Monday, October 19, 2009

The Common Good -- Sightings

Americans have developed a cult of the individual. We are to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and yet that's not a realistic option -- at least for most of us. At some point along the way, we need other people. It can be private citizens, family, churches, or the government, which comes alongside us and assists us. The health care debate is one of those places where the question of the common good arises. What is needed to provide for the common good?

In today's Sightings column Martin Marty addresses just this question -- it's a column that we should ponder!


Sightings 10/19/09

The Common Good

-- Martin E. Marty

Sometimes we do our sightings and findings of religion-in-public-life themes among throwaway or incidental lines, writings or sayings which suddenly hit us with unexpected force. A seemingly banal one struck me, and provides the base for all charters which deal with health care in the United States. The sentence is so obvious it could have just lain there, inert and overlookable, but its reminder can strike consciences and should spur action. It leaped out in the first paragraph of Daniel Callahan’s “America’s Blind Spot: Health Care and the Common Good” in the October 9th Commonweal, as follows:

“We all get sick and depend on others to care for us…” The reminder inspired self-examination and questions, such as: “Have you or anyone you ever heard of forever escaped sickness, or can you picture escaping life without ever becoming ill?” Question two: “If your sickness was, is, or will be the least bit serious and weakening, can you picture always getting by without ‘depending on others?’ A family member or friend helps with minor ailments but, when these get to be a little more serious, or very serious, indeed, on whom will you depend?” Callahan knows that most Americans but by no means all – the count is in the tens of millions – have or can get access to care through insurance or existing (e.g., Medicaid) U. S. Government funding. What about the rest?

“Care” is the big word in Callahan’s headline. It and its synonyms are unmistakable in the language of the prophets, while care for the other is the most basic theme in the Gospel sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. Callahan connects such care with the concept and reality of the “common good,” outlined by Aristotle and, he properly notes, developed in Catholic theology and practice. He misfires with the first half of this sentence: “Except for Catholics and a few others, however, the common good as a moral value has little purchase in American culture and politics.” Ouch. I support, for example, the lively “Protestants for the Common Good,” and can think of many agencies beyond Catholicism, Protestantism, Christianity, and Judaism which propound and seek to follow “common good” concerns. In fact, to be crabby for a moment, I wish a few more Catholics (and media covering them) knew this teaching and ranked it highly, no longer leaving “anti-abortion” and various homosexual rights issues in splendid media isolation.

Callahan knows that beyond the various familial, churchly, and charitable agencies, the only backstop when one has to depend is, somehow, governmentally connected. Yet whisper the word “government” and you will see “the common good” interest forgotten or denied – and followed by bragging-rights language from the well-off who assert that newly-defined individualism must reign supreme and alone. The poor, unemployed, disabled: Should not the churches care, and cannot they be depended upon? We can document that most of them try, and do many primary and supplemental acts of care within their means. Last Sunday our parish intercessions named thirty people needing care, many of them “depending” on others. Our whole parish budget for the year was $1 million, which would not go very far very long. We need help. It is not in place for Sightings to back a specific policy of public, public-and-private, or other options. But the first word to be said after noticing illness, being dependent, needing, and “the common good” is one which will help remove the “individual as god” rhetoric and claim. Callahan spells much of this out, since the details are important, but his simple line quoted above launches it all and should provide foundations for what follows. Take care.


Read Daniel Callahan’s piece in Commonweal at

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School explores recent work by three major thinkers who both find inspiration in the pragmatic tradition and take religion seriously in their investigations of democracy—Jeffrey Stout, Roberto Unger, and Cornel West. He seeks to develop a conceptual grounding for his own move toward a pragmatism, rooted in social practice, which also bears a theological sensibility suitable for addressing those contingencies that are, in fact, the existential consequences of political realities. With invited responses from Eddie Glaude (Princeton University), Corey D. B. Walker (Brown University), and others.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said...

Well, you'd have to define the word "need". Who knows what we really need? We bend for many others regardless of need. I'll read the rest later. David Mc

Anonymous said...

"at least for most of us"

okay, okay. Not trained in legal, eh? David Mc

Anonymous said...

Hey, this is awesome. I just ordered a copy-

Oh, yeah, I think most Americans are actually ready for national health care. It's like the Saturday Night Live skit the other night though, they pause at giving Obama the win. David Mc