In any society in which the dignity and liberty of the individual is respected, at least two fundamental problems must be confronted. One has to do with whether and to what extent sacrifices can be expected of individuals for the sake of the common good. The other concerns the degree to which individuals may dissent from authority without doing serious harm to the community.

On April 8 and 9, 2005, the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy held its inaugural conference at St. Thomas’ School of Law in Minneapolis in which these two questions were discussed. The conference brought together legal scholars, philosophers, theologians and economists from the United States, Latin America, Australia, Europe and the Philippines around the theme of “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the Good Society.”

One of the plenary speakers was Professor James Gordley, from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California-Berkeley, who spoke on “Sacrifice and the Common Good.” He began by observing that many people believe that the good of the individual and the good of the community are somehow often opposed. Drawing on the insights of Aristotle and Aquinas, insights that have shaped so much of Western law and culture, Gordley insisted that there is no contradiction.

To reconcile the individual and the common good, in fact, is to escape “two of the most dangerous tendencies of modern times. One is to conceive of human welfare in individualistic terms — as whatever a person might want — and to imagine that the purpose of society and law is to help him get it. … The second and opposite tendency is to believe the good of the individual can be disregarded in the name of some supposedly transcendent and communal good: for example, the good of the nation, the race or the people. One can think of some horrible instances in which people have acted on this belief.”

Gordley went on to argue that humans are indeed “political animals,” to use Aristotle’s term. Properly understood, this implies that the individual not only needs society as a means to an end, but also that the individual “can only live a good life if he contributes to the ends of society and sustains the burdens that his contribution entails. … A person’s own end includes the perfection of society. In promoting the common good, he promotes his own end. In promoting his own end, he promoted the common good.” Individual sacrifices made for the common good, then, are fair and reasonable and also promote the flourishing of the person who makes them.

In another paper that received considerable attention, “Should Bearing the Child Mean Bearing All the Cost?” UST law professor Elizabeth R. Schiltz addressed another aspect of the problem of sacrifice and the common good. Schiltz observed: “The calculable financial sacrifice of raising children is borne, to an overwhelmingly disproportionate degree, by women who are raising children. … Across the globe, without exception, and really without exaggerating, it is legitimate to say that raising children generally impoverishes women financially.”

Catholic thinkers, especially in recent years have given attention to this problem. They make two important points, which appear at first to be in tension. The first point is that “the preservation of the family is crucial to solving many of contemporary society’s most critical problems and that the work of preserving the family — primarily the work of mothers — needs to be properly valued by society.” The second is that “women have unique contributions to make in solving many of contemporary society’s most critical problems and that women must have access to the public sphere in order to make these contributions.”

If it is true, Schiltz argued, that women are indeed called to “apply their genius to the most pressing contemporary social issues,” then some resolution must be found to the problem created by imposing most of the costs of childrearing on mothers. This is the point at which secular feminists call for increased public support for such things as day care. Schiltz insisted, however, that the Catholic tradition points toward quite a different solution.

The solution, she contended, is not to divide women into two groups, women active in the public sphere who cannot be mothers or mothers in the home who cannot act in the public sphere. Instead, a rethinking of the value of child-rearing will lead us to “restructure the workplace to accommodate mothering, not just to subsidize mothering in the home.” While preserving the family is critically important to the common good, so also is “enabling mothers to contribute their feminine genius to the public sphere.” Creating the conditions to accomplish this will require recognizing that child raising justly demands sacrifice of all members of the community, not merely the sacrifice of mothers with children.

Some 20 other presentations at the conference were similarly insightful and provocative. The unusual blending of disciplines and cultures within the context of respect and enthusiasm for the Catholic intellectual tradition is something that the Murphy Institute hopes to make a hallmark of its future conferences. In the not-too-distant future, papers from the conference will either appear in print or on the institute’s Web site at:

For more information about the Murphy Institute and its activities, please contact co-director Professor Robert Kennedy at the Center for Catholic Studies.

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