Dakota Meyer was a Marine corporal serving in Afghanistan on September 8, 2009. What he did that day earned him the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. When he learned that three fellow Marines and a Navy Corpsman were missing during an attack by a group of insurgents, he charged five times into a hail of bullets to rescue them, an action that one former combat veteran called “beyond comprehension.”
What Meyer later said is almost as interesting as what he did. “I lost a lot of Afghans that day,” he said. “And I’ll tell you right now – they were just as close to me as those Marines were. At the end of the day, I don’t care if they’re Afghans, Iraqis, Marines or Army; it didn’t matter.”
What Meyer did and said confirms what many combat veterans have reported: what motivates soldiers in combat is not hatred of their enemy, but love for their comrades. Soldiers fight because those next to them depend on them.
That motivation gets to the heart of one of the fundamental principles of Catholic Social Teaching – solidarity, a principle that in modern terminology is “hard-wired” into our human natures. As humans, we are social beings, and are dependent on the friendship and cooperation of others.
Few of us will have an opportunity to display the bravery of a Corporal Meyer. But all of us are given opportunities every day to rise above human flaws, such as egoism, fear or greed, that prevent us from serving others.
The Church’s emphasis on solidarity arose only during the last hundred years or so. The word “solidarity” suggests a relationship of unity among people, like the old phrase, “all for one, and one for all.”
A Social Principle. Solidarity is a social principle. The concept grew out of the change of a medieval, agrarian society based to a great extent on cooperation into a modern, industrial society based on competition. While the structures of such modern society are organized for competition, the Church maintains that, as humans, our basic orientation is towards cooperation and harmony.
Most Americans work for large organizations and know that, despite all the rhetoric about competition, the ability to get their work done depends on cooperation. Some years ago, a chief executive of one of America’s largest companies was speaking to a group of executives. He said cooperation had been very important to him in his career.
“I spent the first 15 years of my career working in research,” he said. “The popular image of a research scientist is the lone genius. His hair is sticking out every which way; he is surrounded by smoking test tubes; and whatever discovery he comes up with will be the result of his own peculiar genius.”
“I’ve got a dozen or so patents under my name,” he said. “But there is not a one of them that hasn’t been the result of a whole lot of cooperation with colleagues in the laboratory.”
The Church sees solidarity as a better way to orient the structures of society, to conform human institutions to human nature so that society can avoid the excesses of “unbridled capitalism,” on the one hand, and oppressive socialism, on the other.
A Moral Virtue. Solidarity is not only a social principle, but a moral virtue, as well. Like any other virtue, such as temperance or humility, solidarity is a virtue we need to keep working on. The goal to be realized is the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” or as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has put it: Solidarity “translates into the willingness to give oneself for the good of one’s neighbor, beyond any individual or particular interest.” By sacrificing our own selfish interests to serve others, we work for the common good, which is the goal of all Catholic social teaching.
For those of us who don’t have our hands on the levers of economic and political power, or who aren’t on the front lines of combat, how can we promote solidarity and make it part of our way of life? Here are a few ways to live this principle.
Give Freely. Pope Benedict has written about the importance of gratuitousness, in other words, giving without expecting a return. The logic of commerce is: “I’ll do this for you if you do that for me. If so, we’ll have a deal.” The logic of gratuitousness is: “I’ll do this for you because I think it will help you and serve the common good.” That’s the true spirit of cooperation – and of solidarity.
Live Simply. The more we get, the more we want. Some people may remember the 1980s bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” America has become a consumption society, replacing the good things it already owns with things considered a bit better. It’s easy to spend so much time acquiring that we have no time left over to give.
Work Diligently. If you want to help raise the standard of living for people all over the world, work diligently. It’s important to work hard so that others don’t have to pick up your slack. Don’t slough off and let others do the work. When everyone works together, they contribute to the common good and help ensure that all have what they need.
Serve Others Actively. As Pope John Paul II put it, true solidarity is not just a “feeling of vague compassion” for others, but “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.”
Interested in learning more about Catholic Social Teaching? Check out the following: