The common good

My work for Citizens Advice means sometimes attending meetings with representatives from other agencies in Oxfordshire. So this morning I rolled up at Oxford Job Centre Plus for one of our quarterly liaison meetings between JC+ managers and advice-giving agencies. As this is opposite Worcester College I looked out for their magnolia tree, as I said I would in my last post. From a distance it looked completely bare; then, as I got closer, I began to see the odd bit of pink; finally, standing across the road I could see that it is truly splendid, and completely covered in blossoms, a few of which have begun to open. The sight of that tree, which lifted my spirits, was to be the best part of the morning.

I joined Citizens Advice in 1996, and have worked in some of the most deprived boroughs in London - if not the country - but whatever difficulties and brick walls advisers and clients used to encounter, in some pretty grim times and places, they pale into insignificance in the face of what we face now. This morning I sat through frustrating discussions about the assessment of chronically sick and disabled claimants, followed by news of further restrictions to Housing and Council Tax Benefit, with gloomy predictions about the likely consequent increase in evictions and poverty.

All that is only part of the current landscape of cuts, restrictions, rising unemployment and the break-up of the NHS. While concessions are made to articulate middle-income families and bankers collect their bonuses, the poor and vulnerable, the sick, disabled and voiceless, those already struggling, are simply packed onto a one-way train to further destitution. Who is speaking for them? There are plenty of campaigning groups doing their best, but what about the Catholic Church? I don't mean individuals and small organisations, who I know are also doing their best, I mean bodies with the national scope and presence of the Catholic Bishops' Conference and the Conference of Religious. I've seen plenty of headlines devoted to the Bishops' opposition to gay marriage, but I've yet to see anything stating their opposition to all these truly abhorrent policies currently going through partliament.

In 1996, faced with social inequality, injustice and the effects of hardline policies, the Bishops' Conference produced The Common Good, a strong re-statement of Catholic Social Teaching. They said things like

The Gospel imperative to love our neighbour entails not only that we should help those in need, but also address the causes of destitution and poverty. The deepening of the spiritual life must go hand in hand with practical concern for our neighbour, and thus with social action... Evangelisation always requires the transformation of an unjust social order; and one of its primary tasks is to oppose and denounce such injustices...

The common good implies that every individual, no matter how high or low, has a duty to share in promoting the welfare of the community as well as a right to benefit from that welfare. The common good is contradicted if any section of the population is excluded from participation in the life of the community, even at a minimal level. There must come a point at which the scale of the gap between the very wealthy and those at the bottom of the range of income begins to undermine the common good. This is the point at which society starts to be run for the benefit of the rich, not for all its members...

Sixteen years, sadly, on those words are doubly, triply true, and the concern and passion for justice which wrote them are doubly, triply needed. But who will speak for the poor and vulnerable? Or, if silence prevails, do we have to hope for the very stones to shout out?


  1. Silvana, thank you for your insightful post. We in the US are in a similar dilemma. And our bishops also are too busy fighting the issue of contraception to deal with the "common good" as stated in the quote you posted. Isn't it sad that the people who are supposed to be our wise leaders focus on minutiae rather than on the grim realities of today's poor people.
    Cathy O.


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