Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Recovering our sense of solidarity

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

More than a quarter-century ago, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke about the futility of treating important issues like abortion, capital punishment, nuclear proliferation, the use of military force and others as discrete topics. He argued for a consistent ethic of life, thereby connecting these issues in a comprehensive way. Today, however, divisions within the church and society are not only about different positions on issues. We as a people are divided. Our world is plagued by global terrorism and the re-emergence of nationalism, threatened by climate change, the exploitation of limited resources, the exclusion of many people who are left homeless, or forced to migrate owing to wars and privation. As a result, we have become fearful of one another in a time marked by great divisions over race, ethnicity, religion and place of origin.

The challenge for us today, then, is not only that we are divided over issues, as was the case in Cardinal Bernardin’s era. Humanity itself is divided. People are living an insulated existence, “protected” from one another by their social networks, the media they consult, the books they read. This allows them to avoid encountering difference, which obscures our shared humanity, as well as the ties that historically have united us as a nation of immigrants.

As Arthur Brooks observes in his recent book “Love Your Enemies,” this has created a “pandemic of contempt,” which has at its heart, in the words of 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

This toxic environment of “anger mixed with disgust” is infecting our political environment, especially when voices within the halls of governance give rise to xenophobia, nationalism, populism and racial intolerance. This polarization is also spilling over into the life of the church — to the point that it seems to be open season on papal teachings, especially those calling for needed reforms in the church, promoting a consistent application of the church’s social teachings regarding human dignity, care of the environment and a preferential option for the poor. Sadly, ad hominem attacks through social media, including against Pope Francis, seem to be commonplace.

Particularly interesting is Brooks’ citing of solid research showing that contempt “doesn’t just destabilize our relationships and our politics … it also causes a comprehensive degradation of our immune system. It damages self-esteem, alters behavior and even impairs cognitive processing. It isn’t just harmful for the person being treated poorly. It is also harmful for the contemptuous person because treating persons with contempt causes us to secrete two stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline.” The problem is that contempt is like a drug. It is addictive, and there are pushers who exploit people’s fears.

Brooks offers a detoxification treatment: sharing our stories with one another. Doing so stimulates a “hormone in the brain called oxytocin. It is a hormone synthesized in the brain’s hypothalamus; it makes us feel bonded to others (and we become) more trustworthy, generous, charitable and compassionate.”

Pope St. John Paul II shared similar concerns about the divisions within humanity, knowing they would eventually erode unity within the church. That’s why he introduced the concept of solidarity. His goal was to unite humanity through a reawakening of our interdependence as a human family. In his groundbreaking encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” the saint urged us to “see the ‘other,’ whether a person, people or nation … as our ‘neighbor,’ a ‘helper’ … a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”

It is time for all of us to begin a conversation about the need to replace a culture of contempt with a culture of solidarity. Just as Brooks advocated the importance of sharing our stories with one another, the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching urges “men and women of our day (to) cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part. They are debtors because of those conditions that make human existence livable, and because of the indivisible and indispensable legacy constituted by culture, scientific and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods and by all that the human condition has produced.”

 But it will also require all Catholics to reflect on and take seriously the first mark of the church, namely that we are one. The Holy Father has the unique charism of guaranteeing that unity. We should always be willing to distance ourselves from anyone who would injure that ministry of unity, the unity the Lord himself prayed for the night before he died for us: “Father, I pray … that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”