Commonweal “Catholic in the Public Square Award” Acceptance

Commonweal Conversations Dinner
New York City, New York
September 27, 2012

I wish to express my appreciation for this privilege to be with you this evening.  In this room are people for whom I have the deepest admiration and most profound respect.  Among them are E.J. Dionne, for whom I am so grateful for his contributions to our Georgetown community and for that very kind introduction. 

The work and witness of this Commonweal community has been an inspiration and central to my formation.  I can’t begin to express what a profound honor it is for me to be here this evening to celebrate this extraordinary magazine and community.

We live in challenging times.  But we have always faced significant challenges.  You have engaged these challenges throughout these past 88 years.  No one could claim ignorance about these challenges because of the prophetic voice and the invitation to dialogue that has always characterized Commonweal.  Nor can anyone question the depth of commitment to the spirit captured in your very name—a commitment to the “common well-being of all.” 

An enduring commitment over all these years is to the work of the common good.  This entails a commitment, in the words of Peter Steinfels, to bring Catholic faith and modern life, especially the experience of American freedom and diversity, into fruitful contact.”1

Catholic engagement with culture—this is a deep and historic tension.  Do we engage in the world and seek to bring our Catholic values into dialogue with the more dominant values of our secular culture, or do we retreat, refrain, resist, refuse to participate, no doubt for justifiable reasons?  Can we reconcile our participation in the ongoing work of creating this Republic?  Is such participation a compromise of our faith?  This is a fundamental dilemma, a tension that has shaped the nature of our engagement, our involvement in the most important issues over time.

This tension is old and deep. On one side is a respect for individual freedom; on the other, the demands made of each of us in response to pluralism—the recognition of the need to support the commonweal…to build a commonwealth…to engage in the work of the common good.  This Republic was formed with this tension. The idea of America reflects a commitment to individual freedom and the common good.  Both matter.  And we bring the resources of our Catholic tradition to the engagement with this tension.

John Courtney Murray provides one example for engagement—a belief that in our faith, we can both respect the freedom of the individual and engage the pluralism that distinguishes the American project.  Murray represents this commitment at the very heart of the ethos of Commonweal—this commitment to the common good. 

A commitment to the common good changes everything.  It acknowledges that there is truth to be discovered and good to be realized when we engage in this work together.  This discovery, this realization, occurs in dialogue, with one another, including those with whom we disagree.

The starting point is always within ourselves.  A commitment to the common good begins in our own interior freedom.  From within, out of our freedom, we choose to pursue something that is bigger than any one of us – the good we can only seek together. 

Commonweal has been a prophetic voice throughout all these years in identifying those times when a renewed commitment to this shared work was urgently needed.  We face just such a moment again.

If we renew our commitment to the common good, we might see the challenges of our time differently. 

We might see the issues facing Europe as a moral project—not as just a monetary matter, but as a project that demands we reach back and find the very best of Monnet and Shuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi.  We might look at youth unemployment in Spain and Greece, now exceeding 50 percent, and focus our attention on our responsibilities to our children.2

If we begin with a commitment to the common good, we might see our engagement with Islam, not as a matter of containment, but as a moral project in which we seek mutual understanding, mutual respect, love.

If we begin with a commitment to the common good, we might look at the challenges of poverty, here in our nation, as the great fault line of our Republic.  Our proxy for containing this fault line, since 1965, has been the War on Poverty.  In 1965, more than 30 million Americans were living below the poverty line.3  In 1986, in the Pastoral Letter on Economic Justice, our Bishops asserted that the more than 33 million living in poverty4 was a “scandal.”5  Last year, 47 million Americans were living in poverty.6  One-third are living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to meet a rental or mortgage payment beyond one month.7  We have the second highest percentage of children living in poverty among all developed countries.8

If we begin with a commitment to the common good, we might look at these challenges of poverty just as you, and this institution of which you are heirs—this  extraordinary magazine—have framed the questions now for nearly ninety years.  At every stage of this past century, you have reminded us of our responsibilities to one another—from Dorothy Day writing in 1933, “For the Truly Poor,” to Mary Jo Bane in the most recent issue, “Who Will Speak for the Poor?”  Because of you and your invitation to dialogue, no one can claim to be unaware of the urgency to address the needs of the poor among us.

I have spent much of my life in the context of a Catholic and Jesuit university community.  There is a profound resonance between the animating spirit of Jesuit institutions like Georgetown and CommonwealThe Formula of the Institute, the charter for establishing the Society of Jesus, concludes:

Moreover, the Society should show itself no less useful in reconciling the estranged, in holily assisting and serving those who are found in prisons or hospitals, and indeed in performing any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

The work of the common good is not easy.  It requires that we balance our personal freedom with our shared responsibility for the commons.  It requires engaging with others who are also balancing this tension.  And when we step into the public arena, we will find ourselves holding personal commitments reached through the exercise of our interior freedom that are at odds with those with whom we seek to build a common good. This work requires compromise.  It requires sacrifice.  It requires a respect for freedom that often exceeds our boundaries of propriety.

We find guidance from St. Ignatius, in his opening instructions in the Spiritual Exercises:

In order that both he who is giving the Spiritual Exercises, and he who is receiving them, may more help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it.  If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct it with charity.  If that is not enough, let him seek all suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself. 

St. Ignatius describes this as the Presupposition.  Such a disposition must guide our work in building the common good.  The work of the common good can never begin if we have the attitude that any conversation, any effort at compromise, implies material cooperation with evil.

We live in challenging times.  But we have always faced significant challenges.  You have engaged these challenges at every stage.  During these past 88 years, no one could claim ignorance about these challenges or about the resources we bring to address them.  Throughout these years, you have been a voice of conscience, a voice of engagement, a voice of participation.  You have been a prophetic witness for engaging in the work of the common good.

Again, it is a profound honor for me to be here with you this evening.  Thank you for what this magazine and this community has meant to me, and thank you for letting me share in this moment with you.

[1] Peter Steinfels, Commonweal Confronts the Century, 1999, p. 17

[2] Angela Monaghan, “Youth unemployment passes 50pv in Spain and Greece,” The Telegraph 02 April 2012, Numbers confirmed on the European Commission’s website,  “eurostat,”

[3] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 54, “The Extent of Poverty in the United States: 1959 to 1966,” U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1968,

[4] The USCCB reported that, “More than 33 million Americans are poor; by any reasonable standard another 20 to 30 million are needy.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” 1986,

[5] The USCCB stated that “We say it is a social and moral scandal that one of every seven Americans is poor, and we call for concerted efforts to eradicate poverty. The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is of the highest priority.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” 1986,

[6] Hope Yen, “U.S. poverty on track to rise to highest level since 1960s,” Associated Press, July 22, 2012.

[7] UNICEF reports that the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty in an “economically advanced country.”  The first highest rate is in Romania. In the U.S., 23.1 percent  of children  “are living in relative poverty, defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income.” UNICEF, “Measuring Child Poverty: New league tables of child poverty in the world’s rich countries,” May 2012, 3,

[8] Survey released on Sept. 28, 2011 by a financial consortium comprised of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Financial Planning Association, Foundation for Financial Planning and The U.S. Conference of Mayors,…