This post is part of CatholicMoralTheology.com’s commentary on The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Chapter Four, Section Six: The Principle of Solidarity.
While the term “solidarity” is relatively new, emerging in the last century within the documents of Catholic social teaching (adopted from the labor movements of Europe), the idea of solidarity is well rooted in the earliest of Judeo-Christian understandings of the human person in relation to God and society. Our task here is to understand how this term relates to other principles of Catholic social doctrine and what it might mean for Catholics trying to live out this important principle of the faith in today’s world.
The Compendium section on Solidarity (nos 192-196) begins by noting some of the assumptions embedded in an understanding of this term. First, solidarity builds on an understanding of the person as social by nature. No one exists as an isolated monad. No matter the particulars of our family, culture, or class context, each human person is formed in and influenced by relationships with other people. While this claim might seem basic and uncontestable, it leads to a further claim regarding the value of interdependence between individuals and peoples. Jesuit social ethicist Thomas Massaro explains:
The complex fabric of social life, including human achievements such as language, art, culture, and education, testifies to the many ways in which people depend on shared efforts in all fields of human endeavors. To employ the term solidarity entails recognizing human interdependence not only as a necessary fact but also as a positive value in our lives. We cannot realize our full potential or appreciate the full meaning of our dignity unless we share our lives with others and cooperate on projects that hold the promise of mutual benefit (84).
In other words, we move from the descriptive to the normative. It is not just that we should recognize the ways we have been impacted by relationships with other people, or how we are embedded in systems of commerce and connected to others through the planet we share; the normative claim that arises is that we have an obligation to make these relationships and systems as equitable and just as possible so that communities flourish within their interdependence. The Compendium notes that development in the Church’s teaching on solidarity is a response to the growing awareness of a shift in global consciousness:
The very rapid expansion in ways and means of communication “in real time,” such as those offered by information technology, the extraordinary advances in computer technology, the increased volume of commerce and information exchange all bear witness to the fact that, for the first time since the beginning of human history, it is now possible—at least technically—to establish relationships between people who are separated by great distances and are unknown to each other (192).
But this raises an interesting question: How can I be in solidarity with someone I have never met and do not know? Two further distinctions can help us to unpack this important question. In the documents of Catholic social doctrine, solidarity is described as both a moral virtue and a social principle.
Virtue of Solidarity
Pope Pius XI, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, described the need not only for social justice (so that each person “receives at last all that is his due,”) but in addition to justice, the necessity of “a union of hearts and minds” (137). It is worth quoting this section of the encyclical at further length:
This union, binding men together, is the main principle of stability in all institutions, no matter how perfect they may seem, which aim at establishing social peace and promoting mutual aid. In its absence, as repeated experience proves, the wisest regulations come to nothing. Then only will it be possible to unite all in harmonious striving for the common good, when all sections of society have the intimate conviction that they are members of a single family and children of the same Heavenly Father, and further, that they are one body in Christ and “severally members one of another” (Rom 12:5) so that “if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor 12:26).
Here the pope explains that a purely secular or humanist view of justice lacks an appreciation of the noble and intimate principle of social cohesion—whether described as a “union binding men together” or as an “intimate conviction” of being part of the same human family. As the years went on, this idea was further developed by other pontiffs. Drawing on the tradition of virtue ethics in the Christian tradition, these Church leaders emphasized the affective dimensions of human solidarity. By feeling connected to another person, even across cultural divides or great distances, one can be more deeply motivated to empathize with the concerns of another and work to alleviate perceived injustices. Here we can break down walls of racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and other barriers to mutual understanding. These interior dispositions flow naturally into habits of action.
John Paul II is perhaps most well known for his emphasis on solidarity in his writings. Building on the above understanding of Pius XI, Pope John Paul II explained that solidarity involved an inner attitude or interior disposition—in other words, a virtue. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II explained:
This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is that desire for profit and that thirst for power already mentioned. These attitudes and “structures of sin” are only conquered—presupposing the help of divine grace—by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to “lose oneself” for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to “serve him” instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage (cf. Matt. 10:40-42; 20:25; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-27).
For John Paul II, solidarity as a moral virtue begins with a personal conversion, an interior attitude, conviction, or commitment. Noting that there are many obstacles to integral development, the pontiff especially encouraged people to reflect upon and change their “spiritual attitudes” (SRS, no. 38). The Compendium explains further:
The term “solidarity,” widely used by the Magisterium, expresses in summary fashion the need to recognize in the composite ties that unite men and social groups among themselves, the space given to human freedom for common growth in which all share and in which they participate (194).
Social Principle of Solidarity
But solidarity is more than an interior disposition. The Compendium also describes solidarity as a “social principle” or as a guide for personal and social behavior (193). Thomas Massaro explains:
Solidarity begins as an inner attitude and, when it has fully taken root within a person, expresses itself through numerous external activities that demonstrate a person’s commitment to the well-being of others… Developing the virtue of solidarity is thus the perfect antidote to any modern temptations toward an egoistic individualism that neglects social obligations or subordinates the needs of others to self-serving and possibly narcissistic agendas (85).
