A reflection on solidarity as a principle of Catholic social teaching
By Fr. Jack Lynch, S.F.M.
Solidarity is a relatively new word in Catholic social thought. It is about valuing our fellow human beings and respecting who they are as individuals. Many of us will recall the word “solidarity” used in connection with Lech Walesa and the trade union movement in Poland. It is only in the last few decades that we encounter this word in Church documents and Catholic social thought.
Solidarity refers to both an attitude and a way of living, and we encompass both dimensions when we speak of a “spirit of solidarity.” Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Social Concern of the Church) wrote: “We are all one family in the world. Building a community that empowers everyone to attain their full potential through each of us respecting each other’s dignity, rights, and responsibilities, makes the world a better place to live.”
Speaking to participants at the Meeting of Popular Movements last year, Pope Francis said that solidarity “means thinking and acting in terms of community, of prioritizing the life of all, over and above the appropriation of goods by the few. It also means fighting the structural causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment, lack of land and housing, and the denial of social and labour rights. It means facing the destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacement, painful migration, human trafficking, drugs, war, violence and all these situations that many of you suffer and that we are called upon to transform. Solidarity, in its deepest sense is a way of making history…”
Pope Francis uses the word “solidarity” to express the challenge that he sees before us today. Speaking about peace he said, “The many situations of inequality, poverty, and injustice, are signs not only of a profound lack of fraternity, but also of the absence of a culture of solidarity.” He also said, “When we open ourselves to life and serve life, we experience the revolutionary force of love and tenderness, giving rise to a new humanism: the humanism of solidarity, the humanism of life.”
In The Social Concern of the Church, Pope John Paul II tells us that solidarity “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.”
It should be noted that The Social Concern of the Church was the first papal document to commit the whole Church to the option for the poor in imitation of Jesus and in living out our social responsibilities.
Cultures of materialism
Pope Francis has been inviting all of us to be converted away from the three cultures that materialism has promoted: the culture of comfort that makes us think only of ourselves; the culture of waste that seizes the gifts of creation only to enjoy them briefly and then discard them; and the culture of indifference that makes us indifferent to our neighbour and to God. In his Lenten message this year Pope Francis referred to this as the “globalization of indifference.” Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.
Jesus’ teaching on the Reign or Kingdom of God, which is based upon the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race, was radical and revolutionary: “You have learned how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: Love your enemies” (Matthew 5).
In the Old Testament the command to love one’s neighbour was understood as to exclude one’s enemy. Jesus teaches us that our neighbour includes our enemies as well. As Fr. Albert Nolan observes in his book, Jesus before Christianity: “He could not have found a more effective way of shocking his audience into the realization that he wished to include all in this solidarity of love.”
“I know that all of you believe with me that our Church is, and tends to be, more and more participative, more and more a Church of solidarity. Only so can we become a Church with the face of Jesus.”
Scarboro missionary Bishop George Marskell’s words to the People’s Assembly of the Prelacy of Itacoatiara, Brazil, in June 1998, one month before he died.
Jesus spells out the consequences: “Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly…If you love those who love you, what thanks can you expect? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:27-32).
The solidarity of the Kingdom or Reign of God is an experience of solidarity with all people, an experience that is non-exclusive and doesn’t depend upon reciprocity because it includes all those who hate us, persecute us, or treat us badly. This type of solidarity must take precedence over every other kind of love and experience of solidarity. Even the solidarity of the family was not to stand in the way of this new solidarity. Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” so that whoever welcomed one of them welcomed Him and whatever was done to one of them was done to Him.
Jesus never excluded the Pharisees and Scribes. He never refused to argue, discuss, or mix socially with any of them. It was they who excluded him. And, from his teaching and practice, he sided with the poor and sinners, those who were excluded by others. As Fr. Nolan says, “Solidarity with the ‘nobodies’ of this world, the ‘discarded people’ is the only concrete way of living out a solidarity with all humankind.”
For me the principal characteristic of the attitude and ministry of Jesus is compassion. It is only compassion and mercy that can teach us and lead us to the solidarity of the Reign of God.
It should not surprise anyone that Pope Francis has decided to call an extraordinary Jubilee. It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy from December 8, 2015, to November 20, 2016, the feast of Christ the King. He emphasized, “We want to live this Year in the light of the Lord’s words: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’” (Luke 6:36).