It must have been with a certain sense of whimsy that Polish workers in 1980 decided to name their new trade union Solidarity. After all, the communist system under which they were labouring claimed to be founded on the solidarity of workers and to foster their increased solidarity.
The Polish workers knew this ideological puffery was nonsense -- one of the big lies told by the Communists in order to legitimize their hold on power. Communist "solidarity" was an imposed grey uniformity; It spoke of equality, but failed to recognize diversity.
The workers, however, had access to another notion of solidarity -- one which was rooted in Catholic social teaching. Basic to that notion is the fact that people are created by God to live in society. Our ultimate orientation should be toward the divine, but in daily life we live out that orientation by loving and supporting our neighbours. Through our love of neighbour we become more human.
All people have equal dignity because all are created by God with a rational and immortal soul. But while we are equal, none of us are self-sufficient. After birth, all people go through a long period in which they require the help of others in meeting their basic biological needs.
Even when people reach the stage of being able to feed, clothe and house themselves, they are not equal in ability. "The 'talents' are not distributed equally," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "These differences belong to God's plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular 'talents' share the benefits with those who need them" (no. 1936-37).
We are given the "poor" -- and we are all poor in various ways -- so that we might learn to share. It is a good thing that the poor are always with us because the poor require us to give to them and our own poverty requires us to receive from others.
This natural or inevitable "poverty" does not legitimize the existence of sinful inequalities which result from various forms of political and economic domination and which today impose wretchedness upon hundreds of millions of people. These call out to heaven for redress and the Christian cannot remain idle in the face of people starving and in misery.
But even in a just society, we would still need each other. I am indebted to the skills of the carpenters, electricians and others who built our house for if it were left to me to provide shelter, my family would unfortunately live in the most meagre home. The very existence of even a local economy is testimony to the willingness of people to work together, exchanging the use of their complementary talents for the greater good of all.
Solidarity is rooted in that willingness to work together without trying to exploit each other. Solidarity becomes stronger when exploitation does occur and the community unites to put an end to it and restore social harmony.
Mass society, however, tends to undermine solidarity and increase the likelihood of exploitation. It is difficult to exploit the neighbour you see every day, especially when that exploitation is met with the condemnation of one's peers in a small community. When one lives in a large, impersonal society and one's actions exploit people halfway around the world, one is not subject to the same intensity of community disapproval.
One major reason communities establish voluntary associations and governments is to protect solidarity. In a 1991 encyclical, Pope John Paul said governments should enhance solidarity "by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker" (Centesimus Annus, 15).
But the pope also warned against the creation of too much bureaucracy in helping the needy. "It would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need" (no. 48).
Further, both the pope and the Catechism emphasize that not all needs are material. Some are spiritual. The exercise of solidarity must meet the needs of the whole person.
In a mass society, it is easy for some people to get lost or ignored. It is not always easy to see how we can best exercise solidarity.
But solidarity is an ethical demand of the human condition. We are bound together and we must look out for each other. In an increasingly integrated global society, the future of humanity depends on our developing creative ways of exercising solidarity -- both locally and internationally.
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