The season of solidarity

No matter how tenuous your connection to any particular tradition, this inevitably is a season of introspection and reflection.

This year ends as a particularly anxious one, fraught with reminders of how fragile our material lives really are. Those who claim to discern lessons in wrenching adversity tend to be those fortunate enough to have misfortune pass them by. As the old Irish saying goes, “It’s easy to sleep on another man’s wound.”

That said -- and particularly with the 26,000 journalistic colleagues who this year have lost their jobs fresh in this writer’s mind -- it still seems possible to express one hope growing out of the grotesqueries of the current situation. Perhaps some significant number of us may emerge from this with a renewed appreciation for qualities -- oh, let’s go all the way and call them virtues -- that had recently come to seem quaint and even superfluous.

First among these is the old notion of solidarity. It’s a word that nowadays means many things to many people, but this writer holds fast to the definition he learned as a Catholic schoolboy poring over Pope Leo XIII’s great encyclical, “Rerum Novarum.” Essentially, that concept of solidarity is that every just society is bound by ties of reciprocal obligation. Employers owe their workers a just wage and security in their employment; employees owe their employers an honest day’s labor and their families the benefit of their wage. Each member of the social order owes to every other an equal commitment to the common good.


Somehow, in this current moment, Leo’s summation of the world of work seems particularly resonant: “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the working man accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”

Those are words that thrilled me with their truth the first time that I read them -- and do still. There is, however, a wider notion of solidarity that is particularly relevant to the American situation.

One of the things that so horrifies us about the Bernard Madoff scandal is the way this wretched con man preyed on the most idealistic impulses of his own community. Jewish philanthropy, with its web of educational, social welfare and other institutions dedicated to universal tolerance and human rights for all, like the Anti-Defamation League, is one of the great strengths of our society.

The same could be said of the Catholic Church’s vast network of social welfare organizations, hospitals and inner-city schools. The mainline Protestant denominations support organs of social outreach open to all and too numerous to name.

Though he’s suddenly a controversial figure because of his unfortunate opposition to marriage equality, the new generation of evangelical pastors like Orange County’s Rick Warren are setting new standards of concern for environmental stewardship and aid to the Third World.

We are, in other words, a nation that expresses its social solidarity through multiple idealisms, and when the Madoffs of the world betray one community’s idealism, they affront us all. Solidarity -- and the way each of our communities chooses to express it -- is a quality that will count for more than we now can reckon in the months ahead.

As the late Pope John Paul II wrote in his “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis” (On Social Concern), 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, because we are all really responsible for all.”

If we can rediscover that feeling in ourselves and about one another, this dreadful passage will not have been made in vain.