidiarity usually results in “small” government, because it insists that we defer to the smallest expressions of governance, such as the family, the local community and so on. However, it is not anti government but rather recognizes that all government derives its authority from the God who governs the earth with justice.

The Social Teaching is a Moral Theory. It insists that for government to be “good” it must also be moral, reflecting universal truths about the human person. For example, that we were created for relationship and called to human community; that every human life at every age and stage has inherent dignity and that therefore the right to life is both the first right and the first freedom. The freedom to be born is the source and foundation of all other rights and freedoms. It defends the primacy of true marriage as a union between one man and one woman, intended for life, and the family founded upon that bond, as the first social institution, first government, first religious institution, first school, first economy, first hospital and first mediating institution. It promotes an authentic understanding of human freedom as both a freedom from oppressive interference as well as a freedom for responsible living. We do owe an obligation to one another as neighbor and we are our brother’s keeper.

These principles address other vital contemporary issues such as war and peace. They give insight into the application of freedom in the realm of the economy by encouraging the expansion of economic opportunity and participation to include all and ensuring just family wages. They inform a proper environmentalism by insisting upon our proper relationship to the goods of the earth and calling us to a proper stewardship of the environment. They offer principles which assist in the formation, role and right placement of social institutions at the local, national and international level.  

As the Presidential candidates use the phrase “the “common good” and begin their campaigns in full throttle after Labor Day, I now offer a few thoughts on how Catholic Social Teaching addresses some of the most important issues of this campaign. I do so to assist in evaluating each of the Presidential candidates. I also do so to foment debate among the candidates. These thoughts are just the beginning of any prudential analysis. However, they do represent policy areas where the position of the candidates needs to be absolutely crystal clear.

Pro- Life Period

It was Ronald Reagan in his excellent piece entitled “Abortion and the Conscience of America” who wrote:

“Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some men could decide that others were not fit to be free and should therefore be slaves. Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide. My administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land, and there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning.”                                                                                    
We should only support Presidential candidates who defend the right to life for every human person from conception to natural death. Pro-life Period!

The debate on this foundational issue has shifted. Science has confirmed what our conscience has always known; the child in the womb is our neighbor. All of us once lived in the womb, it is the first home of the whole human race. An acceptable presidential candidate must insist, in the midst of all of their rhetoric concerning freedom, that the freedom to be born is the first freedom. Not only was the Roe v Wade opinion horrid “law” but it was based upon false history and fabricated upon errant science. As a lawyer who has appeared in pro-life cases before the U.S. Supreme Court three times on constitutional cases concerning this issue, I know that the Roe decision is on a collision course with itself.

I began this section on the first issue with a quote from the late President Ronald Wilson Reagan not because he was a Republican, but because he was right. The last Democrat I supported in a Presidential campaign was the late Governor Bob Casey. He was right as well on this foundational issue. He was then censored at his own party’s convention. A clear, uncompromising position on this issue is what we should demand of our Presidential candidates. They must insist on the right to life for every human person, at every age and stage and be unafraid to address the issue of Life in earnest.

The Right to Life is not simply a separation of powers or federalism issue, though it does raise both of those concerns. It is an issue of fundamental human rights. Legal abortion threatens the whole regime of human rights. It is also an issue of fundamental freedom. Insisting on the right to life, the freedom to be born and the subsequent right to live life to the full unimpeded by efforts to kill you, is not engaging in “single issue” politics. Philosophers and theologians sometimes use “ten cent” words, as my father use to say. One of those words is the word “hermeneutic”. A “hermeneutic” is a lens through which one views an entire subject or even the entire world. The dignity of every human life is a social hermeneutic. If human life is not worth protecting, serving and saving, then governance loses its very purpose for existence.

The child in the womb is, in the words of a little nun from Calcutta named Teresa, the “poorest of the poor”. Those who hear her voice, muffled in her mother’s womb, are the truly compassionate leaders. Senator Obama, a formidable opponent, recently gave an address wherein he decried what he called an “epidemic of violence”. This epidemic begins in the womb, yet for all of his talk, he is blind to her plight and deaf to her cry. Candidates who are truly pro-life need to develop a vibrant, fresh language of life. I long ago began to speak of the “the freedom to be born” and regularly refer to the mothers womb as the “first home of the whole human race”. They should use humanizing language in this noble effort, referring always to those who live in their mothers womb as what they are, children.

Pro- Marriage and Family

There are some who currently seek to build a new American society which asserts a moral equivalency between homosexual relations and the relationship between spouses in a faithful marriage. This small group of people would then use the police power of the State to redefine the word marriage, forcing others to accept the new order under the threat of penal sanction. Sadly they seem to be winning, at least in the war of words. As one who has been involved as a word-smith in public policy activism, I understand well the power of words. This issue, like the fundamental human rights issue, the right to life, has suffered from charged rhetoric. It is essential that any acceptable Presidential candidate defend marriage - and the family founded upon it - not only in a defensive posture but as a part of their commitment to the common good.

Most people believe that homosexual relations, no matter how long the partners stay together, cannot constitute or consummate a marriage. Even many homosexual persons oppose activist efforts to redefine these relationships as a “marriage”. It is an extreme wing of the homosexualist movement who is leading this new Cultural Revolution. While showing respect for all persons, including homosexual persons, the candidate should insist that marriage is what it is. They should take a clear position that it should not be redefined through legislative or judicial fiat, explaining that to do so would be an abuse of governance and not further the common good.

Finally, the candidate should insist on the position, backed by every statistic, that in tact, two parent homes are the best environment for the raising for children. What is at stake here is not only the family but the common good. The family is the first social institution. It is the first government, the first schoolhouse, the first hospital, the first economy and the first mediating institution. The family is what humanizes and civilizes men and women.

