political theology, Vol. 15 No. 1, 2014, 7–25
The Meaning of Solidarity in Catholic
Gerald J. Beyer
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Department of Theology and
Religious Studies, Villanova University, Villanova, PA, USA
Solidarity has become a central concept in Christian ethics. Although
solidarity or analogous concepts can be found in other Christian traditions,
as well as other religious and philosophical systems of ethics, the Catholic
social tradition has perhaps most fully developed a concept of solidarity over
the last century. This article contends that solidarity as conceived in Catholic
social teaching (CST) provides a robust and useful understanding of the
social obligations of individuals, communities, institutions, and nations. As
a general overview of the concept of solidarity in CST, the article elucidates
its biblical, theological and experiential foundations, its historical antecedents, and the goals, methods and scope of solidarity. The article also
describes contemporary applications of the Catholic ethic of solidarity, and
theoretical and practical challenges to its realization.
keywords Catholic social teaching, John Paul II, liberation theology, option for
the poor, Heinrich Pesch, social ethics, solidarity, Solidarność, Karol Wojtya
Solidarity has become a central concept in Christian ethics. But what is solidarity?
Many thinkers have pointed to the ambiguity of the term and its nebulous usage in
theological and ethical discourse.1 Others have argued that in our fragmented,
globalized world differences divide people so severely that solidarity as it has been
See M. Shawn Copeland, ‘‘Toward a Critical Christian Feminist Theology of Solidarity,’’ in Women and Theology,
ed. Mary Ann Hinsdale and Phyllis H. Kaminski (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 11; Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz,
‘‘Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the Eighties,’’ in Life Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the
Underside, ed. Susan Brook Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engle (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1990), 32; Sally
J. Scholz, Political Solidarity (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), 17–18; Christine Firer
Hinze, ‘‘Over, Under, Around, and Through: Ethics, Solidarity, and the Saints,’’ CTSA Proceedings 66 (2011): 34–37;
Gerald J. Beyer, ‘‘A Theoretical Appreciation of the Ethic of Solidarity in Poland Twenty Five Years After,’’ Journal of
Religious Ethics 35, no. 2 (2007): 208.
ß W. S. Maney & Son Ltd 2014
traditionally understood is simply not possible.2 Conversely, this article
demonstrates that solidarity as conceived in official Catholic social teaching
(CST) provides a robust and useful understanding of the social obligations of
individuals, communities, institutions, and nations. The goals of this article are
modest: it provides a general overview of the concept of solidarity in CST,
elucidating its foundations, historical development, goals, methods, and
challenges. Given the present limitations, this article will overlook some important
aspects of solidarity.3 In a sense, it serves as a foreground to the other
contributions to this special volume of Political Theology, which delve more
deeply into particular facets of solidarity.
Solidarity is not unique to Catholic thought. Numerous social theorists and
philosophers have developed this concept. Other religious and cultural traditions
also speak of solidarity, or analogous ideas.4 However, as social scientist Steinar
Stjernø argues, the Catholic social tradition has perhaps most fully developed a
theory of solidarity over the last century. Although contemporary Protestant ethics
has begun to treat solidarity more frequently, its explicit usage remains relatively
scant.5 Thus this article focuses on the understanding of solidarity in CST, with some
particular attention to Pope John Paul II, who most fully developed CST’s ethic of
solidarity.6 It also discusses the work of theologians and philosophers on solidarity
insofar as they contribute to, elucidate, or expand on official Catholic teaching.
Biblical and Theological Foundations
The word ‘‘solidarity’’ does not appear in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.
Nonetheless, the roots of the Catholic concept of solidarity reside there, even if
CST has not always highlighted its biblical basis, either assuming it or relying
See for example Giles B. Gunn, Beyond Solidarity: Pragmatism and Difference in a Globalized World (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2001), 47, 171, 194–95. I discussed this view in Beyer, ‘‘A Theoretical Appreciation of the
Ethic of Solidarity in Poland Twenty Five Years After,’’ Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 2 (2007): 208.
I have elaborated on solidarity in much greater detail in Gerald J. Beyer, Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from
Poland’s Unfinished Revolution (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010) and ‘‘Solidarity by Grace,
Nature or Both? The Possibility of Human Solidarity in the Light of Evolutionary Biology and Catholic Moral
Theology,’’ Heythrop Journal 55, no. 5 (2013): 732–55.
