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Cardinal Wuerl: The Catholic Ideal of Solidarity and The New Evangelization

June 15, 2015
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On Monday, June 15, 2015, Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave the keynote address at the AFL-CIO Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on the Catholic Ideal of Solidarity and the New Evangelization. Read the full text of his address below:
I have been asked to speak about the Catholic ideal of solidarity in our contemporary world and the need for a reawakening of this vision of life, social justice, social development and economic development rooted in faith. More recently we speak of such a renewal of appreciation of this long-standing teaching on social justice and its articulation today as an aspect of the New Evangelization. In short we will discuss how we understand our shared human condition, and our interrelatedness, or obligations to one another which we call solidarity. Then we shall look at how we share that vision as part of the New Evangelization.
In the not-too-distant past, “solidarity,” often referred to the courageous Polish labor movement by that name, which played a decisive role in bringing freedom to Poland and, thus, throughout Eastern Europe.
Today, we hear the word “solidarity” being used in a broader context in general, and specifically in Catholic social teaching. Saint John Paul II introduced this word into our social justice vocabulary as an expression of respect for our human unity in practice.
This word has thus been part of our Catholic vocabulary for some time. But the reality it expresses is even more ancient.
One time after Mass, a youngster asked me, “Why do you call us brothers and sisters? You’re not my brother.” I responded, “Ah, but we are all members of God’s family.” After he received a nod of affirmation from his mother and father who stood behind him, he said, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” offering a youthful declaration of approval.
Catholic social teaching is based on our recognition in faith that all of us belong to one human family, each of us is a child of God, our heavenly Father. We therefore have an obligation to care about and for one another. The principle of solidarity is this unity put into practice. As a Christian virtue, the core and sustenance of solidarity is charity and, thus, solidarity is necessarily committed to the common good, that is to say, the good of everyone (Christifideles laici, 41; Sollicitudo rei socialis, 38; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 194).
Solidarity is expressed in works of generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation. Catholic teaching explicitly recognizes organized labor as instruments of solidarity and justice (Compendium, 306).
But we cannot take solidarity for granted. It is sometimes avoided or even denied because it brings with itself obligations. As Pope Francis has highlighted, “This word solidarity is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable. It almost seems like a bad word…solidarity. I would like to make an appeal,” the Pope continues, “to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity” (Address to the Community of Varginha, July 25, 2013).
We who share this view need better to appreciate it and then to bring to our contemporary culture the specific vision historically presented in Catholic social teaching. As Blessed Paul VI explained in his exhortation calling for a new period of evangelization, Evangelii nuntiandi, “it is only in the Christian message that modern man can find . . . the energy for his commitment of human solidarity” (2, 3).
As we explore the Catholic ideal of solidarity in our contemporary world, I would like to touch upon the following points:
  1. Contemporary society and culture as the context for a New Evangelization/representation of the social Gospel;
  2. The foundation of Catholic social teaching;
  3. The role of social justice teaching then and now, and
  4. The characteristics of the Catholic vision of authentic solidarity.
1. Context and New Evangelization of the Social Gospel
The neglect of and occasional hostility toward solidarity in our social and cultural context demonstrate a need for what the Church calls the New Evangelization, which at its heart is the re-proposing of the Gospel with those who no longer find this message engaging. The New Evangelization begins with each of us taking it upon ourselves to renew once again our understanding of the faith, including its social dimensions, and then involves sharing that vision of life with others.
To understand the challenge of today, challenges to a faith centered view of life that recognizes our relationship to God and therefore to one another, we need to examine some of the characteristics of our age.
Recent popes have spoken about certain social and cultural challenges in our world today, including relativism, which denies the existence of objective truth and the natural moral order; secularism, which treats religion as a solely private matter and thus dismisses appreciation of God and the importance of religious faith, values and institutions in the public square; materialism, which can all too easily focus attention on personal gain at the expense of the common good and the needs of others, and individualism which can center on the self and lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards each other.
There also persist in our culture various ideologies and mentalities which view all of social life through the lens of economic class, ethnic, racial or sexual identity, ideology or political party preference. Here, we see the separation of people into competing interests.
