What connotations come to mind around the concept of solidarity – a Marxist term or the bedrock of the Big Society? A trade union slogan or another way of reducing the world to right wing family values?
Solidarity is a truly multi-faceted concept. Think of it as a masterfully cut diamond where each of the faces reflects light in a different but beautiful way. At the core, the centre of the diamond, the uniting and united view is the understanding of solidarity that comes from Catholic Social Teaching.
What’s more, solidarity is itself the most mystical and yet deeply human of the founding concepts of the social teaching of the Church.
Solidarity is a truly universal bond, linking together all human beings, living and dead, of every nation, race and belief. More than that, for Christians, solidarity is the bond that, through the life of Jesus as God and man, links all human beings with God. That is why all the different facets of solidarity are to some extent true – because they are all perspectives that flow from the experience of being human.
In order to practise solidarity at its most basic level requires simply to live as a human being in the world and so solidarity can be understood as the ground for all Catholic Social Teaching – teaching which guides us as we try to live in relationship with God and each other.
What is Solidarity?
For some people ‘solidarity’ is linked with the trade union movement, with strike action and especially with the Polish Solidarność, the free trade union federation led by Lech Walesa which untimately led to the fall of the Communist regime in Poland. While this is not the core meaning of solidarity for Catholic Social Teaching, it is certainly part of it and gives a strong clue. On the other hand solidarity is also linked to the idea of the Big Society. From this point of view solidairty is the reason we are ‘all in this together’, and it is for that reason that we are all responsible for each other. Solidarity is the glue that binds together, the common good, the universal destination of goods, equality amongst people and nations, and peace in the world. In some sense solidarity includes all the other principles and values that are necessary to create and sustain a truly good society.
In fact it is not too big a claim to say that solidarity is at the heart of what it means to be human; and with Catholic Social Teaching we can take this further and say that solidarity is also at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic Christian.
A bond between people
As humans we are fundamentally social beings. Regardless of whether they have a belief in God or practice a faith, people instinctively feel that there is a deep bond between us all; a bond that goes beyond family and kin to extend to the whole human race. The name of this bond is solidarity. This bond is much more than a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress”. It is in fact a commitment to the common good, i.e. “the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Solidarity is what is meant in Ephesians 4:25 when St Paul writes that we are all “members one of another”. So the opposites of solidarity are things like inequality, exploitation and oppression, as well greed and selfishness.
It is the value which requires that human rights are defended by the Church. Solidarity demands that all people have a right to food and drinkable water, to housing, to security, to self-determination, family life and to independence.
Solidarity runs backwards and forwards through time, linking us not only with the other people who are alive at this moment but also with all past and future generations. It is the principle and value that causes us to care about the slave trade in the 18th century, the impact of floods on the people of Pakistan in 2010 and about the impact of climate change on our children and grandchildren.
Solidarity between generations means that it is morally wrong as well as economically counter productive to burden future generations with the costs of current activities. Probably the only way to ensure harmony and balance between the requirements of economic efficiency and the need for political participation and social justice is to have the value of solidarity at the heart of global political and economic systems.
Solidarity and God
The heart of solidarity is the life of Jesus, because it is through the incarnation that God is in a very real way in solidarity with humanity and that we are in solidarity with God. The historical reality of the life of Jesus as a human being lifts solidarity beyond the fellowship of people into something altogether more mystical and powerful. In addition, because we know, as Christians, that all of us are formed in the image of God, loving our neighbour (as an act of solidarity) becomes also an act of solidarity towards and with God. Every act of solidarity, understood in this light, becomes an act of communion with God; an action in which we transmit and reflect the love with which God loves both the person who is object of the action and with which we love God. The ability to recognise God in every individual person and to recognise every individual in God is necessary for authentic human development. Our belief in this and our faith as Christians draws us ever more strongly into a state of unity with each other and with God. Founded in solidarity Catholic Social Teaching becomes the life blood of the reciprocity between God and humanity and the Eucharist is the sacrament of solidarity.
What does it mean to practice solidarity?
Solidarity is much more than an idealistic principle for organising society; basically it is a moral value. More than this, solidarity exists not only between individuals but also within and between social institutions. So we can speak (and think) of solidarity between nations, between towns, between parishes. A concrete way in which this solidarity is expressed is in twinning arrangements between towns or parishes in different countries. Also just as there can be structural sin, for example racism which is institutionalised within an organisation, there can also be structural solidarity where relations of mutuality and interdependence are institutionalised and celebrated.
Signs of solidarity in practice are: love and service of neighbour, for example the visiting practiced by SVP conferences or simply checking on an elderly neighbour ; social action, for example setting up a winter shelter for homeless people or campaigning to stop the deportation of an asylum seeker ; and mutual respect, for example buying a copy of the Big Issue rather than giving money to a beggar, or any serious engagement with people across a divide whether of race, religion, age or social background. It is the practice of solidarity, even in simple ways, that guarantees the common good and the fostering of integral human development.
Solidarity and love/caritas
For solidarity to be a Christian practice it must be permeated by love (caritas). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus connect solidarity and charity (caritas). In fact solidarity is the expression of caritas, or to put it another way, love is the verb of solidarity. Solidarity is the virtue and the practice underlying the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself. (Matthew 10:40-42, 20:25; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:25-27)
If we all really lived the value of solidarity there would be both global peace and strenuous action to halt and reverse climate change: “opus solidarities pax” (peace is the fruit of solidarity) (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis # 568, Isaiah 32:17, James 3:18)