Collaboration for the common good in Europe among individuals, societies and institutions calls for a close examination of at least the two concepts of the common good and subsidiarity. In this brief presentation it is my intention to compare these two principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church with their actual implementation in both the architecture and the praxis of the European Union. As is quite natural, I draw a distinction regarding Europe, the process of European unification, and the European Union. It is erroneous to consider these three elements as coinciding with one another. The two principles of the common good and subsidiarity, as clarified by the Social Doctrine of the Church, belong to Europe by virtue of its very nature and history. Hence, it is a matter of seeing if they have been correctly embodied in the process of European unification and in the European Union. Were this not to be the case, it would be possible to deduce that the process of unification has eroded important elements of “Europeanness”, placing the emphasis on a sort of Europeanism without Europeanness, which means Europeanism as ideology.


The common good has some essential characteristics for the Social Doctrine of the Church. The first of these is morality. This is a qualitative concept and not a quantitative one, and it boils down to the good life of all Europeans and each European in so far as persons. The moral sense of this expression is certified by the presence of the word “good”. Unless we understand this word in one or another incorrect and reductive sense, it evokes a finalistic order to which it belongs. Therefore, a utilitarian, conventional and relativist vision of ‘good’ is unable to serve as the grounds for the common good. This is the first point, and, as we can see, a truly fundamental one.

For the Social Doctrine of the Church, the common good is therefore a finalistic concept as well: this is the second point. The ‘end’ is what constitutes the ‘good’: without a natural end to be attained, the common good becomes either the sum of individual desires (the general interest), or the good of political power (the public good). In order to know what the good is, I have to know what man is and what his end is, but here lies the main cultural weakness of the process of European unification which, as Remi Brague writes, “has become unable to say why it is good for there to be persons”, and hence “we have become unable to believe in the value of man”.

Thirdly, the common good is analogical and organic for the Social Doctrine of the Church. There is no single common good (collective wellness). . .the common good assumes concrete form in the good of the individual, families, corporate entities, nations, etc. . . .in its articulation, the common good is composite and symphonic: the just natural relations of the parties with one another and towards everything.  This means that each social level has to have and pursue its own common good understood as the response to its own natural finality in the exercise of the activities and functions consonant to it. The individual lives within natural societies (e.g. the family) and elective societies (e.g. intermediary social bodies) which participate in the construction of the common good in an organic sense, and not in the sense of a plurality of individuals set before an individual stronger than all of them, this being Public Power. As things stand today, citizens are set before the State and before the European Union according to the same schema: from individual to Individual.

This is why the Social Doctrine of the Church does not contain the concept of sovereignty, and this for the simple reason that each social reality acts according to its duties towards the finalistic order proper to it; all social realities have a ‘superior’ to be acknowledged. The good is the order of things insofar as having a natural end to be attained. Either there is a finalistic order of things – the person, the family, a corporate entity, cities, nations, etc. – whose attainment corresponds to the common good, or else the common good is conventional, weak, and bereft of any foundation.

Fourthly, the common good has a subsidiary structure, and this links us directly with the other principle we have to consider in depth. Subsidiarity means support according to the natural and finalistic order proper to social articulations. Why must the society of a higher or superior order support (assist) a society of an inferior order in order to be self-reliant? For the latter to be able to attain its natural end, and for this reason alone. Subsidiary assistance is a form of solidarity. It is mistaken to think about solidarity as something other than subsidiarity, or something added to it: solidarity coincides with subsidiarity.

The ultimate element of the common good according to the Social Doctrine of the Church is its vertical nature. The common good is not possible without the ultimate foundation of good as such, and this is the Good-in-itself. If there is a natural finalistic order founding the common good, there must also be an ultimate End, without which intermediate ends also lose any meaning. Considered in a human sense alone, lacking to the common good is the absoluteness it needs and cannot bestow upon itself, as secular thinkers like Habermas or Böckenförde have highlighted. The common good is an ethical concept, but ethics is not self-founding because man is not founded on himself. The common good requires a transcendent ultimate foundation, and this explains John Paul II’s insistence on wanting a reference to God in the Constitution of Europe, and Benedict XVI’s provocative invitation to live as if God existed: etsi Deus daretur. “In order to believe in Europe we have to believe not only in Europe” (Brague).


Let is now briefly check the presence of these elements of the common good and subsidiarity in the architecture and praxis of the European Union.