Every Christian should thus endeavor to more fully develop this personal virtue of solidarity so that one really feels responsible for the wellbeing of others and not just content to care for oneself. For John Paul II, this personal virtue motivates one to take personal action. But the true task of solidarity goes beyond individual actions. For John Paul II, committed Christians can overcome “structures of sin” by transforming them into “structures of solidarity” and a “civilization of love” (SRS, 33). This begins with personal action but the goal is communal action:
Interdependence must be transformed into solidarity, based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all. That which human industry produces through the processing of raw materials, with the contribution of work, must serve equally for the good of all. Surmounting every type of imperialism and determination to preserve their own hegemony, the stronger and richer nations must have a sense of moral responsibility for other nations, so that a real international system may be established which will rest on the foundation of the equality of all peoples and on the necessary respect for their legitimate differences… Solidarity helps us to see the “other”—whether a person, people, or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper” (cf. Gn. 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God (SRS, 39).
For John Paul II, solidarity transforms interpersonal, national, international, and even cosmological relationships. It leads to an ever-expanding circle of concern that helps the Christian to have genuine empathy with the suffering of others and to be motivated to work against systems of oppression.
Theology of Solidarity
When one considers the challenges of perfecting the virtue of solidarity in one’s life, and contributing to the transformation of unjust structures in a practical way, it can be overwhelming. Often we rightly perceive our differences when we interact with others, and this recognition of differences can lead to a sense of alienation or confusion instead of a sense of unity and affection. The theological grounding of solidarity as both virtue and social principle is Christological at its core: Jesus of Nazareth is the “living sign of that measureless and transcendent love of God-with-us, who takes on the infirmities of the people, walks with them, saves them and makes them one” (196). While the Compendium notes the “contradictions and ambiguities” of modern life, the theological dimensions of solidarity emphasize the incarnational view of this vision of discipleship: one’s neighbor becomes the “living image of God” to be loved “even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her” (196).
Jesus is the model of solidarity through his teachings, ministry with marginalized peoples, confrontation with structures of injustice, and ultimately his death and resurrection. The ultimate task of solidarity for the contemporary Christian is to discern how best to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
“New Forms” of Solidarity in Other Sections of the Compendium
While the above analysis focuses on Chapter Four, Section Six of the Compendium, the principle of solidarity is invoked in other places throughout the Compendium. Some of those notable examples include:
Defense of Labor Unions:
The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labor unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions… Such organizations, while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity (305)… Today, unions are called to act in new ways, widening the scope of their activity of solidarity so that protection is afforded not only to the traditional categories of workers but also to workers with non-standard or limited-time contracts, employees whose jobs are threatened by business mergers that occur with ever increasing frequency, even at the international level; to those who do not have a job; to immigrants, seasonal workers, and those who, because they have not had professional updating, have been dismissed from the labor market and cannot be readmitted without proper retraining (308).
Respect for the Subjective Dimension of Work:
The decisive factor and referee of this complex phase of change is once more the human person, who must remain the true protagonist of his work. He can and must take on in a creative and responsible fashion the present innovations and reorganizations, so that they lead to the growth of the person, the family, society, and the entire human family (317)… New forms of solidarity must be envisioned and brought about, taking into account the interdependence that unites all workers among themselves” (319).
Economic Markets and Global Solidarity:
The present scenarios of profound transformation of human work call even more urgently for an authentically global development in solidarity that is capable of involving every region of the world including those less advantaged. Regarding these less advantaged regions, the start of the process of wide-ranging development in solidarity not only represents a concrete possibility for creating new job opportunities, but is also seen as a genuine condition for the survival of entire peoples. Solidarity too must become globalized (321).
One of the fundamental tasks of those actively involved in international economic matters is to achieve for mankind an integral development in solidarity, that is to say, it has to promote the good of every person and of the whole person…. Social problems increasingly take on a global dimension. No State can face these alone and find a solution. The present generations have direct experience of the need for solidarity and are concretely aware of the necessity to move beyond and individualistic culture (373).
Concluding Analysis: Strategies for Building Solidarity in Today’s World
As Christians whose lives are supposed to be patterned after the love of God poured out in the life of Jesus, the goal of living in solidarity with others can seem overwhelming. Scholars writing on this important principle of Catholic social doctrine can give us more to reflect on as we remain vigilant in our attempts to practice this important virtue and principle.
