GARCIA-LUENSE: Solidarity is a major principal in Catholic social justice

October 11, 2022

St. John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. (CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal)

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I was first introduced to the word “solidarity” on the evening news in the context of international geopolitics. Solidarity was the name of the independent trade union founded in Gdansk, Poland. Under the leadership of Lech Wałesa, it provided an alternative vision to the established Polish Communist Party and was instrumental in ending Communist rule in Poland. This then was one of the first dominos to fall in Eastern Europe, leading to the collapse of the entire Iron Curtain.

It is fitting that my introduction to this word came through Polish politics and history since it was another Pole, St. John Paul II, whose use of this word in his writings left a profound impact on the Church’s social teaching.

In the year 1987, at the height of the struggle between Solidarity and the Polish Communist Party, on the 20th anniversary of St. Paul VI’s encyclical letter on the Progress of People, John Paul issued his own landmark social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. In it, he invokes the word “solidarity” 28 times! Clearly, this word, and its meaning, were of critical importance to his understanding of how Catholic Christians are called to be and work in the world. He provides his definition for this word. “

This then is 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.” Solidarity was the primary lens through which he viewed all of Catholic social teaching.

To this day, the bishops of the United States, in their pastoral letter, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, identify solidarity as one of four key major principles of Catholic social teaching that together “provide a moral framework for Catholic engagement” in public life.

In that context, they write, “We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be.” The bishops see this fundamental value as having an impact on the decisions we make, both domestically and internationally, regarding the persistence of racial inequities, poverty, disease, the plight of immigrants and refugees, and violence and war.

As American Catholics, we may be tempted to buy into the divisive tribalism that marks contemporary political discourse. As Catholics, however, we are called to see each and every person as another human being with whom we are called to be in solidarity, for whom we are to be concerned, and with whom we are to work for the common good of all. There is no room in Catholic social teaching to place any group, no matter how it is defined, as having the first claim on our allegiance so that we are able to ignore, marginalize, or demonize the “other.” As Catholics, we are called to affirm that there truly is no “other.”

This notion of solidarity has implications for our spiritual lives as well. St. John Paul II makes this clear, especially in his Apostolic letter on the beginning of the new millennium in 2001. The virtue of solidarity has as its natural consequence the development of a spirituality of communion.

He writes, “A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ‘those who are a part of me’.”

Visit the adult catechesis section of the OEC’s website for links to read some of the original documents exploring the notion of solidarity. 

Brian Garcia-Luense is an associate director with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.