We were made for relationship and for communion. This truth has implications across the public policy spectrum. The social dimension of the human person is integral to human fulfillment and flourishing. This approach is quite different than the understanding evidenced at least in some versions of what is now called “libertarianism”. Radical individualism, “free” from any government is not the measure of true freedom. A truly pro-family policy agenda should promote a philosophy of government informed by the principle of subsidiarity. It is not the same as being anti government.  The proper role of any higher government is to support the first government of the family. Government begins in the home.

Good educational policy should be developed and sink its roots here in understanding the primacy of family as the first social institution. For example, the better phrase to use when supporting choice in education is “parental choice”, rather than “school choice”. The building does not make the choice. It is parents who are the first teachers of their children and should be empowered to make the choice for their children’s education.  The family is the first school and parents should be able to choose from among the full array of options, competing public schools, private schools, religious and parochial schools, charter schools and home schooling. This approach to an educational policy of parental choice would also support a recovery of the true founding intention of “public” schools. They were not “federal” schools but schools of the people and their local communities, supported by higher government under the principle of subsidiary.

Pro-Freedom and Solidarity

The great struggle of our age is being waged over the definition of freedom. It is a contest which has extraordinary implications. Freedom is not an abstract concept, somehow free-standing in the realm of ideas; it is a “good” of the human person. Only human persons can be free. Only a truly free people are capable of ordering their relationships and forming societies which promote authentic freedom for others. The exercise of freedom has personal, familial, economic and social consequences. Our choices not only change the world around us, but they make us to be the kinds of persons we become and the kind of society we become. What we choose either humanizes us further or leads us, ultimately, into slavery.
This capacity to choose reflects what theologians refer to as the Image of God, within every human person. The Leaders of the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church wrote: "Authentic freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image within man." (Gaudium et Spes # 17). Two contemporary voices tower above others in proclaiming human freedom, the late Servant of God Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. In an age of relativism, they proclaim not only that there is such a thing as truth, but that true freedom advances only in relationship to truth. It is only in choosing what is good that we can experience human flourishing, serve the common good, and become capable of promoting authentic liberation.

In speaking to an assembly of families, Pope Benedict coined a poignant phrase “anarchic freedom” noting: “Today's various forms of dissolution of marriage, “free” unions, trial marriages as well as the pseudo-matrimonies between people of the same sex are ….expressions of anarchic freedom which falsely tries to pass itself off as the true liberation of man," He opined concerning legal abortion and creeping euthanasia: "The freedom to kill is not true freedom, but a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery." By calling what is wrong a “right”, and even securing such feigned “rights” with the power of the State (as in the case of the so called abortion right) contemporary men and women are increasingly bound by the chains of their own self delusion, materialism and nihilism. They are being imprisoned by the lies of this “anarchic freedom.” Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul the Great referred to this same phenomenon as a “counterfeit” notion of freedom, warning it could lead to the “death of true freedom”.
To an age enamored with false concepts of “choice” as the unimpeded right to do whatever one wills, any acceptable Presidential candidate should remind the Nation of what we already know, some “choices” are always and everywhere wrong. Choosing them will not make us free, but will erode freedom and lead to new forms of slavery. Freedom means not only that we can choose but it authentic freedom carries the responsibility to choose what is good and right. It is how we choose that truly matters.

Freedom is not simply a freedom from restraint, but it is a freedom for the good, the Common Good. It is within this kind of robust vision of freedom that economic policy should be considered. Free markets require a free people. And, while the market economy offers the best hope for expanding economic opportunity to an ever increasing number of Americans, a good leader will always remember that the market was made for man and not man for the market. The market should be at the service of the person, the family and the common good. The best language for articulating the great promise of economic progress is the language of expanding participation.  
It is also here where we can develop a uniquely American articulation of the principle of solidarity. One of the great heroes who helped to topple totalitarian communism was Lech Walesa. He used the Polish trade union movement to bring down the behemoth of a tyrannical State. The name of that movement was “Solidarity”. A devout Catholic, Walesa knew what his Church teaches: the answer to the age old question of Cain echoes throughout human history and how we respond affects how we will live. The answer is “Yes, we are our brother’s keeper”.

We do have obligations to one another and, most especially to the poor in all of their manifestations. These obligations were not first created by some kind of social contract out of some Hobbesian “state of nature”. They are inherent, along with our inalienable rights which are endowed. They exist because of who we were created to be as human persons fashioned in the Image of God. To be a human person is to be a neighbor. Being human obligates us to treat our neighbor as another self. Though Government cannot compel neighborly behavior, it can, and it should promote solidarity through good public policy.

There is no more compelling message and no more powerful force for change than the cry of the human heart for freedom. It is critical that those who lead our Nation recover the truth about authentic human freedom, and the responsibilities it entails, if we hope to build a truly free society. Such a truly free society can be the beacon of hope for a world struggling with the creeping darkness of totalitarianism. Once again it should be America crying out with the message of the hope found in freedom.


Each of the themes which I have addressed in the latter part of this essay are an example and application of Catholic social teaching. Supporting the right to life, defending and promoting true marriage and the family founded upon it and being an advocate of authentic freedom which also recognizes the obligations we have in solidarity, all promote the common good.

Specific applications of these principles and positions can be legitimately debated. How a candidate proposes the specific policy implementation of the principles may indeed differ. However, as we evaluate the Presidential candidates we must insist that they speak with clarity and conviction on all three. An acceptable candidate must be pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-freedom.


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