What is the Catholic idea of solidarity? It’s possible to dress it up in academic terms, but there’s a simple way to explain it. It means that you are to “[l]ove your neighbor as yourself,”(Matthew 22:39) so that “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
The closest that most of us come to loving our neighbor as ourselves is in the family, and the family shows us how the idea of solidarity is to be realized in the larger society. No one regards the possessions of the family as the private property of just one member—say, the father. The father happily shares everything he earns with his wife and his children. He doesn’t hoard his wealth, or what wealth can buy, to himself and deny his family what they need to live decent lives. His concern is not for himself but for the good of his family, and if he acts otherwise we naturally find it reprehensible.
If, then, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, society itself ought to be thought of as a family. That is the basic idea of solidarity as applied to communities.
There are some with wealth, power, and security, and there are others, the great majority, who live precariously. The former have the means to care for the weaker members and bring them to a state of sufficiency that will allow them to realize their potential as human beings. To do otherwise is like the father who selfishly thinks of his own interests and not that of his family. Those with wealth and power should gladly sacrifice a bit of both to make sure that all citizens have what they need to lead good and virtuous lives. That might mean supporting social programs or accepting higher tax burdens. But if it ultimately means that society as a whole can flourish, what is a small sacrifice of meaningless personal wealth in comparison to realizing such a noble end?
Some might not like this metaphor because it makes those who are not in the political class out to be children. But of course I don’t mean that. What I mean is simply that in any society there are those who have care of the community, just like the parents in a family. In our society, that means the wealthy, the powerful, the educated, and the connected. Their status brings with it the obligation to work for the common good, not in their own interests. It means working to bring about a society that meets human needs—for financial security, education, healthcare, leisure, culture, and all the rest. That is what we would want for every American (and for every citizen of the world) if we are motivated by solidarity and love of neighbor.
The idea of solidarity has almost limitless implications. How, for example, would we treat those on the margins of society if we truly looked on them as our brothers, sisters, or children? Think of the thirty million Americans in prison. Many of them are just kids who come from unimaginably horrible home lives and never really stood much of a chance of “making it.” Right now, we throw these men and women into what is basically a trash heap—or, better, a landfill—far from the view of most of us, buried, and forgotten. We cram them into overcrowded human warehouses, and leave them to their own devices; many join prison gangs and are released as drug addicts. Programming and vocational training is inadequate and always targeted for budget cuts.
But how would we act toward them if we really saw them as our brothers, sisters, or children? How would you want your child treated if he went to prison? Like the father of the Prodigal Son, you wouldn’t simply write him off and forget about him. Like many of the parents of incarcerated children I have talked to, mentally, you’d be in prison with him. You would still want the best for him. And all of us would think of him just as if he were our own child, and would want every aspect of the prison system to be directed to his successful reentry into the community and restoration, if possible, as a member of the community.
Try thinking of every aspect of the national life in these terms. If our society were informed by the virtue of solidarity, is it conceivable that there would be homelessness, or poverty, or chronic unemployment, or racism? If we truly loved our neighbor as ourselves, such blights on our nation would be impossible—or, at least, it would be impossible to accept them as somehow inevitable. The idea of solidarity has the power to radically transform the way we think about politics, economics, and social realities. And since Christ commanded it, we know—as unrealistic as our cynicism might make it seem—that it is possible to realize it in our world.
Doran is a member of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.
Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.