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Why is Respect for the Common Good Important in Catholic Bioethics?

What is the common good?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:  “By common good is to be understood “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily”. The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority” [CCC, no. 1906].  It also says the following:  “The common good consists of three essential elements: respect for and promotion of the fundamental rights of the person; prosperity, or the development of the spiritual and temporal goods of society; the peace and security of the group and of its members” [CCC, no. 1925].  Each and every element of the common good relates to the problems associated with bioethics. 

Notice that for the Catechism, the common good consists of social conditions that assist people to attain what the Catechism calls fulfillment.  What is fulfillment but the growth in the theological and moral virtues with the help of a society interested in promoting virtue in general through law and order, which in turn helps the society to progress materially.  If a society is starving or sickly, virtue, while not impossible, becomes heroic, which is a standard few people can live up to.  Significantly, for the Catechism, the common good is further specified by connecting it to the rights of the human person, prosperity, and peace. 

What does respect for the common good and the rights of the human person mean for bioethics?  Many things.  Here I will discuss six.  First, respecting the rights of the human person and therefore the common good demands that healthcare agencies and hospitals use means that must respect the most fundamental right we all have as humans, the right to life.  We can find in the Catechism a profound defense of this right: 

The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation: “The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death” [CCC, no. 2273, Citing Donum vitae III].

The Catechism continues: 

“The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined…. As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights” [CCC, no. 2273, Citing Donum vitae III].

Defending the human being’s right to life is an integral part of the respect for the common good.

Next, respect for the common good demands legal and real protection from others who may wish to cause my “happy death” because patients need my organs, hospitals want to save money, or nursing homes find my needs too difficult to handle because my quality of life is very poor.  The Catechism emphasizes this truth: “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible” [CCC, no. 2276]. Special respect is owed to these individuals because Christ is present in a special way in these people.

Third, respect for the common good demands that the legitimate and moral wishes or decisions of patients need to be honored.  For instance, no hospital or doctor has the right to experiment on anyone without informed consent.  When this is violated, then human beings are not treated as persons, and so, become mere objects of scientific research.

Fourth, respect for the common good demands that comfort care be provided for a person who is seriously ill but not yet imminently dying.  Patients still need to be kept clean and nourished.  Food and water are not medications even if delivered by medical means such as a tube.  When given by hand, food and water console the patient and makes him aware of his dignity because he is loved in this way.

Fifth, respect for the common good demands that society respect patient freedom in determining how far ordinary medical procedures may go.  For instance, if the pain is too great, he may choose to forego treatment.  The Catechism has something to say about this option: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected” [CCC, no. 2278].

Finally, respect for the common good demands that scientists acknowledge that they have limits.  What is possible scientifically to do does not mean it can or should be done because there are moral issues at stake.  Cloning is one example of this.  It can be done but should not be accomplished.  This would also apply to the creation of human beings by means of in vitro fertilization.  Here human beings are treated as things to be manipulated rather than being properly generated by the loving actions of husband and wife.

In conclusion, these are only a few of the many demands placed upon us by the mandate to respect the common good and the rights of the human person.  They will be discussed in greater detail in later articles.  When the society neglects these issues, it becomes immersed in the culture of death and may not be able to sustain itself because these practices spawn many vices that undermine the common good and harm the unity of a nation.

(©  Fr. Basil Cole)


Fr. Cole teaches dogmatic, moral, and spiritual theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, where he is a Professor of Spiritual Theology. He is also sub-prior of the community at the Dominican House of Studies. He has authored or co-authored several books including the following: Music and Morals: A Theological Appraisal Of The Moral And Psychological Effects Of Music (Alba House, Staten Island, NY 1993); Christian Totality: Theology of Consecrated Life (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1997) [with Paul Conner, O.P.], A New Catechism of the Consecrated Life: Help for Perplexed Postulants and Novices of the Third Millennium (Bangalore, India: Asia Trading Corporation, 1999) [with Paul Conner, O.P.]; Consecrated Life: Contributions of Vatican II, Dominic Hoffman, O.P. (+) with Basil Cole, O.P. (Ed) (Mumbai, India: St. Paul’’s Publications, 2005); The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood: The Contribution of St. Thomas Aquinas, (Staten Island: Alba House, 2007).
  • nickkname

    “The lack of humility before nature that’s been displayed here staggers me…Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should. Science can create pesticides, but it can’t tell us not to use them. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it can’t tell us not to build it!”
    – Malcolm, from the film Jurassic Park