Solidarity: Catholic Social Teaching 101

Pope2CongressThis topic is kind of adjacent to my usual scope for this blog, but over the last few weeks, it has been on my heart a lot, so I decided to give it a go.

Solidarity is a pillar of Catholic social teaching and one that I take both comfort in and motivation from. I have so much access to information about injustice and suffering in the world that even beginning to know how I can help can feel overwhelming. Then, I remember solidarity and it helps me come up with some concrete things to do.

Let’s walk through an example: I have always whole-heartedly opposed the death penalty, but for much of my life it felt like there was nothing I could do about ending it. Last year, my friend Kate and I saw a Facebook event for a meeting hosted by the ACLU to organize around ending capital punishment in our state. We went, discussed the issue, filled out postcards, received training on how to talk to legislators, and drafted letters to the editors of local newspapers. Later, I sent my letter to a local paper, which published it. The death penalty was repealed in our state this year. The actions Kate and I took were barely a drop in the ocean of effort that it took to achieve the goal, but it was an act of solidarity. Why?

What is solidarity?

In the Catholic tradition, solidarity means working for the common good by working for justice and peace: “The Catholic social teaching principle of Solidarity is about recognising others as our brothers and sisters and actively working for their good.” (Caritas.org)

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes, “Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI taught that ‘if you want peace, work for justice.’ The Gospel calls us to be peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.”

Solidarity has kind of become a buzzword, however, and acts of solidarity can be reduced to merely performative statements of togetherness. St. John Paul II, who learned about solidarity firsthand during the Polish resistance, cautioned against this shallow treatment of solidarity as fellow-feeling:

“[Solidarity] 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.”(St. John Paul II, On Social Concern [Sollicitudo rei Socialis. . . ], no. 38)

Similar to how Bishop Robert Barron reminds us that love is a verb not a feeling in his Pentecost homily about the church and racial justice (embedded/linked below), solidarity is perhaps best considered an action, not an emotion. Remember, it is often stated as standing in solidarity or walking in solidarity.

Solidarity in the Catholic tradition is really about working to build the type of community we are called to build—bringing the Kingdom of God to where we live. The USCCB reminds us that we must always consider the poor and the marginalized and work for their good:

“We have to move from our devotion to independence, through an understanding of interdependence, to a commitment to human solidarity. That challenge must find its realization in the kind of community we build among us. Love implies concern for all – especially the poor – and a continued search for those social and economic structures that permit everyone to share in a community that is a part of a redeemed creation (Rom 8:21-23).” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All)

And when we talk about “their good,” that means their ability to “have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

We see this teaching acted upon, for example, when the USCCB issues statements opposing violent immigration policies, budgets that forget the poor, or racial injustice.

How is solidarity different from charity?

When exploring ways to show solidarity for a particular group or movement, donations to charity often come up. Although donating to charity can be an act of solidarity, charity and solidarity are distinct from each other. (I’m talking about charity here as in the act of giving charity, not charity the form of Christian love, although the two are linked.)

Whereas charity is a gift that is meant to help another, it does not necessarily have to connect to systems of power. For example, I can donate food to a food bank and that certainly can help feed the hungry, but it does not address the root cause that is poverty. Solidarity, on the other hand, is aimed at working to build a better system so that another person isn’t hungry to begin with.

What does Solidarity look like in practice?

So, back to why I find solidarity both comforting and motivating—there are a lot of things, big and small, that we can all do each day as acts of solidarity. We may be called to solidarity by current events and as a lifelong practice. Most often, an act of solidarity means working to help a person or group that is somehow being marginalized, oppressed, and/or exploited. Awareness around privilege is really helpful in becoming more attuned to ways that you can practice solidarity. (For how not to make solidarity about you being good jump down to subsidiarity below.)

Solidarity can mean turning up at a protest to support people who are fighting for their rights.

Solidarity can mean writing letters or making phone calls to people in power, advocating for changes.

Solidarity can mean speaking up when someone says something bullying, or racist, or sexist in your hearing.

Solidarity can mean listening when someone tells you about how they have been hurt by prejudice or injustice.

Solidarity can mean spending your money at local businesses and those run by women or people of color.

Image from @bulldogcatholics on Instagram

Image from @bulldogcatholics

Solidarity can mean enjoying, sharing, and promoting art created by marginalized groups. (And I do not mean appropriating it.)

Solidarity can mean not eating meat as a way to stand with the poor who are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Solidarity can mean limiting one’s participation in fast fashion, an industry that exploits poor workers.

And so on.

In short, solidarity means putting your love for others into action in a way that pushes back on systems or practices that threaten the common good.

Solidarity can start with retraining your mind so that your image of the common good includes people who do not look like, think like, or live like you do. 

But don’t end there.

What is subsidiarity and how is it connected?

Another pillar of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, which helps keep solidarity from turning into a colonizing effort. In essence, subsidiarity holds that an issue should be handled by the most local authority capable of tackling it. In practice, it can help prevent charitable efforts from swooping in and taking the power to effect change away from already marginalized groups. While solidarity lends its support, subsidiarity aims to make sure the stakeholders maintain their agency.

“Solidarity ensures all people are taken care of while subsidiarity prevents people from becoming faceless objects of charity. When both principles flourish together, they result in a more balanced, effective, and personal bond of charity” (Vogt 122).

Go do it

The church is far from perfect and there are certainly areas where we could stand to improve in enacting Christ’s love. I think, however, that solidarity is a particularly strong point in the interaction between Catholics and the world. It shines through especially well in the saints, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Gertrude Stein, and Servant of God Dorothy Day, who famously said “If you have two coats you have stolen one from the poor” (perhaps riffing on Luke 3:11). Recent popes including Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have also drawn attention to the importance of this social teaching in calling the faithful to do better in serving the poor and marginalized and in caring for our planet. So, let’s get out there and do it, people!

Works Cited/Further Reading

Vogt, Brandon. Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World. Our Sunday Visitor, 2013.

USCCB What We Believe: Solidarity

Caritas New Zealand: Solidarity

12 Ways You Can Be an Activist Without Going to a Protest

A bishop in El Paso kneeled in prayer for George Floyd. Two days later, Pope Francis called

Bishop Barron’s Pentecost 2020 homily:

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