The Common Good and Religious Liberty

By Joseph E. Capizzi

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Catholic political thought and Church teaching affirm the central purpose of the political common good in its reflections on the role, functioning, and purposes of the state (or, temporal power, or “political authority”). One of those purposes is the state’s responsibility to care for the spiritual nature of the human person by recognizing that nature’s relationship to human this-worldly flourishing and the person’s ultimate end in God. Since the middle of the twentieth century and in part responsive to the experience of authoritarian governance, magisterial pronouncements of the Catholic Church have worked to establish and explain a close relationship between the common good, the language of basic rights, and the flourishing of the individual persons and the social groups in which persons find themselves.

What is the Common Good?

The pontificate of Pope John XXIII introduced a reconceptualization of the common good that attained authoritative status in Gaudium et spes (1965) formulation of the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” (GS no. 26) By adopting this language, Pope John XXIII accelerated a papal trend sensitive to the expansion of the state into the lives of both human persons and the church, and therefore re-stated the common good in the language of the flourishing of each. In Mater et magistra (1961), Pacem in terris (1963) and then the conciliar documents Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae (1965), we find repeated re-definition of the common good in terms of the total conditions of social life that enable persons and the social groups which they form to attain their fulfillment.  To make this concept less abstract, it can help to consider an analogy in a concrete institution, such as a school.  The school flourishes if it is a place where students become formed intellectually, culturally, and spiritually.  Certain conditions are necessary for that flourishing to take place.  For example, the building needs to be safe; the students’ bodies need to be healthy; the faculty needs to be populated by good teachers; the parents of the students should support the mission of the school; the teachers need to be respected by the community.  These are all conditions of flourishing, that is, aspects of the common good of this particular institution.  When these conditions are in place, the individual students are in a better position to thrive as students.

Subsequent popes, including Pope Francis have reaffirmed this language of the common good, closely attaching the definition of the common good to a conception of the human person as a bearer of fundamental rights. In Laudato si’ Pope Francis writes, “Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development.” (Laudato si’ [2015] no. 157) That conception of the common good is integral to the church’s view of religious liberty.

Its place in conciliar documents already assured its authoritative status, but every subsequent pope has cited Gaudium et spes’ version of the common good, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church continues this trend in its discussion of social life in part three. Political authority derives its legitimacy from its service of the common good (CCC no. 1903). And as “man is a social animal,” his good is necessarily connected with the good of the community (bono communi) of which he is a part. (CCC no. 1905) The concept of the common good advanced by the magisterium recognizes the dual aspect of the political community as both necessary to human flourishing and a potential source of harm by its overreach. This second aspect, emphasizing the possibility of political authority posing harms to humans by its overreach, explains why over time the Church has increasingly resorted to the language of rights in the context of the common good. Thus, Pope John XXIII explained in Pacem in terris “Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.” (Pacem no. 9) A well-ordered society, in other words, respects the rights possessed by human persons. This is not to say that personal rights and good ordering of society oppose each other; instead, as the language of the common good suggests, the flourishing of political society is connected with the flourishing of its individual members.

The Common Good and Religious Freedom

The Catechism neatly sums all this up by naming three essential elements of the common good in our age (CCC 1906, emphasis original): respect for the person, the well-being and development of the “group” or social community of which the person is a member, and peace. These three elements of the common good are to be integrated: each serves and is served by the flourishing of the other. Of deepest significance, however, is that the Catechism specifies in the first element “the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as ‘the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard . . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.’” (CCC no. 1907) The close connection of the common good, respect for freedom of religion, and “development of the human vocation” asserted by the Catechism reveals that for the Church, the right to religious freedom is not seen merely as a right limiting freedom of state action but is necessary to the flourishing of the political community as well.

The freedoms associated with human flourishing, including and especially religious freedom, thus serve the common good of the political community. By recognizing the “transcendent dignity” of the human person, a dignity connected to the goal of the human vocation to be in communion with God, states embrace their own natural ordering towards God. They also recognize that human temporal flourishing requires care and concern for the spiritual aspect of the human person. Further, by their refusal to be limited to this-worldly concerns, states respectful of religious liberty themselves transcend the temptation to view all human relations, political and otherwise, in terms of power alone. As Pope Francis writes in Fratelli tutti (2020), when states deny their own transcendent good as a service to God, “the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others.” (FT no. 273) The common good goal of serving the flourishing of the individual person resists that temptation and focuses state activity on expanding human freedom towards its natural blossoming in a deeper communion with God.

