The notion of Six Degrees of Separation suggests that each of us is separated from everybody else on the planet by only six degrees of separation, or even less. In 2016, Facebook researchers found that everybody in the 1.59 billion person world of Facebook was separated from everybody else by only about 3.6 degrees of separation. The notion of degrees of separation inches us toward a reality expressed in the Catholic social teaching principle of solidarity: We are closely connected, even related, to everyone else. This is part of solidarity. Here are five points about solidarity that can help us better understand how the teaching affects our life.
#1. Heart of Solidarity
First, at the heart of solidarity is the reality that, as an individual person, I always find my fulfillment as part of a community. Solidarity suggests that I have something in common with Chris Pratt, Joe Biden, and Shaquille O’Neill; in fact, I have something in common with every human person, and that shared bond makes me necessarily invested in their well-being. “If one member of Christ’s body suffers, all suffer. If one member is honored, all rejoice” (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).
Solidarity could also be described as a kind of friendship between persons. Solidarity’s source is in our shared nature and common origin. We are all rational, we share a bond in personhood and equality in dignity and rights that makes us like brothers or sisters. This is why Pope Benedict XVI described in Caritas in Veritate that, “solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone.” Solidarity is fundamentally about how we find fulfillment in relationship with others.
Christ’s act of redemption also speaks to the solidarity of persons; we are all united by the possibility of redemption through the cross. The law of solidarity is “sealed,” Pope Pius XII said in Summi Pontificates, “by the sacrifice of redemption offered by Jesus on the altar of the cross.”
#2. Solidarity in Action
A second important insight about solidarity is that it requires intentional choice.
Solidarity reflects a reality, a given— that we are necessarily connected to all other people by our human nature, intrinsic dignity, and Christ’s redemption. But for solidarity to be manifested in action there must be a free choice. Solidarity means that we have and live a sense of responsibility for everyone else. No one can do this for us! Solidarity involves us choosing to live out our responsibility to help meet the needs of others, not just relying on someone else or a government program to do so. Solidarity, in other words, impels us to act.
What does solidarity in action look like? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work. It also presupposes the effort for a more just social order where tensions are better able to be reduced and conflicts more readily settled by negotiation.
The Church goes on to note that solidarity has specific manifestations in particular relationships: You need solidarity with your boss or employees, for example. We also need solidarity as a nation, and we need international solidarity.
#3. Solidarity Has a Partner in Virtue
Do you have a friend, sibling, or spouse who helps “balance” you? Who helps offset the rough edges or imprecisions in your personality, allowing you both to draw in closer to truth? Solidarity has an inseparable partner, and this partner helps us to see solidarity for what it truly is and not make it into something it’s not. This partner is subsidiarity.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, subsidiarity means that the state or a “larger society” should not try to make itself a substitute for the “initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies.” Subsidiarity means doing something on a lower, smaller level if that lower level is effective.
The partnership of solidarity and subsidiarity helps us stay near the mean of virtue, rather than becoming narrowly self-centered on the one hand or overly dependent on large organizations and government on the other. Pope Benedict XVI described this in Caritas in Veritate:
The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.
So, a third point we need to realize is that when we discuss solidarity, subsidiarity should always be a part of the conversation as well.
#4. Spiritual Solidarity
Another essential insight into solidarity is that solidarity has to do with both physical relationships and spiritual relationships.
It’s true that solidarity unites us to everybody else in the world— it’s a small world after all— and our charity needs to extend toward everyone. At the same time, we do have special obligations to the family and neighbors who are closest to us. As we attempt to intentionally choose solidarity in our life, the best place to examine might be our immediate community, for the families close to us who are in need of food or home improvements.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes an amazing point about us and our needs as humans when it says, “Solidarity is an eminently Christian virtue. It practices the sharing of spiritual goods even more than material ones.” We are spiritual as well as physical, and can share “spiritual goods.” Working to create a culture that better recognizes human dignity includes and actually requires sharing the spiritual! What might this look like, practically speaking, in your life?
#5. Solidarity is not Stress
Perhaps it sounds stressful to be aware of and responsive to the inequalities and suffering in the world. We might say, “I can barely meet the needs in my own home, trying to add anything else seems awfully overwhelming!” But solidarity is not about stress and feelings of pressing anxiety about children suffering in third-world countries. Rather, solidarity is a deeper perspective and commitment that undergirds your actions and choices.
St. John Paul II says, “It [solidarity] 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 really responsible for all.” Maybe this means becoming more involved in poverty alleviation efforts in your own community. Maybe this means discerning a call to be foster parents for children whose parents are unable to provide for them. Maybe this means choosing more respectful language when speaking with persons who hold different opinions than us, so as to better respect their dignity, even when confrontation is necessary.
In both big and small ways, let’s choose to act in solidarity. After all, if we consider that Christ is present in each and every person, then we realize that we aren’t separated by even six degrees of separation with everybody else. We are only separated by one.