‘The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.
‘Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.’
So begins the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, the document that came out of the first several meetings of bishops at Vatican II, the only document that was not planned before the council began. It calls for a new sense of service by the church in a rapidly changing world. Some scholars say it is inspired.
Certainly it gives a blueprint for the church to do what it does best – follow the example of Christ in welcoming and accompanying those who struggle in society for whatever reason.
Pope Leo XIII began official church teaching with his encyclical Rerum Novarum, written at the end of the 19th century to address the rights of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Since then the church has built up a body of work known as Catholic social teaching, the principles of which guide the way we behave towards our sisters and brothers at home and around the world.
The common good is a central principle which says that everything we do has some consequence for others, not only in our immediate sphere of influence but further afield as well. This principle comes into play with something as simple as washing toxic leftover paint down the sink and letting the poisons run into the city’s water supply.
It can apply in a wider context also – perhaps with farmers or fisher folk overstocking their grazing areas or taking too much of one species of fish so that sustainability is compromised.
Another area where the common good applies is in the way the government cares for those unable, for whatever reason, to support themselves. In March the government unveiled a package of benefit reforms aimed at ‘breaking the cycle of welfare’ which economist Susan St John says is clearly aimed at saving costs.
The government considers long-term benefit dependency unsustainable and assumes numbers will continue to increase ‘unabated’.
In fact, the New Zealand Council for Christian Social Services’ Policy Watch for April 19 says benefit numbers expand and contract with the economy as we have seen during the recent recession when benefit numbers increased.
Long-term dependency also bears further scrutiny. In the last quarter of 2009, just 16 percent of unemployment beneficiaries had been on the Unemployment Benefit continuously for more than a year and less than 1 percent had received the Unemployment Benefit for 10 years or more. Around two-thirds of Domestic Purposes Benefit recipients received support for less than four years, reflecting childcare responsibilities.
The principle of the common good requires us to question such government claims alongside the right to human dignity and support when one is in need. We all share in the grief and anguish of those unable to support themselves and their families just as, at present, we share in the grief and anguish of those affected by church sex abuse scandals.