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Core Classes Explore the Common Good  

Photo of Pope Francis standing at a podiumInside the Core this week, or around this time, many Core II students may be reading John Locke's Second Treatise (in excerpts) and Pope Francis' Laudato Si. Though at first these two texts may seem very far apart, in reality they are connected in some key ways. The two that strike me as most interesting regard the nature of power and the necessity to share the resources the earth has given us.

John Locke, born in England in 1632 and died in 1704, never saw the American Revolution, but his works were influential on the early American revolutionaries. He helped to define the concept of the ruler being under the law, not the maker of law, and having his or her authority granted by the consent of the governed. However, as the Core II textbook's introduction to Locke points out (as written by Dr. Anthony Sciglitano), Locke was a controversial figure, while speaking up about human rights and against slavery on the one hand and then investing in the slave trade and defending those with property against those who lack it on the other (402-403). Despite his personal inconsistencies and moral ambiguity, his words have relevance to our world today.

Regarding power, Locke explains that the "state of nature" for all humans is freedom (though he clearly differentiates between liberty and license, which is liberty abused and used destructively). He says, we only give up freedom to any ruler or ruling body in exchange for certain protections, particularly of property. Though he focuses on property, by this term he does not simply mean real estate, but, as he puts it, people's "lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name property" (4-6). This power of government to protect, derived from the governed with their consent, must be used for "the regulating and preserving of property… and all this only for the public good" (404). As for property in the usual sense of owned land and also nature as experienced and used on the land, Locke makes the point that taking more than our share could be morally problematic. He says, "God has given us all things richly. 1 Tim. V. 12 is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others" (405). However he goes on to make the point that the invention of money – silver and gold used in exchange – makes it possible for someone to "own" more than he or she can actually use (a practice he doesn't seem to be exactly against, hence, perhaps, his being said to defend the propertied class). Still, Locke does make the point, "nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy" (405).

This last idea leads to our second Core (optional) text, Pope Francis' Laudato Si. This papal encyclical was published in 2015, shortly before the Paris climate meeting that led to the Paris Accords (from which, sadly, the US has now withdrawn). In it the Pope argues rationally, leaning on the best scientific research, but also passionately and with deep reverence and spirituality, for the entire world to treat our "Madre, the earth," with greater respect. Citing other popes (such as Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II) as well as Saint Francis and, most important of all, the Bible, Pope Francis shows that taking care of nature is rooted in our humanity, in our creation by God as caretakers and nurturers of the earth (seen in Gen. 1-2). He says, somewhat poetically, "The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things" (58). In fact, he goes so far as to say, "The entire material universe speaks of God's love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God" (59).

With regard to power, Pope Francis – much more strongly than Locke – argues against a presumptuous, selfish and elitist use of power, over other people and other non-human creatures as well. Speaking of the abuse of power against "the majority of humanity," as well as the natural world, the Holy Father says, "This vision of ‘might is right' has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence… since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all" (58). He contrasts this abuse of power with the laying down of power advocated by Jesus, who said: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you, but whoever would be great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:25-26; quoted here 58). The negative kind of power, "lording it over" the poor, the marginalized, and nature itself, leads to destruction, akin to the abuses of what Locke describes as "license." For example, speaking of the enormous increases in weapons with great, even overwhelmingly destructive power, Francis asks, "In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it" (71).

Again, going well beyond the rather tentative arguments in Locke regarding limits on private property, Pope Francis makes the important point that, while the Church affirms the right to private property, is not a right that is "absolute or inviolable" and must always work within an awareness of the common good. He quotes Saint John Paul II, who argued similarly against a selfish use or abuse of the earth's goods that ignores human welfare: "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of its members, without excluding or favoring anyone" (Centessimus Annus [1 May 1991]; quoted here, 65). The implicit idea that government, which guards property, only exists for the common good, is clearly affirmed by the two popes, Francis and John Paul II, who suggest that governments and all peoples need to regulate the use of the earth's resources always for the common good of all, never just a few.

So, in a time of great crisis worldwide, it is helpful and interesting to remember these words. In light of their emphasis on the common good, it is gratifying to hear many stories of unselfish people putting others before themselves during this crisis. The common good of patients and others at risk causes health care workers and others to put themselves on the line caring for them. Just this week I read about a priest in Italy, Don Giuseppe Berradone of Bergamo, who gave up his ventilator to a younger patient and died of corona virus a few days later. I also read about the owner of a restaurant, right here in NJ – in Montclair – who is choosing to have all his profits during this time go to his employees (De Nova's, in case you want to patronize them). The list goes on. This is a time for us to put others before ourselves, and to have hope for the future based on love and a sense of community – even with social distancing – now.

Categories: Faith and Service

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  • Nancy Enright
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