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Solidarity as Relationality and Focus on the Vulnerable

By: Michael Reder

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter as an Engine of Solidarity

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a lot of talk about solidarity. Politicians have called for solidarity as the way to contain the virus and its dangerous consequences. Acknowledging that the state alone could not defeat the virus and that the behavior of all citizens was necessary to protect the elderly and others at risk, they often invoked solidarity as a means to an end.

This understanding of solidarity is unnecessarily narrow. The tradition of Catholic social teaching and the statements of Pope Francis, particularly his encyclicals Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, broaden our perspective beyond the instrumental uses of solidarity to its core–a concern with the dignity of all, particularly the most vulnerable. We are called to approach all our fellow human beings as brothers and sisters, the idea at the heart of the idea of Francis’ idea of the culture of encounter.

A distinction between social and political solidarity is important at the outset. Social solidarity begins with the fact that the image of the isolated, rational citizen that underlies many democratic societies is misleading. Rather, people are always already integrated into a dynamic network of social interactions. For solidarity means nothing else than recognizing that people live in relations from which normative claims arise. All religions emphasize such an understanding of relationality and connectedness as a basic mode of human reality. This idea is found not only in Christianity, but also in Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. It also plays a central role for Francis. His understanding of society assumes that we humans are interconnected.

However, many political as well as religious debates also show a problem with social solidarity. For in some cases social solidarity is interpreted as a closed formation grounded in an essentialist concept of culture. Exactly at this point, however, relationality fades away or is even denied. The potential of the Christian tradition to think about solidarity, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is to avoid exactly such reductionisms. The pope emphasizes that people relate to each other even beyond cultural communities and should therefore act together with them from the perspective of solidarity. This openness of solidarity manifests itself in different directions.

First, solidarity beyond the borders of one’s own community or nation means that (Christian) solidarity always means global solidarity. The context is often the negative consequences of actions caused by decisions in the countries of the Global North that affect people in completely different regions, sometimes massively, but often remain unnoticed politically. Moreover, many particularly vulnerable people are not heard at all or included in political processes. However, solidarity can only be thought of as transnational solidarity. In this context, the potential of Christian social ethics, which always addresses solidarity beyond borders, becomes apparent in the writing and witness of Pope Francis. In line with a culture of encounter, the vulnerable are to be heard and respected, not simply acted upon.

Second, social solidarity means not falling into presentist thinking, which is inherent in many political discussions today. For the relational structure on which the demand for solidarity is based can only be meaningfully conceived as diachronic. At every moment the human community changes through existential processes: birth and death. Social relationality is therefore always related to the past and the future. The call for solidarity with the future is echoed in many of Pope Francis’ formulations. Responsibility for creation in this context means also thinking about the lives of future generations.

Third, relationality implies a fundamental critique of a purely anthropocentric approach. For relationality always means being in connection with other living beings–up to and including entire ecosystems. What constitutes human experience and action is not only other human beings but precisely also ecological frameworks or with animals and other living beings. In this respect it is also necessary to rethink creation theology. From the point of view of a relational solidarity, the relationship between man and nature is not to be thought only from the point of view of man. We are seeing the emergence of theology that interprets creation as a comprehensive relational context.

Political solidarity builds on social solidarity but clearly goes beyond it. It pays attention to the current social crises and seeks transformative solutions. Political solidarity is about how societies might respond to the “signs of the times,” how, for example, an engagement for the poor, the precarious, the excluded–in short, the particularly vulnerable people and groups–can be strengthened. In this respect, political solidarity is critical of existing conditions and wants to transform the society in a better version.

Such an understanding of political solidarity obviously has roots in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, including its critique of current economic or political structures. The goal, again, is to focus on those who are particularly vulnerable within these structures or are not heard at all. Solidarity is thus more than help or assistance but aims for a fundamental change of economic structures in the perspective of the vulnerable. Political solidarity understood in this way concerns, on the one hand, the attitude of solidarity of every believer. And on the other hand, it is the basis of a comprehensive critique of social and economic conditions.

From this perspective, property is interpreted as embedded in relational relations that give rise to it, promote it, or also limit it. Solidarity as relationality related to the future then necessarily brings in the needs of those who will live in the future. If current property relations do not recognize that carbon emissions threaten the (world) community, they are incompatible with the imperatives of political solidarity. For future generations also have property rights to the atmosphere and a right to a good life without massively damaging climate impacts that fundamentally limit their survival and quality of life.

There is a danger that discourse about solidarity remains at an abstract level, removed from specific contexts such as the challenge of climate change. This happens when the concrete experiences of vulnerability are lost from view and the mere principle of solidarity is articulated. Vulnerability, however, is a dimension of human experience that manifests itself in concrete forms of injury in the face of political, economic, or cultural crises. Catholic social teaching should always acknowledge these vulnerabilities and not force reality into an abstract theoretical framework. Solidarity should always be thought of and with the most vulnerable and excluded in our midst. Deepening the conversation about solidarity to make it both practical and multidirectional might be one important contribution of a culture of encounter.