See, for example, Agnes M. Brazal, ‘‘East Asian Discourses on Harmony: A Mediation for Catholic Social Teaching,’’
in Catholic Social Teaching in Global Perspective, ed. Daniel McDonald (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 132–
33; Mawuto R. Afan, ‘‘The Main ‘Building Sites’ of Ethics in West Africa,’’ in Catholic Theological Ethics in the
World Church: The Plenary Papers from the First Cross-Cultural Conference on Catholic Theological Ethics, ed.
James F. Keenan (New York: Continuum, 2007), 45–46; John N. Sheveland, ‘‘Solidarity in Three Sacred Texts:
Bhagavad-Gita, Dhammapada, 1 Corinthians,’’ Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection 74, no. 8 (2010).
See Steinar Stjernø, Solidarity in Europe: The History of an Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005),
75–85; 311–17. Stjernø discusses the historical and theological reasons for this. He states, however, that Jürgen
Moltmann has led to solidarity being more commonly used in Protestant ethics. Yet, Moltmann ‘‘takes the concept of
solidarity more for granted,’’ rather than developing a theoretical understanding of it. I would contend that many
contemporary Protestant ethicists advocate social and economic justice in ways analogous to the Catholic ethic
solidarity, even if they do not use the concept itself. A recent, particularly fruitful appeal to solidarity by a Protestant
ethicist is C. Melissa Snarr, All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement (New York: New
York University Press, 2011).
On the particular significance of John Paul II for solidarity in CST, see Kevin Doran, Solidarity: A Synthesis of
Personalism and Communalism in the Thought of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II (New York: P. Lang, 1996); Stjernø,
Solidarity in Europe, 70 and Marie Vianney Bilgrien, Solidarity: A Principle, an Attitude, a Duty? Or the Virtue for an
Interdependent World? (New York: P. Lang, 1999), 17.
THE MEANING OF SOLIDARITY IN CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING
instead on natural law arguments. Moreover, any historical reconstruction of
solidarity’s development in Catholic teaching must acknowledge that ‘‘long before
becoming a theme of theological reflection, solidarity had been Christian praxis.’’7
Pope Pius XII, the first pope to explicitly use the term ‘‘solidarity’’ in his
writings,8 refers to Scripture to ground his claims. In his 1939 encyclical Summi
Pontificatus, he argues ‘‘the first page of Scripture’’ (Gen. 1:26–27) undergirds the
law of ‘‘human solidarity and charity,’’ revealing our common origin and that all
human beings are created in the image of God. Even though humans abandoned
God and the ‘‘friendship’’ God intended for them, God will one day reunite them
(Gen. 12:3). The ‘‘Apostle to the Gentiles’’ also repeatedly underscored the unity
of the human race (Acts 27:26–27; Eph. 4:6; Col. 1:16; 1 Tim. 2:5). Moreover,
Jesus’ command to ‘‘love one another as I have loved you’’ commends charity and
solidarity to those who wish to be his disciples.9
Pope John Paul II refers to Adam’s recognition of Eve as ‘‘bone of my bone and
flesh of my flesh’’ (Gen. 2:18–21) to support his contention that ‘‘solidarity helps
us to see the ‘other’ — whether a person, people or nation — not just as some kind
of instrument,’’ but as an equal partner sent by God to share in the ‘‘banquet of
life’’ and stewardship of God’s creation.10 In addition, the recognition of the
imago Dei in all persons (Gen. 1:27), which connotes equal dignity, enables the
apprehension of human interdependence, or ‘‘de facto solidarity.’’11 John Paul II
furthermore maintains the ‘‘second tablet’’ of the Decalogue (Exod. 20:12–17;
Deut. 5:16–21) moves beyond the mere recognition of human interdependence to
reveal that God requires fulfilling our obligations to one another as members of the
human family.12 In his judgment, while sin causes people to fixate on their selfish
desires, the Bible makes clear that ‘‘conversion’’ can and must occur in order for
interpersonal solidarity to bloom.13 Conversion orients us towards overcoming
‘‘structures of sin’’ and towards loving and serving the neighbor (Matt. 10:40–42,
20:25; Mk. 10:42–40. Lk. 22:25–27).14 In addition, Jesus’ injunctions to love
one’s neighbor — including one’s enemies — reveal the true nature of solidarity,
Jon Sobrino and Juan Hernández Pico, Theology of Christian Solidarity, trans. Philip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY:
Orbis Books, 1985), 47.
