A remarkable assembly convened in Philadelphia in the summer of 2008. It was called the "Convention for the Common Good," and it evoked faint echoes of another summer gathering in that same city in 1787. U.S. founders sought then "to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." They preserved those words in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States along with two other famous phrases, "we the people" and "to create a more perfect union."
Regarding themselves as "we the people" of the present day, and intent on doing what they can to shape a "more perfect union," 800 delegates — practically all Catholic, predominantly female and most of them women religious — responded to a call from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a new lay initiative, and NETWORK, a social justice lobby founded by Catholic nuns in 1971, to fill a hotel in Philadelphia in early July to hammer out a "Platform for the Common Good."
The targeted problem is the politics of division, familiar to anyone with ears to hear talk radio or eyes to see televised political commercials. The recommended solution is a national commitment to the common good.
"We want a new vision of governance that is rooted in a moral commitment to human dignity and social justice," said Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
Sister Simone Campbell of the Sisters of Social Service and executive director of NETWORK added, "Our goal is to reclaim the best of our country’s idealism and demand that elected leaders resolve the most pressing needs of our times in the light of the Catholic social tradition."
That tradition understands the common good as "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach fulfillment more fully and more easily" (Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No. 26). Those "social conditions" are debated in presidential political campaigns every four years and await solution through the legislative process at local, state and national levels.
The "platform" (a word chosen with an eye to the planks that both Republicans and Democrats will assemble later this summer to provide for their candidates a place to stand) has many elements. Thinking about the common good, delegates to this Philadelphia gathering highlighted in their breakout sessions: ecology, immigration, war and peace, the economy and health care.
Surprisingly, education was not a breakout session topic despite its importance in eliminating poverty. The life issues came up often in group discussions and special caucuses. A stem-winding plenary session address by Sister Helen Prejean of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (and of "Dead Man Walking" fame) made the case very persuasively for the elimination of capital punishment.
Speeches by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and a keynote address by theologian Shawn Copeland of Boston College provided information and motivation for the delegates.
Former Rep. Charles Dougherty, R-Pa.; and John Podesta, former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, were on a panel moderated by syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne to look at the upcoming presidential election through the lens of the common good.
The effects of this three-day gathering will be seen and heard all across the country in the months ahead. Anyone interested in reading the "Platform for the Common Good" can find it online at www.votethecommongood.com/files/Platform.
Father Byron, SJ, is a columnist for Catholic News Service.