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


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José María Mardones[2]




It seems proper to clarify at the start that I am dealing here only with the theme of “obstacles,” and that I am therefore leaving out other aspects like possible available opportunities. In this brief note I first develop the socio-political and religious factors that act as an obstacle to a commitment to justice, and thereafter raise some questions that could help us re-define our commitment to it.


Socio-political and Religious Factors


Of the many relevant socio-political and religious factors I would like to mention the following.


(1) The fundamentalist climate


The fundamentalist climate or position revolves more around the issue of a ‘cultural’ or ‘moral’ war, a perspective blind to the bond that exists between neo-liberal capitalism and moral decay. This “blindness” is conceptually and theoretically defended in the following manner.


(a) Huntington’s thesis as an ideological/theological justification


I am obviously referring to the well known thesis of Harvard professor Samuel Huntington,[3] who speaks about the clash of civilisations in its widest sense, to explain the preponderance today of religious fundamentalism and weak critical and prophetic tendencies. Even if we do not agree with this thesis it gives us food for thought.

  Huntington maintains that after the end of the bipolar world which characterised the cold war years, we have entered a new situation where culture –and concretely, religion– will play a dominant role in future conflicts. His thesis highlights the fact that conflicts have shifted from the economic and political to the cultural and religious sphere. The reason for this shift may be sought in the apparent lack of structural problems in the important spheres of economics and politics. The fundamental pillars on which the economic system rests may suffer certain re-adjustments but today it is no longer possible to launch a critique against, or fundamentally change, the market economy. A structural critique would amount to acknowledging the existence of an alternative to the existing market economic system, when, as a matter of fact, argues Huntington, it does not exist. In the sphere of politics it is also not possible to make a frontal critique of the ‘democratic system’ or of political democracy. Attempting such a critique is tantamount to advancing an alternative that does not exist today. It may be feasible to propose some changes and adjustments, but democracy as a system is something desirable to all, and hence cannot become a space of tensions and important conflicts. As systems, today’s economic and political set-ups lack an alternative. Strong conflicts, therefore, have shifted to the cultural-religious sphere. We need not forget that de facto the ‘clash of civilisations’ does indeed exist or, at least, that Islam has a bloody frontier: passing from the Balkans, through Pakistan and Indonesia and returning to North and Sub-Saharan Africa.


(b) The justification of fundamentalist religions


We may ask ourselves the reason for the seeming preponderance of a fundamentalist sensitivity in all religions and not merely Islam. One possible explanation is that the present economic and political systems jointly generate a series of traumas that society, as a whole, must assume and manage. Religious fundamentalism is precisely an answer to these traumas (“traumas of modernity”) because, in some way, it lightens them and makes them more bearable. A reading of Faith from the perspective of justice would provoke more tension, or what we might call an ‘over-tension’. A more traditional and fundamentalist religion guides and balances; instead of generating more fear and anxiety, it offers help and solace. This kind of religion works because it distends the social fabric and produces a feeling of peacefulness and reassurance.

  This idea may be expressed with the help of the following equation


E = D + Ec + Rf




E = equilibrium state of the social system

D = democratic system (political sphere)

Ec = economic system (fundamentally neo-liberal)

Rf = fundamentalist religion


In the proposed equation D and Ec supposedly generate a series of traumas and uprootings that bring instability to the system. To counteract these disturbing forces we need to add Rf to strengthen roots, produce interior peace and assuage the effects of the traumas. It is evident that in such a view, religion plays basically an ameliorating and equilibrating role.

  In Huntington’s proposed scheme, equilibrium is more important than conflict; and this equilibrium cannot be generated through fundamental changes or adjustments in D or Ec. A religion with a fundamentalist touch seems to be a religion consistent with the existing neo-liberal system.


(2) The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of political passion


After the fall of the Berlin wall we witnessed the end of messianism in politics (and in religion?). It has been substituted by an obsessive and abusive political pragmatism, resulting in a loss of moral tension in politics and the entrenching of a Manichean perspective (Guillebaud[4]).

  Levinas speaks of the end of political passion. It is also like speaking of the end of a religion which is critical of injustice, sensitive to social and cultural phenomena that generate inequality, and exploitation. We find instead a religion that defends pragmatism and engages in the cultural struggle against the immoral consequences of modernity.

