The famous quip of Lord Acton, that “power corrupts and absolute

The famous quip of Lord Acton, that “power corrupts and absolute
power corrupts… absolutely” is true enough; never mind that he was
originally referring to the Roman Catholic Church!
But my involvement in the community organizing efforts of EPiSO
during my 14 years in El Paso has taught me that powerlessness is
even more corrupting. It’s bad enough to hear about backroom deals,
or in the El Paso County Courthouse, “bathroom deals”, and to read
about a series of indictments, and waiting for the next bird to sing and
the next public name to be dropped. But it is the disenfranchisement
of the ordinary person, who feels that he or she has no say in their
future, because they have no place at the table, and no voice when
decisions are made, that creates a pervasive culture which just accepts
that this is the way things are done, that it’s not “what you know” but
“who you know,” and, if you want any say in the matter, “money
Something about that doesn’t sit well with us. We know how things
are supposed to work, we remember our textbook civic lessons and
the patriotic spirit they instilled in us. Our nation, in reaction to British
tyranny, was founded on enlightenment ideals which celebrated reason
and depended upon the active participation of an informed public to
govern itself. It is precisely that need for informed active
participation that brought us out tonight.
I obviously come out of the Catholic tradition with its comprehensive
doctrine, rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the natural
law and the long experience of applying these to the issues of
everyday life. A fundamental component of our teaching is the
importance of the common good. Human beings are social beings
from our very origins; we are born into families, the basic social unit,
and have to learn to get along with siblings and relate to parents and
other family members. In each of our families, we learn something
about the common good: parents have to work to support the family,
not just to fulfill their personal desires, children have age-appropriate
responsibilities in the home.
Often siblings will learn from early in life what it is to sacrifice for the
well being of the whole family, whether that means something as
simple as sharing the remote control or an electronic game or as
heroic as one sibling working to help another pay for college. The first
school of the common good is the household. Society, especially in
our democratic tradition, has to work in the same way. We cannot be
exclusively about the pursuit of our individual happiness without
regard for our neighbor’s well-being, because ultimately human
progress and development is interdependent.
In the most recent application of Catholic Social Teaching, Pope
Benedict XVI issued an encyclical called “Charity in Truth” which
addresses the present economic crisis. He states rather bluntly that
the cause of our current economic crisis is that the financial market,
with its goal of exponential gains, is seen as an end in itself, rather
than a means to the common good. Personal greed, rather than
improving the lot of the majority, was the driving force. The Pope
argues that without some universal agreement on the importance of
the common good and our fundamental interdependence, tinkering
with the economy is not going to make much of a difference in the
long run.
According to Abraham Lincoln, a model of political integrity,
government is meant to be “of the people, by the people and for the
people.” That sounds like “the common good” to me. But if
government is seen as a necessary evil, something that the Grover
Norquists of the world wish to drown in a bathtub; if government is
seen as an obstacle to real progress or better yet, to real profit, then
the culture of corruption will predominate. If I get what I need to
amass my fortune by contributing to the right campaigns and
influencing the legislation that allows my special interests to dominate
over the common good – and when that isn’t good enough, work a
secret deal so that I can profit from the next project – as long as I am
making a profit and can afford to do business that way, the system
works for me.
But if I am on the outside, if I can’t afford to compete with the big
guys or can’t ante up for the next round, I am forced to do what I can
to get along and cut the deals that I can make to provide for me, my
family and my business. What has happened to the common good?
This evening’s event is designed to help us all feel connected to the
problem of corruption and to be part of its solution. Corruption is
more than just a series of individual acts by certain public figures who
might be tried and prosecuted. It is the hijacking of the common good
by private interests, with the complicity of the majority who do not
challenge this breakdown of the common good. It is time to re-learn
our civics lessons, to hold our public officials accountable by paying
more attention to what they do than to what they say. We need to
demand greater transparency in government budgets, contracts and
bidding processes. We need to constantly inform ourselves, which is a
greater and greater challenge when much of the news media has
dedicated itself to entertainment and sensationalism rather than the
pursuit of truth. Above all, we have to communicate to all those in
public office that we are watching!
Community organizing provides the best way I know to emphasize the
common good and to promote civic engagement. It begins with
people getting to know each other and sharing their stories and
struggles, discovering common ground and the need to work together
to improve their lives. They interact with neighbors, or parents from
their children’s school or faith community and discover that they are
not alone in their hopes and desires. They clarify and prioritize what it
is they are working for and include more and more people with the
same interests, bringing those issues before the officials who were
elected to serve the community. They discover the power of
collective voices for the common good.
I have been very inspired by EPiSO’s Civic Academies on immigration,
on the community colleges, on taxation, and on the children’s hospital,
because I have seen ordinary people with no particular policy
expertise, get together and study an issue and teach it to their friends
and neighbors in a complete but easily comprehensible way. I have
seen how people are empowered when they know they understand an
issue and can contribute to its resolution. If immigration policy,
taxation and other complex issues are seen as beyond the grasp of the
ordinary person, there is no way that participatory democracy can
work, nor for the common good to be served.
Leaving it to the experts, or to the elected officials, and not staying
informed contributes both to the corruption of the powerful and the
corruption of the powerless.
Opportunities like this to get together and share concerns and bonding
with others to find common ground, then letting elected officials know
that they are being observed and have to be accountable, is the way
forward and out of the present mess. An informed and active public is
the answer.