6.3.7 Three ways in which John Paul II develops CST on solidarity

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Unit 6 Contents



(i)  Solidarity as a response to interdependence

Within an encyclical which presents a fairly negative assessment of progress towards development (cf. 6.3.2), it is striking that Pope John Paul II speaks positively about “the growing awareness of interdependence among individuals and nations” (italics added).

The fact that men and women in various parts of the world feel personally affected by the injustices and violations of human rights committed in distant countries, countries which perhaps they will never visit, is a further sign of a reality transformed into awareness… It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements. (#38)

Several unmistakable trends of the decades since the 1980s can illustrate this point, including the communications revolution, globalized trade, and hugely increased migration.  While John Paul welcomes growing recognition of interdependence he does not see it as morally self-sustaining.  Rather, “[i]nterdependence must be transformed into solidarity, based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all” (#39, italics added).

(ii)  Solidarity as a virtue

John Paul says specifically, “[w]hen interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue’, is solidarity” (#38).



Do you recall from earlier reading what the term ‘virtue’ means?  In other words, what is a virtue?

If you are not sure, look again at the brief outline of this in Unit 1: 1.3.11 (second half of page).


We noted in Unit 1 that John Paul describes solidarity as a virtue, but what is significant here is that SRS is the first place in CST – and perhaps anywhere – that this concept is referred to in this way.1 In earlier statements, it had been described as a principle and a duty, but SRS is clear: “Solidarity is undoubtedly a Christian virtue” (#40).

It is rather surprising that as recently as 1987 Pope John Paul adds so decisively to the virtues that Catholic teaching enumerates.  He is presenting solidarity as an enduring quality of character that people need to acquire; the Catechism describes human virtues as “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct” (#1804).

It is in the context of these two points, about interdependence and solidarity as a virtue, that John Paul’s (often quoted) definition of solidarity makes sense:

[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. (#38)

Hence solidarity is the moral quality that people who recognise their interdependence need if this interdependence is to be made to work for the common good.  The fact of interdependence implies that the practice of solidarity must be mutual: we each act for the good of the other and thereby the common good.

This is not a top-down approach, in which only some practise solidarity with others who need it, but is more or less the opposite: we each recognise that we need what the other can give us.  This gives a powerful reason for recognising mutual accountability: each person should be able to answer for whether and how he/she acts to make interdependence work for the common good.

In summary, only if people are characterized by this virtue, and thereby manifest in their lives a “firm and persevering” commitment to the common good, will it be possible to overcome the structures of sin that prevent both peace and development.  As Pope John Paul says, apparently referring back to his analysis that both the East-West conflict and the North-South divide manifest such structures, “the solidarity that we propose is the path to peace and at the same time to development” (#39).

(iii) Solidarity as a basis for confronting people responsible for injustice

When we looked at critical assessments of Populorum Progressio at the end of Unit 5 (5.4.1), we noted two contrasting views of how to bring about social change, a confrontation model and a consensus model.  We saw that Donal Dorr is one commentator on CST who has been critical of it for not recognising that, in order to confront and overcome injustice, conflict of some kind can be necessary. The argument for this approach is that the powerful and the rich won’t give up their privileges easily, so an adversarial stance against them is necessary even if it should not be on class-lines or use violence.  It is a strong argument.

Yet Dorr has also made a case that the way that Pope John Paul II employed the concept of solidarity gives a response to it.  Dorr argues this especially with reference to Laborem Exercens, but what he says applies also in relation to what we have just read in SRS.

For John Paul solidarity gives a basis for a profound alternative to class struggle, Dorr suggests.  The solidarity he called for “must never mean being closed to dialogue and collaboration with others” (LE, #8).  In SRS he welcomes growth in

the solidarity of the poor among themselves, their efforts to support one another, and their public demonstrations… which, without recourse to violence, present their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of the public authorities (#39).

He adds that the Church “feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests, and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of… the context of the common good (#39).

In this perspective, even when solidarity requires taking an adversarial stand against those sustaining structures of sin, it rests on recognition of the unity of society and that the good of all persons is found in the common good.

A bit more background about this can explain it further.  I mentioned on the last screen that before Karol Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II he had done philosophical work that included study of solidarity.  In this he wrote:

The attitude of solidarity… does not exclude… opposition. Opposition is not a fundamental contradiction of solidarity.  One who expresses opposition does not remove himself from participation in the community, does not withdraw his readiness to act for the common good…

Opposition is also an expression of the vital need for participation… in the community of action.  Such opposition has to be viewed as constructive…

We are concerned with such a structure of community that permits the emergence of opposition based on solidarity.  Moreover, the structure… must make it possible for the opposition to function for the good of the community.2

Dorr comments on what the future Pope says:

In the light of this account of the meaning of solidarity, one can now see how ideal a word it is for the pope’s purposes…  The word ‘solidarity’ is action-oriented.  But it does not have the negative connotations of the word ‘struggle’.  Instead of evoking an image of divisiveness, it suggests that the primary thrust of the workers’ activity is towards unity and community.3

In summary, structures of sin mean that acting in solidarity to overcome them is necessary, and in practice this might mean opposition, protest and conflict. But such collective action is not based on a class analysis or class struggle.  Rather it is always for the person and for the common good.

We see here a third respect in which John Paul II develops CST about solidarity (in this case in LE and SRS taken together).



The last screen began by saying this: “One thing is needed if ‘structures of sin’ are going to be overcome: the practice of solidarity.  This is the main point, indeed the single theme, of the rest of SRS chapter V”.

How do you now assess this statement?  Is it a fair representation of the text?



End of 6.3.7

Go to 6.3.8 SRS chap VI and VII on the preferential option for the poor

Module B outline

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  1. If you come across solidarity being called a virtue before 1987, you are welcome to let me know about it. 

  2. Karol Wojtyła, An Anthology edited by Alfred Bloch and Ceorge T. Czuczka (New York: Crossroad, 1981), pp. 48-49, italics original, quoted in Dorr, Option for the Poor (ref. in 6.1.1 n. 1), pp 304-5 

  3. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 305