Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
I’ve been talking in recent posts about the Church’s principle of subsidiarity, the principle that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (Catechism, 1883).
It’s now time to talk about another Catholic principle, solidarity. Whereas the principle of subsidiarity is generally ignored, the principle of solidarity is generally misunderstood.
Solidarity, in emphasizing the concern for the poor, is often taken to imply the Church’s hearty affirmation of socialism and/or the welfare state. That is as much a mistake, as to assume that the Church’s affirmation of private property and economic initiative implies the Church’s hearty affirmation of liberal capitalism.
The truth is that the Church stands with the truth; that is, it stands above all such economic or political systems and judges them according to the truth about human beings, the human good and God.
And so, in the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II, “the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 21). For that reason, the Church also recognizes the dangers of non-Marxist collectivism, i.e., what might be called liberal socialism.
As the Catechism states, “A system that ‘subordinates the basic rights of the individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production’ is contrary to human dignity” (2424). Such collectivism violates the principle of subsidiarity stated above.
Pope Benedict XVI, in the 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, writes, “The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person - every person - needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need” (8).
Solidarity does not equal socialism. To state the obvious — no mean achievement these days — the Church wouldn’t support a view of solidarity that violated subsidiarity, any more than she would affirm a view of “rights” that included the “right” to abortion.
But again, the Church stands with truth, not with the one or the other of the prevalent views or parties of the day. The Church asserts that it is just as contrary to human dignity, and hence just as immoral, to have a system that “makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity.” (Catechism, 2424).
In short, the Church stands above both liberal socialism and liberal capitalism, and offers corrections to both in the light of the whole truth about humanity, and what the economic order should really be about — which is, to repeat, serving the whole truth about humanity, the true human good.
So, if solidarity isn’t socialism, what is it?
The principle of solidarity was put forth in the context of the Church’s concern about the global inequalities of human economic development, and was elucidated primarily by Pope John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (from which I’ve quoted above), written to mark the 20th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio.
In it, John Paul was just as concerned with the problem of “superdevelopment” as he was with underdevelopment, with the rampant consumerism and waste of rich nations and the dire conditions in poor nations.
The focus of solidarity is our common humanity, especially insofar as we recognize, in our growing awareness of the condition of others around the world, that our common humanity is more fundamental than mere national boundaries. Our very real interdependence makes us aware that what we do — or what we fail to do — affects other people whom we’ll never meet, and this should awaken a sense of moral responsibility among those who have far more than they need.
In the Pope’s words, this “interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category” should create “a moral and social attitude,” which, as a virtue, can be called “solidarity” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 37).
The key to understanding solidarity is that it is a virtue. It is not, as the Pope made clear, “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far” (38). Even less is it a governmental structure or economic system or bureaucratic redistribution program.
It is something in us. Like all virtues, solidarity concerns first and foremost the formation of our personal character. One develops the virtue of solidarity by creating “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” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38).
We’ve got to go more deeply into the difference it makes to understand solidarity as a virtue (rather than another name for socialism), and also, how it is connected to the principle of subsidiarity. And I’ll do just that in my next post.