  From this perspective, some, Huntington among them, would like to conclude that Vatican II made a mistake when it tried to reconcile the Church with enlightened modernity. The grave mistake was that the Church chose the wrong modernity; the same thing happened earlier to Lutheran reform. Instead of talking about economic modernity, they preferred to talk about critical and enlightened modernity.

  We may also refer here to the establishment of a Manichean element in politics. We have in mind a situation in which political differences are not great, they are certainly not ‘significantly’ important, because today everybody searches for a position in the ‘centre’, what some have called the ‘extreme centre’. In this sense, the political discourse, uses a language that is grandiloquent on the one hand, and dramatically empty on the other. In most instances, the political discourse thrives on magnifying minor differences and keeps silent vis-à-vis the really important problems. Political discourse today tends to gloss over fundamental questions.

  Some object to this thesis and ask whether we have not still been left with some messianic ‘positivist’ remains (J. Gray[5]).

  The Western (religious-political) myth points to the concrete fulfilment, in a near future, of a utopia – be it liberal, Marxist, now Islamic fundamentalist. History is seen as a prelude to a new world. Might not the present fundamentalist war between Islamic and market fundamentalism (Bush) be one of its manifestations? Are we not faced with the vestiges of a demented messianism that channels the wrath and the disquiet through ‘cultural and moral wars’ without seriously questioning the existing bond with the techno-economic world?


(3) ‘Moral war’ as a hiding mechanism


We may then talk about today’s moral war as a hiding mechanism; talking about today's moral war shifts the discourse and the issue from the more fundamental and controversial one of power-sharing among nations. The most glaring example is the last US election: those who voted for Bush had the most serious socio-economic justice reasons not to have done so. Bush has been voted to power by the rural geographical centre, by those less educated and poorer. Why? We may interpret the vote as a shifting of social problems (at bottom, a concealing process) to the cultural-moral-religious sphere. Is this a remnant of class antagonism projected on to the more ‘horizontal’ questions of culture and diversity? (S.Zizek[6]).

  We are confronting, therefore, the legitimising function of a ‘fundamentalism’ that reads the Apocalypse literally. (Approximately 36-40 per cent of the population of the United States believe in some apocalyptic form of fundamentalism). Tim LaHaye, one of the leaders of the Christian Right, has sold 62 million copies of a series of books that apocalyptically interpret the end of time.[7] J. Gray points to these ideas as the motivating force of the interventions in Iraq by Bush and the neo-conservatives.


(4) The ‘cultural industry’ of neo-liberal capitalism


The media industry of neo-liberal capitalism is creating a cultural globalisation – the Macdonaldisation of culture, characterised by the trivia, youth, rapidity, a fast-changing culture with an inconsequential touch. It produces a type of society, a “society of sensations” (G. Schulze[8]), which represents an anthropological turnaround (K. Lehmann[9]). This type of society evades facing fundamental questions by consuming sensations. It is the “market of sensations”, of the immediate where no transcendental visions of life are possible. There is no room even for some sort of transcendental humanism.

  We find ourselves, therefore, facing the pseudo-religion of consumerism that questions any transcendental gaze. This is pure individualism as a depoliticizing ideology (M. Gauchet[10]).



Re-definition of the commitment to justice


It is evident that in this new cultural atmosphere the burning issues in the promotion of justice, or struggle for justice are –without forgetting large objective differences and the social exclusion of neo-liberal capitalism at national and international levels– cultural and ethic: life, death, diversity (cultural, religious, ethnic), ecology, peace, gender and tolerance. We need to worry about the process of de-linking cultural and moral issues from economic problems effected by the neo-liberal ideology. A ‘new policy’ or way of dealing with justice needs to be very sensitive so as to uncover this link that the culture industry as well as fundamentalist religion is so keen to hide.

  In today’s post-ideological situation:

  Can these cultural and moral themes be treated without a total vision, without a systemic vision of all the problems? Is it possible to do justice without ideology?

  We also need to confront the New Social Movements that define ‘justice’ as a change in relationships at three mutually separated levels:


·         Person-nature

·         Person-person (from the perspective of conflict or peace)

·         Man-woman (feminism)


Undoubtedly problems are defined today in a new way. The new policy needs to take into consideration also the politicization of other questions (pacifism, ecology, feminism, multiculturalism). This may be all right, but is there not often a danger of de-linking these issues from ‘material conditions’? Do they not present a partial view of reality?

