Publication Year: 2014
Ramón Luzárraga: What was your inspiration for this project?
Meghan J. Clark: When I was 14 years old, my father took me to hear Mary Ann Glendon speak on the role of the Vatican and human rights at 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference. I was moved by her discussion of the complexities of women’s participation and the need for access to clean water as a women’s human rights issue. At the end of the lecture, I turned to him and said – that’s what I want to do. I did not end up studying international human rights law, but basically the complexity and the possibility of human rights and the role of the Church/Catholic social teaching that inspired me then continues to inspire me today. We say that every human person has equal human rights and inviolable human dignity – but how do we put that into practice? How do we practice human rights? What does this mean for the Church? For me, the answer is clear – we can only do it together in community.
Why should the general public be interested in this work?
We talk about human rights a lot. It serves as the basic framework and rhetoric of global ethics, especially in international debates. At the same time, the liberal human rights tradition gets critiqued because of its narrow focus and the way human rights have been selectively prioritized. Similarly, many people often dismiss the role of religion as if it is merely part of the problem. Part of what my book does is defend a broader approach to human rights from Catholic social thought and propose this as a bridge between approaches that see only individuals or that reject individual human rights all together. It offers a positive contribution of Catholicism to the global conversation on human rights, development, and poverty. Anyone who is interested in the why behind Pope Francis’s economic critique and focus on building a culture of solidarity should read my book!
What is one question that you wish someone would ask you about your work, and how would you answer?
Question: But isn’t this vision of solidarity risky? Are you really suggesting we need to make ourselves more vulnerable?
My answer: Yes, solidarity is a risk. My argument is that solidarity is not possible if I do not make myself vulnerable to another person’s reality. If your pain cannot change me, then I may be able to give and practically help your situation, but I can never be in solidarity with you. This is a radical challenge but it also is not naïve or idealistic. If we think for a minute about love—it is not possible to love without making oneself vulnerable. To love is to risk pain. Solidarity does not ask that all of us put ourselves in dangerous vulnerability, although for some accompaniment by physically walking alongside the oppressed is how they live solidarity. But for all of us, solidarity demands is that I recognize that my humanity is bound up in yours and that this means my human dignity and yours are linked. Facing unjust vulnerability of others requires that we both learn how to have mercy and compassion (suffering with them) as well as self-critically ask are we standing with the victims or with the perpetrators of injustice. As Desmond Tutu famously said, in the face of injustice, there is no neutrality. Solidarity is a risk; but like love, it is a risk worth taking.
You make the contention that the concept of solidarity, presented since the pontificate of Paul VI, is an attitude, a duty, and a principle recognized by Catholic Social Teaching, but whose definition the Church kept ambiguous. Given the wide range of understandings of solidarity found in Catholic regions of the world, represented across the political spectrum from leftist socialist to rightist corporatist definitions, why didn’t the Church attempt a definition of its own?
A clear, succinct definition of solidarity has eluded Catholic social teaching, which is very different from human rights discourse, where it is precise and detailed. Solidarity is an attitude, a duty, a principle, and a virtue. Part of the ambiguity though is the nature of solidarity itself. I would propose that it is in the midst of this ambiguity that the Catholic Church is attempting to give a definition of its own. The challenge, however, is that solidarity does not fit into a neat, clear definition—what does it mean to be one human family? Like justice, solidarity has many facets and there is a wide range of understandings of solidarity—but as I argue in the book, there are clear boundaries and much of what those societies call “solidarity” does not meet the requirements. In a real sense, I believe my book and the Church’s explanations of solidarity are “faith seeking understanding” in practice…we’re getting closer largely by getting clearer about what is not solidarity. I also think solidarity has also remained a bit elusive because it really is pulling us back to the depths of our theology of the person and of the Triune God—solidarity is about the very core of Christianity. What does it mean to be a person in the image and likeness of God? To be brothers and sisters in one human family? Who are we called to be?
In the United States, when the word “solidarity” is mentioned in our political climate, it is often dismissed as language that cloaks a nefarious attempt at collectivism, which is decried as a threat to individual liberty. Your argument that a truly virtuous society would be one of solidarity that requires the integrity of individuals be upheld with the integrity of the community is therefore dismissed as naïve or idealistic because Americans historically have a mistrust of the group as potentially tyrannical. (Perhaps this is because of what our immigrant forbearers escaped from?) Is this a legitimate claim to argue against or a reflexive bias to be identified and critiqued as wrongheaded thinking?
In the United States, the strongest critiques of “solidarity” come from those who reify individual liberty at the expense of any real community integrity. For Catholic social thought, the community is not merely instrumental; it is a common good. It is the idea that together we are more than merely a collection of individuals. We have a crisis right now in America—a crisis of the common good. There is no longer a clear, shared vision. This is something detailed, for example, in Robert Putnam’s books. One need not look any further than the question of gun violence. Nowhere is this vision of the individual as an isolated, autonomous entity so firmly entrenched at the expense of the community. Sandy Hook, Newtown, Charleston, the list goes on and on; and now Lafayette … only in the United States are the horrors of gun violence met with desire for more guns. I don’t think American resistance to “solidarity” is that it is naïve or idealistic but the extreme version of American individualism and exceptionalism that actually rejects my vision as the virtuous society. At the same time, the American people do have a strong spirit of generosity—this is a cultural starting point for conversation.