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  • The Human Good and Lonergan’s Macroeconomic Dynamics
  • Paul Hoyt-O’Connor (bio)

Since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891), Catholic social thought has struggled to take stock of the transformations of modern economic and political conditions and to formulate a faithful response to them. In doing so, Catholic social philosophers and theologians have often framed their criticisms of individualist and collectivist conceptions of society in terms of the notion of “the common good.” Thus, they conceived society as neither an artifice manufactured by preexisting, formerly independent individuals, nor as an entity that stands over and against them and to which they must submit. Rather, society was understood to be “natural” since it constitutes that context in which the good life may be enjoyed and human nature perfected. As such, the good of society as a whole does not exist independently of the good of its parts, and the lives of its members are thought to be all the richer since they partake of a good that transcends themselves. In this way, the common good conditions the concrete realization of human dignity, a dignity that is, to be sure, both personal and social.

After the Second Vatican Council, however, the notion of the common good fell into disuse for several reasons, not the least of [End Page 94] which were matters pertaining to philosophical and theological method.1 Prior to that council, discussions of the common good often employed classicist conceptions of culture, which mistook historically specific elements for society’s necessary features. Correspondingly, human nature was also often conceived in terms of the soul’s faculties and powers. Since concrete, historical experience was adverted to, not in the formulation of moral principles but only in their application, classicist conceptions gave rise to that brand of scholasticism that has since been derided as a deductivist moral theology that Bernard Lonergan (for one) railed against so vehemently. Furthermore, classicist conceptions appeared also to pave the way for organistic depictions of society that seemingly justified hierarchical institutions and autocratic forms of political life. In the wake and wreckage of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, Catholic philosophers and theologians had good cause to seek another basis for their thinking, and they often turned to the then-current schools of historical and personalist thought. Thus the personalism of Jacques Maritain and others gained currency in the post-WWII era, though not without some controversy.2 As Mary Keys has suggested, “Theoretical difficulties to the side, the European experiences of communism and fascism made such a personalist approach seem the only conscionable one.”3 With it, Catholic social thought came to emphasize the freedom and dignity of individuals and the primacy of human rights while rehabilitating the notion of democracy. Historical-mindedness and personalism together have since influenced the papal writings of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II in their discussions of the complexities of the modern world, the dignity of persons and the sacredness of life, and the historically emergent forms of human solidarity.

Additionally, several issues arose pertaining to theological method and its relationship to social science and historical scholarship. Convinced that theology should consist in more than the reflections of human reason, Catholic theologians increasingly turned from analyses based upon natural law to studies of scripture. [End Page 95] Seeking to respond to modern social problems, theologians found guidance not only in reason but also in the revealed teaching of the Gospels and the prophets. In so doing, theological reflections frequently turned toward elaborating the “preferential option for the poor” by which the faithful life was one lived in solidarity with the poor and concerned with the welfare of the most vulnerable.4 In keeping in the spirit of historical-mindedness, analyses of society thus sought to understand the forms of social life not as necessarily occurring but as historically contingent and to frame appropriate responses to them with an eye toward the “signs of the times.” Still, this call recognized the need for theological understanding to be informed by the findings of the human sciences in order to formulate those practical precepts that would fittingly respond to the human situation. It was a development that Lonergan...


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pp. 94-124
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