I recently participated in a panel discussion, part of a Business Ethics Conference sponsored by DePaul University, on religious charisms and the Common Good, with Dominican & Jesuit colleagues. I was drawn by the topic—the Common Good, a concept seemingly lost these days, perhaps too utopian for many, yet without a shared concern for all members of a society it’s hard to imagine much improvement.
I presented five ideas gleaned from St Vincent’s legacy. I invite you to read this with your own Vincentian creativity: what elements from our charism would you have presented to discuss the Common Good?
My five were the following:
- Personal Knowledge of the Poor: the option for the poor, for us, is not optional but foundational. Our charism is born of knowing the poor, listening to them, putting them first in everything. We look at society’s issue through their eyes.
- Respect for the dignity of every human person: treat those stuck in poverty with dignity and respect because poverty robs them of their spirit. This means believing in them, their capacity and potential. Only they can bring about lasting positive change. Don’t be the “voice of the poor” but help them find their own voice. Real change comes bottom-up (not top-down). Those burdened with poverty are the real experts, and so those closest to the pain ought to be closest to the power (for change).
- Networking and collaboration: following Vincent the great networker and collaborator, Vincentians seek inclusive collaboration as the only way forward in building the Common Good. We must leave our silos behind, whether silos of old ways of thinking, or those limiting our capacity to forge new ways to work with others for the elusive goal of a Common
- Organizing with creativity, transparency and sustainability: that’s a mouthful but exactly what Vincent did in his many charitable enterprises. His emphasis on rules and contracts guaranteed sustainability and transparency, and without transparency no effort has the “street cred” to survive. Too many today, especially the young, do not believe in institutions. Vincent’s approach could win them back. Our efforts at social change should address root causes, be well organized, planned and executed carefully, with a large dose of creativity. Our current 13 houses campaign is a great example.
- Frederic Ozanam, an extraordinary example of Vincent’s inspiration: a scholar and intellectual, he came to share our saint’s love for the poor in very concrete terms. A pioneer of Catholic Social Teaching, well ahead of his time he spoke of pensions, unions and a “natural wage” for workers, and urged Society members to “go to the poor” to learn from them.
My conclusion was that we sorely need a new social contract, an implicit agreement among members of society to cooperate for social benefits, one that guarantees for everyone equality of opportunity, human and civil rights, and basic social protections. To put it simply, no child should be penalized for being born into poverty.
The UN’s 2030 Agenda for People and the Planet posits 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and to reach them, to make them reality, without leaving anyone behind, would build the Common Good and a new Social Contract.
How we treat the world’s impoverished, the last and least among us, is the best judge of society and of ourselves as Christians and followers of the Vincentian charism.
NGO representative of the CM to the UN