Family and Solidarity
“Family and Solidarity” touches themes of autonomy versus community
Today, speaking of the Christian family and solidarity may seem obvious. We have spoken of the family and justice, social issues, truth, and freedom – solidarity seems a natural progression. However, to speak of the Christian family and solidarity together at an earlier time would have seemed radical and even contradictory. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once noted, while other unitive terms like Eucharist and Communion are expressly Christian, solidarity “comes to us from outside .… developed initially among the early socialists by Pierre Leroux … in contraposition to the Christian idea of love, as the new, rational and effective response to social problems.”1
Leroux had abandoned the religion of Christianity and to compensate, he developed the idea of a new “religion of humanity”. And although many do not consciously follow Leroux’s idea of a “religion of humanity” as the basis of solidarity, nevertheless solidarity and the unity of the human race is often divorced from God and the “Christian idea of love”. Thus it is important to understand how John Paul II purified the concept of solidarity and advanced it far beyond the limited socialist concept of solidarity so that he could describe it as “undoubtedly a Christian virtue” which “finds its deepest roots in Christian faith” and “is expressed in Christian love.”2
Many saints canonized by John Paul II exhibited this Christian virtue of solidarity. But few inspired Karol Wojtyla as priest and as pope especially in regard to his understanding of Christian brotherhood than Adam Chmielowski of Krakow—who the world knows now as Saint Brother Albert. Not only did the pope preach over forty homilies on Brother Albert, but even earlier, while a secret seminarian and a worker in the Solvay chemical plant, he composed a play on this saintly artist’s devotion to the poor.
The play’s title is Our God’s Brother, and it already sets up the question of family and humanity. At one point in the play, Adam’s concern for the poor is questioned by his friend Max. Adam’s charitable work is uncharacteristic of Adam’s artistic vocation according to Max. His friend is also confused that Adam cannot bring himself to ignore the poor and get on with his real work as a painter. Max says:
[H]ow can I be made responsible for a citizen who has wasted his life and is now at the bottom?”
But Adam contradicts him. His work with the poor is not a running away from reality and his vocation, but is a running toward it. He says:
Today, solidarity encounters the same problems. Solidarity may seem unattractive if it is seen as a reward for behavior rather than as a response to a person—of a necessary unity between persons. But the answer is to see the truth about the human person – the “someone in oneself and in all those people” – that binds us together in a way far stronger than any political or economic ideology.
II. Communion of Persons
For this reason, four decades after writing Our God’s Brother, John Paul II describes “solidarity” in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in terms of unity. He writes: “Beyond human and natural bonds, already so close and strong, there is discerned in the light of faith a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity. This supreme model of unity,” John Paul continues, “which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons, is what we Christians mean by the word ‘communion.’”4 For John Paul II, the Trinity is the “supreme model of unity” of the human race.
Especially in this context and gathered so near to the great Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we remember John Paul II’s visit to Mexico City to give us the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America. This great document, which celebrates its tenth anniversary, next week, takes as its subtitle, “On the encounter with the living Jesus Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America.”5 In it he writes that just as communion is the fruit of conversion, so “solidarity is … the fruit of the communion which is grounded in the mystery of the triune God, and in the Son of God who took flesh and died for all. It is expressed in Christian love which seeks the good of others, especially of those most in need.”6
John Paul II’s early general audiences on Genesis (which came to be known as the Wednesday Catechesis on the Theology of the Body) made great inroads in understanding man as a being created for communion precisely because he is created in the image of the Triune God. According to the pope, “man became the ‘image and likeness’ of the triune God not only through his own person, but also as a person intended to form a communion of persons—a communion which man and woman form right from the beginning.”7
In other words, to be made in the image of God is not simply to be fashioned as such, but to function as an image of God – that is, to be ontologically structured for a life of loving communion with others. This is the foundation of the civilization of love; moreover, this Christian anthropology provides such an understanding of man that makes the call to build a civilization of love not only a possibility, but the most necessary fulfillment of our humanity.
