Vox Clamanatis: Common Good & Solidarity – Patristics

Catholic Social Teaching is most often expressed contextually. There are foundational principles throughout, but those principles are expressed in different ways depending upon the contemporary situation. Leo XIII was occupied with early effects of the Industrial Revolution in Rerum novarum, and so talking about solidarity related necessarily to the rights of workers. For St. John Paul II, the concern was the fall of Marxism in Centessimus annus, and so solidarity was related to this major event. Both popes had their attention directed outward from the Church concerning social teaching. For the Church Fathers, the social concerns were very different. The principle of solidarity existed in their time, yet was expressed under different situations. For many of the Church Fathers, the primary social concerns were divisions within the Church, especially regarding heresies. Their attention needed to be inward. The “heresies” faced by Leo and John Paul were not of the dogmatic sort, yet still they applied the principle of solidarity to the modern, external heresy of denying dignity to the human person. Considering solidarity as a response to the heresies of the age elucidate this principle from the Patristic perspective.

The letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch are preoccupied with divisions in the Church, especially due to heresies. Most, if not all, of his letters address the need for unity of the Christian community under the bishop, and the need to beware of false teachers. “Avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils,” he writes in one letter.1 Divisions are not just harmful but evil, and not just evil but the beginning of evil. Division is one of the greatest threats to the Christian life. Clearly, then, union—i.e. solidarity and concern for the common good—is an essential part of the Christian life. To neglect union is to harm the Church in a fundamental way.

St. Clement of Alexandria also heavily emphasizes unity as an essential element of the Christian life, one which heresies and schisms destroy, thus endangering the good of all. He writes, “Let us who are many haste that we may be brought together into one love, according to the union of the essential unity; and let us, by being made good, conformably follow after union, seeking after the good Monad. . . . The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir- leader and teacher.”2 Clement sees union as an important aspect of the Christian life, and thus concern for the common good is essential to salvation. The “divine harmony” can only come about through the union of all people without division. This would consequently imply the need to have concern for others and to be in solidarity with their experiences, since the common goal of that harmony can only occur if everyone is able to contribute their own melody.

St. Basil writes in one of his letters, “Indeed it would be monstrous . . . not to consider that the greatest good consists in the knitting together of the members of Christ’s body”.3 What can most benefit any individual man is to be united along with all other men. Basil is thinking particularly of divisions caused by heresy and thus solidarity solely within the Church, not looking outward. But his concern can easily be extended. Since all men share in the common human nature, then all men are intrinsically members of the Church in potentia. Consequently, the greatest good consists in being in solidarity with all men as much as possible, ideally within the One Church. Basil also utilizes St. Paul’s image: “we have one Lord, one faith, the same hope. The hands need each other; the feet steady each other.”4 His emphasis with this image is not specifically that each part of the body has a different function, but rather that the parts of the body need each other in order to function. Thus, individuals and groups cannot remain oblivious to other members of the Body, whether actually or potentially. One member cannot truly flourish if the other members of its Body are languishing.

Basil also addresses the result of this solidarity and concern for the common good: “I, considering myself bound to follow the high authority . . . and with every desire on my own part to win the reward promised to peacemakers, did enroll in the lists of communicants all who accepted that creed”.5 Again, Basil is specifically speaking about receiving people into full communion with the Church, yet his perspective need not be directed solely inward. Basil speaks of peace coming from bringing individuals into the Church, but he could also speak about peace resulting from bringing men into communion with each other, which is fulfilled in the Church. The more men come into communion with each other, the greater peace there is. The stronger the solidarity among men, the more the common good is promoted.

St. Augustine takes up this theme as well. In City of God, he asks, “How could the city of God . . . either take a beginning or be developed, or attain its proper destiny, if the life of the saints were not a social life?”6 In talking about bringing about the City of God, Augustine specifies that the heavenly City occupied by the saints is an intrinsically social place, where citizens live in union with each. There is no room for individualism in the City of God. Later in the same book, he writes, “the peace of the body then consists in the duly proportioned arrangement of its parts”.7 As with Basil, Augustine uses the image of the body, and identifies peace as the end of a well-managed body. This quote also shows the need for concern for other members. Things must be “duly proportioned” or there will not be peace. The implication, then, is that if things are not duly proportioned, it is the duty of the other members of the body to ensure that this does occur, that peace may be brought about.

St. Augustine’s homilies on the First Epistle of St. John are also important sources regarding his conception of solidarity and the common good. He writes, “But wherein must we exercise ourselves? In brotherly love. Thou mayest say to me, I have not seen God: canst thou say to me, I have not seen man? Love thy brother. For if thou love thy brother whom thou seest, at the same time thou shalt see God also; because thou shalt see Charity itself, and within dwelleth God.”8 Augustine comments on how important love of neighbor is for the Christian life. It is not merely an ethical issue, that we ought to be kind to one another. Rather, loving our fellow man is how we come to love God. According to the principle of solidarity and the common good, charity perfects justice, allowing each individual to flourish. Augustine is clearly concerned with charity toward all individuals; the more we are able to be in solidarity with each other through charity, the more we come to know God, who is our Common Good.

Footnotes
(1) Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans(shorter version) VII
(2) Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen IX-X.
(3) Basil, Letter CLVI to the presbyter Evagrius
(4) Basil, Letter CCIII to the bishops of the sea coast, 3.
(5) Basil Letter CCIV to the Neocaesarcans 6.
(6) Augustine, City of God XIX, 5.
(7) Augustine, City of God XIX, 13.
(8) Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, V.7.