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Comments on Cardinal Cupich’s Consistent Ethic of Solidarity (Matthew A. Shadle)

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In April, Cardinal Blasé Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, gave the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Common Cause Inaugural Address at Loyola University in Chicago, and this address was recently published by Commonweal. In the address, Cupich revisits the “consistent ethic of life” proposed by his predecessor Bernardin, suggesting that it has continued relevance despite the criticism lodged against it over the years. He makes the case that in American society today, the consistent ethic of life ought to be presented as a “consistent ethic of solidarity.”

On this last point, Cupich’s comments are insightful. When Bernardin first proposed the consistent ethic of life in 1983, he was hopeful that it would be able to bring people together, bridging the divide between the political left and right and providing a path to dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics. The years that followed did not bear out this hope: partisan divisions have only hardened, and the Catholic Church in the United States itself has become increasingly divided along partisan lines. Cupich points to this increasing fragmentation and isolation as a central problem the church must address:

Without oversimplifying, the challenge for us today is not only that the issues are in silos, separated one from another; it is also that people, in their social networks and through the media they consult, are in silos, bereft of challenge or debate, isolated by differences of opinion or politics, race or social class, in a way that obscures our shared humanity and the ties that historically have united us as a nation of immigrants.

Cupich proposes the consistent ethic of solidarity as a way of fostering “a reawakening of our interdependence as a human family,” of developing relationships that cut across the silos created by social media and other cultural factors in what some call “the big sort.” Cupich believes that the isolation and fragmentation caused by “the big sort” facilitates the dehumanization of others who are different from us, particularly vulnerable populations, and makes people more susceptible to propaganda and harmful ideologies. Therefore, building relationships of solidarity is necessary to promote the consistent ethic of life, to work toward a vision in which the dignity of each person is respected.

As I have written elsewhere, one weakness of Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life is that it was not clear what social groups or movements should be responsible for advocating for this consistent ethic in a way that would have social or political influence. Bernardin himself admits on many occasions that the consistent ethic cuts across the platforms of the two political parties, and while he suggests that people committed to the ethic should work to transform the parties from within, he does not give attention to how individuals committed to these shared values could mobilize to have an impact on the parties. He does at times speak of the church as the “constituency” for the consistent ethic, but he even more strongly sees the ethic as bringing together Catholics and non-Catholics without addressing how this interreligious constituency could be mobilized or organized.

Although in his address Cupich does not address the question of who is the constituency of the consistent ethic of solidarity, I believe his proposal helps provide a solution to this dilemma. Whereas the consistent ethic of life provided a vision of human dignity linking together otherwise distinct issues, the consistent ethic of solidarity points us toward what Barrett Turner, writing at this blog, has called a “Catholic social praxis,” a way of working together to promote human dignity and lift up the vulnerable. As Turner notes, such a shift toward praxis is evident in Pope Francis’s teaching, as well.

Cupich asks us to “mine the church’s social teaching on solidarity,” and he points in particular to the teaching of Pope John Paul II, who gave such great attention to the concept. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul famously defines solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (#38). Despite solidarity’s universalism, in his later encyclical Centesimus Annus John Paul claims that it is so-called “intermediate communities” that “give life to specific networks of solidarity” (#49). These intermediate communities include natural communities like the family and long-standing associations like labor unions, but also social movements devoted to specific causes and issues like pro-life organizations, Black Lives Matter, and immigration advocacy organizations.

I believe that John Paul’s teaching that we ought to look to these intermediate communities to “give life” to solidarity provides a clue as to where we can find the constituency for the consistent ethic of solidarity. Catholics ought to form faith-based organizations and participate in interreligious or nonsectarian organizations that can work toward this ethic. For example, Catholics committed to the pro-life cause should look to movements such as Feminists for Life and the Whole Life movement that seek not only to protect the dignity of the unborn but also to create bonds of solidarity with vulnerable women more likely to choose abortion. Catholic networks like Justice For Immigrants and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) work together with nonsectarian immigration advocacy organizations to promote the rights of immigrants and refugees. Organizations and movements such as these are the constituency for the consistent ethic of solidarity.

The church itself, however, must also take an active role in forming people in the virtue of solidarity and encouraging their participation in social movements working toward solidarity. In his address, Cupich speaks to the church’s role in shaping public policy, but I think that the church’s public mission must also include a focus on building up these networks of solidarity within civil society if the consistent ethic is to come to fruition.

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

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