Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Solidarity and Personalism

Today’s blog posting is adapted from the book, Economic Personalism, which you can get free from the CESJ website, or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Confronted today by growing conflict and inequality between people and nations around the globe, no one can ignore any longer the universal question that will shape the future for generations to come: What is the place of the human person — each of us — in society?

This question is not academic, nor is it simple. It raises issues of human dignity, freedom, responsibility, and power — and who and what is entitled to those things. Must we accept the status quo, a system that fosters conflict, inequality, and injustice? Or can and should the social order at all levels be structured to operate justly for the good of every person everywhere, without the disadvantage of anyone anywhere?

Pope John Paul II


To answer the original question, and whether such justice-based systemic reform is possible, we can look to the related concepts of “Personalism” and “Solidarity.” To define what we mean by these terms, we begin with the thought of Pope John Paul II — Karol Józef Wojtyła.

In February 1961, while still Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków, Wojtyła startled the intellectual community with his paper, “Personalizm Tomistyczny” (“Thomistic Personalism”), defining personalism as any school of thought, or any intellectual movement, that focuses on the reality of the human person and each person’s unique dignity.  In the short article presenting personalism as an alternative, he countered ideologies that shift dignity and power away from the human person.

Suggesting that some later interpretations of the documents were not consistent with the original intent, during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Wojtyła contributed to Dignitatis Humanae (“Decree on Religious Freedom”) and Gaudium et Spes (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”).

In Wojtyła’s thought, the concept of solidarity holds an important place. As he would later state — putting the word in quotes — solidarity is a “virtue,” the habit of doing good, but not in the same sense as, for example, justice and charity. In his encyclical issued as pope on the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio he explained that solidarity —

. . . is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political, and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a “virtue,” is solidarity. (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, § 38)


Thomas Aquinas

Specifically, solidarity, a characteristic of groups per se, is a principle that fulfills and completes that general justice which permeates all virtue, a sort of “general social charity.” It is not a particular virtue (a virtue that is defined by a specific “act” directed at a specific “object”), nor does it exclude non-Christians.

In the context of Wojtyła’s Thomistic personalism, then, solidarity describes an awareness of rights and duties within a particular group that define how sovereign individuals relate as persons to one another and to the group as a whole. All people as members of a group have solidarity when they have that awareness and can participate fully as members of that group.

Solidarity in Wojtyła’s thought is an essential prerequisite for social justice, for (as we will see) only members of groups can carry out acts of social justice. By this means cooperation is achieved, not by absorbing people into the group or collective, but by mutual interaction and give-and-take in exercising rights and attaining the common goals and aspirations of the group.

A common mistake today is to assume that social rights and virtues are rights and virtues that society or humanity has by nature. This is impossible, as “society” and “humanity” are abstractions, things created by human persons. Things have only such rights as human beings delegate to them. A social right or virtue is a right or virtue that human persons have regarding society, not that society has with regard to persons.


Together, Wojtyła’s concepts of solidarity and Thomistic personalism provide more than an esoteric academic discussion, but a practical means for applying the principles of Catholic social teaching to many of today’s otherwise overwhelming problems. Solidarity motivates our care for the common good. Personalism focuses our actions on promoting the dignity of every human being and on how each person can relate fully to society and to the common good. Combined, the two concepts offer a holistic paradigm for problem solving that puts even the most monumental tasks within the reach of every person acting in free association with others.

Today, many people throughout the world are forced to serve the State or a political or economic élite that controls the social tool of the State. This puts the most basic human needs, including subsistence and security, under the control of some who wield the State’s monopoly over coercion. Because of the way institutions and laws have been structured, the élite are able to monopolize power and benefit themselves at the expense of others.

Ultimately, every issue in religious, political, or family life concerns human dignity. What does it mean to be a person? Who should have power and thus control over the life and even the soul of the human person? Are human beings mere things to be owned by others, the State or a political or economic élite? Or are human beings born with equal worth and inalienable rights, and thus meant to have the power and means to pursue their own higher ends or destinies?

To answer these questions, we must first ask with the Psalmist, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” The answer might surprise many people, and upset many preconceptions about ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our place in the world.