Empirical Foundations of the Common Good

What Theology Can Learn from Social Science

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Daniel K. Finn
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The edited collection, Empirical Foundations of the Common Good: What Theology Can Learn from Social Science, uses interdisciplinary dialogue to enrich the Catholic understanding of the common good. Further, it aims to resolve some questions about interdisciplinary collaboration itself, particularly for Catholic theologians. Daniel K. Finn, the editor, points out that a barrier to such dialogue is that scientists and humanists have different approaches and perspectives, even “habits of mind and presumptions about the world” (1). To aid in deep conversation about the common good, this volume—and the 2014 conference from which it flows—proposes to address two questions: “What do social scientists know about the common good? And what can Catholic social thought learn from those insights to improve its own understanding of the common good?” (2).

The contributors to the volume are established and well-known scholars. They apply important terms and ideas from their fields to an understanding of the common good in a way that makes their work accessible to nonspecialists. The editor is a professor of theology and economics and the foreword is written by a professor of politics, religion, and civil society. The first six essays are by social scientists, three of whom are economists along with scholars of government and foreign service, public policy and management, and sociology. 

Unsurprisingly, given that the volume is a discussion of the contributions of several disciplines to the idea of the common good within Catholic social thought (CST), the authors are, as Douglas V. Porpora says about himself, “not secular” (93). Most of them are located at Catholic universities or otherwise explicitly identify as Roman Catholic; an example is this phrase in the biographical paragraph of John J. DiIulio, Jr.: “a Roman Catholic in the Jesuit tradition” (xviii). Mary Jo Bane, of Harvard, even writes out of an imagined consultation process for an imagined pastoral letter by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to highlight “a constellation of issues…that the bishops ought to be addressing” (78).

The two theologians whose essays close the book are, similarly, Roman Catholic theologians at Catholic universities. A dilemma addressed in the book is described by Finn as: “How should theology respond if the social scientists’ proposed views of human flourishing or paths to human flourishing…conflict with traditional theological perspectives?” (2). The responses by the two theologians, David Cloutier and Mary Hirschfeld, include explicit reflections on the dynamics between Catholic theology and other fields. Some of the social scientists do this as well, with varying degrees of success in their portrayal of theology and academic approaches. 

There did not seem to be an agreed-upon definition of theology across the essays, and several of the social scientists collapsed the terms of Catholic social teaching, Catholic social thought, and theology (equating theology solely with official ordained magisterial documents). David Cloutier’s essay, which includes explicit reflection on “the magisterial definition of the common good” provides an important corrective to this tendency by some of the social science contributors to collapse all theology into papal encyclicals and similar texts (178).

The first contribution, by Matthew Carnes, a Jesuit, is an excellent example of the types of offerings by the social scientist contributors in the collection. He discusses many opportunities and challenges for understanding the common good in a cross-disciplinary conversation between political science and theology. His discipline’s insights into the common good can “complement and expand the reflection of theologians” through its rigorous and empirical approaches (8). Clinical scientific empirical approaches can help provide us with a deeper understanding of practical ways that the common good might be accomplished. Theology and philosophy, and CST in particular, can help political science to regain its understanding that the common good is essentially a social phenomenon. 

Other examples from the collection include that by Andrew M. Yuengert, an economist, who provides extensive technical information, clearly explained for the non-economist reader, to enrich understandings of the common good (e.g., the theory of externalities and the theory of public goods). Douglas V. Porpora highlights the moral imperative behind sociology, claiming that by urging social change “sociologists are simply carrying forward the work of the biblical prophets” (99). He proceeds to examine social sin such as structural racism.

David Cloutier and Mary Hirschfeld, the theologians, explicitly use ideas from the other contributors to reflect on both the common good and the interplay between the social sciences and theology. This provides a helpful sense of unity to the collection, although the connections sometimes seemed to repeat basic knowledge. Cloutier highlights that “the cluster of insights around the positive roles of contention and competition—and the unplanned order they can generate—are the most counterintuitive for theologians” (170). He points to the limitations in the idea that relationality is the means to the (individualistic) common good. It is relationality and “shared dynamics and processes,” including contention and conflict, that constitute the common good, which is itself relational (178). The definition that Cloutier proposes of the common good is: “the organization of contention and cooperation within and among social institutions in ways that sustain the moral character and daily life of persons and the relationships among them that constitute shared human flourishing” (196).

Mary L. Hirschfeld acknowledges that great fruit can come from collaboration between the social sciences and CST. However, she characterizes the social sciences as emerging from and working “under the shadow” of Machiavelli because of their focus on engineering good ordinary outcomes (209, 212). Hirschfeld attacks the tendency to identify human fulfillment with access to outcome-based “ordinary human flourishing.” The social sciences, she cautions, tend to portray humans as objects, not subjects, and their domain is the required balance of markets, government interventions, and institutional reforms to help meet basic needs. The knowledge of the social sciences should be integrated into “a more comprehensive understanding of the human condition such as the one that underlies Catholic social teaching” (233). Theology and philosophy, she says, provide a richer view of human nature, going beyond economic progress and other instrumental goods to the view of true happiness as the cultivation of virtue (219).

This volume is suitable for graduate students or scholars interested in the common good and in CST. The contributors present important terms and movements from within their disciplines in an accessible way. Some of the insights by the social scientists are helpful even to experienced theologians who often engage in interdisciplinary collaboration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Beth Yount is Associate Professor of Theology at Neumann University.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel K. Finn is professor of theology and Clemens Professor of Economics at St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota. He is a former president of the Society of Christian Ethics, the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the Association for Social Economics. His books include Christian Economic Ethics: History and Implications.


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