The common good

The current outbreak of measles and subsequent debate over vaccinating children against such diseases brought back memories of sugar cubes and lines at the local public school.

I am old enough to remember when the polio vaccine was introduced, and my family marched down to the local junior high school (foreign territory for a Catholic school kid). I was given a small paper cup with a sugar cube laced with the vaccine. It was a clever ploy: What kid was going to turn down sugar?

Today we are in the throes of the Great Disneyland Measles Epidemic. It is actually not yet much of an epidemic but has the potential to cause great harm. Someone infected with the disease visited Disneyland in Southern California. The infection has spread to 14 states, and what was once a disease virtually eradicated from the United States is making a comeback.

It is making a comeback because a small but significant percentage of the population has decided not to inoculate their children. When the number of unvaccinated children reaches a certain threshold, it puts the larger community at risk.

For parents who have chosen not to vaccinate, it is often part and parcel of creating an “all-natural” environment for the children in terms of diet as well as medicine. Some fear the possibility that vaccinations may lead to autism, though scientists insist that has been thoroughly disproven. Others are simply concerned that putting any “toxin” in their child is dangerous.

It has left many other Americans confused. “I strongly believe in getting children the vaccines they need to protect them from any childhood disease out there, but that is my opinion,” one parent was quoted as saying. “I also strongly believe other parents have the right to choose not to get their children vaccinated due to religion or health reasons.”

This confusion has led directly to the current situation as states such as California have made exceptions for the growing number of families eschewing vaccines, thus laying the groundwork for the disease’s return. This reduction of matters of science and social policy to opinion and faith is typical of a great deal of our debates these days. Science is as distrusted as Church and government, and everyone is left with a mess of opinions and a reluctance to infringe on anyone else’s opinion, which makes debate of any sort difficult and has significant social consequences, as we are now witnessing.

The Catholic Church could make a real contribution to modern society by resurrecting a serious conversation about the common good, the concept that “the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which devotes several paragraphs to the concept of the common good, begins by quoting an early Church exhortation: “Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good together” (No. 1905).

This notion of seeking the common good is actually quite conservative, but today it has been shoved aside by the more extreme philosophies of libertarian individualism on the one hand and the kind of secular social engineering that is ideological and intrusive on the other.

“Seeking the common good together” is good advice but difficult to implement in today’s polarized environment. It would be a tremendous service if Catholic thought leaders — academics, bishops and others — would restore this pillar of Catholic social thought. It could help us as a society address a lot more than just measles.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.