To understand the concept of solidarity as part of Catholic social doctrine, we must first ask ourselves, “What is Catholic social teaching?”
From a document by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we can find an explanation of the basis for social doctrine:
“Catholic social teaching emerges from the truth of what God has revealed to us about himself. We believe in the triune God whose very nature is communal and social. God the Father sends his only Son Jesus Christ and shares his Spirit as his gift of love. God reveals himself to us as one who is not alone, but rather as one who is relational, one who is Trinity. Therefore, we who are made in God’s image share this communal, social nature. We are called to reach out and to build relationships of love and justice. Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and human dignity…. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment.” (Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions)
We must then ask ourselves, “What is the social doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding solidarity?” First of all, it is not a feeling about helping other people, but rather a way of life that recognizes that we are all brothers and sisters regardless of race, creed, or ethnic background. It has a global dimension. Pope Paul VI taught that if we want peace, we must work for justice.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes some paragraphs to the idea of solidarity as part of the Church’s social teaching. Quoting Pope Pius XII, it states that: “An error, today abundantly widespread, is disregard for the law of human solidarity and charity, dictated and imposed both by our common origin and by the equality in rational nature of all men, whatever nation they belong to. This law is sealed by the sacrifice of redemption offered by Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross to his heavenly Father, on behalf of sinful humanity.” (CCC, 1939)
But while we can cite these documents regarding social justice in general and solidarity in particular, there is a long list of papal documents on the subject. Just to name a few: Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII in 1891; Quadragesimo Anno of Pius XI in 1931;
It has been said that the social doctrine of the Church has been the best kept secret in the world because these doctrines are progressive and offer a clear direction to obtain social justice in the world, but are little known by the faithful and less by world leaders.Mater et Magistra of John XXIII in 1961; Populorum Progressio of Paul VI in 1967; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis of Blessed John Paul II in 1987; Deus Caritas Est of Benedict XVI in 2005; and Caritatis in Veritate of Benedict XVI in 2009.
To better understand the social doctrine of solidarity, it would be good to break down the concept into two parts, as proposed by Blessed John Paul II.
Solidarity is first of all an obligation of society, of nations, and secondly of individuals. “A consistent theme of Catholic social teaching is the option or love of preference for the poor. Today this preference has to be expressed in worldwide dimensions, embracing the immense number of hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and those without hope.” (Of Social Concern, #42)
“One must denounce the economic, financial, and social mechanisms and structures that are manipulated by the rich and powerful for their own benefit at the expense of the poor.” (Of Social Concern, #16)
“Solidarity helps us to see the other—whether person, people, or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our neighbor, a helper (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…. Interdependence must be transformed into solidarity, grounded on the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all. Avoiding every type of imperialism, the stronger nations must feel responsible for other nations, based on the equality of all peoples with respect for the differences.” (Of Social Concern, #39)
The obligation of solidarity is also one for individuals. While nations must provide for its citizens and give them a just and healthy life, individuals also have an obligation toward one another.
“Legislation is necessary but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equality…. If beyond legal rules there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis on equality can give rise to an individualism in which one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.” (A Call To Action, #23)
While it is both lawful and moral to own things, the question becomes, “What are the obligations of an individual to provide for those who do not have?” It is a moral principle that one must provide for the necessities of the individual and the family. But when the demands of necessity have been met, there is the duty to give to the poor out of that which remains.
“In our parishes the Eucharist represents a central setting for discovering and expressing our commitment to our brothers and sisters throughout the world…. A parish reaching beyond its own members and beyond national boundaries is a truly ‘catholic’ parish…. Parishes are called to help those who suffer in our own communities and in situations of poverty and pain around the world…. We respond very generously when network news tells us of hurricanes and famines, but will we help those victimized by often less visible disasters of poverty caused by structural injustice such as debt, ethnic conflicts, and the arms trade? (U.S. Catholic Bishops, Called To Global Solidarity)
“Our faith challenges us to reach out to those in need…and to resist the immorality of isolationism. Pope John Paul II reminds us that to turn to ‘selfish isolation’ would not only be a ‘betrayal of humanity’s legitimate expectations…but also a real desertion of a moral obligation.’” (Called to Global Solidarity, #6)
(Father John Bednarik, O.F.M., Cap., is pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Harrisburg.)
By Father John Bednarik, O.F.M., Cap., Special to The Witness