Authoritarianism and the power of Catholic solidarity – Catholic World Report

Rightly understood and practiced, solidarity can both build up a nation’s culture and bring down an entrenched political system.

Authoritarianism and the power of Catholic solidarity – Catholic World Report
St. John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. (CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal)

It is common nowadays for politicians, university administrators, corporate executives, and many others to declare that they “stand in solidarity” with one group or another. Some give speeches, others participate in demonstrations, and still others send tweets. Sometimes these declarations are platitudes and at other times there is genuine feeling and goodwill behind them.

However, some have repeatedly and very publicly stated that their words and actions are based on Catholic social teaching. This takes the proclamations of solidarity to a new and higher level because, in Catholicism, the word “solidarity” has some very specific connotations. In fact, Catholic solidarity is powerful enough to bring down an authoritarian regime. This aspect of Catholic social teaching is becoming increasingly relevant as we see authoritarianism on the rise throughout the world.

Rightly understood and practiced, solidarity can both build up a nation’s culture and bring down an entrenched political system. This is because it seeks personal integrity, truth, and charity, all of which promote human flourishing while exposing the internal contradictions and lies within society. When accompanied with sincere prayer and an openness to grace, solidarity overflows into the political sphere. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] points out, solidarity is necessary for socio-economic problems to be resolved (CCC, 1941). This is because seeking God’s kingdom leads to changed social conditions (CCC, 1942).

Dignity, freedom, virtues, subsidiarity: All or nothing

Before delving into the power of solidarity, it is helpful to recall some of the key elements of Catholic social teaching. One is the reality of human dignity and freedom. We have dignity because we are made to be in the image and likeness of God (CCC, 355-357). Two divine faculties which we are given are intellect and will. Intellect is the ability to know reality. The will is used to love, which is defined as willing the good of another in the concrete (CCC, 1766). We use these two abilities to “share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life.” (CCC, 356; see also CCC, 17001711). Therefore, we have an innate desire to respond to our vocation in society by seeking truth and loving others.

A second element regards the virtues and their relationship to the sacraments. “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” (CCC, 1803). Character is developed by practicing the virtues. Furthermore, “Christ’s gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil.” (CCC, 1811; see also 1830).

The sacraments support the virtues necessary for social action and for fighting attempts to destroy Catholic culture. Baptism provides the grace for Christians to “live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Holy Spirit” and “grow in goodness through the moral virtues” (CCC, 1266). Confirmation “brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace” (CCC, 1303). The Eucharist, food for our journey here on Earth, “preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism.” (CCC, 1392). The sacrament of reconciliation results in “an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle” (CCC, 1496).

The third element is that Catholic social teaching is an all-or-nothing proposition. One must fully accept all of these principles: the dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 160-162). Furthermore, the Church’s social teaching rests on the values of truth, freedom, justice, and love (Compendium, 197). Hence, all who profess Catholic solidarity must embrace the entire package. Claiming solidarity as a principle while neglecting the other principles, values, and the virtues empties it of its ability to have any real effect on the world (Compendium, 162).

Authentic solidarity

With these foundational concepts in mind, let’s now turn to solidarity. It is not a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [SRS], 38). Instead, it is closely related to Christian charity, i.e., love (SRS, 40). Since solidarity “is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”, it is outward-focused and implies a sacrificial love. (Compendium, 193, italics in original; see also SRS, 38).

It is important to keep in mind that solidarity has “two complementary aspects: that of a social principle and that of a moral virtue.” (Compendium, 193, italics in original). As mentioned above, the principle of solidarity is inexorably connected with the dignity of the human person, the common good, and subsidiarity (Compendium, 160; also see Caritas In Veritate, 58).

Subsidiarity is the principle and virtue of devolving decision-making to the lowest levels of society practicable. It is giving the weak and poor a meaningful voice. The mark of subsidiarity is the intermediate association, which provides a means for people to practice the virtuous life (Compendium, 151). Local nonprofits are one example of such associations. The Compendium states, “Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State”, while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centred localism.” (Compendium, 351).

One criticism often heard is that these ideas don’t work in the real world. However, history proves otherwise. As an example, let’s look at Poland. In the late 1700s, Russia, Prussia, and the Hapsburgs annexed Poland in three stages, with the final partition being in 1795. Brutal Germanisation and Russification policies attempted to destroy the Polish Church and culture. The Poles fought back with both active and passive resistance, including insurrections and building their culture through their own version of the Benedict Option.

As explained by Rod Dreher in his blog, the Benedict Option is creating intentional communities to form the next generation “of disciples who can withstand the pressures of the world while simultaneously being in the world as gospel witnesses.” By creating underground institutions such as the press, “flying” universities, theater, and literature, the Poles kept the culture thriving for over a century despite having no country. On the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage created a website called “Where is Poland?” describing this Polish version of the Benedict Option.

During the Second World War, the Poles created an underground government, complete with its own military, court system, schools, police, social services, and other institutions. Once again, the arts and the press were key to national survival. The Warsaw Institute published a short description of this state-within-a-state in Katarzyna Utracka’s December 2019 article, “The Phenomenon of the Polish Underground State”. After the end of the Second World War, it became apparent that the Poles could not fight the Soviet occupation militarily so they continued passive resistance.

In the wake of the crackdown after the 1976 labor protests, the Poles created the Komitet Obrony Robotników (KOR, or Workers’ Defense Committee), a network which provided legal and financial support to families of detainees, organized underground student lectures, published Samizdat material, and even offered childcare while parents were incarcerated or recovering from police beatings. Social groups, churches, and even the boy scouts contributed. KOR maintained a policy of always publishing the truth, and if a statement is later proven incorrect, then a retraction was issued. This network later became the foundation for the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement, which lead to free elections and the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.

