We’re all in this together.
This saying, now everywhere on social media, serves as a perfectly workable definition of the Catholic social doctrine principle of solidarity. Forced into social distancing by a common threat, the sense of unity and concern for the common good is acutely felt. While there seems to be wide agreement in principle, however, the way in which this solidarity plays out in practice varies widely.
Our “virtual piazza” offers us countless views of neighborly generosity, of masked survivors being discharged from hospitals, and of health care workers and other everyday heroes being celebrated for their courage and sacrifice. Also countless are the memes and videos—which range from humorous to unsettling—that highlight how poorly many of us are spending our time in quarantine.
Subsidiarity: a function of love and community
Although these two key principles are sometimes presented as being in opposition to one another, they’re actually two sides of the same coin. Subsidiarity, like solidarity, is a function of love and community: when the most personal and necessary institutions fail, higher-level institutions should stand ready to serve, while preserving the primacy and natural rights of the lower institutions.
The dignity of the human person is at the heart of social doctrine
A proper balance is always one grounded in the governing principle of all of Catholic social and moral doctrine, which is the dignity of the human person made in the image of his loving Creator. Because God is an eternal communion of persons—the Most Holy Trinity—we too are essentially made for communion with one another, each with an eternal destination.
Keeping this fundamental truth in mind opens up social doctrine as a lively and well-ordered approach to organizing societies. If we forget this truth, it is too easy to slip into seeing the doctrine merely as justification for our preferred policies and political ideology.
The way of love within society
To approach Catholic social doctrine through its proper anthropological and theological understanding allows us to eschew political binaries and focus first, as every great saint of charity has throughout history, on Christ present in the Eucharist and in every person. This opens up what the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" calls “the way of love,” which leads not only to such natural and beautiful acts of charity as mentioned above, but to a wider justice throughout society.
What does this look like in concrete terms during a crisis like the current one? It looks like St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteers helping struggling families with rent or a hot meal. It’s a small business owner of any faith or none who stretches beyond her budget to keep workers employed, and even accepts federal help to make this happen. It’s a larger, profitable company digging into its reserves not only to keep its workers employed, but to finance possible cures for Covid-19. It’s families praying the rosary and sharing meals or rolls of toilet paper with the family whose breadwinner has lost his job. It’s spontaneous bagpipe performances in the street and nurses avoiding all outside social contact so they can safely care for elderly dementia patients. It’s landlords discounting or forgiving rent, banks who do the same with mortgage payments, and a government whose interventions support these lower-level efforts without creating perverse incentives with borrowed money that our children will have to pay back.
It’s an anti-fragile civil society full of families, businesses, clubs, and civil servants who have remembered that we are all, in fact, in this together. These are natural and human things that require the participation of those of all faiths, but that also share a single underlying Cause that is written into our spiritual and biological humanity. The Church has a great opportunity in this crisis to give witness through solidarity with the most vulnerable to what, and who, this Cause truly is.