Vox Clamantis: Solidarity and the Common Good – Magisterium

Like many elements of Catholic Social Thought, “solidarity” is a new word for an old concept. St. John Paul II noted in Centesimus Annus1 the differing ways of describing the concept of solidarity in the recent magisterium: Leo XIII used “friendship,” Pius XI termed it “social charity,” and Paul VI often talked about a “civilization of love.” Solidarity has several elements, but “is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone.”2 This responsibility is manifest among individuals, within a society, and among the nations: as Leo XIII notes,3 differences in society indicate different ways a person – or people – can be responsible. An American middle-class “consumer,” a marketing consultant for a large regional company, and the owner of a textile factory in Mexico are all called to help improve the material condition of the poor, i.e., be in solidarity with their neighbor, and each can work toward this in different ways. With respect to material goods, every person is responsible to reduce the radical disparity between the wealthy and poor.4 In addition to obligating people to act toward a material end, solidarity entails non-economic responsibilities. To view the Magisterium’s teaching rightly, one must recognize the tangible efforts of solidarity (i.e., economic, material) are ordered toward the common good of society and the final telos of man. As we have mentioned, John Paul II frequently wrote about the strengths and limits of the free market: the market is effective at “utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs”5 that can be marketed and priced. However, before man enters this market, “there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity.”6

Determining what is due to man as man cannot be determined solely by material or economic paradigms. Although valuable and powerful, turning to them alone produces insufficient answers about man and society. Addressing this dilemma, Benedict XVI recalls the observation of Paul VI, “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking.”7 Paul VI and Benedict XVI strengthen and update Leo XIII’s claim in Rerum Novarum that the Church has something of genuine worth to contribute to the world in her social teaching.8 The Church widens the perspective of economy, finance, and politics through metaphysics and theology; these are “needed if man’s transcendent dignity is to be properly understood.”9 Solidarity, shaped by these transcendental perspectives, Benedict notes, opposes marginalization. The magisterium has constantly warned of the tendency toward marginalization and its causes; chief among them are greed, selfishness, unbridled consumption of goods, a strictly secular perspective of the nature of man, and equating technological progress with authentic human development. John Paul II framed this problem by noting the tension between the poles of the State and the market: per se, neither is able to prevent “society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass.”10 Solidarity is formed when man is able to fulfill his needs in “intermediate communities.”11 These communities allow man to form intimate relationships and contribute to the good of society by making it “more ‘personalized’”12: in these communities, man receives and gives.

Every relationship (e.g., among friends, a family, neighbors, societies, companies, nations) must be animated by charity.13 Reason connects people and shows us to be neighbors who live side by side; caritas incarnated in solidarity establishes fraternity.14 Gratuitousness is needed in every relationship of man without exception, especially in economics.15 With respect to solidarity between wealthy and poor nations, gratuitousness means more than an exchange of material goods. For example, the strength of developed nations lies in the “the oft-forgotten virtues which made it possible for them to flourish throughout their history,”16 not in their technological abilities, however impressive they may appear.

The “common good” may be misunderstood, particularly being confused with the “greater good.” The common good is rooted in charity and justice and is the good of everyone: “individuals, families, and intermediate groups”;17 the greater good is derived by a mathematical formula and may sacrifice the good of one or more parts of the society for the sake of the whole. Benedict XVI notes the common good is not an end in itself but is an end pursued “for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it.”18 The common good is not an independent reality existing apart from individuals or intermediate groups; it is the good of them all. As previously noted, when a person partakes in these groups, he – and the group – contribute to the common good.19 The State has a role in exercising charity toward the “neighbor”: pursuing justice, protecting the civic, cultural, and political life of the country. The charity of the State in this regard “no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly.”20 These “institutional” actions must be directed toward the common good and apply more than “commercial logic.”21 The aid of these institutions, especially toward poorer nations, should aim to meet the material needs of the people and generate true economic growth.22

It is clear based upon what we have discussed that the principles of solidarity and the common good have a rich history in the magisterial tradition of the Church. These principles will undoubtedly continue to evolve and respond to every time and age as the Catholic social thought seeks to speak to the realities of every age.

(1) Centesimus Annus, 10.3.
(2) Caritas in Veritate, 38; cf. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38: loc. cit., 565-566.
(3) Rerum Novarum, 34.
(4) Mater et Magistra, 155.
(5) Centismus Annus, 34.
(6) Ibid., emphasis in original.
(7) Caritas in Veritate, 53.2.
(8) cf. Rerum Novarum, 16, 21-22, 24, 26, 28-31.
(9) Caritas in Veritate, 53.2.
(10) Centismus Annus, 49.3.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Caritas in Veritate, 2.1.
(14) Ibid., 19.1.
(15) Ibid., 38.1
(16) Ibid.,59.
(17) Ibid., 7.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Centismus Annus, 13.2
(20) Caritas in Veritate, 7.
(21) Ibid., 36.1.
(22) Ibid., 27.