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Catholic social thought has always emphasized that the state or government plays an essential role in political, social, and economic life, but government’s role has been increasingly emphasized since 1960. Trends in modern secular thought and political practice that have placed a greater emphasis on government solutions to social problems and are less inclined toward other (and especially free market) solutions, may be one factor in this increased emphasis. As CST has embraced the idea of more active government, it has always qualified that embrace with important limits, some of which are discussed. But in this chapter I ask, “To what extent has CST considered the possibility of government abusing its expanded powers to regulate?” and “What suggestions does it offer for dealing with such abuses?” The answer to both questions is, I suggest, “Not enough.” The primary point I make is not that CST ought to adopt a particular stance regarding the specific institutional limits on government that should be employed, or how much government power ought to be limited, but rather that it is a significant gap in CST that it barely considers this issue at all.
The common good (bonum commune) has, since antiquity, referred to the aim of social and political association, and was particularly prominent in medieval Christian political theology. Since St. John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical letter, Mater et magistra, ecclesiastical statements about social teaching have employed a formulation of the common good, usually in the version that appeared in the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution for the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, as “the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” This chapter discusses the origins and development of this formulation as well as the ways that it has been used in subsequent Catholic Social Teaching. While it has sometimes been interpreted as an “instrumental” account of the common good, the sources and uses of the notion suggest that it is the particularly modern political component of a fuller notion of the common good continuous with the tradition. In particular, the recent formulation is concerned to limit the power of the modern state and protect the dignity of the human person in the challenging conditions of political modernity.
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