Thomas Merton, Nonviolence and The Common Good
One of the most central tenets of Catholic Social Teaching is the priority of the common good. This principle is found most starkly in the ecclesiastical documents and encyclicals of the last fifty years, especially in Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (nos. 98-108), the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (nos. 26-32, 68-75), and Pope John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei Socialis (nos. 35-40). As Jesuit Fr. Thomas Massaro of Boston College explains succinctly in his excellent book, Living Justice (2000), “To speak of the common good is to recognize that there are numerous proper goals in life beyond our own private benefits. Responsible people look for opportunities to contribute to worthy causes and to improve society in many ways, even when the benefits of this progress will go primarily to others…everyone has an obligation to promote the common good by making whatever contributions are necessary to improve the lives of others” (85).
Recalling this important theme of Catholic moral teaching, the priority of the common good over individual interests, we can take a look at one of the passages from Thomas Merton’s writing on Christian nonviolence. Here Merton presents the practice of nonviolence as necessarily arising from the context of seeking the common good.
Nonviolence is perhaps the most exacting of all forms of struggle, not only because it demands first of all that one be ready to suffer evil and even face the threat of death without violent retaliation, but because it excludes mere transient self-interest, even political, from its consideration. In a very really sense, he [or she] who practices nonviolent resistance must commit himself [or herself] not to the defense of his [or her] own interests or even those of a particular group: he [or she] must commit himself [or herself] to the defense of objective truth and right and above all of [humanity]. His [or her] aims then not simply to “prevail” or to prove that he [or she] is right and the adversary wrong, or to make the adversary give in and yield what is demanded (Faith and Violence, 14).
This was written around the same time that the concept of the common good was first being articulated in such words in the 1960s, but the insight of his writing continues to speak to us today in clearly prophetic terms as the notion of the common good becomes much more present in the Church’s formal teaching.
The Christian commitment to nonviolent action as opposed to the popular cultural push for the use of violent force is a central feature of seeking the common good. Can one claim to uphold the commitment to the Catholic moral tradition and support the use of violent force? Can any war be just? Or does war and violent force simply advance the partisan interest of a particular person or persons over against the collective interest of the common good?
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