The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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A Faith That Does Justice


Anthony Carroll SJ


In this short article, I would like to consider how the cultural situation of Europe has affected our commitment to justice on this continent. As GC 34 noted in paragraph 4 of its third decree on “Our Mission and Justice”, there is an intimate link between the Christian Faith and the promotion of justice, but why does this connection seem less and less important to many Christians today?

A Cultural and Social Crisis in Europe

Recently, I moved back to England after living for the last ten years in Spain, France and Germany. This experience has caused me to consider the question of European identity and culture on a number of different levels. At the theoretical level, I have been preoccupied with the questions surrounding the contemporary claims that European culture and society have moved beyond the vision of the Enlightenment and its claims to universal reason and solidarity that have defined European culture and society since the French Revolution. At the practical level, I have been trying to come to terms with the different cultural and social universes that constitute Europe. Even at the level of framing questions, let alone answering them, things are very differently understood in different countries. Not, of course, that this diversity is new. It is perhaps simply that, as countries in Europe come closer together, these differences are becoming more apparent. However, one thing seems clear: young Christians in Europe today are less and less concerned with questions of social justice. There is a sense that these concerns were concerns of yesterday, and that somehow faith is more of a private affair. Something between you and God. Why is this the case? Has social justice gone out of fashion? And if so, why?

I believe that what many commentators have called the crisis in European culture and society is a major cause of the lack of interest in social justice. One of the major aspects of this crisis is an increase in individualism and a resulting lack of community. If you speak with trade unionists they will tell you the same story. Young people feel uneasy to commit themselves to collective organizations that seem to belong to a bygone generation. This social crisis, a crisis of being unable to identify with a group is further compounded by the cultural crisis of the end of belief in reason and justice. Young people are looking for particular answers to regional questions and less for general answers to universal questions of justice and solidarity. A lack of trust in politics is permeating European societies as a result of these cultural and social crises. If you no longer want to identify with the wider society and pursue societal goals of justice and solidarity, then why believe in politics? Moreover, a second area is at play in European discontentment: a crisis of meaning. People are now looking to religion less and less to change society than to give them personal meaning in their lives. In fact, I am sure that this is not only a European phenomenon. I recently read a book on popular religion in Brazil in which the author claimed that there was a decline in the Catholic approach of trying to tackle underlying structural problems and an increase in the popularity of the evangelical approach – dealing with concrete problems such as alcoholism and family conflicts through charismatic prayer services and direct charity work.

A decline in the belief of general answers and contentment with particular solutions to concrete problems is a pragmatism that is itself becoming a universal model for both religion and politics. The problem, of course, is that social questions such as the question of social justice are not made thematic in such an approach. No doubt the end of a period of ideological standoff between different visions of society has been a major contributory factor in the decline in the belief of the social. Now the social has been eclipsed by the individual and his or her needs, whether these be material or spiritual. The end of the grand-narrative means the beginning of the local tale.

The question arises here for those of us concerned about the link between faith and justice as to what our response should be. How can the Jesuit commitment to faith and justice speak to such an individualised society?

Clearly, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out in his Encyclical Centesimus Annus, n. 25, our commitment to justice is not based on any political ideology but on the gospel demand of universal brotherhood and sisterhood in the Kingdom of God. However, the difficulty is that if one is to go beyond the justification of the Christian principle of justice to its mediation in concrete political action one faces the difficulty of what I have called the eclipse of the social. How can we make the social once again visible?

It seems to me that a crucial aspect of the General Congregation’s decree on “Our Mission and Justice” was the realization that the social is made visible in our era through the community. The concept of a “community of solidarity” is very important in this regard. The extent to which our communities can find real ways of joining our concerns to the concerns of the poor and marginalised in our societies is, I believe, the extent to which our mission of faith and justice will help to make the concerns for social justice once again visible in our society and culture. This is not to reduce theory to practice; it is to see the link between the two, which is in serious need of reinvigoration. Two tensions occur here. The first is that to a significant extent much of the work of our communities of insertion has been based on the gifts of our charismatic individuals who have created projects often alone. The institution has often placed them on a pedestal and reinforced a cycle of making such communities exotic and, perhaps now, even an endangered species in many of our provinces. The second is that as the age profile of Jesuits in Europe continues to increase there is the danger that, rather than adopting a missionary strategy, we will choose the maintenance option and play safe. However, playing safe will not bring new vocations to the society. It is only when our life is visibly different from professionals around us that a young person will be encouraged to risk his or her life for the gospel in religious life. If the concern for social justice is eclipsed in European society and culture today, then perhaps we should ask the question, is it also eclipsed in ourselves?

Anthony J. Carroll SJ
Institute of Religion Ethics and Public Life
Heythrop College
University of London
Kensington Square
London W8 5HQ