We live in a society plagued by social ills.  It has been said that the social teachings of the Church are her “best kept secret,” and the Catechism emphasises that one of the Church’s tasks is to teach mankind ‘the demands of justice and peace in conformity with divine wisdom.’[1]  Not sufficiently appreciated by many however, is the social thought of Thomas Aquinas.  Pius XI best explained the value of this when he referred to:

‘those superb chapters in . . . the Summa Theologica on . . . justice and property, . . . the duty of helping individual citizens in their need and co-operating with all to secure the prosperity of the State . . . If these precepts were religiously and inviolably observed in private life and public affairs . . . nothing else would be required to secure mankind that "peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ" which the world so ardently longs for.’[2]

As the foundational element of Thomas’ social thought is the concept of the common good, and as this concept so rarely receives adequate definition today, this brief study will aim to highlight the principal lines of Thomas’ thought on the nature and constitution of the common good.

According to Aquinas, man finds within himself certain inclinations imprinted by God, and by which he is directed toward his final end: happiness.  The primary inclination which man has, the first precept of the natural law, is that ‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.’[3]  This follows because according to Aquinas evil does not have the character of a being but is, rather, a lack of being,[4] and therefore ‘good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary,’[5] and so man, created to attain his end, naturally tends toward good.[6]  Following this first precept of natural law, we discover others.  He highlights three fundamental inclinations in man: 1) those inclinations which man shares in common with all beings, ‘the preservation of its own being, according to its nature’; 2) those ‘which he has in common with other animals . . . such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth’; and 3) those unique to man, ‘an inclination to good . . . to know the truth about God, and to live in society.’[7] 

What is relevant for our purposes is Aquinas’ affirmation that it is natural to man to live in society, the reason for this being that it is only in this way that man will be able to attain his end.[8] The aim of human society however, is not merely to ensure the private good of individual citizens.[9] Rather, its aim is to seek ‘the supreme human good . . . the common good . . . which is superior to . . . the good of an individual.’[10]

The concept of “the common good” is one which is spoken of so often and defined so rarely that one wonders if most who use it have any conception of what they are referring to.  This is understandable, particularly when we note, as does Paulhus, that ‘even scholastic interpreters have not always grasped correctly Thomas’ views on the nature of this common good, or even more critically, his statements on the exact relationship between that good and the proper good of the individual members of society.’[11] Thomas tells us that ‘the common good of the realm and the particular good of the individual differ not only in respect of the "many" and the "few," but also under a formal aspect.’[12] Paulhus notes that on this basis we can distinguish between an ‘internal order,’ or organisation of a community, and an ‘external order,’ or purpose of a community: ‘Since the end or purpose gives direction to the internal relationship among the members, it is necessarily of greater importance than the internal order.’[13] But what is the specific end or purpose which Thomas has in mind for society and which confers order upon it?  Crucially here, the fact that the common good is qualitatively different from the individual good, should not be confused with the idea that the end which gives order to the community is per se different.  In fact, Thomas states that ‘society must have the same end as the individual man,’[14] which is ‘to live virtuously, [and] through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God.’[15] The good of the community is the same as the good of one its members: the possession of God in beatitude.  Scheler notes the incompatibility between this idea and recent political philosophy: ‘the final goal of all human restlessness is calm meditation of the divine majesty, instead of a kind of unending improvement- as it was for nearly every modern thinker.’[16]

Thomas’ might seem to contradict himself here, as he also said that the common good was qualitatively different from an individual good.  It must be borne in mind, however, that for Thomas, as we said earlier, living in society is not a pragmatic arrangement, but is intrinsically necessary to man.  God designed man so that this would be so.  Thomas notes that only human beings have the power of speech, so that by nature they communicate with one another about ideas,[17] producing the political community, and he also notes various physical characteristics of man which make it necessary for him to live communally in order to provide for his needs.[18] To illustrate Thomas’ thought, we might draw an analogy with the human body.  It is clear that a healthy heart, or a healthy liver, for example, is per se something distinct from a healthy body.  Yet the end of a particular bodily organ must necessarily be the same as the end of the whole body: health.  Moreover, it is intrinsically necessary for the organ to be part of the whole body to attain that end.  It needs to be understood that it is this organic concept of what constitutes the common good, articulated by Thomas, which underlies modern Catholic social teaching on the common good.  Holland notes, speaking of Leo XIII, who authored the seminal social Encyclical Rerum Novarum:

‘Leo XIII found in Thomism a fundamental philosophical instrument that he believed capable of correcting an interrelated series of philosophical errors in modern culture . . . these perceived errors were the fragmenting polarization of (1) subject and object, (2) individual and community, (3) mind and the will, (4) faith and reason, and (5) religion and society.’[19]

It is this fragmentation of the individual and community which is seen in modern concepts of what constitutes the common good, in which all too often the common good is conceived of as being an aggregate of individual interests or, worse, an uneasy compromise between conflicting sets of “rights.”  Such notions find their way even into Catholic minds.  For example, the prominent American pressure group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has described the common good as a ‘balance between self- and shared-interest.’[20]

So much for the nature of the common good, but what does this mean in concrete terms?  The Dominican Albino Barrera has made what is perhaps one of the finest attempts to outline the features which constitute the common good.  He notes the maxim of Thomas that ‘wherever there is a principle, there must needs be also order of some kind,’[21]and argues that as ‘every principle is reflective of some order from whence it is derived, it is possible to list specific characteristics expected of the common good.’[22] He lists these characteristics under two headings: ‘due order,’[23] and ‘due proportion.’[24] Let us look at just one of these: due order.

