5.2.2 The principle of solidarity

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Unit 5 Contents



As noted on the last screen, ‘solidarity’ was not used in Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno. However, it was used in many statements issued by John XXIII’s predecessor, Pius XII, who was introduced in Unit 4 (4.3.2).  For example, solidarity appears in his 1944 Christmas Message, some of which was a reading in Unit 4.1. In March 1945, when the end of war in Europe was in sight, Pius XII said the following about solidarity in an address to the Congress of the Italian Catholic Workers’ Association:

The time has come… to attempt to organize the forces of the people on a new basis; to raise them above the distinction between employers and would-be workers, and to realize that higher unity which is a bond between all those who co-operate in production, formed by their solidarity in the duty of working together for the common good and filling together the needs of the community. If this solidarity is extended to all branches of production, if it becomes the foundation for a better economic system, it will lead the working classes to obtain honestly their share of responsibility in the direction of the national economy. Thus, thanks to such harmonious co-ordination and co-operation, thanks to this closer unity of labour with the, other elements of economic life, the worker will receive, as a result of his activity, a secure remuneration, sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.2

Pius XII had in fact used the term from the beginning of his papacy: it appears in his first encyclical, issued in October 1939 just as WW2 was starting.3

But what does ‘solidarity’ actually mean?  To understand this it will be helpful to trace the route by which the term came into CST.  In this module so far, we have learned about some of the great Catholic scholars and writers who influenced the development of modern CST, such as John Courtney Murray (3.3.6), Jacques Maritain (4.3.1) and Joseph Cardijn (5.1.3).  A figure of comparable influence, even though he is less well known than those three, is Heinrich Pesch (1854-1926).  Bearing in mind the caution necessary about Wikipedia pages, have a look at its entry about Pesch, which at the time of writing in 2014 is surprisingly short; it needs extending.


Reading (2pp)

Wikipedia entry, ‘Heinrich Pesch


The start of this entry describes Pesch as a “Roman Catholic ethicist and economist in the solidarist school”.4. Indeed it was Pesch who, more than anyone, gave currency to this label ‘solidarism’, and who articulated the concept of solidarity in a way that then profoundly influenced CST.  Pesch was himself influenced greatly by Rerum Novarum, and his work on economics in the first 25 years of the twentieth century became a main source both for Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno and for Pius XII.

You might find the terms ‘solidarist’ and ‘solidarism’ completely unfamiliar, and indeed these words are barely used in English, at least at the moment. Pesch’s work is being rediscovered, and perhaps their use will grow.  Even ‘solidarity’ is not a very widely used term in discourse in the UK.  Pesch was German, and in Germany equivalents of these terms are more commonly used, as are French and Spanish equivalents in French-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries.  To understand what Pesch meant by solidarity and solidarism, it will be helpful to recall one earlier screen in this module.  In Unit 1, we studied the main principles in CST in quick succession: see 1.3.  There then followed a screen headed: ‘CST’s vision: neither “collectivist” nor “individualist”‘.  You might want to look at this again now.


Optional re-reading (4pp)

VPlater, Module B, 1.3.10: ‘CST’s vision: neither “collectivist” nor “individualist”’


The central point to understand for this unit is that ‘solidarism’ was Pesch’s label for a conception of economic life that was neither collectivist nor individualist and which corresponded with the distinctive position of Rerum Novarum.

Writing as an economist, Pesch engaged especially with, on one hand, economic liberalism and, on the other hand, Marxist socialism. Economic liberalism, and the capitalist system it sought to defend, was explicitly individualistic: it conceived of individuals as essentially in economic competition with others, and as exchanging goods and services in markets in order to be better off as individuals. Marxist socialism was explicitly collectivist in its analysis of society: it conceived of people as defined by their membership of one or other economic class – as bourgeois (middle class) or proletarian (working class).  These economic classes were in fundamental conflict with each other, and the problems caused by capitalism would be solved only by the victory of the working class.

Pesch rejected both these views, just as Rerum Novarum had done. He set out a comprehensive vision of economics, indeed of society as a whole, in a vast work that has been described as ‘the longest economic textbook’ (by its translator from German into English!). Whereas both economic liberalism and Marxism were premised on dividing people from each other – by competition and class – central in Pesch’s vision was the concept of solidarity: human wellbeing in fact depends on people being committed to acting for the goods they can create and enjoy in common, the multi-level common good.

Contrary to collectivist Marxism, people occupying different roles in industry in fact share common goods, including in the specific company of which they are part, and in society as a whole. Contrary to individualistic liberalism, people are not merely individuals in competition with all others, but are social beings who find human fulfilment in that same range of common goods.

One writer on Pesch puts it like this:

[T]here is a solidarity among all men because of, simply, their common humanity. There is also a more particular solidarity among people in the same nation and within the same occupation or industry or area of the economy. That means that there is or should be solidarity between employers and workers; both need each other to achieve successful economic results. This does not mean that there may not be competing interests on each side—so that, say, labor unions don’t have a purpose—but that these interests can be balanced and reconciled. Class conflict is not inevitable. Its stress on such solidarity distinguishes solidarism from both economic liberalism and Marxism.5

We are giving attention to Pesch in order to trace the way in which ‘solidarity’ came to be a main principle of CST.  Pesch was a Jesuit – a member of the Society of Jesus (like Pope Francis) – and he taught two younger German Jesuits, Oswald von Nell-Breuning (1890-1991) and Gustav Gundlach (1892-1963): “They were understudies of Pesch in full concordance with his work and ideas”.6. In turn, these two were closely involved in the writing of Quadragesimo Anno – Nell-Breuning was its main drafter.7. By this route, QA drew a great deal on Pesch’s solidarism, even though it did not use the word ‘solidarity’.

