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Can solidarity actually work in the modern world?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 12, 2015

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict defined “solidarity” as “first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone” (#38). In other words, a person who practices the virtue of solidarity (a) Always shapes self-interested actions so as to eliminate or effectively minimize any harm to others; (b) Often chooses to shape self-interested actions so that they actually help others as well; and (c) Sometimes performs actions for the good of others that do not serve personal self-interest at all.

Thus everyone who practices solidarity is constantly aware of the responsibility he or she shares for all the members of the community. And if this awareness is widespread within a particular society, that society is said to be characterized by solidarity. It is shaped by “a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone.”

Solidarity is to be exercised in every sphere of human action, from prayer to politics. A good example in Caritas in Veritate is found in Pope Benedict’s description of solidarity in the realm of business:

[B]usiness management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference. [#40]

We can see from these introductory remarks that it is always possible to practice greater solidarity than we habitually do. But I think we also see immediately how hard it is to get a handle on authentic solidarity in the modern world.

Large Scale Societies

Obviously, solidarity is easiest when we know the other members of our community, including their families, their means of livelihood, their social roles, their needs, their unique problems, and their capacity for service. In small communities which share a common culture and common values, where people are members of a single church, and where business, education and recreation are all carried on locally, the groundwork for effective solidarity is already laid. But in large-scale modern societies, most of that is lost.

Modern societies tend to function on a mass scale. We have more neighbors than we can possibly know. We live lives divided between two fairly distant locations, work and home (or school and home), so it is not clear what our real community is. We emphasize in our affairs a kind of corrosive individualism which tends to break down traditional forms of association. We seek our entertainment electronically, which reduces our interaction with and knowledge of other members of our community, even if we do compensate somewhat through social media. Indeed, communities are increasingly virtual, which creates a whole set of fresh problems for genuine solidarity (much as may try to surmount them).

The lack of a hierarchical culture has caused the disappearance of significant intermediary institutions through which we might pursue a truly communitarian approach to the challenges we face. There is no longer unity around the Faith. In fact, values among members of the same geographical community vary so widely that many people avoid community-inclusive friendships for that reason alone. Businesses, government, the military, and even retirement practices are organized in ways that promote constant mobility. Most people do not stay in one place very long.

All of these factors have contributed to a very “thin” overall culture which can provide basic essential and recreational services, but which does not encourage the forging of strong ties. Even though, in the Christian universe, every person is our neighbor, a great many of us do not have neighbors in the traditional sense at all. There are countless homes in our neighborhoods to be sure, but we are lucky if we even know how often any of their inhabitants are at home. In any case, we simply do not have a great deal in common with most of those who happen to live nearby.

In other words, any sense of being rooted in a concrete, familiar and manageable community is seriously attenuated in the modern world.

Solidarity as an Abstraction

The unfortunate result of all this is that real flesh-and-blood solidarity is relatively difficult to achieve. Increasingly we deal with people as statistical categories, without really knowing which persons or families fit within each class. We find it easier to consider what we ought to do about the categories than to get involved with the actual persons. Interpersonal motivation drops off the scale. We do not take responsibility for young Betty, who is unemployed, or for old Robert, who is restricted by arthritis, or for the large family of the local plumber who is injured and cannot work. Instead, we engage in arguments about the best way to handle the “classes” to which such persons belong.

Thus does solidarity becomes largely political, and therefore largely rhetorical. This strips our sense of responsibility of both its specificity and its distinctive personality. We do not counsel and support Josh and Julie until they are back on their feet. We do not start new businesses to utilize the unemployed people we have gotten to know in our towns and neighborhoods. Often we do not even consider the consequences of our decisions for others, since we so often make those decisions in a community vacuum. We very seldom concern ourselves with any of these things. No, we simply pay taxes, and then call it even.

I think it is obvious that evangelization must play a great role in recreating community, and that acting through our churches remains the best way to develop a meaningful solidarity with others on a manageable human scale. Churches are very nearly the last non-governmental presence that we still find everywhere. But even here the sheer variety of churches boggles the mind, as does the steadily decreasing ecclesiastical affiliation of our contemporaries. Moreover, all the other trends I mentioned—trends which contribute to the breakdown of genuine community and therefore of solidarity—are still operative.

Clearly a kind of selective solidarity is still possible, especially if we redefine solidarity as “charity”. There are all kinds of groups through which we can do at least some good. But charity is only one result of solidarity; it is not at all the complete concept; and even charity is very frequently abstract in our larger culture today. Again, we do not often involve ourselves directly in the lives of those in need. But we do donate to specific organizations working to solve specific problems—and that is a great good—even if we rarely see the unique human faces suffering with the problems, or appreciate their special personal genius.

It seems to me that contemporary conditions make the rich concept of solidarity fairly difficult to grasp, and substantially harder to implement. I am very open to a wide and creative discussion of this problem on How do we promote a culture in which we more easily come to know, value and take responsibility for each other?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wakescheid - May. 26, 2015 9:10 AM ET USA

    A very simple way to build solidarity is by works of mercy. The problem is that we do not always know what works our neighbors might need. I suggest allowing your neighbor to show the first mercy. Humble yourself and ask for help. Ask your neighbor if she might spare a cup of sugar or lend you a rake or say a prayer for you. According to Fr. Michael Gaitley, allowing another person to perform an act of mercy is an act of mercy itself! And though very small, it's a great place to start.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - May. 16, 2015 11:56 AM ET USA

    That is a real problem dr. Mirus, and I wouldn't know where to start. This situation is there in great part because of technology, and there's not much that we can do about it. A form to counter it could be with distributive principles. You may be (correctly) skeptical of political programs, but the problem is, as I see it, structural and there is no other way to counter it.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 13, 2015 12:57 PM ET USA

    Leopardi raises an interesting point. When I mention the benefits of a hierarchically-ordered society, however, my point is not that benefits should be conferred through several administrative layers, but that hierarchical ordering creates smaller, more human-sized collaborative groups, which in turn makes solidarity possible. This is so both because of the nature of engaged, intermediary institutions and because (to use an example) solidarity is far easier to develop in a parish than in a diocese, or in a city ward than a huge city, or in a guild than in the aggregate of all workers. The flattening of mass societies, where the main realities are the individual on the one hand and the State on the other, all but destroys natural human grouping, rendering solidarity far more difficult.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - May. 13, 2015 9:43 AM ET USA

    Thank you Dr. Mirus. This is a problem I wrestle with very often on a personal level. Even within the communities of work or church it is often difficult to find genuinely like-minded people. I was just discussing solidarity with my RCIA group, and will bring your article to their attention for feedback.

  • Posted by: Leopardi - May. 13, 2015 8:36 AM ET USA

    Solidarity is best when administered "one on one". It is ,in fact, more meaningful to embrace another's need directly rather than through a "hierarchy". Put another way: it's better to give of one's self (to the needy) than 'write a check' to an intermediary. The former is 'caritas' the latter is 'a donation'. So, Jeff, I take issue with some of your comments about a hierarchy. Having said that, it's true that any organization or cultural enterprise that helps show the way to the needy is a help

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 12, 2015 10:11 PM ET USA

    I noticed that our family tended to isolate ourselves unintentionally as we prospered. We started out in a row home in Philly, moved into a 20 twin home, and then moved to the suburbs and had 50 feet of yard space on all four sides of our home. We never tried to disengage ourselves from our neighbors, we just wanted more room for flowers, for a pool, some place to relax in the sun etc. The church also contributed to this isolation. Multiple masses effectively break the parish up. Our pastor is big on reverence and frowns on any socialization with fellow parishioners in church, so this again minimizes the opportunity for solidarity within our own parish.