Doran, Solidarity: A Synthesis, 81; 97–98. Cf. Bilgrien, Solidarity, 4. Matthew Lamb argues Pius XI first appealed to
solidarity in Quadragesimo Anno. Matthew Lamb, ‘‘Solidarity,’’ in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought,
ed. Judith A. Dwyer and Elizabeth L. Montgomery (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994), 909. However, while
the basic idea may be present, the word itself does not appear. As Doran points out, Pius XI uses ‘‘social charity,’’
which is roughly synonymous.
Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, nos. 35-41. The English title is The Unity of Human Society. Available at http://www.
vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20101939_summi-pontificatus_en.html. This and
all subsequent official documents can be found at the Vatican website, http://www.vatican.va/index.htm.
John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 39. I am indebted here to Franciszek Kampka, ‘‘Solidarność w nauczaniu
Jana Pawła II,’’ in Idea solidarności dzisiaj, ed. Władysław Zuziak (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PAT, 2001), 10.
See Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 108-111; 192; John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no.
40. See also Christine Firer Hinze’s discussion of human dignity as the ‘‘linchpin’’ of CST’s social anthropology in
Gaudium et Spes in Christine Firer Hinze, ‘‘Straining toward Solidarity in a Suffering World: Gaudium et Spes After
Forty Years,’’ in Vatican II: 40 Years Later, ed. William Madges (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 170.
John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 36.
Ibid., no. 38. The Latin and Polish versions cite Mk. 1:15; Lk. 13:3-5; Isa. 30:15. The English translation mistakenly
cites Mk. 13:3 and omits the Lukan passage. The pope also refers to the transformation of ‘‘hearts of stone’’ into
‘‘hearts of flesh’’ in Ezek. 36:26.
which must include ‘‘gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation.’’15 The story of
Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19) exhorts a special solidarity, or ‘‘love of
preference for the poor,’’ which must inform decisions ‘‘concerning ownership and
the use of goods.’’16 The pope contended that Christ calls each person ‘‘today’’ to
hear the ‘‘cry of the poor’’ (Job 34:28), just as he told Zacchaeus ‘‘today I must
stay in your house’’ (Lk. 19:5). Solidarity, he said, is urgently needed today; the
needs of the poor and suffering ‘‘cannot be put off until tomorrow.’’17
Building on scripture, CST has articulated the theological underpinnings of
solidarity, although it does not always explicitly invoke them. Genuine solidarity
among human beings marred by original sin is made possible by Christ’s restoring
of our full humanity and the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in human lives.
Human beings participate in Christ’s salvific activity in the world and the building
of the kingdom of God by embodying solidarity.18 The Eucharist, the ‘‘sacrament
of transformation,’’ transforms us in order to mend the broken world.19 Catholic
doctrine also maintains that evangelization must include the promotion of
solidarity and social justice.20 According to John Paul II, the church must stand in
solidarity with exploited workers and the poor as ‘‘a proof of her fidelity to
Christ.’’21 Christians are called to reflect the mutuality and loving relationship
among the three persons of the Trinitarian God, which serves as a model of
Contemporary scholars support and expand on official CST’s understanding of
the biblical and theological basis of solidarity. For example, Reinhard Achenbach
has ascertained an ‘‘ethic of social solidarity’’ in Deuteronomy, which stems from
the notion of ‘‘brotherhood.’’ This solidarity includes all Israelites and extends to
the resident alien.23 Juan Hernández Pico SJ locates solidarity throughout the
Hebrew Bible. Beginning with the Exodus liberation narrative, the Hebrew Bible
repeatedly envisions ‘‘God’s breaking into history as a response to the mighty cry
of the oppressed.’’ Just as God takes sides against oppression, humans must also
struggle against it, as did the ‘‘true prophets of Israel.’’24
Paraphrasing Galatians 6:2, Fr. Józef Tischner told the members of Solidarność
in Poland that solidarity essentially ‘‘means to carry the burden of another
Ibid., no. 40. Here the pope refers to John 13:35 and 1 John 3:16. See also Compendium, no. 196.
Ibid., no. 42.
John Paul II, Jan Paweł II: Polska 1999: Przemówienia i homilie (Marki: Michalineum, 1999), 75–76.
See Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, nos. 2, 13, 22, 32, 38, 39 and John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, nos.
Joseph Ratzinger, ‘‘Eucharist, Communion, and Solidarity,’’ at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/
See John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, nos. 5, 54; Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, no. 15. Cf. Beyer, Recovering
John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 8. Cf. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, no. 13.