Barrero takes as his starting point the aforementioned comment of Thomas, arguing that:

‘The existence of an order necessarily implies the ability to define the following: the end(s) of these distinct elements, their relation to each other, and their place within the whole . . . due order in social life mirrors a much larger moral order.  The natural and social structures governing the human community operate within the broader sphere of the eternal law of Divine Wisdom.’[25]

From this foundation he defines ‘five fundamental axioms that define the constitutive elements of a due order that can be reasonably be expected to be a hallmark of the common good,’[26] which are (1) the orientation of the human person toward the transcendent, (2) the orientation of the human person toward other human persons, (3) the ‘fundamental equality’ of all human persons, (4) the end of the community as the perfection of its individual members, and (5) the human person as a steward of the goods of the earth.

            It will easily be appreciated from what has already been said here regarding the end of all human beings as the possession of the vision of God and the inherent necessity of society to man how features (1), (2), and (4) are thoroughly rooted in Thomas’ thought.  With regard to (3) we note the teaching of Thomas that respect of persons is a sin opposed to distributive justice interestingly, he argues, in that ‘fails to observe due proportion.’[27] With regard to (5) also we note the teaching of Thomas that all goods, including private property, have a universal destination,[28] a teaching which has been reiterated by the Church in recent times,[29] including at the Second Vatican Council.[30]

To conclude then, we saw earlier one example of a group promoting Catholic social teaching falling afoul of erroneous notions about the common good, yet this is by no means the only example of thinking which is either simply incorrect, or at best confused and ill-defined.  Barrera says rightly that ‘in order to ensure the clarity of the Christian contribution in the public square, it is imperative to have a well-formulated vision of the common good.’[31] My contention is that it is Thomas who provides this well-formulated vision upon which subsequent magisterial teaching is based, and that a renewed interest in his social thought is the most fitting way to attain the clarity needed if the voice of the Church is to be heard in the secular marketplace of the twenty-first century.




Barrera, Albino, “The Common Good as Due Order and Due Proportion” in Modern Catholic Social Documents and Political Economy, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D. C., 2001


Barry, O. P., Robert, “Thomas Aquinas, Contribution of” in Dwyer, Judith A (ed.), The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1994


Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, What Is The Common Good?, available online at: http://www.catholicsinalliance.org/the-common-good


Charles, S. J., Rodger and MacLaren, O. P., Drostan, The Social Teaching of Vatican II, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1982


Holland, Joe, Modern Catholic Social Teaching: The Popes Confront the Industrial Age, Paulist Press, Mahwah, N. J., 2003


Paulhus, Normand J., “Uses and Misuses of the Term “social Justice” in the Roman Catholic Tradition” in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall 1987): 261-282


Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards A Better Distribution of Land, online at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_12011998_distribuzione-terra_en.html


Pope Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem, Encyclical promulgated 29th June 1923, available online at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/ENCYC/P11STUDI.HTM


Second Vatican Council, Gaudium Et Spes, December 7th 1965, available online at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html


Scheler, Max and Stark, Werner, “The Thomist Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” in Sociological Analysis, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring 1964): 4-19


St. Thomas Aquinas (trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province), Summa Theologiae, available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/


St. Thomas Aquinas (trans. Richard J. Regan), Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 2007


St. Thomas Aquinas (trans. Gerald P. Phelan), De Regno, The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, 1949, Re-edited and chapter numbers aligned with Latin by Joseph Kenny, O.P, available online at: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/DeRegno.htm


[1] CCC 2419

[2] SD, #20

[3] ST, 1a2ae, 94, 2

[4] ST, 1a. 48, 1

[5] ST, 1a2ae, 94, 2 (emphasis mine)

[6] Aquinas does not ignore the fact that men commit evil acts.  Even evil acts, however, are committed in the pursuit of some good, but owing to original sin and its influence on the passions, tending to drag them to excess or defect, man has difficulty in identifying the good and choosing the correct means to attain his end. (cf. ST 1a, 8, 1; 82, 3; also Charles & McLaren, Social Teaching, p.189-190)

[7] ST, 1a2ae, 94,2

[8] In Libros Politicorum Aristotelis Expositio, I, 1

[9] Cf. Ibid: It will be noted that this is opposed to a very prevalent view popularised by the American Declaration of Independence that governments are ‘are instituted among Men’ in order to secure ‘certain unalienable Rights/’

[10] Politica, I, 1

[11] Paulhus, “Uses and Misuses of the Term “social Justice””, p.263

[12] ST, 2a2ae, 58, 7

[13] Paulhus, op. cit., p.264

[14] De Regno, I, 15, 107

[15] Ibid.

[16] Scheler & Stark, “The Thomist ethic”, p.7

[17] Politica, loc. cit.

[18] Rodger & Charles, loc. cit.

[19] Holland, Modern Catholic Social Teaching, p.122 (emphasis mine)

[20] Cf. http://www.catholicsinalliance.org/the-common-good

[21] ST, 2a2ae, 26, 1

[22] Barrera, “The Common Good”, p.291

[23] Ibid., p.291-297

[24] Ibid., p.297-300

[25] Ibid., p.291

[26] Ibid, p.292

[27] ST, 2a2ae, 63, 1

[28] ST, 2a2ae, 66, 7

[29] Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards A Better Distribution of Land, #31

[30] GS, #69

[31] Barrera, op. cit., p.287

© Aaron Karl Taylor, 2010

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