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


English   Español   Français   Italiano  



Faith That Does Justice
João Batista Libânio SJ


GC 34 took place at a time when liberation theology in Latin America had already become rooted in important sectors of the church and the Society of Jesus. The phrase “faith and justice” appealed to their deepest longings. This theology did not simply fall on untilled soil. The minds of many Jesuits were ready for it, and GC 34 was received with enthusiasm and gratitude.

Identifying the present day charisma of the Society with this option for the poor has helped Jesuits to reflect and put into practice a liberating social engagement fed by an enlightened faith. After a period of hesitation in which social engagement became so prominent that the spiritual dimension began to wane, the thrust of GC 34 helped achieve a better balance between the social and spiritual poles. Without question, at the centre of our understanding of the decree was the option for the poor; this allowed for two movements. First, it allowed us to leave behind concrete social and political engagement in order to reinterpret the meaning of faith, in order to free faith from alienation. This first movement occurred during the immediate reception of the decree.

The starting point for the second movement was the experience of God in the poor. The pursuit of a spirituality of liberation became more relevant, correcting secularist exaggeration in some of the more engaged groups. Ignatian spirituality revealed itself to be an inspiring way of achieving a better articulation between faith and justice, so that when asked which spirituality could help the liberation process, Gustavo Gutierrez unhesitatingly pointed to that of Ignatius. This affinity between spirituality and social liberation allowed for a better reception of the proposals of GC 34.

The concept of justice, even though rooted in Scripture, was understood in the Latin American context to address mainly the social justice perspective. This meant the exploitation of the poor and marginalised. Consequently, there was a shift from understanding poverty as a lack of the necessary goods for sustaining life – implying the need for a pastoral ministry of charity – to understanding poverty as the result of unjust economic structures. Social analysis came to the forefront implying the need for a pastoral stance that could target social structures.

For decades thereafter, until the fall of Socialism, the practice of justice – influenced to some extent by Socialism itself – concentrated on the transformation of the social reality. This was the hegemonic discourse. This emphasis awakened in the dominant classes and in certain church sectors the suspicion that faith was being politicized and ideologised. It is difficult to understand this accusation.

In the context of Latin America, the Puebla Conference was dominated by this kind of polemic. A deeper reflection showed that the questions arising from liberation theology were not so much an indictment of our involvement in social issues. It was, rather, a question of the dominant classes rejecting social involvement and attracting to their side some in the church who could, or would not, take the political criticism aimed at the church and the church’s power structure.

Throughout the seventies it was said “The church is born of the people.” Later, to avoid any misunderstanding, “ the work of the Holy Spirit” was added. Such a church was seen as rising from the base communities. Some feared such a notion would risk undermining the hierarchical principle of the church. The dream of John XXIII of a church of the poor, a grass roots church, was getting eroded.

In spite of the fact that the condition of the poor has not changed to any extent, the fall of Socialism, globalising neo-liberalism, and the culture of post-modernity have dramatically modified the understanding of the relationship between justice and faith.

Back in the sixties, the challenge where faith was concerned was secularization; the challenge where justice was concerned was its seeming irrelevance to the liberation process. Some militants of Catholic Action abandoned not only religious practice, but faith itself. They alleged that, having become acquainted with the Marxian tools for social transformation, they no longer knew what to do with faith. Had there been an understanding of a “faith that does justice,” surely those idealistic militants, coming from a church background, would not have abandoned it.

Nowadays, what is threatening the Christian faith is the explosion of religious beliefs that undermine its critical strength. Injustice is no longer understood as the main problem, despite the fact that injustice continues to grow. To a large extent, the poorest social classes have lost the hope of a profound transformation of society. The fall of Socialism in 1989 left the world devoid of ideology. Neo-liberalism does not even deserve the label of ideology insofar as it does not offer any hope to anyone. It offers only an immediate, sophisticated, and consumerist well-being for a minority, always in contrast to the huge underclass of the wretchedly poor.

Pentacostalist and Neo-pentacostalist denominations, along with some Catholic charismatic groups, now serve the multitude of the poor. They offer not a critical faith with a relation to justice, but rather expressions, rites, and religious signs intended to console or perform miracles. These religious forms are meant to give solutions to immediate problems in an efficient and immediate manner; they are not meant to sustain faith.

The same lack of meaning affects the upper classes. As part of a hedonistic and consumerist society, they too are seeking life’s consolation and joy. This is not the goal of a critical faith which struggles for justice. Such a faith is being replaced by engagement in prayer groups, praise gatherings, “Cercos de Gericó”, and countless parties, especially of young people.

Meanwhile, the situation of the poor is worsening, both in terms of the number of poor people and in terms of their needs. The new poor are the ones who are ever closer to physical, cultural and religious death. These poor simply do not matter. Once, when someone accused a businessman of exploiting the poor, he responded without hesitation, “I do not even want to have them as employees’. That is the most terrible form of oppression: ignoring the poor as though they did not exist even if their number runs to the millions or billions.

The neoliberal form of capitalism has no face, no name. It comprises financial transactions that go around the world by means of high speed telecommunications. The faith which does justice is not satisfied with charity works any more, even if those works still do some good. However, they are unable to affect the financial system, so powerful is it. We need to find new ways of acting.

The Porto Alegre World Social Forum opens new ways of doing things, opportunities for consistent action by Christians who are moved by an engaged faith. More than just criticising the exploitation of the poor, which continues to be violent, it is a question of articulating and sharing experiences from around the world. Both the Church and the Society have the resources, especially intelligent and committed people who will walk together with the best in civil society towards a new utopia: A different world is possible.


Original Portuguese
Translated by Ronald Boudreaux SJ and Mário Almeida SJ

João Batista Libânio SJ
Instituto Santo Inácio
C. Postal 5047
31611-970 Belo Horizonte, MG