Requiem for the common good
Letter to the Editor | Monday, November 9, 2020
To “create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice”; that part of the University mission statement formed my worldview as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. In emphasizing the common good, the line offers a necessary supplement to the ideals of liberal democracy that would place individual over community, freedom over equality, self-interest over collective interest. Sectarian beliefs should not take precedence in a democracy, but a religious principle can inform and deepen public understanding, especially when the principle easily translates into a truth that is accessible to people of all faiths and none. The common good is one such concept. It was that inspiring overlap between Notre Dame and nation that allowed me to read the words etched above the Basilica door not cynically but civically. “God, Country, Notre Dame” indeed.
It pains me to say I can no longer interpret those words in the same way.
The present pandemic has clarified the urgency of returning a sense of the common good to our understanding of the duties of citizenship. As the philosopher Danielle Allen has put it, sacrifice is “a democratic fact”: our individual liberties are always, rightly and necessarily, being checked by the liberties and interests of others. The challenge is to ensure that this sacrifice is fairly distributed, so the same people aren’t always giving things up while others always gain. That’s why the emphasis on “justice” in the University’s mission is so key.
And yet, far from offering a countercultural example of what the common good might look like, Notre Dame has centered itself within a culture eager to disavow the duties of democratic citizenship — and to displace sacrifice onto others. From its perverse redeployment of the rhetoric of “fear” at the heart of the “Here” campaign, to its pursuit of the economic good of football at the expense of so many other competing community interests, as laid bare in Saturday night’s game, the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic makes the common good a commitment worth mourning.
University leaders bear some responsibility for this state of affairs, but so do the citizen-students who compose the campus community. But Notre Dame is a place for learning, and as the mission statement promises, a “concern” for the common good, if cultivated, “will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” My hope is that Notre Dame students will work to resurrect the Catholic values of community in a way that can enliven the democratic fact of sacrifice that will be so necessary to our nation in the coming weeks and months.
class of 2005
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.