  Let me take an example. If we talk about gender without relating this issue to the material conditions in which we live, we run the risk of using a fragmenting viewpoint that may become a masking ideological device: a religion related and focussed on particular moral issues that has no relation with the traditional problems of justice. The most worrisome aspect is that this attitude conditions our conscience not to see the structure, the system. We should ask ourselves, why this deliberate malformation of our consciences?

  We cannot forget the already existing manifestations of discontent with this situation. J. Stiglitz has strongly criticised the “fundamentalism of the market”; the critique of the non-sustainability of the neo-liberal model is growing; anti-globalisation movements, the World Social Forum and many others are examples of a search for alternatives. We cannot, finally, belittle the critical-constructive participation of the churches in raising the general moral tone and the conscience of citizens.


 Original Spanish


 José M. Mardones

Instituto Filosofia (CSIC)

Pinar 25

28006 Madrid - SPAIN



[1] This article in its present version is a modest fleshing out of the set of points distributed and presented by the author at the annual conference of Fomento Social in Madrid on the 27 December 2004. It retains, therefore, its original character of jottings or notes. Its schematic character notwithstanding, we believe that it will be of interest to our readers. It was submitted to the author in its present form for a final revision before publication. [Editor’s Note]

[2] The author is a member of the ‘Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas’, CSIC [Higher Council for Scientific Research , Madrid. [Editor’s Note]

[3] Born in 1927 in the United Sates, Samuel Huntington is a political scientist of international renown; he is at present Professor of Political Science at Harvard University where he is the Director of the John M. Olin Institute of Strategic Studies, and founder-director of the journal “Foreign Policy”. With the publication in 1993 of his article ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ in the journal Foreign Affairs [Summer 1993, v. 72, n. 3, p. 22(28)], he acquired a worldwide reputation, and later published the polemic book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1996). [Editor’s Note]

[4] For a brief note on the thought of Jean-Claude Guillebaud, see Annexure. [Editor’s Note]

[5] For a note on the thought of John Gray, see Annexure. [Editor’s Note]

[6] For a note on the thought of Slavoj Zizek, see Annexure. [Editor’s Note]

[7] Dr. Tim LaHaye, a pastor in the USA, is a well-known author and speaker on biblical prophecy. LaHaye is founder and president of ‘Tim LaHaye Ministries’ and co-founder of ‘Pre-Trib Research Center’, which he established to promote research, teaching, propagation and the defence of pre-tribulation rapture and the biblical prophecies related to this prophetic doctrine. ( [Editor's Note]

[8] The author has developed this idea of a “society of sensations” in his talk ‘La Cultura Actual y la Gran Ciudad’ [Today’s culture and the Great City]. G. Schulze has called today’s society a “‘society of sensations’, that is, a space where individuals live in the midst of tasting a variety of sensations that constantly attack their living palate.” [Editor’s Note]


[9] Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz (Germany), has worked to develop the application of Rahner’s ‘practical theology’ to pastoral issues. (Fernando Berríos, "Teología Trascendental y Praxis: Una Reflexión desde el legado de Karl Rahner", Teología y Vida, Vol. XLIII (2002), pp. 467-502. [Editor’s Note]

[10] In his book La démocratie contre elle-même [Democracy against Itself], Marcel Gauchet raises this question: “Can democracy survive its own victory?” and explores the contradictions of contemporary democracy. This is a collection of his articles published in Debat, a journal he directs with Pierre Nora and published by Gallimard. The common thread holding these articles written over the last 20 years is the will to “unravel and understand the disconcerting faces of democracy which installs itself with a triumphant, exclusivist, doctrinaire and self-destructive air” (p i). Gauchet’s thesis maintains that the heart of democracy’s illness lies in the concept of ‘human rights’. The attractive force of the human rights discourse lies in the fact that it joins political critique to a protectionist principle that “points towards a political action without political parties” (p. v). The democracy of human rights is fed by an alliance between individualism and an interpretation of democracy that suits the interests of the subject of rights. The problem is that the politics of human rights does not allow the collectivity to act on itself. This leads Gauchet finally to affirm that human rights is not ‘politics’. [Editor’s Note]