Public policy and the common good

In a 2007 talk Stephen Schneck outlined a five-step agenda for bringing a “common good agenda” to American public policy.

Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, will be the keynote speaker at the 12th annual Romero Lecture Series on Friday, March 23, at Rutgers University-Camden.

Speaking to a gathering of the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Schneck said, “The foundation for Catholic thinking about politics, governance and policy is the idea of the common good.” But that’s “a hard notion for contemporary Americans to understand.”

And the momentum in American politics “is one accelerating (away) from anything like the common good,” he said. “Let’s remember that ours is a politics where citizens are encouraged — after a terrorist attack — to go shopping. Where even military service is sometimes privatized.

“Ours has become a politics of self-interest, of wedges to divide us, of ever-narrower and ever more antagonistic group interests,” Schneck continued. “It’s become the pathetically mean-spirited politics of Ann Coulter and Al Franken, a politics of ideology and mere elections … where important policy making is ‘quagmired’ in partisan posturing.”

To get beyond that atmosphere toward one where seeking the common good is the priority in the public square, Schneck said the first step is to change the language of policy. For instance, he noted that although Catholics, in particular, consider abortion a foremost issue, there has been imperceptible change in policies since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.

One reason for that, he suggested, has been that discussion about abortion is not phrased in the language of the common good, but in the language of rights.

“We need to stop using and being used by abortion politics that makes ‘life’ and ‘choice’ into weapons for partisan gain and get on with feasible policies that do everything possible to reduce the number of abortions in America,” Schneck said.

To do that means policies that support mothers and infants, make adoption easier and provides medical and financial support for mothers in difficult situations, he said.

A second necessary step is for public policy to be measured by what they do for the “least of our brethren,” said Schneck.

“The measure of civilization, the measure of the common good, is the life of these ‘least,’” he said, explaining that the “least” in modern society include those who are vulnerable, weak, disempowered, marginalized or oppressed. They might include the unborn, or victims of racism, homophobia, misogyny or anti-Semitism. Schneck said they might be the poor, especially children such as those who have inadequate health care.

Schneck said a third step should be returning to a long view of the historical scope of politics.

“We have to get beyond policies that pander to immediate desires and adopt the longer, historical perspective of the common good,” he said. Immigration and treatment of immigrants is especially illustrative of current shortsighted approach, given the history of Catholic immigrants, in particular.

“The prejudices faced, the ghettos and shantytowns, the Know-Nothings and the KKK, and all those so-called ‘pure Americans’ who resented our religion, our languages and our different cultures,” Schneck said. “When we consider the many complex issues of today’s immigration, let’s never forget the trials Catholic immigrants from Europe experienced as ‘micks,’ ‘krauts,’ ‘polacks’ and ‘wops’ — legal and illegal — on the way to becoming Americans.”

The common good also looks to the good of future generations, he said. “Whether it’s the issue of passing on the costs of the Iraq war or the costs of social security to our children, or not developing a responsible energy policy that will keep the lights on for the next generation, or investing in the physical and virtual infrastructure for tomorrow’s commerce — the common good demands that we weigh the passionate yens of the moment against the future good of the whole.”

Other guiding principles should include acting as if the common good transcends national interests and with the recognition that the common good calls everyone to a “citizenship of service,” he said.

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