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Common Grace and the Common Good

June 24, 2021 5 min read
By Dr. Karel Sovak Dean, Gary Tharaldson School of Business, University of Mary
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Helping business students to understand better how business can be used as a force for good can be a daunting task, especially when the majority of businesses operate in a secular environment under the profit maximization model. Acutely aware of this difficulty, the Gary Tharaldson School of Business at the University of Mary incorporates Catholic Social Teaching (CST) into its curriculum, seeking to develop business leaders who adhere to a good-good-good economic model. This model strives for the creation of products or provision of services that are good for the consumer, the development of a good working environment and institutional culture that includes a living wage, and finally, an organization that does good things with its wealth.

CST has four tenets: upholding human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good. It is by this last tenant – the common good – that students obtain an initial understanding of how CST and a good-good-good economic model can be aligned with a business’s bottom line. Viewing business in terms of the common good often requires a paradigm shift that is not immediate in nature. Students must pass through several steps in order to buy into and assimilate such a philosophy. Abraham Kuyper – an intellectual and Prime Minister of the Netherlands – provides insight into this incremental process.

While Kuyper’s work took place at the turn of the twentieth century, as a devotee to the teachings of Jesus and a master of aligning faith and work, his words hold true to this day. In order to describe what he termed common grace, Kuyper used the analogy of the transformation of a piece of coal into a diamond: in addition to the particular graces poured into the lives of individuals, God pours forth his power throughout the world to transform “what is now on earth into the exalted luster of glory.” His idea of common grace parallels the Catholic Compendium’s definition of the common good, which is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Rather than focus on the complex question of the sum total of social conditions here, we will focus on the question of fulfillment.

Central to Kuyper’s understanding of common grace is his assertion that God sought to restrain the full effects of sin after the Fall through the preservation and maintenance of his created order. As Gaudium et Spes notes, the “goods of creation are meant for humankind.” In this context, the role of the worker is to uphold God’s will to preserve and maintain the created order through both personal responsibility and cultural engagement. Students preparing for careers in business – or for any vocation, for that matter – generally seek material goods, all of which are part of the created order. It is important for students and faculty alike, then, to recognize the gifts God has given each of us, enabling us to participate in various aspects of life (education, politics, business) while engaging in the “pursuit of faithfulness and contribution to the flourishing of others of that created order.”

If we are to contribute to the flourishing of others, we must have an idea of what flourishing means and how it can be obtained. Kuyper asserts that material fulfillment is necessarily a temporal fulfillment, which comes through an achievement of our passions or desires. Spiritual fulfillment, on the other hand, comes through a realization of our true self. In order to arrive at flourishing in the truest sense, then, we must go beyond the material. This allows us to see magnanimity in its truest sense: recognizing that we were created for greatness and to assist others in achieving the greatness for which they were created. It is spiritual realities – such as the interior movements of our soul of gratitude for what we have been given and our desire to serve others – that help us to focus on who we are. For Kuyper, these recognitions and interior movements are common grace driving toward the common good, “guided by justice and tempered by charity.”

Once we arrive at a true sense of magnanimity, encompassing all aspects of human life, we can arrive at a true sense of humility. We have been given free will to determine how we will participate in life, how to discern our pursuits, and how to engage with others in the “fullness of human life” within this finite world. Through prayer and contemplation, we arrive at a sense of gratitude for all we have been given, which frees us from focusing on what we wish we had or longing for things we can never have. In a word the true humility that leads to gratitude allows us to experience God’s gifts more freely. Just as magnanimity entails seeking our own greatness as well as that of others, humility allows us to serve others, as well.

While magnanimity and humility are guiding virtues for the attainment of the true common good, the principle of solidarity enhances the process. In the words of Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, solidarity is a “firm and preserving determination to commit oneself to the common good.” In its full sense, solidarity does not just refer to unity with others, but an embracing of the entire human person. When magnaminity, humility, and solidarity are brought together by grace, the societal order is directed towards harmony, respect for the dignity of the human person, and a true possibility of human flourishing – in a word, the common good.

The common good – a core tenet of CST – demands that we re-imagine the cultural impact we can have within a secular world. Kuyper poses a question for Christians reflecting upon the secular world: “How is it possible that ‘good’ things emerge from the hands of humans within and without a covenant relationship with God?” As Kuyper concludes, “The spirit of Christ ennobles all of life.” Whether we have chosen a covenant with God or not, he has one with us.

Despite the challenges and aided by common grace, Christians are driven by a desire for human flourishing – necessarily including spiritual fulfillment – to pursue the common good.

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