Pope Francis with his clear words and inviting ways offers a powerful counterpoint to these forces. He speaks often in opposition to a “globalization of indifference” and a “throwaway culture” in our world today, “according to which everything is disposable. A culture that always leaves people out of the equation” – the unborn, young people, the elderly, the sick, those who are deemed to be of no use (Interview, Radio of the Archdiocese of Rio, July 27, 2013).
Pope Francis warns us: “some people…want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off”. He continues, “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us.” (Evangelii gaudium, 88)
What brings fresh urgency to our New Evangelization mission is just how widespread and profound are forces which neglect basic understandings of right and wrong, the common good, the dignity of the human person and our obligations to one another of genuine solidarity. People in this room can point out how these factors have also contributed to a dramatic decrease in union membership in recent years.
2. The Natural Need for Solidarity
Despite contemporary cultural currents, deep down, people implicitly know that there is a natural need for solidarity, even if they do not consciously articulate it. We realize that “no man is an island.” We also know that “it is not by bread alone that we live.”
A number of years ago I was invited to speak at the Catholic Center at Harvard University. The designated theme was “The Role of Faith in a Pluralistic Society.” At the conclusion of my presentation, a skeptical professor who self-identified as an atheist and who taught in the law school was the first to present a question. He asked, “What do you people think you bring to our society?”
The reference to “you people” was to the front row of the audience that was made up of representatives of a variety of religious traditions, all of whom were in their appropriate identifiable robes.
Since he was a lawyer, I asked if he would mind if I answered his question with a question of my own. When he nodded in agreement, I asked: “What do you think the world would be like if it were not for the voices of all of those religious traditions represented in the hall? What would it be like if we did not hear voices in the midst of the community saying, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness?
What would our culture be like had we not heard religious imperatives such as love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do to you?
How much more harsh would our land be if we did not grow up hearing, blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers?
What would the world be like had we never been reminded that someday we will have to answer to God for our actions?”
To his credit, the man who asked the question smiled broadly and said, “It would be a mess!”
The various virtues and principles I asked this professor about – the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the other teachings of Christ – are all expressions of the call for solidarity, for unity, to overcome divisions and self-interest, to care for the poor and the weak, to look to the common good. They all remind us that we have an obligation to others. Without this solidarity in the world – it would be a mess.
Throughout our history, we as a people have understood this. As Benjamin Franklin famously said during the American Revolution, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” More recently, during the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s-60s, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would often urge others to join in solidarity, as he did in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, explaining that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
But even without explicit calls to solidarity, the reality of interdependence and the need to work together and for one another’s benefit is implicitly understood. Everything we do, everything we have materially, is dependent upon the assistance of others. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in – none of this would be possible without a whole legion of people working to make it so.
For Christians, what is different about our understanding of solidarity is that Jesus challenges us to go beyond what the world means by solidarity and work out a social order in this world that more closely manifests the justice and peace of his kingdom – a kingdom where the good of all is realized and all are treated as brothers and sisters.
3. Foundation of Catholic Social Teaching
The principles of Catholic social teaching are deeply rooted in an understanding of the human person. The technical term is anthropology, but what it means is our recognition of who we are as human beings and this necessarily recognizes sin and failure, redemption and grace and the power to live in the Holy Spirit. If then we want to know who we are as human beings we need to start with this specifically revealed understanding of what it means to be a human being alive in grace.
This tradition of teaching revolves around the following themes: the dignity of the human person; the value of human work; the understanding of the communal nature of human life and, thus, the rights and responsibilities that are a reflection of human solidarity, a priority concern, even love, for the poor and vulnerable.
Moreover, as God created us, man and woman are meant to be transforming agents of society. Human labor takes on a value and worth in itself because it represents a participation in the very creative action of God. Work is an integral part of the human experience and workers have an innate human dignity and the rights that accompany it. Work and associations of workers are important because they allow us not only to “do more” or “have more” but to “be more” … more a person with God–given dignity, more a provider for a family, more a contributor to the common good, more a flourishing child of God.
Concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, the alienated and the marginalized is an essential quality that God expects of believers. In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear the extraordinary story of the last judgment where the measure of our faith and lives is how we treat “the least of these.” The poor, the hungry, those in prison are “Jesus in disguise” to use Mother Teresa’s haunting words. Earlier in that same Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, we hear of a new way of life and the call to be poor in spirit, to show mercy, to hunger and thirst for justice, to become peacemakers.
Those of us who accept the Gospel of Jesus and seek to be his disciples are told to be salt of the earth and light of the world. We are not bystanders in realizing the kingdom of God; we are supposed to be active participants.
Pope Francis puts it this way, “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities should be able to make a personal commitment to putting an end to so many social injustices” (July 25, 2013).
This is why the Church is so involved in countless works of mercy, of charity, of teaching, of social justice, and of social service. This is why we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate the young, care for the sick, welcome the immigrant. We’re trying to be salt and light….and leaven.
Such a view of society where all are called to do their part in realizing a truly good and just society is also part of the fabric of America. We have from the beginning recognized that at many levels of our social life there are intermediary bodies, community organizations, faith families, fraternal societies, unions and churches all of which bring their gifts, vision and energies to make a better world.
Just as there are countless stars in the sky that form all types of constellations, so too there are many, many organizations, institutions, intermediary bodies that make up our society. The Church continues to be one of those constellations in the world of the many lights shining on our efforts to be a people capable of experiencing many traditions and yet working together. Our very motto, e pluribus unum, speaks of that reality.
Who are the lights that shine in this culture and society of ours? They are ordinary people who are doing the work of the kingdom in the places where they find themselves, they are parents speaking loving words to their children, they are children who give a positive example to their peers, they are attorneys defending the right of others, they are craftsman and contractors who earn an honest living as Jesus did building and fixing homes for better family life, they are doctors and nurses sharing the healing ministry of Christ, they are laborers in factories, mills and manufacturing operations all over this land, they are educators who teach, they are computer and information technology experts, engineers, soldiers, police officers, they are civil servants, farmers and fishermen as were so many of Jesus’ first disciples.
Each of us is a star in a greater constellation and together we create a world of light, vision and hope.
4. Role of Catholic Social Teaching
As I mentioned, the word “solidarity” has often been identified with workers’ rights to come together, to organize and speak collectively against injustices and at the same time to further enhance the dignity of human work and the worker. It’s no accident that an anthem of the labor movement is “Solidarity Forever.” As part of this effort, as with the civil rights movement, labor has encouraged and depended upon support – solidarity – from the greater community.
I grew up in that part of southwest Pennsylvania where the labor movement was quite active. One visible way that solidarity was manifested, both within the movement and in the larger society, was respect for the picket line. Once, some years ago, as I was making my way to a close by store, preoccupied in thought, I heard someone say “Please Father.” I then looked up and saw this picket line. Needless to say, I stopped. “Thank you,” she said to me. Growing up it was clear – you don’t cross a picket line.
The efforts to stand together on behalf of all human development, to be inclusive in our outreach to all people, to demonstrate the commitment to protect the environment and our respect for all human life are the new picket lines of today which we ask all, with us, to respect.
Today as we hear of the approaching publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical, we recognize again how much we are interconnected and interdependent. In his many talks, homilies and presentations, the Pope speaks of a human ecology that rests on the basic principles of human dignity, respect for the integrity of the environment and a social development driven by the economic development that in turn emphasizes human life and safeguards God’s gift to us of this good earth.
The teaching of Pope Francis and his efforts to address the environment are certainly in harmony with those of his predecessors.
The Church always tries to read the “signs of the times” and offer appropriate guidance by setting the issues of the moment in the context of Catholic social teaching. This approach is found in Pacem in terris of Saint John XXIII at the height of the Cold War. Blessed Paul VI recognized the particular social and political changes of his day when he wrote Populorum progressio and Saint John Paul II presented Centesimus annus precisely as a reminder of the Church’s longstanding social teaching in a period of great societal transition particularly in Europe. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote Caritas in veritate specifically combining fraternal and economic development, the environment and the development of people and technology.
