Solidarity sees God in everyone

December 5, 2005

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 192-196

At 82 years, life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world.

A person can expect, on average, to have a healthy life of 75 in Japan before the ravages of disease and infirmity take over.

But in Sub-Saharan Africa the picture is much different. People in several nations have a healthy life expectancy of less than 35 due to widespread poverty and diseases such as AIDS.

Developing nations have 80 per cent of the world's population, but only 10 per cent of drug sales. The pharmaceutical industry has opposed efforts to make generic drugs available to fight disease in poorer nations.

The industry says it is defending its intellectual property rights. But this is a distortion of the true nature of property. In my article on property two weeks ago, I noted that the Catholic Church teaches that while property may aid individuals, its basic orientation must be to contribute to the common good.


If the intellectual property of the pharmaceutical industry were truly serving the common good, we should expect to see the highest level of drug sales in those countries with the greatest problems of disease. God created the world for the good of all, not just those who manage to get their hands on economic or political power.

Today, we have a much greater awareness of the bonds of interdependence among individuals and people. There is community, both local and global.

Community is not something, first of all, that people create. It is rooted in the essential incompleteness of each person and the interdependence of individuals. We need each other, not only to help get the crops off, but also for our fulfillment as persons.

We can live out our incompleteness and interdependence in a distorted way, exploiting each other for personal gain. Or, we can transform this natural relatedness into social solidarity.

There are two forms of solidarity. Solidarity can be a personal virtue. This virtue is not a feeling of vague compassion or sorrow at the misfortunes of others. In his 1987 encyclical On Social Concern, Pope John Paul described the virtue of solidarity as "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good" (n. 38).


But solidarity is also reflected in the structures of society. The wide divergence of life expectancies among the world's nations is a sign of distorted social structures, what Pope John Paul called "structures of sin." These sinful structures need to be transformed into "structures of solidarity."

This transformation can, to some degree, take place if more people exhibit the virtue of solidarity. People must make sacrifices for the good of others for any change at all to occur. Structures of sin will not be replaced by structures of solidarity unless there is a shift in the world's power balance.

Corporations and wealthy nations may make some concessions based on altruism. But no serious shakeup will occur until decisions are made by the majority of the world's people in a spirit of solidarity.

The late pope called solidarity a fundamental principle of Catholic social doctrine. Earlier popes had a similar idea, referring to "friendship" and "social charity." It took the pope from Poland to begin using the word solidarity, which has such a strong resonance with political and social change.

In his 1987 encyclical, he said solidarity includes "the solid conviction" that the desire for profit and the thirst for power are hindering full development.

Solidarity will always be incomplete unless radical change occurs, unless there is a new world order where justice replaces domination and exploitation.

But politically transformative action must be rooted in the virtue of solidarity. Without a deep solidarity with the marginalized, the political transformation risks erecting new forms of domination to replace the old. Indeed, one role of the state should be to facilitate development of the virtue of solidarity.

The quintessential person of solidarity is Jesus. Jesus overthrew no governments and established no organizations, but he was seen as a threat to the established order. Why? Because he met people at their point of deepest need and provided healing. Because he gave his life so that we might have eternal life. Also, he identified himself with the poorest, saying, "Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me."


Solidarity is a Christian virtue. Through it, one comes to see one's neighbour as "the living image" of God. "In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimensions of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation" (On Social Concern, no. 40).

But through solidarity, we recognize our bond with all peoples of the earth. And through solidarity, we will strive for a better world where all people have dignity and the right to life.