The Vision of Catholic Social Thought, Solidarity, and Human Rights

A Review of The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights by Meghan Clark

In The Vision of Catholic Social Thought, Meghan Clark shows a truly exceptional understanding of Catholic Social Teaching—both in her knowledge of the key documents in the tradition and its development and, more importantly, in her ability to grasp and articulate precisely what the Church teaches and why.

As someone who has spent far too much time reading the work of Catholic writers who tout their own commitment to Catholic teaching while often haphazardly transposing Catholic concepts onto their existing beliefs—beliefs typically derived from ideological commitments to either contemporary American conservatism or liberalism (or even libertarianism!)—it is rewarding and encouraging to read an author whose analysis is authentically rooted in Catholic thought itself. From Clark’s description of what it means to be a human person, to the purpose of authority and government, to the relationship between love and justice, to the deficiencies of collectivism and individualism, Clark’s book provides a clear and accurate delineation of key Catholic concepts and principles.

In the book, Clark—an assistant professor of Moral Theology at St John’s University (NY) and my colleague at both Millennial and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies—sets out to explore the relationship between human rights and solidarity, while making the case that “one cannot truly be present without the other.” The source of this linkage is the nature of the human person. Clark notes Pope John Paul II’s debt to personalism; her approach shares the personalist understanding of the human person that is central to Catholic social thought.

What does personalism say about the human person? Each person is made in the image of God; has innate worth and dignity due to this fact; and reaches their full development in communities, not as an isolated, autonomous individual. This worldview, which is foundational to her understanding of both human rights and solidarity, contrasts with individualism and an individualistic conception of rights.

One interesting aspect of the book is the approach Clark takes in addressing what it really means to be made in the image of God. She argues that our belief in the Trinity should shape how we understand persons as imago dei—that human persons and communities are, in fact, imago trinitatis. If the Trinity provides the ultimate paradigm of personal and social life, this should shape how we understand human rights and solidarity. This leads her to conclude that the unifying force of authentic community is not any form of self-interest (as even some non-personalist communitarians contend), but love and self-gift with communion as the ultimate goal. In helping to clarify the integrated and relational view of the human person, Clark utilizes the work of philosopher Charles Taylor.

In her approach to international and global politics, Clark operates from a worldview that might be best described as “cosmopolitan communitarianism” or “global communitarianism.” There is a commitment to universal rights and global solidarity fused with a belief in strong communities at multiple levels where there are duties that correspond to these fundamental rights. It is cosmopolitan in that it is rooted in the belief that we are members of one human family and that our destiny is bound together. It is communitarian in its rejection of both individualism and collectivism. It recognizes the importance of multiple levels of community, while eschewing the provincialism and insularity of a more localist understanding of subsidiarity.

Clark also utilizes the work of Amartya Sen on development, while highlighting some of the differences between Sen’s approach and the Catholic understanding of the human person and development. Sen’s work is used to demonstrate the relevance and practicality of the Catholic approach to integral human development and authentic freedom. She uses Sen to highlight that freedom demands more than negative liberty, an insight deeply rooted in Catholic social thought. Clark also ties in virtue theory. She writes, “Moral virtues within Catholic social teaching are framed by the call to realize more fully human lives within a more fully human community.”

Virtue is developed through our habitual actions. Solidarity can be developed as a virtue through practicing respect for human rights—both as individual persons and communities. Clark identifies solidarity as an attitude, duty, and virtue. The first two are ideally building blocks for the latter. As a virtue, solidarity sits between two vices: excessive individualism and collectivism.

Ultimately, the state has the responsibility to protect human rights. However, all levels of community have a responsibility to do what they can to promote human rights because they are called to be participants in creating a civilization of human rights out of solidarity. We all have an obligation to promote the rights and flourishing of others.

Clark’s analysis is particularly relevant when it comes to how the international community should respond to the gravest violations of human rights. From the fascists of the 1930s and 1940s to the mass murdering tyrants of today, far too many Catholics have defended the legitimacy of brutal regimes that violate the most fundamental rights of their citizens, adopting an understanding of civil authority rooted in legalistic secular theories. Clark, citing Pacem in Terris, explains the proper Catholic view of legitimacy: “the legitimacy of civil authority is directly related to its protection and promotion of the human rights of its citizens or members.” Ultimately, this understanding of authority, the unity of the human family, and the centrality of solidarity leads her to endorse the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and highlight the contribution Church teaching could make to reframing sovereignty. If the Church lives out its commitment to solidarity, we can expect to see R2P fully incorporated into formal Catholic Social Teaching at some point.

Overall, Clark’s book is must-read for scholars, intellectuals, and everyone else who is interested in Catholic Social Teaching, human rights, or solidarity. Though dense in content and requiring careful reading to grasp some of the more complex points and arguments, it is nevertheless written in an accessible way that allows non-theologians to understand her points without sacrificing any of the depth that should come from a scholarly approach. I suspect this is the first of many valuable books by Professor Meghan Clark.