The Virtue of Solidarity

The term “solidarity” is so strongly identified with the Solidarity Movement in Poland, which toppled the Communist government in 1989, that many people naturally assume that it is a political force rather than a moral virtue.



The truth of the matter is that solidarity is a moral virtue. Moreover, Poland’s Solidarity Movement itself is moral. In fact, its virtuous basis was, to a significant extent, shaped and sustained by the moral philosophy of Karol Wojtyla, the man who would later become Pope John Paul II.

In his most important philosophical work, The Acting Person, which won him an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, Wojtyla provides what may very well be the most concise and penetrating treatment of the virtue of solidarity that has ever been penned.

Everything he writes in The Acting Person concerning solidarity flows from his understanding of “participation.” By this term, Wojtyla refers to the fact that human beings are not confined by their individualities, as atheistic philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre suggests, but rather share in a profound way with the humanity of others. In addition, human beings are able to grasp universal values, such as truth, justice, rights, and peace, which they need in order to become fulfilled.

Wojtyla develops the notion that solidarity is simply the virtue of care as extended to all other people in society. It involves responsible care for the common good, the moral well-being of the human community. Because solidarity is a virtue, it springs from a heart of love. This is, in essence what distinguishes it from a political reality. Politics participates in a process; solidarity, more spiritual in nature, participates in humanity.

Family members, let us say, care for each other, and their mutual love is palpably present in that form of care. The care that members of society have for each other precisely as members of society is the substance of solidarity. In this instance, however, love may not be immediately recognized as love since it may lack specific emotional intensity, and its benefactors and beneficiaries may be strangers to each other.

Wojtyla makes it clear that love is indeed at the heart of solidarity when he insists that we should recognize members of society as “neighbors.” Our relationship with our neighbor should be one of love, for love is the only appropriate attitude one should have for another person. Thus, the fittingness of Christ’s commandment “Thou shalt love.” To be sure, “neighbor” and “member of the community” overlap, just as do personal love and civic responsibility. But the primacy of love for neighbor gives solidarity an interior depth that is lacking in purely civic or political attitudes. Solidarity has a political goal, but it has a personal — and therefore virtuous — essence. The commitment to love is, in fact, a call to experience another human being as another I, that is, to participate in another’s humanity.

Solidarity, as the virtue that extends care to one’s neighbors, will not remain serviceable unless it is allied with several other virtues. In The Acting Person, Wojtyla points out how solidarity and opposition go hand in hand. Without opposition, solidarity degenerates into conformism. On the other hand, opposition without solidarity collapses into noninvolvement. Hence, it is imperative that virtues of courage, discernment, patience, and openmindedness be cultivated. These virtues serve the need to dialogue with one’s opposition.

General Jaruzelski, who, as Communist Poland’s president, was the most powerful opponent to the Solidarity Movement, confesses how much he was impressed by Pope John Paul II’s ability to engage in respectful dialogue. The Holy Father, as Jaruzelski attests, “is a man who knows how to listen calmly even when he disagrees completely with what he hears. . . . This touched me very much. . . . Every meeting I have had with him brought us closer together in a purely human sense — not only in an intellectual format, but with warmth. . . .”

Wojtyla is careful to note that dialogue, if it is to be authentic, must take place within the context of truth. Moreover, members of any solidarity group will work with each other for the common good most effectively when they honor each other’s complementary gifts. Therefore, a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation among the members is necessary.

Sociologist Dennis Wrong, in his book The Problem of Order: What Unites and Divides Society (Harvard University Press, 1994), writes: “Solidarity based on shared norms, commitment to collective goals, and the maintenance of a system of differentiated roles, are defining criteria of all stable groups, including groups whose raison d’etre [reason for existence] may be in conflict with other groups.”

In this statement, Professor Wrong reiterates many of the points that are common to Wojtyla’s concept of solidarity: the common good, the notion of a community, the need for complementarity, and the importance of opposition and dialogue. Wrong’s understanding of solidarity, however, remains merely political because it lacks two vital elements that are essential to Wojtyla’s notion of participation, namely, love of neighbor and desire for truth. It is precisely these two elements — rooted in the dignity and transcendence of the human person — that identify Wojtyla’s notion of solidarity as a truly moral virtue.

Dr. DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, Ontario. He is the author of The Many Faces of Virtue and The Heart of Virtue

This article originally appeared in Lay Witness, a publication of Catholics United for the Faith, Inc., and is used by permission. Join Catholics United for the Faith and enjoy the many benefits of membership.

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is is the author of forty-two books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on amazon.com.  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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