Now Pope Francis is guiding the Church to watchfulness for an urgent “sign of the times,” a new awareness that the human family, if it is to thrive, is being called to a deeper solidarity on behalf of the environment. In doing so, he is also reminding us of the beauty of creation and our own dignity as its stewards, entrusted by the Creator to nurture and protect that creation for the sake of our whole human family and for generations to come.
Another great “sign of the times” today is surely the issue of sustainable development which Pope Francis presents as both human and environmental ecology. Approaching the environment with greater wisdom should be at the heart of our discussions today as well, particularly by emphasizing the coherence and compatibility of facing the need for economic growth in all nations, especially developing ones and the role of the business community collaborating with workers who are an essential partner in driving economic growth.
Characteristics of the Catholic Vision of Authentic Solidarity
Saint John Paul II’s encyclical on human work, Laborem exercens, explained that labor unions “are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, [but] this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavor ‘for’ the just good [and] not a struggle ‘against’ others.” “It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people,” he said (20).
Saint John Paul II gives voice to two essentials in his teaching on authentic solidarity – the common good and communion – the community of people. In his apostolic letter, Sollicitudo rei socialis, he expressly states that 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 all really responsible for all” (38).
In re-proposing the Gospel to our world today, including its social teaching, we who accept it need to emphasize that authentic solidarity must be committed to the good of all. In the face of a culture that all too often thinks in terms of me and mine, what we are talking about is being in “solidarity with” others, specifically solidarity with every other member of the human family.
Pope Francis reminds us that “the culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: rather, it is the culture of solidarity that does so; the culture of solidarity means seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters” (July 25, 2013).
Solidarity in Action
Beyond the history of the labor movement which is so familiar to those gathered here today, a dramatic example of this radical vision of solidarity, of being committed to the good of all, can be found in the civil rights movement. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.
Today Pope Francis calls us to extend our vision to include a future where generations yet to come might enjoy the blessings of being truly brothers and sisters in a world that more surely reflects the wonder, beauty and richness of God’s goodness in bringing all things into being.
For all these reasons, as you seek to move forward the agenda of economic equality for all working people, while doing so in a framework of moral values, it is all the more reason for a day like today and a conference such as this focused on solidarity and the New Evangelization.
It is important that we who share this vision never forget our roots and our common experience of life guided by Catholic social teaching. It is the rich soil out of which has grown so many good things that all of us in this room have experienced. It continues to provide a bridge to non-Catholic friends who know and appreciate the social teachings of the Church and recognize as do we that this social teaching is a common point of reference.
Solidarity is not only the legacy of the “first” evangelization but also the surest foundation for the New Evangelization. It seeks to form and reflect a community characterized by that practical unity in which the seeds of the Gospel can find its best earth. At the same time it is through the growth of the Gospel, precisely in the New Evangelization, that solidarity will most truly flourish.
We must always stand together in respect for human life, in respect for religious freedom, in respect for all of God’s creation, in respect for the rights of working people and in the respect we all must have to be able to stand as partners in the effort for the common good.
Conclusion
Catholic social teaching invites us to solidarity with those suffering from injustice, with workers, the unborn, the poor, the homeless, the victims of racism, sexism, the elderly and the handicapped, and all our brothers and sisters in the human family. It calls us to work for the common good with the firm conviction that what we do now can be the beginnings here in our world of that realm of truth, justice, compassion, peace, love and communion that we know is the Kingdom of God.
I would like to conclude with this image. Some time ago, I was given a beautiful plant that had in it a number of flowers. The plant flourished but over the days the flowers began to wither. The soil was moist, there was plenty of light in the room but each day the flowers continued to wither. It was only when I pulled one out that I recognized that it was not connected to the plant. An ingenious florist had put each of the flowers in a small plastic tube with a little bit of water. They were then inserted into the soil but not connected to anything. Because there were not connected they eventually withered.
Our social teaching, our history of experience is deeply rooted in the rich soil of our faith and illuminated by the great light of God’s Word. As we stay connected to our roots and wisdom, we know we will continue to flourish and bring those blessings to others. As God was with those who went before us, so will God be now with us.
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