Pesch’s influence continued under the next pope:

Pius XII came to rely heavily on Grundlach in particular for information about the economic order and the relevance of Christian moral principles to it.  The influence of solidarist ideas is clear throughout that Pope’s pronouncements addressed to economic matters.8

All this lies in the background to John XXIII’s inclusion in MM of solidarity as one of the “basic economic and social principles” that he assumed his readers would “know well enough” (#16).  He said,

Finally, both workers and employers should regulate their mutual relations in accordance with the principle of human solidarity and Christian brotherhood. Unrestricted competition in the liberal sense, and the Marxist creed of class warfare, are clearly contrary to Christian teaching and the nature of man. (#23)

Since then, solidarity has come to have increasing prominence in CST.  As we shall see later in this unit, it is a prominent concept in Populorum Progressio (PP). In an encyclical marking the twentieth anniversary of PP in 1987, Pope John Paul II developed the concept by referring for the first time to solidarity as a ‘virtue’, that is, as a moral quality of persons that means they act out of solidarity as a deeply formed habit. In what is still the most widely quoted statement in CST about what solidarity is, John Paul said there that the virtue of 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. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #38)

As this implies, the concepts of the common good and solidarity are inherently connected.  The common good cannot come to exist except by people acting in the ways needed to generate it, and doing this is precisely what it means to practise solidarity.  These two concepts together convey the whole critique of both individualistic liberalism and socialist class conflict that has characterised CST ever since Rerum Novarum.  Neither of those ideologies has a place for what CST means by the common good, or therefore for solidarity.

More recently, in the Compendium published in 2004, solidarity is presented as one of just four “permanent principles of the Church’s social doctrine” (#160).  The others described in this way are human dignity, the common good, and subsidiarity. That reflects elevation in the status given to solidarity in CST.  (Note, however, that it could not make sense to say that these four are the only ‘principles’ of CST.  Back in Unit 1 we saw that the central meaning of the word ‘principle’, namely criterion or standard, means that it can be used of a fairly wide range of criteria of social action found in CST.  See 1.3.1.)

In Caritas in Veritate of 2009, Benedict XVI uses ‘solidarity’ 40 times, more than in any previous papal encyclical.  It is as though a moment had come of great need for the concept, namely the financial and economic crisis of 2008 onwards to which Benedict’s document was addressed.

The principle of solidarity is about commitment and action.  Unless people do act out of solidarity, ideologies premised on division and conflict will win out.



End of 5.2.2

Go to 5.2.3 The concept of social justice


Module B outline


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  1. The references to solidarity come later in the document than that reading.  Anticipating what will be needed when the horror of World War Two finally ends, he says: “[T]he moment will come, perhaps sooner than the people think, when both sides realize that, all things considered, there is only one way of getting out of the meshes in which war and hate have wrapped the world, namely a return to the solidarity, too long forgotten, a solidarity not restricted to these or those peoples, but universal, founded on the intimate connection of their destiny and rights which belong equally to both” (#75). 

  2. Pope Pius XII, Address to the Congress the Italian Catholic Workers’ Association, 11 Mar. 1945, italics added. This was published in The Tablet, 24 Mar. 1945, with the heading ‘On the future of trade unions’, and is accessible (27 Nov. 2014) at http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/24th-march-1945/5/ii-on-the-future-of-trade-unions

  3. This encyclical was Summi Pontificatus, also entitled On the Unity of Human Society.  Reflecting on the divisions that had led to war, the Pope said:

    In Our days… dissensions come not only from the surge of rebellious passion, but also from a deep spiritual crisis which has overthrown the sound principles of private and public morality…

    We would draw your attention… to two [errors] in particular, as being those which more than others render almost impossible or at least precarious and uncertain, the peaceful intercourse of peoples.

    The first of these pernicious errors, widespread today, is the forgetfulness of that law of human solidarity and charity which is dictated and imposed by our common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men, to whatever people they belong, and by the redeeming Sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ on the Altar of the Cross to His Heavenly Father on behalf of sinful mankind. (Summi Pontificatus, accessible [27 Nov. 2014], at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20101939_summi-pontificatus_en.html, ##34-35)

    Whatever ‘solidarity’ exactly means, this statement refers to the solidarity and charity which bind us all, both as human beings created by God and as sinners redeemed by Jesus Christ.

    Indeed some see solidarity as a main idea in this document.  One scholar says, “Spanish translators of the encyclical apparently considered solidarity to be central enough to Summi Pontificatus that they gave the Spanish edition the title of Solidaridad humana y estado totalitario” (Rupert J. Ederer, Pope Pius XII on the Economic Order, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011, p. 12). 

  4. The quotation is of the page accessed on 26 Nov. 2014, italics added. 

  5. Stephen M. Krason, ‘Rediscovering Heinrich Pesch and Solidarism’, Crisis Magazine, 1 Jan. 2014, at http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/rediscovering-heinrich-pesch-and-solidarism (accessed 26 Nov. 2014). 

  6. Ederer, Pius XII on the Economic Order, p. 11 

  7. Forty years later, Nell-Breuning wrote about the process of writing the encyclical, “probably the only [account] provided by an actual drafter of an encyclical” (Christine Firer Hinze, ‘Commentary on Quadragesimo Anno’, in Himes et al (eds), Modern Catholic Social Teaching, p. 154).  See Nell-Breuning, ‘The Drafting of Quadragesimo Anno’, in Catholicism in Crisis, 1 Feb. 1985, accessible (28 Nov. 2014) at http://www.crisismagazine.com/1985/documentation-the-drafting-of-quadragesimo-anno).  This is also in Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (eds), Readings in Catholic Moral Theology No. 5: Official Catholic Social Teaching, (New York: Paulist, 1986), pp. 60-68. 

  8. Ederer, Pius XII on the Economic Order, p. 11