WelCom July 2020:
Monsignor Gerard Burns
How did you experience the Coronavirus lockdowns? Was it positive, was it difficult, what happened to you?
In the last few months because of the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown in New Zealand we have tried to be part of a national solidarity to stop the spread of the virus. A solidarity bred of a hope to save lives and protect so many personnel involved in the general health care of Aotearoa as a country.
More recently there is the movement to recognise and put aside the systemic discrimination against people of colour, but born in the USA as Black Lives Matter. This is an expression of solidarity to defeat an injustice and inequality in society.
In both cases, these are examples of concerted action to change something. In the first case it was led by the present government in New Zealand on the basis of public-health concerns and the common good. In the second case it is a movement that is born out of social groupings on the basis of clear examples of mistreatment and injustice towards black people in the United States.
We could think of other examples but it’s worth thinking of the basis of these actions in our common humanity. In one case (the lockdown) the handling was ‘from the top’ through government commitment, decision and decisive action. In the second the organisation is more amorphous but on a large scale and organised on the power of images, but also based in a sense of what is appropriate treatment of human beings.
In Catholic Social Teaching the virtue of solidarity was spoken of especially in the 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS). This letter was an updating of the 1967 ground-breaking encyclical, Populorum Progressio (On the Progress of Peoples), which was the first time that popes had formally reflected on the process of international development at a time of many countries becoming independent of colonial masters, especially in Africa.
The English title of the encyclical is usually given as ‘On Social Concerns’ but it could equally be called ‘The Duty of Solidarity’. The author, John Paul II, had a great influence on the birth of the trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in Poland, which helped bring down the Polish communist government in the 1980s. SRS was a further development of the theme in the Cold War context.
‘…solidarity is not a vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people both near and far. On the contrary it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good: that is the good of all and each individual, because we are all really responsible for all’.St Pope John Paul II, SRS para 38
The encyclical reflects on the division of the world into East and West and proposes and that each exercised its own forms of imperialism and how individuals, peoples and countries can be blocked from full human development by systems of political, economic, cultural and spiritual oppression (structures of sin). Recognising these structures/systems involves a conversion based on recognition of our mutual interdependence.
It is on the basis of a reflection of individuals and nations’ growing awareness of injustices and violations of human rights – even in countries far away – and the desire to do something to act against those violations that the encyclical defines solidarity. John Paul II considers solidarity as a virtue based on the recognition of people’s interdependence.
So in SRS paragraph 38 he says: ‘…solidarity is not a vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people both near and far. On the contrary it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good: that is the good of all and each individual, because we are all really responsible for all’.
SRS refers back to the scriptural image of the poor man Lazarus. In Populorum Progressio Paul VI asked all to recognise each people’s right to sit at the table of the common banquet of life, unlike Lazarus who lay at the rich man’s gate, with ‘dogs coming to lick his sores’. This promise of equality is written into the charter of the UN and is at the heart of the Gospel.
Monsignor Gerard Burns is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Wellington.