Solidarity according to Sollicitudo Rei Socialis

But the experience of solidarity also raises in turn the question of its foundation – both philosophical and theological: Why are we invited (and ethically obliged) to live in solidarity? John Paul II proceeded to offer answers to these questions. In 1987, he followed up Laborem Exercens with another encyclical on social ethics, a letter with the not-quite-translatable title, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – “Social Concern” (1987). This document offers at its heart (paragraphs 38-40) an extended reflection on the idea of solidarity, beginning from the clear injustices and evils of our globalised economic and political system. Solidarity is seen here as the counterpoint to those ‘Structures of Sin’ which are embedded in the established order (whether that order be liberal capitalism on the one side or then still-functioning State Socialism on the other) and which do vast damage to the interests of the poor and the vulnerable.

The Pope detected a new awareness around the world of the plight of the oppressed. This was, after all, the era of Band Aid and the like. This awareness was the other, more positive, side of globalisation, balancing the ‘Structures of Sin’ motif, but the new awareness in turn implies a new moral obligation (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, paragraph 38). He sees this as a sign of hope: people are increasingly recognising our fundamental interdependence and its ethical implications:

“When interdependence becomes recognised in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue’, is solidarity … not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far …[but] 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.” (Loc. Cit)