The Future of Solidarity

The future of solidarity in Catholic social teaching provides the basis for a human rights policy that grants priority to the claims of people whose human dignity is threatened by systemic and structural injustice. This development has been supported by the inclusion of Marxist analysis. In a world that is constantly assuming new organizational institutions, the rights and dignities of persons are still at risk. Consequently, solidarity in both Catholic and Marxist notions prioritize institutional protection and human rights. David Hollenbach, S.J. states, “Thus, since Vatican II, the documents have emphasized the importance of discriminating (or discerning) attention to the differences in the social institutions which affect the dignity of different groups and classes of persons. Specifically, such attention means granting special priority to meeting minimum human needs for food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities of human life. The economic patterns of contemporary society, especially in the international domain, have created an enormous inequality in levels of nutrition, health, housing and basic social services. Staggeringly large numbers of persons live well below the human minimum in these basic areas.”

In the early development of Catholic social thought (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno), claims to basic needs are not granted priority over political liberty. Yet, over the years, the Church has come to the conclusion that basic needs and liberty are both essential for a balanced and integrated understanding of human dignity. However, through the principle of solidarity, the Church now asserts that a greater priority is placed on human needs as the foundation for human rights. When conflicts arise between the claims of the poor and those of the rich, or between the claims of the economically powerful and the socially marginalized, solidarity grants priority to the claims of the poorest of the poor. In other terms, those in need have a “right” to a minimum standard over and above the rights of those whose basic needs have been met in abundance. Stressing this point, Pope Paul VI states, “He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?” It is well known to all how seriously the fathers of the Church described the obligation of the affluent to those in need: ‘You are not making a gift to the poor man from your possessions,’ says St. Ambrose, ‘but you are returning what is his’…No one is allowed to set aside solely for his own advantage possessions which exceed his needs when others lack the necessities of life.”

Consequently, in an affluent society, needs-based claims deserve priority status in a human rights policy. In a less than affluent society, the needs of the poor will demand even greater priority, especially as affluence increasingly diminishes, meaning the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. A community that embodies solidarity will then support policies based on these priorities.

Liberal theory holds that not all individuals are willing to have society guarantee economic rights and concludes that these rights cannot be identified outside claims to political liberty. Catholic and Marxist views, on the other hand, note that unrestricted liberty in a class stratified society leads to jeopardizing social and economic rights. To mitigate this, then, according to Marxist and Catholic thought, economic liberty must be restricted if social and economic claims are to be guaranteed. Thus, in both liberal and radical traditions, the effective recognition of rights depends on a choice regarding how political power will be used—in one case, for the protection of liberty, in the other, for the protection of economic and social participation. It is the principle of solidarity in Catholic and Marxist spheres that prioritizes competing claims and establishes concrete priorities for a human rights policy aimed at making public policy and administrative decisions. Hollenbach states, “Policy, therefore must seek to counteract marginalization in each of the areas of need, freedom and relationship. Specifically, the societal effort to implement and institutionalize rights should adopt the following three strategic moral priorities: 1.) The needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich. 2.) The freedom of the dominated takes priority over the liberty of the powerful. 3.) The participation of marginalized groups takes priority over the preservation of an order which excludes them.”

If this prioritization of rights is the case in Catholic social teaching—and there is ample evidence—it leaves little doubt that the Church’s social strategy has developed a socialist orientation within the Marxist tradition. This egalitarian system would allow for diversity, savagestateexcellence, and undue interference (negative rights) while maintaining protection and subsistence for the poor and marginalized (positive rights). In contrast, the liberal welfare state, and, suffice it to say, the libertarian system, fail to prioritize in any definitive way the needs of the poor and their claims on self-determination. Furthermore, this construct can easily be implemented from a public policy perspective through constitutional guarantees, such as FDR’s economic bill of rights from the New Deal era and Truman’s 21-point program from the Fair Deal era. It can also be publicly administered through contractual networks with non-governmental organizations, within a “hollow state” structure suggested by H. Brinton Milward. Thus avoiding huge bureaucratic costs and expenditures.

The future of solidarity in Catholic social teaching offers a discourse with the public at large by promoting an egalitarian strategy that will secure and maintain both positive and negative freedoms. This agenda is twofold. First, Every person is to possess an equal share of basic freedoms and opportunities (including equal work, self-determination, political and economic participation) unrestricted to all persons. Second, after planning for basic social needs (including capital overhead, entitlements for individuals, etc.), income and wealth is to be divided so that each person will have a right to an equal share, subject to limitations through abilities and differing circumstances. We have termed this policy strategy “minimum equal freedom,” a construct derived from Kai Nielsen’s “justice as equality” model. Solidarity, if it is to secure a more precise definition of social justice, must incorporate “minimum equal freedom.” This model seeks to secure negative rights (i.e., freedom from undue interference of others in order to secure basic human needs). Minimum equal freedom within solidarity also seeks to secure positive rights which would allow for self-determination in pursuing basic needs. Within this model both positive and negative rights, centered on the principle of solidarity, then include: a.) equal participation in social and economic decision-making processes; b.) equal access to the means of self-realization and contribution to economic production; c.) equal opportunity to attain social offices and positions; and, d.) equal opportunity to acquire basic needs such as wealth leisure time, medical benefits, etc.