It is difficult to argue that the European Union has taken on the common good in a moral sense, that is to say in other than a functional or conventional way. This concept may have been in the minds of the Catholic founding fathers, but it wasn’t in the Enlightenment-related Manifest of Ventotene. Nowadays the ideology of the European Union seems to base itself uniquely on the principle of self-determination: liberty detached from the truth other than truth conventionally established, and hence serving the purposes of liberty itself; rights detached from duties other than those conventionally defined, and hence serving the purposes of rights.

In light of the above, it is difficult to think that present in the European Union today is a common good understood in a finalistic way. We could say the European Union is a compromise among sovereignisms, among differing arbitrary ends. The word ‘sovereignism’ is often used nowadays to indicate resistance against processes of integrating states under a higher state order in order to defend the sovereignty of each state. This, however, is not the only form of sovereignism. There is also the sovereignism of the various social spheres, each of which considers itself sovereign in its own order. There is also the sovereignsm of States that consider themselves sovereign in their order, and the sovereignism of the European institutions that often impose themselves and their ideology on socially subordinate levels.

Nor is that of the European Union an analogical and organic common good. The Union is not a “community of communities” and does not have the articulated and organic structure of the empires of yesteryear. Issuing forth from the center are many dynamics that extend to the concrete reality of families or nations, making them uniform.

The common good in the European Union is also far from being subsidiary in nature, even though the Treaty of Maastricht formally acknowledges this concept, but understands it as: a) the attribution from on high of decentralized functions; b) a functional instrument to make the whole system more efficient through what is called ‘closeness to citizens’. Subsidiarity implies there being someone who assists the inferior social body, and someone who expects to have spaces of autonomy from the superior social body, using those spaces out of respect for a natural finality to be attained, and not for functional purposes of a practical nature or to respond to mere desires. At present there is no foundational document of the European Union or institutional praxis that refers to a natural finalistic order. In many areas the European Union is now hard at work to contradict the elements of such an order, beginning from life and the family, and reaching all the way to local communities and nations.

Compared with the these aspects, even less so does the European Union’s concept of the common good respect its vertical nature. At the most, the European Union can a) consider religions as a private phenomenon to be banished from the public sphere;  b) indifferently consider all religions as the bearers  of a public right. In both the first and the second case the political rationale of the European Union has dogmatically opted for indifference towards religions in the sense of not coming to terms with the “truthfulness” or ‘untruthfulness’ of religions. For the Social Doctrine of the Church, on the other hand, the common good is not only or even at the most a sort of generic Gnostic openness to transcendence, but rather a serious coming to terms with the truthfulness of religions, and hence with the religio vera.

Collaboration for the common good in Europe on the part of individuals, societies and institutions is very difficult today since the Union’s approach is based on principles that create very serious obstacles in the way of such collaboration. For example, the European Union is the first funder of abortion in the world, and is working hard for its member states to adopt legislation in favor of same sex matrimony; European case law establishes precedents for national legislation subverting natural law; nations are mostly considered in terms of local folklore and the defense of cultural identities is reviled as nationalism; the movement towards European globalism is unduly considered as coinciding with solidarity among the peoples of Europe, etc. These are just a few examples of the difficulties facing in such collaboration.

Regarding possible developments in the future, I’d just like to mention a few points as food for thought:

  • Remi Brague says Europe no longer believes in anything. This is a reliable judgment, and it raises the following question: why should we believe in Europe if Europe no longer believes in anything? Note well, Brague says Europe, not the European Union. If the European Union no longer believes in anything, it is because Europe no longer believes in anything. If this is the way things stand, the necessary starting point for a renewed discussion is Europe itself more so than the European Union, which will follow in its wake.
  • Basically speaking, the European Union has adopted Hobbes’ scheme of the modern State as Summum artificium and Great Individual. This is why a possible development of the United States of Europe is to be looked upon with no little concern since it would fall within the same scheme.
  • There can be no doubt that a parliament not empowered to submit bills for approval into legislation is a democratic absurdity, and evident to one and all is a glaring deficit of democracy in the European Union, The solution, however, will not come only from “more democracy” if we remain within the understanding of democracy proper to the Manifest of Ventotene, and not that indicated by the Social Doctrine of the Church.

In conclusion, there is no need for “more Europe”, but there is a need to believe in something more than Europe.


Stefano Fontana

Verona, 22 February 2019


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