John Paul II and the virtue of solidarity

What does Poland have to do with Catholic social teaching? Let’s revisit this history in light of Catholic social teaching. Many, such as Dr. DeMarco in his article, “The Virtue of Solidarity”, have noted that the virtue gave life to the Solidarity movement. The principles of Catholic teaching were present in Karol Wojtyła’s preaching on the dignity of the human person. The Poles worked toward the common good of the nation and intermediary associations such as theaters and universities, even though suppressed, existed in the spirit envisioned in Rerum Novarum, 48 and 49 and Quadragesimo Anno, 33 and 34. One can read the eyewitness accounts of people involved with the underground, such as John Feffer’s interview with Ewa Kulik, and see evidence of the exercise of intellect and will, of the cardinal virtues (CCC, 1805-1809), and of other virtues such as solidarity, perseverance, creativity, and community building.

The values of truth, freedom, justice, and love were very much evident in the underground movements. For example, leaders in both KOR and Solidarność knew that truth is a powerful weapon. In a quintessentially Polish style, even the name KOR was meant to embarrass the authorities by exposing their lies. Poland was a one-party state ruled by the Polish United Workers’ Party, the communist self-appointed advocate for workers. The name “Workers’ Defense Committee” underscored the fact that workers needed to protect themselves from the party that was ostensibly protecting them.

In 1979, St. Pope John Paul II visited Poland. In his homilies, he spoke the truth about who the Poles are in Christ and that Christ is the Lord of history. Millions came to see him. Polish TV showed only a brief clip of the pope and refused to show the multitudes present. With a significant percentage of the population having personally seen the pope, the Poles understood this downplaying of the visit in the media to mean that the government feared the pope’s message. This realization that the government was weak and afraid encouraged the Poles. The ascendance of Solidarność without an invasion from the Soviet Union revealed the USSR’s bankruptcy and was the first domino that led to a chain of events culminating in its demise.

These was one moment that brought the many years of resistance to fruition. On his first papal visit, John Paul II said Mass at Victory Square in Warsaw. In his homily, he proclaimed,

And I cry — I who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II, — I cry from all the depths of this millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost: ‘Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.’

He invoked his standing as one who suffered in solidarity with his nation and, more significantly, he invoked the authority given by Christ to the papacy. His plea to the Holy Spirit to descend upon the land of the Poles referenced the graces of the sacrament of confirmation. Shortly after his death in April, 2005, Peggy Noonan published an article entitled “We Want God”. In it she tells us that in Krakow, a few days after the Mass in Warsaw, the Pope was more explicit. He said:

As a bishop does in the sacrament of Confirmation so do I today extend my hands in that apostolic gesture over all who are gathered here today, my compatriots. And so I speak for Christ himself: “Receive the Holy Spirit!” I speak too for St. Paul: “Do not quench the Spirit!” I speak again for St. Paul: “Do not grieve the Spirit of God!”

The Church and the sacramental graces were indispensable in keeping Polish culture alive. The pope fully understood the authority he had to call for a release of the gifts of confirmation to strengthen the people so that they could complete their work.

The rise of authoritarianism today

What does this say about our situation today? Authoritarianism is on the rise. It is important to note that authoritarian systems are inherently unstable because they deny human nature. Humans are made for freedom (CCC, 17051706; see also CCC, 1731). To keep in power, an authoritarian government must expend enormous amounts of resources to control the faculties which God gave us – will and intellect. It cannot control our innate desire to love and seek truth nor the movement of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts. Such a state cannot survive a citizenry seeking truth, justice, freedom, love, and the virtuous life. Solidarity and subsidiarity undercut the foundations of an authoritarian regime.

Polish history reveals the central role of grace in a society. The Polish Church recognized that laity must have access to the sacraments. That is why, before he was pope, Karol Wojtyła insisted that a church be built in Nowa Huta, a town meant to show off the glory of socialism. He believed that the laity are to work to bring political structures under Christ’s lordship. His exhortation to Christians in his homily for the inauguration of his pontificate was:

Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development.

We forgot the martial characteristics of confirmation and lost the sense that we are the Church militant spreading God’s kingdom. The first Christians preached fearlessly in Jerusalem after Pentecost despite the Roman army stationed there (Acts 2:1-41). The Baltimore Catechism calls the confirmed “soldiers of Jesus Christ”. The act of being “drafted” into Christ’s army used to be symbolized by the bishop giving the confirmed a gentle slap on the cheek.

Today, many of our prelates are overly concerned with worldly matters. Some appear to be practical atheists who squander, or even worse, abuse the power and authority given them by God through their ordinations. Many do not seem enthusiastic about re-evangelizing the Catholics who left the Church or reversing the decline in the number of baptisms. In the past year and a half we have seen them withhold sacramental graces from the souls in their care. Good, solid catechesis on grace and the virtues was denied to many Catholics for decades.

In the section on solidarity, the Compendium tells us that the virtue precedes institutional change (Compendium, 193). The implication for us is that the Church must be reformed from within before it can be an effective channel of the graces needed for laity to change the world. Perhaps we will need a new generation of bishops before this can happen.

Many politicians, university administrators, corporate executives, and others who “virtue signal” loudly state that they “stand in solidarity” with one group or another. Do they truly understand that authentic solidarity, together with the other aspects of Catholic life, has great transformative power? It is ironic that “Catholic” virtue signalers who support a more authoritarian government invoke a virtue and principle that brought down a totalitarian empire. Perhaps now is the time to re-evangelize the world on the Catholic teaching on solidarity.

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