To start with a dictionary definition, solidarity deals with the “unity (as of a group . . .) that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards.” The term, however, gains clarity and concreteness when we realize its association with the workers’ union that helped to bring down the rule of Soviet Communism in Poland. And so it was a term dear to the Polish Pope John Paul II. He used it often in his writings, especially in social encyclical letters like “The Social Concern of the Church” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis–1988) and “On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum” (Centesimus Annus—1991) and thus it passed into the vocabulary of Catholic church teaching.

In his 2001 inaugural address as President of Xavier University, Michael J. Graham, SJ, elucidated the term as follows:

Solidarity is a rich word within the Roman Catholic social tradition, a word coined in the Church’s effort to discover a middle path between the radical collectivism of Marxism and radical individualism of liberal capitalism. It denotes a habit of being, if you will, a way that people are and stand with one another as they take on each other’s cares and concerns as if they were their own. People who stand in solidarity with one another act upon their vocations as sons and daughters of the one God and share the circumstances of their lives; they take the advantages that they have been given and place them at the service of others who have not been similarly blessed. Because they come to justice through the community of faith, they come prepared for the long-haul struggle that is inevitable in shaping a world that is both more human and more divine.

For us, with our commitment to distinctive Jesuit education, there is no better extended exploration of the meaning of solidarity than that given by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general of the Jesuits from 1983 to 2008, at Santa Clara University in October of 2000:

We must . . . raise our Jesuit educational standard to “educate the whole person of solidarity for the real world.” Solidarity is learned through “contact” rather than through “concepts,” as the Holy Father said recently at an Italian university conference. When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection.

Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose, and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed. . . . [S]tudents need close involve- ment with the poor and the marginal now, in order to learn about reality and become adults of solidarity in the future.

If the measure and purpose of our universities lie in what the students become, then the faculty are at the heart of our universities. Their mission is to seek the truth and to form each student into a whole person of solidarity who will take responsibility for the real world.

The faculty’s “research, which must be rationally rigorous, firmly rooted in faith and open to dialogue with all people of good will,” not only obeys the canons of each discipline, but ultimately embraces human reality in order to help make the world a more fitting place for six billion of us to inhabit. . . .

Usually we speak of professors in the plural, but what is at stake is more than the sum of so many individual commitments and efforts. It is a sustained interdisciplinary dialogue of research and reflection, a continuous pooling of expertise. The purpose is to assimilate experiences and insights according to their different disciplines in “a vision of knowledge which, well aware of its limitations, is not satisfied with fragments but tries to integrate them into a true and wise synthesis” about the real world. Unfortunately, many faculty still feel academically, humanly, and, I would say, spiritually unprepared for such an exchange.

[N]o point of view is ever neutral or value-free. By preference, by option, our Jesuit point of view is that of the poor. So our professors’ commitment to faith and justice entails a most significant shift in viewpoint and choice of values. Adopting the point of view of those who suffer injustice, our professors seek the truth and share their search and its results with our students. A legitimate question , even if it does not sound academic, is for each professor to ask, “When researching and teaching, where and with whom is my heart?” To expect our professors to make such an explicit option and speak about it is not easy; it entails risks. But I do believe this is what Jesuit educators have publicly stated . . . to be our defining commitment.

To make sure that the real concerns of the poor find their place in research, faculty members need an organic collaboration with those . . . who work among and for the poor and actively seek justice. . . . Just as the students need the poor in order to learn, so the professors need partnerships with the social apostolate in order to research and teach and form. . . .

If the professors choose viewpoints incompatible with the justice of the Gospel and consider researching, teaching, and learning to be separable from moral responsibility for their social repercussions, they are sending a message to their students. They are telling them that they can pursue their careers and self-interest without reference to anyone “other” than themselves.

By contrast, when faculty do take up interdisciplinary dialogue and socially engaged research in partnership with social ministries, they are exemplifying and modeling knowledge that is service, and the students learn by imitating them as “masters of life and of moral commitment,” as the Holy Father said.