A good first step is to do what one can to become aware of the structural injustices that threaten the flourishing of so many worldwide. When you peel a banana, do you think of the workers who picked that banana or the drivers who transported it to your local market? When you have your morning coffee, do you ponder the distance that coffee bean traveled and the plight of the farmers who grew those coffee beans? When you bump over a pothole, do you consider the right of the construction workers in your local community to organize into labor unions and demand a living wage? We can all do a better job of paying attention to the realities of suffering and injustice in our world—whether that means reading a daily newspaper, volunteering at a local service agency, learning a new language and in the process learning about another culture different from our own, or traveling to places far away that give us a different perspective on our own “normal” everyday life. Too often we build up walls in our daily lives—often unconsciously—that act as barriers to true compassion and solidarity. We talk to people who think like us, we spend most of our day focused on our own “to do” list, and some of us even pray with a community of mostly like-minded people in weekly liturgies. But if the pattern of our lives and habits of our everyday schedules do not even expose us to the heartache of other people’s struggles, we’ve limited the degree to which we can claim to actually live in solidarity with people unlike ourselves. Maria Cimperman reflects on the importance of listening to someone else’s story as a first step of building solidarity in her book, When God’s People Have HIV/AIDS (78). She writes:
Memories articulated and shared through narratives have the power to evoke a response on behalf of the other. They help us pause for a moment to listen, to widen our circle of concern and make us readier to risk. They help ease us out of our personal and communal paralysis. The responses of solidarity are invitations to transformation and resurrection for all (78-79).
Engaging the stories of other people—through nurturing new friendships, watching documentary films, reading a variety of news stories from around the world, and many other ways—can take us out of ourselves and re-shift the stable ground beneath us. These conversations can help us to see what we take for granted, and can prod us towards deeper discernment about how the Spirit is calling us to identify with the concerns of others in a more profound and personal way.
Solidarity is intimately connected with another principle, the “preferential option for the poor.” Theologian Charles Curran explains:
Solidarity with poor people through a preferential option for the poor strengthens the true solidarity of all. Christians must look at the problems of the social order and their solutions primarily from the viewpoint of people who are poor and powerless…. The first question we should ask when we consider any type of law or public policy is what effect will it have on poor people. Although this is not the only question that is to be asked—all other aspects must be considered—it is the first question. Think how greatly this attitude differs from the reality present in the United States today. Almost no one thinks of public policy primarily from the viewpoint of poor people… This is the role par excellence for the church and the community of the disciples of Jesus (187-188).
As Americans prepare for the heightened rhetoric of an election year, this is an important caution for Catholics to keep in mind. When you evaluate the policies of political candidates vying for office, do you privilege the concerns of the weakest in our society?
Donal Dorr reflects on the experience of solidarity when he describes how a person is transformed by friendships with people on the margins:
By the experience of solidarity I mean the actual sharing of life with a group of people. When one shares the living conditions of a community one can begin to share their sufferings and joys, their fears and their hopes. Out of this lived solidarity grow the bonds of affection that make one feel part of this people and enable them to accept one as truly part of themselves. These bonds of shared life and feelings evoke and nourish a strong sense of responsibility for the whole community and especially for its weaker members. So the virtue of solidarity should not be defined as purely an attitude of the will in contrast to mere feelings. The gap between the fact of interdependence and the undertaking of appropriate moral response is not adequately bridged by academic knowledge or even by prayer. Study and prayer must be situated within the context of some degree of shared life with people and the bonds of affectivity to which such sharing gives rise (332-333).
Actual sharing of one’s life—going beyond the second hand accounts one would receive from newspapers or other sources—can helpfully bring us beyond a romanticism about poor people to what Reverend Albert Nolan, O.P. calls “honest and genuine realism” about solidarity. Nolan explains that service with the poor often brings the Christian through different stages of spiritual development: from compassion to structural change to humility to real solidarity.
Real solidarity begins when it is no longer a matter of “we” and “they” because this is how we generally experience it. Even when we romanticize the poor, make tremendous heroes of them, put them on a pedestal, we continue to alienate them from ourselves—there is a huge gap between us and them. Real solidarity begins when we discover that we all have faults and weaknesses. They may be different faults and weaknesses according to our different social backgrounds and our different social conditions and we may have very different roles to play, but we have all chosen to be on the same side against oppression. Whether we’re in Europe or South Africa, whether we’re black or white, whether we were brought up in a middle class or working class, we can be on the same side against oppression, well aware of our differences. We can work together and struggle together against our common enemy, the unjust policies and systems, without ever treating one another as inferior or superior, but having a mutual respect for one another while recognizing the limits of our own social conditioning (7).
The Compendium proposes a vision of solidarity that is rooted in the gospel mandate to be willing to lay down one’s life for another (196). But this is not a vision that requires suffering for its own sake, as if Christians are instructed to be miserable and seek out pain to be better people. Rather, genuine solidarity invites each Christian to see one’s own good as intimately connected to the good of another. It means engaging in mutual work, side-by-side with our brothers and sisters around the world, to promote the full flourishing of each and every person and community. It is a task that will take us a lifetime—and longer—to complete. But that is not a reason to delay.
Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading
Maria Cimperman, When God’s People Have HIV/AIDS: An Approach to Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005).
Charles Curran, Catholic Social Teaching 1891-Present: A Historical Theological and Ethical Analysis (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002).
Donal Dorr, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching, Rev. Ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001).
Thomas Massaro, S.J., Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action, 2d Ed. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
Albert Nolan, O.P., “Spiritual Growth and Option for the Poor,” Speech given to the Catholic Institute for International Relations, London (June 29, 1984), reprinted in Public Discipleship: Living the Faith. See also Nolan, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009).
Sobrino and Pico, Theology of Christian Solidarity (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985).