Mercy and the Common Good: our responsibility

Year of Mercy LogoThe Common Good, a key concept in Catholic Social Teaching, has informed Church Action on Poverty’s own work on the Good Society. In this guest blog, Jenny Sinclair of Together for the Common Good reflects on the Common Good and how it relates to mercy – a theme being explored in the Catholic Church’s work throughout this year.

“Only mercy can truly contribute to a more human world.” Pope Francis emphasises again and again that it’s only mercy that can challenge the ‘globalised indifference’ that enables injustice and mercilessness to carry on. He sees a loving, personal responsibility as the foundation for the Common Good. It requires opening our minds and hearts to the dignity of every human person, including those with whom we disagree.

Having a Jesuit for a pope means we are to be on our toes when it comes to how we apply Catholic social teaching. It’s not enough to assume that it is ‘in our DNA’ or that we learn it by osmosis. There is a temptation to pick and mix, ignore some of the principles altogether, to speak a lot about solidarity and rather less about its equal partner subsidiarity, which stresses responsibility at the appropriate level and decisions taken closest to where they will have their effect. There is a tendency to forget that Catholic social teaching critiques not only capitalism but collectivism too.

By introducing mercy into the equation, Pope Francis is showing us that both market and state will always have a tendency to dehumanise unless they are tempered by a more human, healthy civil society.

We have mistakenly put our faith in an administrative, procedural system where both market and state have become too dominant: neither can grapple with the poverty of relationships, the lack of power, agency and hope in people’s lives. Nor can they muster an understanding of the essential nature of trust, faithfulness, the sense of belonging and place, the necessity of skill and the institutions required to preserve and maintain honesty and vocation. These are things for which we must take responsibility.

It is about rehumanising a system in which there is not enough love.

With this injunction to get personal, we may need to reconsider if donating to charity, joining demonstrations, campaigns and speaking out is really enough. What Pope Francis in this year of mercy is asking us to do is to offer a handshake, not a handout, to struggling families and communities, and work with them, not for them, to empower and encourage their own leadership.

When the ‘soft power’ of mercy gets involved, the messy and beautiful reality of humanity is revealed, and it becomes clear that the Common Good is a practice which requires us to balance competing interests through constant renegotiation: between marginalised and powerful, left and right, faith and secular, educated and uneducated, consumers and shareholders, management and employees, urban and rural, old and young. The Common Good is not a fixed set of conditions, a utopian ideal to be imposed by one enlightened group upon another. It is about working out those conditions together. That means brokering relationships between those who hold different views and traditions, both political and cultural.

The gifts that each of us brings are necessary if we are to build a viable, sustainable common life together.

If we are to succeed in a new settlement for the Common Good, then we will all need to put our shoulders to the wheel and work together. The churches of all denominations, especially the laity, are well-placed to be at the heart of the solution, if we get out of our comfort zones, face outwards and open up to unlikely partnerships, and commit ourselves to bridge building – in our parishes, workplaces, in our social, political, economic and cultural life.

In an increasingly fragmented, unequal and divided society like ours, there is nothing more important than the reconciliation of estranged interests for the Common Good – it is an outworking of mercy, which, integrated with our spirituality and vocation, turns our desire for justice into a highly personal mission.


This article first appeared in the newsletter of the National Justice and Peace Network.

Jenny Sinclair is Founding Director of Together for the Common Good (T4CG), a steering group encouraging and equipping people of good will to work together, across different political and belief traditions, for the Common Good. Acting as a catalyst, T4CG has sparked a growing network and draws inspiration from the celebrated ecumenical partnership in Liverpool between Jenny’s late father, Bishop David Sheppard, his Catholic counterpart Archbishop Derek Worlock, and Free Church leaders. Raised an Anglican, Jenny was received into the Catholic Church after a conversion experience in her mid twenties. She is a speaker at this year’s National Justice and Peace Conference

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