M. Shawn Copeland is professor emerita of systematic theology at Boston College. Copeland is author or editor of seven books, including Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience (2018), and essays on theological anthropology, political theology, social suffering, gender, and race.
Much has been made of President Joseph Biden’s openness and responsiveness, compassion and empathy. Reportedly, long after speeches or town hall meetings have concluded, Biden has been willing to meet with his fellow citizens to listen to and consider their questions in depth and in detail. By all accounts, he embodies what it means, as a “regular guy,” to face obstacles, setbacks, and challenges whether economic or personal, and he speaks frankly about his own experiences of personal loss and grief. On the eve of the presidential inauguration, Biden and Vice President-elect Harris along with their spouses led the nation in a simple, quiet ritual to remember and mourn the women, men, and youth—our fellow citizens—who had died of the coronavirus. After the withering absence of empathy in much of national leadership over the past four years, this gracious ceremony was deeply affecting.
For Biden, politics is a noble calling, as he writes in Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. This belief stems from lessons learned from his family, particularly his parents and grandparents; the social teachings of the Catholic Church; and his education in Catholic schools. Indeed, Biden has been “immersed in a culture of faith his whole life,” in the words of Patrick Whelan. As an adolescent and college student, Biden acknowledges that he was “swept up in the eloquence, conviction, and sheer size of the improbable dreams” of leaders like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. He wanted to be “a part of the change.” But Biden credits his “entrance into public life” to his Irish grandfather Ambrose Finnegan, who taught him the “simple, straightforward belief that the welfare of our country depends on having leaders who call it like they see it.” Biden insists that “If you do politics right…you can actually make people’s lives belter. And integrity is the minimum ante to get into the game.”
For Biden, politics is a noble calling. This belief stems from lessons learned from his family, particularly his parents and grandparents; the social teachings of the Catholic Church; and his education in Catholic schools.
Gregarious, generous, and gracious as he may be, through hard work and thorough homework, Joseph Biden ranks an astute and practical elected official, focused on and committed to the common good, as Barack Obama writes in A Promised Land. Indeed, Biden concluded his inaugural address with the promise to “give all in your service thinking not of power, but of possibilities. Not of personal interest, but of public good.”
The notion of the common good has deep roots in Catholic moral and social theology, Catholic social thought, as well as papal and episcopal teaching, but it is deeply entwined in the thought of Plato and Aristotle to clarify the meaning of the best, most choiceworthy way to live. These philosophers argued that the telos or goal of human life was happiness; but happiness, on their account, coincided with a life lived with other persons, a lived life of virtue—courage, temperance, generosity, proper pride and ambition, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, shame, and justice.
The notion of the common good has deep roots in Catholic moral and social theology, Catholic social thought, as well as papal and episcopal teaching.
Augustine recognized the primal human drive for happiness. Chastened by his own experience and acknowledging the vulnerability of the human psyche, he worked out a notion of the common good that ordered social, political, and moral life in light of our supernatural destiny as human beings—loving union with God. But it is Thomas Aquinas who has shaped decisively Catholic thinking about the common good; about justice in its social, distributive, and legal aspects; about human nature as fundamentally graced and good; about our human responsibility for and to one another in constituting the common good; about the gracious goodness of our God, who is our common Beatitude and joyous end.
What is the common good? The common good is human good common for all: The concrete realization and experience of that good is conditioned by cultural sensibilities and values that draw out and nurture the flourishing of the human spirit; by critical attentiveness to historical experience and understanding; by developing, designing, and implementing political, legal, economic, and technological procedures, programs, and practices that support and maintain basic vital human needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, and work; by structuring or institutionalizing the fulfillment of common and social needs. The adequacy and efficacy of all these arrangements depend upon real-time critical and practical exercise of human attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility.
The common good is human good common for all: The concrete realization and experience of that good is conditioned by cultural sensibilities and values that draw out and nurture the flourishing of the human spirit.
The entire scaffolding of the common good rests upon our basic and essential interest in, attention to, and respect and care for the well-being and flourishing other human persons. In Catholic teaching, that basic and essential concern is rooted in the imago Dei, the doctrine that all humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, shares equally in the dignity that derives from creation. In speeches and in roundtable conversations, Biden frequently mentions dignity. In his presidential inaugural address, he urged Americans to “see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect.” Biden’s exhortation assumes as much from Catholic teaching as it does from the Declaration of Independence: “that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It also echoes lessons learned from grandfather Finnegan, “that nobody, no group is above others.”
Biden brings this sensitivity to transcendent human equality to our national failure to reckon with the historic and enduring white racist supremacy on which the nation is founded. Biden has committed himself to “embedding racial equity” across his administration. On January 26, 2021, Biden took executive action to “advance racial equity…to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies, to end the Department of Justice’s use of private prisons, to recommit the federal government to respect Tribal sovereignty, to combat xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” Perhaps, through use of executive orders, as Pat Smith cautiously suggests, Biden has begun “to articulate his vision of the common good.”