This model (solidarity and minimum equal freedom) places human needs first. Wealth, luxuries, and nonessentials would be a secondary consideration, but nevertheless, something that could be attained once basic needs are fulfilled. Radical theorists, such as R. G. Peffer, David Schweikert, and Armatya Sen, have constructed similar “solidarity” models compatible with Catholic social justice. The opposite perspective would be argued by neoconservative Catholics, such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus, all of whom believe that the exercise of “virtue” and “freedom” brings about wealth, prosperity, and a just society in laissez-faire fashion. In short, neoconservatives believe that liberal capitalism provides the best and most efficient model for the distribution of basic needs and superfluous wealth. For such neoconservatives, gross domestic product (GDP) is the major criteria for assessing the “morality” and “virtue” of an economy. On the other hand, while not ruling out the importance of economic growth, total GDP as a preeminent standard for assessing the effectiveness of an economy would be rejected by the principles of solidarity since it does not guarantee basic needs and the participation of others in social and economic affairs.

Essentially, the goal of solidarity is to reorder social and economic strategies at domestic and international levels. What has nevertheless taken place with our inclusion of “minimum equal freedom” into the principle of solidarity is that Catholic social teaching now has a specific direction and framework in which it can prioritize the needs of the poor and marginalized. It can also be used as a model for public policy. The future of solidarity thus coincides with, and owes, its development to global socialist remedies that can be noted in Michael Harrington, who states, “The new socialism will have to provide, not simply practical and immediate solutions to this common crisis of North and South, but solutions that at least move in the direction of changing the way in which economic resources are allocated internationally. That is, socialism itself will have to become international as never before. Promoting the economic development of poor countries will not be enough, though it is a critical precondition for everything else. The socialist point is to do that in such a way as to liberate human beings as well as resources in the South and to increase the equality and solidarity of the world as a whole.”

A socialist economy and polity based on solidarity is, notwithstanding, to be preferred to liberal capitalism. The liberal paradigm is caught in a serious contradiction as Theodore Lowi puts it, because, “Stress on civil liberties is always likely to work to the benefit of those who already have the wealth and power to defend their liberties as well as their luxuries. The contradiction between civil liberties and economic privilege is a true contradiction, not merely one in the mind of the analyst. Moreover, a socialist solution does indeed provide a way out of liberal contradictions.” On the other hand, Lowi argues that socialism brings on its own set of contradictions. He states, “Yet [socialism] does so by encouraging contradictions of another kind. A socialist government may never be able to solve for itself the problem of restoring civil liberties once they have been suspended … If socialist governments attempt to maintain a semblance of civil liberties through participation, they risk undermining the organizational capacity and professional ability to plan for the rationality and equality they seek.” Lowi goes on to argue that modern experience shows that there is little evidence that socialist experiments have upheld civil liberties in an humane fashion. The choice between liberalism and socialism therefore becomes, for Lowi, a question of choosing between greater goods and lesser evils, or “to choose among alternative contradictions.”

But does socialism, as understood within the context of solidarity, necessitate the suspension of civil liberties? As alluded to earlier, Marx and his interpreters would argue otherwise. R. G. Peffer states, “Marx is a democrat and, in many ways, a liberal. As a radical journalist writing for opposition newspapers in Germany, he defended the freedom of the press and freedom of thought and, as we have seen, demanded that the state be subject to the will of the people rather than the reverse … consequently, he defends universal suffrage and participation of all in political processes.” Marx himself states, “In an ethical state, the view of the state is subordinated to its members, even if they oppose an organ of the state or the government.” In socialism and authentic Marxist thought, civil liberties and democratic rights are not mutually exclusive notions, as Lowi misinterprets. Lowi’s observations deal more specifically with totalitarian strategies and not with humanistic and democratic forms of socialism, which Marx supported. Consequently, placing priorities on solidarity policies within the framework of a constitution and bill of rights is feasible in both socialist and capitalist venues.

Introducing solidarity into political life as a new social ethic may also present problems. Because of its religious dimension, the implementation of solidarity may find resistance from secularists. And, this resistance is in no way limited to secularists. Conversely, people and institutions espousing religious convictions with regard to solidarity may also be resistant to this theory. This includes the Catholic Church as an institution, which has been resistant to unionization of their schools and hospitals. Andzrej Korbonski, addressing pluralist developments in Poland (the seat of solidarity), notes that, “Even the Roman Catholic church, which supposedly preached tolerance and respect for individual rights, has become a tower of intolerance insisting on protecting its own interests at the expense of others, and contributing to the continued polarization and fragmentation of Polish society.” As a result, while the Church actively promotes the rhetoric of solidarity and the principles of democracy, the internal dynamic within the Church remains authoritarian along with the entire Vatican state.

But whatever the reason(s) may be for a lack of progress toward solidarity (civil society), one main reason stands out: the continuing hegemony of private over public virtues. Generally, public virtue deals with tolerance, compromise, respect for others, and a willingness to participate in community. In contrast, private virtues include (but are not restricted to) a lack of tolerance of others, unwillingness to compromise, dislike for other or “different” people, a contempt for other peoples’ ideas and lifestyles, and the legitimization of any conceivable form of bigotry or prejudice. However, it remains to be seen whether agents within the solidarity paradigm can overcome, through public virtue, the potential divisions at the level of private virtue.

What has developed in Catholic social teaching as a result of its leftist trend by way of solidarity is a deeper and clearer rationale for the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” This option must also extend into international financial systems. Pope John Paul II states, “Concern for the poor … must be translated at all levels into concrete actions, until it attains a series of necessary reforms … the reform of the world monetary financial system.” This order grants priority to claims of human needs over the claims of unlimited wants. It supports human rights and a sustainable environment while fostering the interdependence of all people. Solidarity seeks to limit unrestrained freedom and power while simultaneously empowering those who lack freedom to attain basic needs. In this sense, solidarity is the key to the present and future formation of human rights and serves as an indispensable element in the Church’s struggle for justice in the world. The future of solidarity in Catholic social teaching, combined with a more precise policy for the distribution of freedoms (minimum equal freedom), can be an effective model by which the state can foster deeper relationships amongst its people.

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality..

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at



Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.. Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at