How we organize our society—in economics and politics, in law and policy—directly affects the common good and the capacity of individuals to develop their full potential. Every person and association has a right and a duty to participate actively in shaping society and to promote the well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. (FCFC, 47]
As individuals, we are concerned with our own well-being as well as that of our own families and social circles. Good stewardship requires us to feed, clothe, protect and, otherwise, nourish ourselves and our loved ones.
Our Faith, however, calls us to go beyond that and be just as concerned for others as we are for ourselves. We are all part of the Body of Christ and must feed and nourish each other. (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” )
The common good is about how we as a society balance the needs of all, for the benefit of all. It requires respecting and protecting fundamental rights; promoting spiritual and temporal prosperity; and maintaining peace and security.
The common good … is the sum total of all conditions which allows people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily. [Guadium et Spes, 26]
It is not about just making sure people in society can exist or survive, it is about creating circumstances that allow people to thrive. We are called to create and support a society that improves the conditions of human life for all.
In fact, the main reason for the existence of the political community, according to Catholic social teaching, is to defend and promote the common good. Public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person, permitting each of its members to fulfill his vocation. All people have the right to enjoy the conditions of social life that are brought about by the quest for the common good.
The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future. [Compendium 164]
Fresh water, for instance, is a benefit – i.e. a good. Not only is used to maintain life but it is also critical in agriculture, ranching, manufacturing, healthy ecosystems, transportation, and, even, recreation. Each of these is also a good. But the common good is not just the maximization of each – they can sometimes conflict with each other. Rather, it balances them for the greatest benefit. People must have enough water to drink, farmers and ranchers must maintain their crops and herds, and goods must move via navigable water.
The common good is always oriented towards the progress of persons: “The order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around.” This order is founded on truth, built up in justice and animated by love. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1912)
But people, says the Church, must always be the highest priority because – made in the image and likeness of God – they are the greatest good of all.
As a society, we balance the various goods through public policy. Since they sometimes compete with each other, some goods or benefits may have to be partially sacrificed – not all can always be maximized. Again, people must be the highest priority:
The common good rejects the notion that society’s decisions should be determined by the clash of partisan, economic and political interests in a way that lets power dominate over justice. Indeed, the notion of the common good rejects the pursuit of only our own interests in the political process at the expense of the good of the society as a whole. [In Search of the Common Good, California Catholic Conference]
When one good is over-emphasized at the expense of another, we are called to correct the imbalance through our individual and collective actions. We may be asked to give preference to one good over another. It’s especially true when an imbalance creates hardships and disadvantages for people.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ [Matthew 25: 35-36]
For example, one of the reasons we are asked to give a preferential option for the poor is that an imbalance in the common good may be directly and painfully impacting the hungry, the stranger and other disadvantaged neighbors.
Sacrifice may be required in one good to remedy an imbalance in another, especially if the life and dignity of people is threatened and they are stymied from trying to reach their full potential.
Exactly how this is done should be the focus of public policy debates. The concept of sacrifice has become passé in the larger culture, but might be just what is required when different goods compete with each other.
Each interest has the right and the duty to put forward the case for promotion of its good but, in the end, we as a people must decide what is best for all people. And, as Catholics, measuring how well life and dignity is protected in the common good should be our top priority.
The Common Good
from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
164. The principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people.
The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future.
165. A society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of the human being at every level is a society that has the common good — the good of all people and of the whole person  — as its primary goal. The human person cannot find fulfillment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists “with” others and “for” others.
166. The demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights.
167. The common good therefore involves all members of society, no one is exempt from cooperating, according to each one's possibilities, in attaining it and developing it.
Everyone also has the right to enjoy the conditions of social life that are brought about by the quest for the common good.
168. The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason that the political authority exists.
169. To ensure the common good, the government of each country has the specific duty to harmonize the different sectoral interests with the requirements of justice.
170. The common good of society is not an end in itself; it has value only in reference to attaining the ultimate ends of the person and the universal common good of the whole of creation.