III. Benedict XVI and John Paul II on Interdependence
Nevertheless, such a view of the person may be seen by some as too theological or religious or too idealistic and removed from daily life, making it irrelevant. And as Marcello Pera has pointed out, today “people no longer believe in ‘ultimate’ foundations.”8 Consequently, we find ourselves depending more and more on different facets of this communion to convey the message. One of the tangible facets of communion that are at stake is loving interdependence. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II declared there is a “need for a solidarity which will take up interdependence and transfer it to the moral plane.”9
In Mulieris Dignitatem John Paul II saw this in Adam’s solitary search for not only a companion but a helpmate: “In the ‘unity of the two’, man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist ‘side by side’ or ‘together’, but they are also called to exist mutually ‘one for the other’.”10
Benedict XVI takes this further. In Adam and Eve’s relationship, being with each other can be understood most fully in context of each one being from another.
This constitutes another facet of the imago Dei which we discover in the human person. In addition to St. Augustine’s understanding of an “interior” trinity of intellect, will and spirit within man, and contributing to John Paul II’s “social” trinity among men, Cardinal Ratzinger presented the imago Dei as a trinity of “being.” He writes: “The real God is by his very nature entirely being-for (Father), being-from (Son), and being-with (Holy Spirit). Man, for his part, is God's image precisely insofar as the "from," "with," and "for" constitute the fundamental anthropological pattern.”11
In other words, to be “from”, to be “with” and to be “for” other people is the fundamental structure of human existence. When we recognize this fundamental reality and act according to it in solidarity and communion with our neighbors we truly reflect the solidarity and communion that exists within the Trinity between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Human love and interdependence cannot be understood only at a horizontal level. When it is, it is often reduced to mutual dependence or even mutual manipulation. Rather, human love and interdependence is enlightened by our common vertical interdependence, a dependence between persons made apparent first in a relationship with those who gave us life. In this, Benedict XVI’s elucidation I believe provides us with great inroads in understanding and defending solidarity, both within the family and beyond the family.
The Biblical foundations are explored in John Paul II’s general audience catechesis on the Theology of the Body, when he points to the fact that God’s design for man is expressed even before man is created12. As Genesis says, “Then God said, ‘let us make man in our own image.’”13 This divine intention sets man apart from the rest of creation and establishes the intimate connection between God and man. As John Paul II notes, it is “as if the Creator entered into himself; as if, creating, not only did he call things into existence from nothingness…but, as if, in a special way, he drew man from the mystery of his own Being.”14 Consequently, man “must not be understood as a portrait, but as a living being, who will live a life similar to that of God.” 15
In his solitude, Adam begins to see how to live a life similar to God’s life, a life that necessitates a communion of persons. But even more, when tested with solitude, Adam compares himself not with the animals he shares the world with. He looks to the creator, and compares himself with God. In this he finds that “man resembles God more than nature.”16 The importance of origins is reflected in the words of Adam in the second creation account, when Adam recognizes Eve, exclaiming “This now is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken from man.” 17
In the family, the human person is revealed from the beginning as interdependent. Cardinal Ratzinger presented this idea when speaking of pregnancy and abortion. Within the womb, the child’s life depends upon being with the mother. But like Adam, mere presence is not enough, and in pregnancy, the child’s presence with the mother necessitates the mother’s goodness.
“This being-with compels the being of the other … to become a being-for.” In this, “the child in the mother’s womb is simply a very graphic depiction of the essence of human existence in general.” This image of the mother and child is the fundamental model of human existence and solidarity. This is why Mother Teresa can say that abortion is the greatest destroyer of peace.
