So far in this series on Catholic Social Thought and Teaching, we have looked at the concepts of the Dignity of Man, the Common Good, as well as Subsidiarity. Today we are going to look at the concept of Solidarity. In some ways, this concept brings together the other three. It speaks directly to how individuals can and should participate in society.
The last principle, ‘solidarity’, is less pronounced than the other principles, but just as important. It most often refers to the unity and participation of all members of a society, or employees in a business, in the running of its affairs. It is closely related to the common good. Gaudium et spes coming out of Vatican II speaks of the largest possible number of people having economic power to contribute to the progress of the community, according to their ability (§65). The Council calls for greater participation by workers, not simply as participants in production, but also for their own human development. “The opportunity, moreover, should be granted to workers to unfold their own abilities and personality through the performance of their work.” (§67)
In Centesimus annus, John Paul II proposed that “the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society.” (§35) Later in Sollicitudo rei socialis he also called on those with more influence and a greater share of goods and services to take responsibility for the weaker and to share with them (§35). He does not however, allow for those who are in a weaker position to be passive. “While claiming their legitimate rights, (they) should do what they can for the good of all.” (§39)
Economic Justice for All goes as far as to deem participation in the economic life of society as a right (§35). The opportunity to contribute to the larger community has special significance as a means to carry forward God’s work (§15). To abandon members of the human race is the ultimate injustice. “Justice demands that social institutions be ordered in a way that guarantees all persons the ability to participate actively in the economic, political and cultural life of society.” (§78)
While the concept of solidarity may run across the other concepts, it will probably also be the one that is most divisive. At the heart of it is the idea that individuals have a ‘right’ to participate in society and in businesses. From a purely free market or capitalism perspective, this ‘right’ is unthinkable. From a market perspective, the right to participate in a business comes either through ownership of it or may be granted to an individual as an employee. The right for government to participate through taxes and regulations is only given grudgingly. Consumers also ‘participate’ in the company, but in a different way. The idea that an individual should have this ‘right’ does not correspond with a capitalist, ownership model of business.
But as Christians, are we governed by the free markets or by God’s teachings and commands? In a particular way, we can acknowledge that according to the free market, an individual does not have the ‘right’ to participate. A business is free to hire or fire employees and employment by a business does not necessarily give the employee any rights more than a salary. According to God’s economy however, this is not the case, for ownership of all things is God’s. As his stewards and employees, we have a responsibility to ensure that the resources given are used properly and for the correct purpose. If we recognize that each man or woman has a particular dignity accorded to them from being made in the image of God and that there is a common good, the participation of every individual in society is the logical conclusion. This does not necessarily dictate ‘how’ each individual is to participate, but it does mean involving them in some way. This is really the tension between individualism and a more social perspective.
An interesting example of this concept arises in the discussion about shareholder vs. stakeholder theory. In September 13, 1970, Milton Friedman wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine in which he argued that the “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” Since at least that time, the general attitude towards business in North America has been toward the maximization of profits for the benefit of shareholders. In many, if not most states in the United States, profit maximization has been codified into corporate law and has become the fiduciary responsibility of management. Since the 1980s however, there has been another school of thought that, while recognizing the interests of shareholders, has also sought to promote the interests of all the ‘stakeholders’ directly or indirectly involved in the business. These stakeholders include employees customers, suppliers, the community, as well as the government.
The rights and roles of employees in a business has historically been quite limited. The teaching of solidarity however, suggests that these rights and roles should be expanded. Of course, like so many other concepts in Roman Catholic Social Teaching, no specific implementation of this concept is given. As Christians however, we would do well to contemplate if and how individuals should participate, both in business, but also in society in general.