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Christians, meanwhile, have reason to question visions of a world made right that omit the judgment, mercy, and grace of God. "The common good" has an awfully this-worldly ring to it. To believe we humans can achieve good on our own, even working together, without the radical intervention of God, is ultimately to deny the doctrines of Creation, Cross, Resurrection, and Second Coming, just for starters. To exchange the dramatic biblical vision of history for "the common good" might seem like trading our birthright for a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal.

So, with all these weaknesses, why should Christians embrace the phrase?

Because it was these very follies that prompted Christians to recover the language of "the common good" in the first place.

An Old Idea

To understand the revival of "the common good," we need to understand the man who did more than anyone else to restore it to Christian currency. Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci became Pope Leo XIII at a time when the papacy was descending. For a thousand years, the pope had been both a spiritual leader and a temporal ruler, commanding the allegiance of kings and directing affairs of state. But in 1870, Italian armies conquered the "Papal States," regions once ruled by the Church, leaving the pope to govern only a tiny enclave of Rome. If the pope was not a ruler among rulers, what was he? That was the question Leo confronted when he began his 25-year papacy in 1878.

"[Leo] saw himself as a teacher … who sought a dialogue with the emerging secular powers of Europe," Bradley Lewis, associate professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, told me. "Engaging with the culture was a key theme of Leo's pontificate. He wrote 85 encyclicals on all kinds of topics." (John Paul II wrote 14 of these authoritative letters during a papacy of comparable length.)

In Leo's circumstances, we recognize a parallel to the circumstances of North American Protestants over the past century—once dominant in cultural institutions but increasingly sidelined from direct control. But rather than retreating from defining the Christian voice in a secular world, Leo and his advisers rose to the challenge, above all by returning to the reasoned philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas's work, informed by Aristotle and conversant with insurgent Islam, was the high-water mark of Catholic thought. And it was from Aquinas that Leo borrowed the language of the common good for his most influential encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

If we are not offering our neighbors the ultimate common good—the knowledge and love of God—we are not taking the idea of the common good seriously.

Rerum novarum simply means "of new things," and the new things Leo had in mind were quite literally revolutionary: the rise of socialism and other workers' movements that addressed the inequities of the new industrial world. Beyond seeking just wages, socialists scorned church and family and invested nearly messianic hope in a new government that would collectivize property and give power to the proletariat. A hundred years after the Russian Revolution, the flaws of the socialist vision (and the communism that followed it) are clear, but in Leo's time, the socialists seemed to have history on their side.

Rerum Novarum was a bold response to both the plight of workers and the scorched-earth progressivism of the socialists. Leo agreed that workers deserved a fair wage—indeed, he was one of the first thinkers to posit that wages should be sufficient to allow hard-working people to provide for their families. But he insisted that the socialist dream of a property-free world, liberated from traditional virtues and relationships, would be disastrous. In particular, Leo argued that private property was not just a matter of private interest; when individuals tended to their own land and possessions faithfully, they made a crucial contribution to "the common good."

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What's So Great About 'The Common Good'?