This fundamental human reality of “being-for” for the other applies as much to physically matured persons as it does to the child. Even so, the importance of the continuity of love comes through in other areas of life. On the genetic level, this is obvious in how each child resembles the mother and father. On the personal level, this is recognized by each mother and father who immediately after birth tries to identify those similarities. It is recognized by the children born as the result of anonymous donors who try to find their anonymous fathers. Its confusion was expressed, symbolically, when the mother of the first Chinese child born from in vitro fertilization gave her daughter not only the mother’s own name, but the name of the doctor who performed the procedure.18
IV. Without Roots
The truth is this: although a person can be isolated socially and geographically from other people, no person can survive without entrusting himself to individuals and community. For this reason, radical autonomy cannot exist; nor is it an ideal to aspire to. “Whenever there is an attempt to free ourselves from this pattern, we are not on our way to divinity, but to dehumanization, to the destruction of being itself through the destruction of the truth.”19
When Marcello Pera lamented that “people no longer believe in ‘ultimate’ foundations”, it was in the context of lamenting Europe’s detachment from its historical and moral Christian. But this detachment from foundations is part of a more fundamental detachment seen also at the level of the person, especially within the family. Through divorce, abandonment, and some uses of fertility technology, parenthood is separated from presence. That is, for many children today being froma parent no longer means being with a parent and thus no longer means having a parent present being for that child.
Likewise, parenthood is separated from marriage, when being with a spouse is separated from the openness of a child being from the couple. The result is what Carle Zimmerman described as the “atomistic family.”
Nine months ago, one son recently published his diary from the weeks leading up to his mother’s choice to end her life through assisted suicide. When the doctor doubted that her pain was “unbearable” – the third and last requirement for euthanasia – the conversation of mother and son quickly evolves into a distressing fragmentation of love and life. Recounting the situation, her son writes,
I interrupt: "It should be your own decision. None of us is to say anything."
This is not the empathy or interdependence in the foundation of a civilization of love. True sympathy or compassion – in the truest sense of either of those words – is to suffer with. Moreover, this decisiveness, this silence, this measure of life is not the foundation of any civilization.
This dying mother’s decision was ultimately supported by the value of individual autonomy and the fear “of losing control.” But although autonomy is an important value – it is not the most important. More important than autonomy is community – especially that special community which is also a communion of persons.
And at the foundation of community is appreciation, gratitude and respect for the gift and dignity of human life.
Perhaps what this mother longed to hear, needed to hear was something entirely different than, “It should be your own decision. None of us is to say anything.” Perhaps, what she longed to hear from her children was, “We love you. We need you. Stay with us.” Where the family values a life in existence as a good, there can be a society and a civilization that values a life in existence as a good. But this can only happen if families themselves are not closed in on themselves. In this, autonomy of individuals and families cannot be treated as the principle or only value.
Solidarity’s role in and through the family is more than just another “social virtue” along with “truth, freedom, justice, subsidiarity and…charity.” If solidarity’s future must be built upon this communion of persons, the champion of this communion is first and foremost the family – not only as a teacher of social virtues, but as the first model of the Trinitarian communion of persons.
It is there that we not only find the family present in solidarity, but indeed its vital model and its nucleus. For this reason, John Paul II said “we cannot speak of solidarity in the modern community without also mentioning family life.”22 Without solidarity within the family, there can be no solidarity beyond the family. Without an understanding and protection of the family, there can be no easy understanding of the human family that is society, the Christian family that is the Church, or the family of families that is the parish.
V. Challenged by Childhood
In John Paul II’s first apostolic journey, he came to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and called us to a new evangelization, beginning by preaching the truth about the human person. In Benedict XVI’s first apostolic journey to the Marian Shrine at Aparecida, he called us to build not only a Continent of Hope throughout our hemisphere but to build a Continent of Love. And now, we await our Holy Father’s next encyclical, entitled “Caritas in Veritate” (“Love in Truth”), addressing social issues and globalization. As we prepare, we should take time to examine not only the condition of our countries and our continents, but also of our families. In her Nobel Prize address, Mother Teresa famously used the refrain “love begins at home.”23 What kind of foundation for solidarity is there, if it is not present within the family, with the presence of children whose very existence depends on the goodness of others?
