Last time, in this space, we noted that the Church speaks of solidarity as both a “social principle” and a “moral virtue.” Further, the Church doesn’t hesitate to teach that the state has a role to play in helping to reform “structures of sin” into “structures of solidarity” — since such a task is simply more than an aggregate of individuals can achieve.
At this point, it is common for some to complain that the state intervening with the force of law (in some cases) to help alter structures of sin somehow makes it impossible for the individual to do his part too. But this is like saying the Civil Rights Act destroying the structure of sin called “Jim Crow Law” wrecked the possibility of private business owners hiring black people at a living wage. It’s like saying that if the state were to demolish the structure of sin called the abortion regime by overturning Roe v. Wade, it would ruin the economy by adding more workers and consumers to the capitalist system.
Still others complain that if the state creates a social safety net for the weakest members of society, this is “wealth redistribution,” and Scripture envisages nothing but personal charity as the way to provide for the common good. But, of course, the fact is that Jesus and Paul both tell us to pay our taxes — taxes are nothing but wealth redistribution for the common good. Paul insists in Romans 13 that it is the proper office of the state to provide for the common good. So long as it gets done and everybody benefits from the good thing our pooled resources help accomplish, what difference does it make if it was done through private charity or the work of the state? There are still plenty of opportunities after we have paid our taxes to help those in need.
This is not, however, to say that we are to then leave the work of solidarity and the common good to the state. On the contrary, the bulk of the task falls to us as husbands, wives, sons, daughters, workers, owners and citizens to make it our very personal and hands-on business to love our neighbors. After rendering his taxes unto Caesar, Jesus (who was so poor he had nowhere to lay his head) still found plenty of opportunities to go about doing good. It’s supposed to be the same with us.
According to the Church, solidarity has to be deeply personal, not farmed out to some faceless bureaucracy while we play couch potatoes. So the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church continues, “Solidarity is also an authentic moral virtue, 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 is what St. James is getting at when he says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).
It’s the same point Jesus makes when he declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Solidarity is deeply threatening to much of Western — especially American — culture because we have deeply internalized the belief that “my rights” are the sole concern of law and the sole criterion of the good is “consent.” The idea that we stand in a permanent relationship of debt to God, to all who come before us and to all who come after us is abhorrent to many millions. Nonetheless, we are debtors, owing more than we can even imagine, much less repay. In the words of the Compendium:
“The principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become part. They are debtors because of those conditions that make human existence livable, and because of the indivisible and indispensable legacy constituted by culture, scientific and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods and by all that the human condition has produced.”
We owe our existence — and the existence of all that is — to God. But we also owe an unpayable debt to all who came before us and to the vast, interconnecting web of relationships that sustains us at this very hour. Without the civilization they built — without language, Mozart, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, the man who made the first shoe, the inventor of the wheel, the company who is making sure your electricity is on right now, the creators of the trucking network who made sure you got the meat for your Big Mac at lunch, the soldiers who stormed Normandy, your mom who taught you to tie your shoes, the Framers of the Constitution, the scribes who invented the alphabet, the people monitoring weather satellites, the nuns who invented hospitals, the people who discovered fire, the inventors of agriculture, the martyrs who died for Christ, the people who cooked up the scientific method, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen, Shakespeare, Les Paul, Ed Sullivan and Gregor Mendel — you and I would be bawling beasts in a howling wilderness and in all likelihood would have died in our infancy.
But we don’t just owe a debt to those who came before us. We owe a debt to pay it forward, just as they have paid it forward to us. We owe this debt because God has commanded us to love one another as he has loved us. That is how the debt is repaid, and by repaying it, we love the God who needs nothing from us and to whom we can give nothing that is not already his. Similarly, when we refuse to give generously (and this includes, especially, the forgiveness of enemies), we stand at peculiar risk of facing the same judgment of the servant in the parable who, having been forgiven a debt of millions by the King, turns on a fellow servant who owes him a paltry sum and treats him mercilessly. When the King discovers his treatment of his fellow servant and his refusal to “pay forward” the mercy he received, the King condemns him — not for his sin, but for his refusal to grant the mercy he himself received (Matthew 18:23-35).
Therefore, the Compendium calls us to exhibit “the willingness to give oneself for the good of one’s neighbor, beyond any individual or particular interest ... so that humanity’s journey will not be interrupted but remain open to present and future generations, all of them called together to share the same gift in solidarity.”
Most of this teaching is both explicit and implicit in the natural law: the law written on the heart — what J. Budziszewski called “what we can’t not know,” the law known as the Golden Rule. But in the kingdom of God, grace perfects nature and raises it to participate in the life of God himself. And so the Compendium tells us that solidarity reaches its climax in Jesus, the Son of Man, who joins himself to our humanity, becomes poor that we might become rich and becomes sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). As the Compendium says:
“The unsurpassed apex of the perspective indicated here is the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the New Man, who is one with humanity even to the point of ‘death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8). In him it is always possible to recognize the living sign of that measureless and transcendent love of God-with-us, who takes on the infirmities of his people, walks with them, saves them and makes them one. In him and thanks to him, life in society too, despite all its contradictions and ambiguities, can be rediscovered as a place of life and hope, in that it is a sign of grace that is continuously offered to all and because it is an invitation to ever higher and more involved forms of sharing.”
In the kingdom of God, says the Compendium: “One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One’s neighbor must, therefore, be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake, one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren” (1 John 3:16 and John 15:13).
That is why the Church — and each of us — is bound to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world: because the ultimate aim of working for the common good is that each person become a participant, not merely in economic life, but in the divine life, a member of the Body of Christ.
Just as the point of Catholic economic teaching is that we become workers and owners of property as well as generous givers to the needs of others, so the point of salvation is that we become active participants in the work of God, not merely passive patients. So Paul teaches God has given each member of the body “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
For our destiny is that each person become a full participant in the joy of glorifying God, loving neighbor as oneself and the splendor of the new heaven and the new earth, where every member is given his or her gifts, as Paul teaches:
“… for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.
The other parts of this series on the social teaching of the Catholic Church are:
The Common Good (Part 2),
and Solidarity (Part1).