I’ve spent the past few days reading about the Catholic tradition’s understanding of solidarity, especially as related to its option for the poor, in preparation for my comprehensive exams next month. Imagine my surprise when solidarity popped up on my social media feed in an article titled: “Pope urges activists to struggle against ‘structural causes’ of poverty.“
The pope said solidarity entails struggling “against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and shelter, the denial of social and labor rights,” and confronting what he called the “empire of money.”
Ok, so perhaps I should not have been so surprised. After all, Pope Francis mentioned solidarity 19 times in last year’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. And really, the Church’s emphasis on solidarity is not new. It is often associated with the Pope of my childhood and early young adulthood, Pope John Paul II, who understood solidarity as a virtue. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul described solidarity as “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.”
As I said, I’ve been reading a lot about solidarity in preparation for comps. One book that has really helped me to dig deeper into the underlying challenge and promise of solidarity is Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration by Kristin Heyer. Heyer describes three forms of solidarity.
- Institutional Solidarity calls, you guessed it, institutions to understand themselves as collectively responsible to amelioriate the economic and political factors which cause injustice and inequity. The work of the United Nations, at its best, is an example of institutional solidarity, focused on transforming structures for the common good.
- Incarnational Solidarity calls us to “immerse our bodies and expend precious energy in practices of presence and service in the real world.” Those of us who “have” can be isolated in our worlds and world views. Incarnational solidarity urges us beyond our protective bubbles to experiences and relationships which “better attune us to our connections.” This might be real life concrete relationships with actual people on the margins. Or this might be adjusting our own consumer choices to honor those we are related to, such as farmers, by making the choice to buy fair trade. Gregory Boyle, SJ sums up well the transformative power of incarnational solidarity when he says: “At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
- Conflictual Solidarity, according to Heyer, is often “underplayed” in Catholic thought. Until, that is, our current Pope who no doubt was transformed through his own experiences of incarnational solidarity in Argentina. Just ponder this quote from Evangelii Gaudium: “Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity.” If we are truly committed to life and human dignity for all, if we stand with those pushed to the margins, then it’s not just a matter of holding hands and singing kumbaya. We also need to get our hands dirty and sometimes face the necessary conflict. But, as Pope Francis recognizes in EG, how we do this matters. The goal is to seek “resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.”
The tradition of Catholic social thought is alive, developing, and deep. The themes peppered in the Pope’s recent talk to activists come from deep within the Church’s tradition. But I will admit, as an activist at heart, that it is also nice to read the Pope recognizing that when he speaks from this tradition, “some people conclude that the pope is a communist.” I believe Dorothy Day had the same problem.