For example, an international poll conducted by the Gallup polling institute asked people if children in their country are treated with dignity and respect. In Latin America as a whole, about 60 percent of respondents said no. In Haiti, this rose to nearly 90% saying children are not treated with dignity and respect.24 Several questions come to mind. How are these children treated that indicated a disregard for dignity and respect? Why are they not treated with dignity and respect? And, importantly, does this treatment change? At what age will children be treated with respect, if ever? And when these children grow up, will they in turn know how to treat others with dignity and respect?
But a more fundamental question is necessary today in this place so close to Tepeyac hill. How is this treatment of children possible in a continent where so many know by heart the words of Blessed Mary of Guadalupe: “Am I not here, who am your mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?”25
And were not these words addressed to a lay man who was concerned for the health and welfare of his family?
In Ecclesia in America, John Paul II writes in chapter 5 entitled, “The Path to Solidarity” that, “The human being’s dignity as a child of God is the source of human rights.”26 But when we read these words we must ask, “How are we to recognize the dignity of our neighbor as “a child of God” if we have no regard for the children we find around us?”
John Paul II has observed that nothing can replace the heart of a mother always present and waiting in her home.
But it is also true when he writes that, “A family rests on a father. If it has a father, it is a family. The father is the one who ties the family members into that unity whose name is family.” The family must be community in which both mother and father accept and live their responsibility. And it must be a community in solidarity with those whose own community of family is broken or wounded.
In this way the Christian family may walk the path of true solidarity and make its own the words of Ecclesia in America: “Solidarity is grounded in the mystery of the triune God, and in the Son of God who took flesh and died for all. It is expressed in Christian love which seeks the good of others, especially of those most in need.” 28
1Ratzinger, Eucharist, Communion, and Solidarity, Lecture at the Bishops Conference of Campania in Benevento, Italy, June 2, 2002.
2 John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 40; ibid; Ecclesia in America,52, quoting Propositio 67.
3 Karol Wojtyla. Our Gods Brother. The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. Translated by Boleslaw Taborwski. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Pg. 182.
4 John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 52.
5 John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, given at Mexico City, January 22, in the year 1999, the twenty-first of his Pontificate.
6 John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 52. Quoting Propositio 67.
7 John Paul II, General Audience, November 14, 1979.
8 Marcello Pera, Relativism, Christianity, and the West, Without Roots, pg. 19.
9 John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 26.
10 John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 7.
11 Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal.Truth and Freedom, Communio: International Catholic Review, Spring 1996 issue.
12 John Paul II, General Audience, 1979.
13 Genesis 1
14 John Paul II, General Audience, December 6, 1978. 2.
15 John Paul II, General Audience, December 6, 1978. 2.
16 John Paul II, General Audience, December 6, 1978. 3.
17 Genesis 2 accentuated in the Hebrew using not of but from as word also used for distance and origin, not mere similarity.
18 Zheng Mengzhu. Zheng (mothers name), Meng (first), Zhu (from doctors last name, Lizhu).
19 Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal.Truth and Freedom, Communio: International Catholic Review, Spring 1996 issue.
20 Marc Weide, Diary of terminally ill woman who chose euthanasia. 'I'm going to die on Monday at 6.15pm': When Marc Weide's mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she chose euthanasia. Here, we publish his shockingly frank diary of her final days. The Guardian, Saturday 23 August 2008
21 John Paul II, Address to the Members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Friday, May 2, 2003.
22 John Paul II, Homily at the Globe Stadium, Pastoral Journey to Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Sweden. Stockholm, Sweden, June 8, 1989. 6.
23 Mother Teresa, Nobel Lecture, for the Nobel Peace Prize 1979, 11 December, 1979.
25Nican Mopohua, nos. 118-119. Also quoted by Benedict XVI at Aparecida, at the Inaugural Session of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, 13 May 2007.
26 John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 57.
27 John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), Homily on the 80th anniversary of the birth of Pope Paul VI, Wawel Cathedral, September 26, 1977. Kalendarium, 782.
28 John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 52.