By providing the space for the associations and exercise necessary to full human flourishing - one inclusive of the person’s spiritual end - the state implicitly recognizes better the truth about the human person as a being endowed by God with the capacity to know and love Him uniquely. Human persons are “beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.” (Dignitatis humanae, no. 2) By nature, persons are ordered towards religious truth; indeed, they are ordered towards God, and as created in God’s image and likeness, they have an obligation to pursue Him in accordance with their being, by reason and free will. Thus, Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious liberty continues, “men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore, the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.” The state, in other words, does no more than its duty by standing aside in matters of religious faith, allowing persons to pursue truth in the manner respectful of their natural obligations built into their very being. By recognizing its own limits as necessary to the flourishing of its individual members and their social groups, the state actually conduces to its own flourishing.

The upshot of this is that Catholic social teaching on the common good presents as a task of political communities their support of all those institutions necessary for the protection and flourishing of individuals and their rights. States and subordinate political communities are to respect those rights fundamental to human flourishing. They are bound to see those rights extended to all of their members, or “citizens,” and to ensure that the expression of those rights is as robust as political prudence allows in their unique circumstances (for the Church recognizes that the particulars of religious freedom and exercise will vary from place to place). The emphasis of church teaching on this responsibility of the state results no doubt from historical pressures emerging from the growth in size and technological power of modern states. Their capacities to exercise control over both vast geographic and conceptual spaces affords them the kinds of power only theorized in the past. Catholic teaching has long been cognizant of the power possessed by the modern state, concerned about its abuses since at least the mid-1800s, and deeply committed to constraining that power in part by emphasizing the purpose of the modern state as being focused on the development of the person. The close connection between the common good and respect for religious freedom is a contemporary expression of this long concern.

There arises a concern that this understanding of the state as limited by its respect for its members rights of religious liberty diminishes the state. Put differently, to recognize a limit on its power must entail some harm to a state’s capacity to thrive. But the expansion of human freedom following upon respect for religious liberty serves the common good materially, the Church believes, because it better serves human persons. Respect for religious liberty, including the contributions made by people of faith to communal deliberation, helps societies thrive. Thus, rather than excluding specifically religious claims about the proper organization of society, the Council stated, “it comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity.” (DH no. 4) Some social science data show convincingly that faith-based organizations’ material contributions to the common good supplement the case for religious freedom. Their arguments push against restricting to “freedom of belief as restricted to private lives adequate respect for the right to religious freedom.”[1] Religious freedom includes not merely the right to worship, but the right to engage and serve the common good from the basis of one’s faith and the depths of its convictions.


Pope Francis has reaffirmed the conviction that the right of religious liberty is a great good to political societies. In Fratelli tutti:

From our faith experience and from the wisdom accumulated over centuries, but also from lessons learned from our many weaknesses and failures, we, the believers of the different religions, know that our witness to God benefits our societies. The effort to seek God with a sincere heart, provided it is never sullied by ideological or self-serving aims, helps us recognize one another as travelling companions, truly brothers and sisters. We are convinced that ‘when, in the name of an ideology, there is an attempt to remove God from a society, that society ends up adoring idols, and very soon men and women lose their way, their dignity is trampled and their rights violated. You know well how much suffering is caused by the denial of freedom of conscience and of religious freedom, and how that wound leaves a humanity which is impoverished, because it lacks hope and ideals to guide it.’ (no. 274)

In an age of increased persecution of Christians throughout the world and increased marginalization of faiths of all kinds from participation in public deliberation, the Church’s voice on behalf of religious freedom is as vital as ever. In many parts of the world, Christians are a minority, and the Church asks for the freedoms necessary for her people to worship God. But she does not - and cannot - ask merely for the freedom of her members to worship: she speaks also for all those of people who believe, “for believers of all religions,” in the words of Pope Francis (FT no. 275) and for herself as a juridical institution, founded by Christ, whose very purpose is salvation. Thus, Dignitatis Humanae reminds readers of the connection of the Church’s good to the common good of all humankind: “Among the things which concern the good of the Church and indeed the welfare of society here on earth – things therefore which are always and everywhere to be kept secure and defended against all injury – this is certainly preeminent, namely, that the Church should enjoy that full measure of freedom which her care for the salvation of men requires. This freedom is sacred, because the only-begotten Son endowed with it the Church which He purchased with His blood. It is so much the property of the Church that to act against it is to act against the will of God. The freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle in what concerns the relations between the Church and governments and the whole civil order.” (DH no. 13)

[1] See for instance Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Free to Serve: Protecting the Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations, (Brazos, 2015).

Joseph E. Capizzi is a professor of moral theology and ethics and the executive director of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.