St. Gregory Nazianzen on the Primacy of the Common Good in the Spiritual Life

A reader has pointed out that what I call the ‘disastrous conclusion’ that Garrigou-Lagrange draws in the final passage quoted in my last post is drawn almost entirely from quotations from St. Thomas. Including this one: Debet autem homo semper magis sibi providere in spiritualibus bonis, in quibus unusquisque sibi praecipue subvenire potest. (IIa IIae, Q 117, A 1, ad 1). In context there is nothing wrong with such quotations. The problem is the use to which Fr. Garrigou puts them. Compare the Garrigou quote in the last post with St. Gregory Nazianzen agonizing over whether to return from retirement (Oration 12):

So, help me, each of you who can, and stretch out a hand to me who am pressed down and torn asunder by regret and enthusiasm. The one suggests flights, mountains and deserts, and calm of soul and body, and that the mind should retire into itself, and recall its powers from sensible things, in order to hold pure communion with God, and be clearly illumined by the flashing rays of the Spirit, with no admixture or disturbance of the divine light by anything earthly or clouded, until we come to the source of the effulgence which we enjoy here, and regret and desire are alike stayed, when our mirrors 1 Corinthians 13:12 pass away in the light of truth. The other wills that I should come forward, and bear fruit for the common good, and be helped by helping others; and publish the Divine light, and bring to God a people for His own possession, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, 1 Peter 2:9 and His image cleansed in many souls. And this, because, as a park is better than and preferable to a tree, the whole heaven with its ornaments to a single star, and the body to a limb, so also, in the sight of God, is the reformation of a whole church preferable to the progress of a single soul: and therefore, I ought not to look only on my own interest, but also on that of others. Philippians 2:4 For Christ also likewise, when it was possible for him to abide in His own honour and deity, not only so far emptied Himself as to take the form of a slave, but also endured the cross, despising the shame, Hebrews 12:2 that he might by His own sufferings destroy sin, and by death slay death. The former are the imaginings of desire, the latter the teachings of the Spirit. And I, standing midway between the desire and the Spirit, and not knowing to which of the two I should rather yield, will impart to you what seems to me the best and safest course, that you may test it with me and take part in my design.

St Gregory is clearly stating that in the spiritual order the common good is greater than the private good.

3 thoughts on “St. Gregory Nazianzen on the Primacy of the Common Good in the Spiritual Life

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  2. This, for me, however, does seem raise a serious question about the magesterium contradicting itself. Celibacy or virginity are superior states of life (as is taught de fide by Trent). But, as is obvious, they sacrifice something of the common good of the kingdom of God by failing to produce children who’s souls may be saved and so show forth the glory of God etc. This seems to be a contradiction.

    Garrigu-Lagrange’s solution does seem a rather neat one, and one entirely consonant with the orthodox, Catholic understanding of the superiority of the religious life and the primacy of one’s own soul. “The first concern of every Christian”, as the maxim goes, “is to save his own soul.” Might one add to that, “and to sanctify it too.”


    • I think though that virginity for the sake of the kingdom can actually do more for the common good of the City of God than begetting children. The citizens of the City of God are generated not by natural generation (at least not directly), but by the supernatural generation of Baptism. I agree with Garrigou that in one sense it is of course the first concern of every Christian to save one’s own soul, but this is because one’s own soul is the only one that one one rules directly, not because one’s own attainment of the good is more important than other persons’. And more importantly while “formal beatitude” is a purely personal good “objective beatitude” the real final goal of our lives, is the commong good: God Himself. Thus St. Thomas writes:

      to love the good that is participated by the blessed, to love it so as to have or possess it, does not establish the right relation between a man and blessedness, because even evil men want this good. But to love that good according to itself, that it may remain and be shared out and that nothing be done against this good, this gives to a man the right relation to that society of the blessed. And this is charity which loves God for his own sake and the neighbors, who are capable of blessedness, as oneself.


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