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


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A Faith that does Justice: What Happened?
David Eley SJ


The Society of Jesus took a prophetic stance to commit itself to seek justice in the context of faith and saw this commitment as a refocusing of its mission. The Society is now wondering if this was the right thing to do in the first place, or if, after having tried to do it, we have, as a body, truly embraced this mission.


I would like to point to a particular moment in our history to begin this reflection on the dyad of faith and justice; this is the document of The Second Vatican Council, ‘The Church in the Modern World’ (Gaudium et Spes). Other documents of the Council, ‘Lumen Gentium’ and ‘Ad Gentes’, contain a similar scope and theology. In a spirit of openness and updating, aggiornamento, the People of God, the Body of Christ tried to prayerfully face, at that time, the concerns, the peoples, other faiths and social realities, including the unjust structures of the contemporary situation: “they judge themselves deprived either through injustice or unequal distribution.” (GS #9) The Church made its commitment to attend to the needs of the world, and further understood this as part of its self-definition.

This moment had been preceded by the experiences of the worker priests through which the Church reached out to the working classes of Europe and embraced developments in the theology of the incarnation and biblical studies. A very complicated set of concerns motivated the Council but some of them deal with the church’s relationship with its own members, the role of the laity, and the relationship with other cultures and religions. There had been an opinion that since the restoration of the monarchy in 1812 after the French Revolution, and the restoration of the Society of Jesus at the same moment, the Church found its relationships to be largely with the upper classes and experienced great difficulty establishing relationships among the newly emerging working classes and the poor. The graces of the 1960s provided an opportunity for the Church and the Society of Jesus to make a renewed effort to work and live among working class people and even among the poor, and throughout the world. The concern for the poor has been a constant concern of the Church since its foundation, expressed in different ways in different eras. The Society of Jesus, too, has had a calling to the poor since the days of St. Ignatius. But a new structural understanding of injustice and structural remedies was being developed which would critically refocus our efforts.

The ferment of the 1960s brought social and cultural changes from below, a new sense of internationalism, often through the newly acquired independence of African and South American nations from their colonial powers and profound awareness of the poverty and inequalities of the world situation. Further, structural relationships between the wealth and the development of the first world countries and the poverty and depletion of the third world became more evident in the post-colonial era. A morally healthy concern for war and peace, a green environment, civil rights for African-Americans in the United States all added to the increased consciousness of the injustice in the world.

For Christians, these concerns for the injustices of the world, for the poverty and violence that were crushing such a proportion of the world’s population, were motivated both by a response to structural social and economic realties and by convictions from the traditions of the Gospels. “Feed the hungry, welcome the stranger” is an imperative of the Gospel even if we are not conscious that we were doing it “to Christ.” (Mt 25) Some important international organisations, such as Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International and Greenpeace, all formed from coalitions transcending denominational confines, addressed the needs of the poor and of the planet without explicit religious motivation. The injustice and needs themselves called out for a human and moral response. Many Catholic organisations and NGOs were created during this period.

The Society’s Commitments

The Society of Jesus responded to the Vatican Council in GC 31 (May 1965 in two sessions through to November 1966) by articulating the Jesuit form of commitment to involvement with the modern world, through the Mission of the Society and attention to our Apostolate. GC 31 expanded the meaning of mission, from ministries and “missions” to mission as one comprehensive category subsuming all the things we are sent to do. This mission was consistent with the Constitutions, and under the Roman Pontiff would help revitalize the Society.

GC 32, using the context provided in GC 31, expanded the notion of justice from its place in the social apostolate to a dimension of the entire Jesuit mission. In Decree 4 the religious dimension of justice and the primacy of the service of the faith are strong, especially at the beginning of the text (at the end, the sense is more strictly economic, political and social.) Both GC 32 and GC33 speak of the “integrating principle.” The concepts of faith and justice are being used in more global and comprehensive ways. (1) 

GC 34 takes efforts to explain the strong preoccupations of the earlier congregations and to assert the primacy of the mission of Christ as the context. The Society’s mission in the mission of Christ and the Spirit, in the context of the Church, becomes the chosen language and emphasis, rather than the “promotion of justice,” now the “struggle for justice.” This is a significant shift of stress; we are now with Christ on a mission. This could be interpreted as a corrective to previous congregations. And what is the mission of Christ? It can be put in diverse terms, redemption, the completing of the creation and the celebrating of the new creation, the proclamation of the kingdom as the vehicle of these actions of God among us, through teaching, healing, and through community. This view of the mission of Christ does not reduce what appeared to be a tension between the religious claims of the celebration of faith and the agenda of the social sciences (economic, political and social) which articulate the justice issues of our day.

What do we make of it now?

The Society of Jesus has experienced three sources of reflection throughout this history, each of them difficult: 1) the shifts of meanings and the differences in the texts of the general congregations; 2) the range of interpretations of these meanings: a development? a departure? a corrective?; and 3) the reception these expressions of Jesuit mandate and purpose have had in the Society and beyond it. (This I suppose is the point of this exchange or debate.)

Part of our Jesuit reflection on the meaning of faith and justice and how they are inter-related is focused on our General Congregations from 31 to 34. But something else is reflected in what has happened to the Social Apostolate during that same period of time.

There clearly have been shifts of meaning from congregation to congregation. The mission (sense of purpose) of the Society has been focused on the relation of issues of justice to the broad primacy of faith. But two things might have happened here. 1) By “extending” the demands of justice to all the works of the Society, the “prophetic edge” in the social justice works has been lost and the specific ministry has been diminished; and 2) the lived practice of justice has been diluted because every ministry, be it a university or a parish, tells itself that it is working for justice somewhat independently of the social, political and economic realities of the situation. Something similar happened in the Communication Ministries, which are now greatly diminished when they were adopted by the category of faith and culture. There is a flattening out of emphasis that takes place when the application of a concept is broadened to include everything. There has been a diminishing of the social ministries even though the needs of the world augment and the cry of the poor is even more vivid.

Further, the self-definition of the Society is involved here. We have chosen an explanatory definition: we are a company committed to the mission of a faith that does justice. But at the level of an operational definition it has not been able to transform all of the more traditional works of the Society. Perhaps it has been resisted and ignored. But perhaps it was wrong headed in the first place from a theological and motivational perspective. Is the theology that reveals the nature of justice too narrow in scope to serve the Society as motivation for its mission? We have been living through the tension of a re-focusing of the articulation of the mission or ‘end’ of the Society. The new articulation is some distance away from the original Ignatian one, although connected. Ignatius expressed the end of the Society in other terms, in terms of salvation as it is expressed in the Constitutions: “The end of the Society is to devote itself with God’s grace, not only to salvation and perfection of the members’ own souls, but also with the same grace to labour strenuously in giving aid to the salvation and perfection of the souls of their neighbours.” (The First and General Examen [3]) The expression of the GC 34 that we are “with Christ on a mission” seems broad enough to embrace the original Ignatian theology of salvation but is less explicit about the call of justice in our day.

David Eley SJ


Assistant for Social and International Ministries
1325 Bay Street, Suite 300,
Toronto, ON




1 Peter Bisson SJ is about to publish a thesis on these topics. I am grateful for his assistance.