John Paul II, Sollicitido Rei Socialis, no. 40.
Reinhard Achenbach, ‘‘Legal and Sacral Distinctions regarding Foreigners in the Pentateuch,’’ in The Foreigner and
the Law: Perspectives from the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. Reinhard Achenbach, Rainer Albertz and
Jakob Wöhrle (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011), 33. I am indebted to Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Bruce Wells for
See Sobrino and Hernández Pico, Theology of Christian Solidarity, 48–57.
THE MEANING OF SOLIDARITY IN CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING
person.’’25 In his view, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25–37) specifies
the meaning of solidarity; first and foremost solidarity should extend towards our
neighbors who, like the ‘‘man in the ditch,’’ suffer as a result of human evil.26
Gustavo Gutiérrez has argued that many biblical texts point to the requirement of
solidarity with the poor. Among them he highlights the Beatitudes, which
emphasize ‘‘the basic attitudes of the disciple who receives the reign of God in
solidarity with others.’’27 Hernández Pico analyzes numerous Gospel passages (e.g.
the foot washing in Jn. 13:1–20) wherein Jesus inaugurates a ‘‘new human
community,’’ in which ‘‘there is no inequality […] only mutual service, a coresponsibility of brothers and sisters to one another.’’28
Comparative theologian John Sheveland demonstrates that Paul’s letters also
provide fertile ground for an ethic of solidarity. In particular, Paul’s theology of the
body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–26) underscores ‘‘the unity of distinct members, the
reconciliation of difference and the vocation to care for one another.’’29 Jacek Salij
OP contends Jesus redeemed fallen humanity, thereby enabling participation in his
divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), healing the ‘‘ambivalent’’ nature of human solidarity and
making ‘‘solidarity in the good alone possible.’’ By taking on human form (Phil.
2:6), Jesus ‘‘bound the whole human race to Himself as a family through a certain
Among Christian theological doctrines, ‘‘the communion of saints as a
theological statement has its counterpart in an ethical principle of solidarity,’’ as
Michael and Kenneth Himes have argued.31 They also maintain that Christians
must mirror the ‘‘trinitarian life of self-giving’’ by acknowledging our radical
interdependence and promoting human rights in solidarity with one another.32
According to Gerald O’Collins, belief in the resurrection underscores ‘‘a new
solidarity of all human beings’’ in which Christ has restored the human potential
to overcome sin and disunity.33 Christ also vindicates ‘‘self-giving love’’ through
his resurrection, announcing that ‘‘the fullness of eternal life’’ comes through
renouncing the pursuit of one’s interests at the expense of others.34
Józef Tischner, The Spirit of Solidarity, trans. Marek B. Zaleski and Benjamin Fiore (San Francisco: Harper & Row,
1984), 2–3. The Polish original is Józef Tischner, Etyka solidarności (Kraków: Znak, 1981).
Ibid., 8–9. John Paul also appeals often to this parable. See Doran, Solidarity: A Synthesis, 191–93.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, ‘‘The Option for the Poor,’’ in Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation
Theology, ed. Ignacio Ellacurı́a and Jon Sobrino (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 244.
Sobrino and Hernández Pico, Theology of Christian Solidarity, 57–60.
Sheveland, ‘‘Solidarity in Three Sacred Texts,’’ 603; cf. 601–603. Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul:
Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) and J. Paul Sampley,
Pauline Partnership in Christ: Christian Community and Commitment in Light of Roman Law (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 1980) are also relevant on this issue. Petersen discusses how hierarchical social conventions, such as those
between Philemon and his slave Onesimus, are overturned because ‘‘in Christ’’ all are equal. Sampley discusses Paul’s
use of koinonia, wherein partnership in Christ means all people use their diverse gifts out of love for others to promote
the common good, not selfish pursuits. I am grateful to New Testament scholar Dr. Paul Aspan for these references.
Salij quotes Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 8. Jacek Salij, ‘‘Solidarność troche˛ teologicznej,’’
Znak 543, no. 8 (2000): 48.
Michael J. Himes and Kenneth R. Himes, Fullness of Faith: The Public Significance of Theology (New York: Paulist
Press, 1993), 169. Cf. Firer Hinze, ‘‘Over, Under, Around, and Through,’’ 47–59.
Himes and Himes, Fullness of Faith, 56–73.
Gerald O’Collins, Believing in the Resurrection: The Meaning and Pr ...
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