Rediscovering the Common Good
Where Justice and Charity Meet
Sunday, October 31, 2021
Fr. Richard Rohr shares the importance of both justice and charity to bring about the common good.
“We need to make the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good,” said Peter Maurin (1877–1949).  That is our difficulty today. We are surrounded by good, well-meaning folks who are swept along in a stream of shallow options. Not only is the good made increasingly difficult to do, it is even difficult to recognize. It seems that affluence takes away the clear awareness of what is life and what is death. I don’t think the rich are any more or less sinful than the poor; they just have many more ways to call their sin virtue. There is a definite deadening of the awareness of true good and true evil.
I have found one fuzzy area that often needs clarification: We have confused justice and charity. Charity was traditionally considered the highest virtue, popularly thought of as a kind of magnanimous, voluntary giving of ourselves, preferably for selfless motives. As long as we rose to this level occasionally by donating food, gifts, or money at the holidays or in times of crisis, we could think of ourselves as charitable people operating at the highest level of virtue.
What has been lacking is the virtue of justice. Justice and charity are complementary but clearly inseparable in teachings of Doctors of the Church, as well as the social encyclical letters of almost all popes over the last century. The giving and caring spirit of charity both motivates and completes our sense of justice, but the virtue of charity cannot legitimately substitute for justice. Persons capable of doing justice are not justified in preferring to “do charity.” Although this has clearly been taught on paper, I would say it is the great missing link in the practical preaching and lifestyle of the church. We have ignored the foundational obligation of justice in our works of charity! For centuries we have been content to patch up holes temporarily (making ourselves feel benevolent) while in fact maintaining the institutional structures that created the holes (disempowering people on the margins). Now it has caught up with us in unremitting poverty, massive income disparity, cultural alienation, and human and environmental abuse.
Jesus preaches a social order in which true charity is possible, a way of relating by which cooperation and community make sense. Jesus offers a world where all share the Spirit’s power “each according to their gift.” And that “Spirit is given to each person for the sake of the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). That is the key to Christian community and Christian social justice. It is not a vision of totalitarian equality, nor is it capitalist competition (“domination of the fittest”). It is a world in which cooperation, community, compassion, and the charity of Christ are paramount—and to which all other things are subservient. The “common good” is the first principle of Catholic social doctrine—although few Catholics know it.
 Peter Maurin, quoted in The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (Harper and Brothers: 1952), 280.
Adapted from Richard Rohr and Others, Grace in Action, ed. Teddy Carney and Christina Spahn (Crossroad: 1994), 3–5.
Story from Our Community:
A United Methodist all my life, who would have thought that a Franciscan would become so influential in my spiritual journey! Fr. Richard’s meditations, books, and conferences have helped me see that being a Christian is not about having correct beliefs, but about and trying to create a peaceful world. —Margaret C.
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