The Common Good and Christian Ethics (By David Hollenbach)

The Common Good and Christian Ethics

By David Hollenbach, S.J.

(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)


In The Common Good and Christian Ethics, David Hollenbach argues that two pressing problems have demonstrated the inadequacy of the prevailing virtues of “tolerance” and “non-judgmentalism” in liberal democratic culture.  These two problems are the existence of the urban poor and the increasing globalization of the international community.  Hollenbach maintains that in the case of the urban poor, especially those of African-American heritage, racial “tolerance” has increased, but the plight of the poor in the cities of America has stayed the same or worsened in the global community, Hollenbach demonstrates that a way to make judgments on the actions of people in other cultures is necessary.  For Hollenbach, this demonstrates the inadequacy of “tolerance” as the defining virtue of society. He argues that more is needed: a vision for the common good that moves beyond tolerance to address these pressing social problems.

            Hollenbach contends that our current culture of “tolerance” is a consequence of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  To protect the weak against the strong we must promote the equal dignity of all persons and be skeptical of anyone who promotes a stronger notion of shared goods in society (32).  We should especially be wary and suspicious of those who promote shared goods from a religious perspective.  Hollenbach argues that this “liberalism of wariness and toleration…is a way of avoiding rather than addressing many of the problems we face today.” (58) The fundamental question that he is trying to answer in (CGCE) is “can commitment to the common good be revitalized without simultaneously encouraging conflicts like the religious wars that generated the liberalism of feat in the early days of the modern West?” (60) He answers this question with a modest “yes.”

            The challenge Hollenbach faces–crafting a notion of a common good in a pluralist/individualist society—is to articulate a minimal set of goods that we can and must pursue together despite the fact that we do not agree about every good to be pursued in this life.  He argues for four goods that a pluralistic society can pursue together: (1) mutual respect, (2) freedom to pursue one’s life goals, (3) relationships with others and (4) friendship.  More specifically, Hollenbach takes these four goods and argues that our common good is creating the space necessary (individual and communal freedom) to pursue the common good. (Ch. 3)

            In pursuing this goal, Hollenbach wants to create a space for religion, especially Christianity, in the conversations about defining the common good.  He makes the important point that the narrative that gathers all religion together and defines it as divisive and a source of conflict is a trendy, but incomplete story.  The source of conflict and divisiveness is not religion per se, but bad religion.  He argues that religion has been the source of much good in society—advocating for peace, human rights and greater justice for all.  Further, when religious communities understand their role in public rightly, they have and still can contribute to the “shared freedom of a self-governing people.”  (112) Therefore, religion neither seeks to dominate the public conversation, nor retreat from it—but to enter into it with the realization that its contribution will be an approximate, not an ideal reflection of its vision of the kingdom of god.

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