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


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Jacques Haers SJ (1)


There is a continuity in the theological articulation of the core Jesuit mission statements as expressed in the documents of recent General Congregations of the Society of Jesus (from GC 31 to GC 34). Moreover, these texts also refer to some of the Society’s foundational charters, thus suggesting a theological thread throughout its nearly 500 years of existence. This points to a theological heritage in the Society of Jesus, the faithfulness to which is expressed creatively by exploring in ever new contexts the relationship between God and human beings. Leading themes of this relationship are faith, justice, love, discernment, ecclesial commitment and the preferential option for the humiliated and discarded Christ in the suffering people. Those who choose to be at their service in a preferential alliance with the poor and excluded are an intrinsic part of the heritage.

     Today, in a globalised world where unjust social relationships and marginalisation, abuse and poverty abound and where environmental degradation is a clear indication of our twisted and perverted relationships to the world as a whole, these theological emphases are more than ever in need of a grace-filled vision of the Kingdom of God as a feast, a meal that we are all called to share by committing ourselves concretely, in the here and now, to building sustainable communities of solidarity that articulate our deep creational co-belonging to one another and to the world in which we live. In this, we share in God’s own commitment and work amongst us. Increasingly, in our world, it becomes clear that the commitment to justice refers to how we shape our life together, unfolding the relationships of co-belonging and interdependence that characterise the creation of which we are a part. This creation, in turn, reflects God’s Trinitarian love, God’s dream and promise of the Reign of God and God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus is the Christ, revealed through his concrete life in Palestine some 2000 years ago, as the logos or structure of sustainable life together in creation.

     It is not surprising that today we feel the need to re-articulate our mission and vision statements in continuity with our own Ignatian charisma and history. However, it would be shortsighted not to see that this “re-articulation” also points to the concrete enactment, both in the lives of individual Jesuits and in the governance structures of the Society of Jesus, of such stimulating and empowering statements as already exist in the documents of GC 32 and GC 34. We would also be fools not to recognise that we often fail to put into practice some of our most beautiful claims. We may even have to admit that over past years in fact, the Social Apostolate, which embodies our concrete attempts to live justly together in our world, has been losing ground. Ignatian theologians have learnt in their spiritual tradition that love also means deeds and actions and, therefore, that love is just only when en-acted. They will have to insist that making the transition from words to deeds ought to be included in the very theological reflection and methodologies we use.

     I will begin therefore by insisting in Section 1 on the contextuality of all theological thought as the expression of the incarnational challenge of our faith. In today’s worldwide context, we have to insist on the importance of sustainable life together. This stand takes its bearings from the option for an alliance with those who are excluded from the solidarity that is part of life together. Section 2 indicates that these emphases are also found in the Ignatian spiritual tradition, and that they are highlighted through the concepts of justice, faith and love in recent General Congregations of the Society of Jesus. I will illustrate this in Section 3 by using a passage from GC 34. Section 4 will point towards some of the theological and spiritual challenges we face today when we want to clarify the relationship between faith and justice.


1. Theology is Contextual and Incarnational


     The need for contextual theology is one of the most important lessons learned, assumed and put into practice by theologians during the twentieth century. It has also profoundly influenced recent General Congregations. By this is meant the need to understand theological reflection in relation to its context, as well as the need for such reflection to enter into reality and in turn be influenced by it. It also means that theologians, in developing their thought, are always situated in a context. In this movement into the context, theologians reflect the reality of the incarnation that lies at the core of theology and that shapes all theological concepts, such as creation, Church and the Kingdom of God. This intimate relationship of theology – as a reflection both on a tradition and on the spiritual resources of concrete people in their relationships with God – and context, does not diminish theology’s claim to be valid beyond the limits of its own context and to touch reality beyond the immediate environment of the theologian. Such claim to universality, however, has to take into account precisely the conversation with the context and between contexts. Theology is universal in as far as it is truly incarnational and contextual. As a consequence, theologians have become more aware of the hermeneutical character of their work, more specifically in the contexts of diverse cultures and religions – a point that was clearly emphasised in GC 34. In a new, global context, the commitment to love and justice needs renewed and deepened articulation: the conversation with reality has become more complex.

     To some, such a move into the context may appear threatening: an attempt of the autonomous and (post)modern human being to relativise and disperse the thought of a God who is one and the same for all. They claim that contextual theologians betray the universal scope of the one and true theology. Contextual theologians, however, point at the necessity to view such universal scope in the context of the myriad conversations with God and between the faithful that continuously (re)construct theological thought. The universality of theology lies more in its dialogical exploration of the Creator’s diverse relationships with creation, than in a precisely defined and unquestionable set of absolute truths about God.

     There is some similarity here with the universal claim of the Spiritual Exercises. Taking their bearings from Ignatius Loyola’s own spiritual experience, these exercises are an invitation to those who want to do the exercises to enter into the dynamic of their personal spiritual experience (as Roland Barthes has explained in his interpretation of the Spiritual Exercises), which, in turn, is shaped by the passage through the exercises, but remains respected for its novelty and uniqueness, as the Creator works directly with the creature. In that sense also, the Spiritual Exercises have a universal scope – they reveal and shape the spiritual experiences of all of us – while at the same time being unquestionably contextual and oriented towards the concrete person – our spiritual experiences and journeys are always individualised. This seeming paradox is clarified when one emphasises the Spiritual Exercises’ narrative, conversational and relational character.

     I want to emphasise four aspects of this contextuality that are important not only for theology but also for the global Society of Jesus and the Ignatian Family. To this family people from very different backgrounds are called to collaborate, to the extent of becoming “one body”, always in deep respect for one another’s particular identities.


1.1  Contextuality means that we become aware of the place where we stand, the influences we experience, the interests that determine us and the people who shape our experiences and commitments. Spanish speaking theologians like Ignacio Ellacuría have emphasised the importance of this “lugar” [locus, place], both as the contact with the poor and rejected people and as the vision that impels us to passionately transform the conflictual world in which we live towards the Kingdom of God. This approach follows the Ignatian tradition of the composition of place and its insistence on finding God in all things as well as the call to read the signs of the time. GC 32 and GC 34 display a profound compassion with the suffering world, that originates in a very human reaction of pain and anger and from a deep awareness of God’s own choice (incarnation). This choice entails a mission for us as response to God’s commitment.

     Pedro Arrupe’s call to look for our friends among the poor is, therefore, not only a passionate response to a suffering world, but also the discovery of a compassionate and very active God at the heart of our endeavours for more justice and dignified life. The friendship, compassion and solidarity implicit here express a sense of community, of belonging to one another, of responsibility for one another, what GC 34 called a “community of solidarity”. Along these lines, justice expresses a quality of relations, a reference to relations as they should be to bring about fullness of life.


1.2  The divine-human call to respond to the challenges of unacceptable suffering in our world has made theologians, Jesuits and their collaborators more aware of the need for complex interactions with the world in which they live. A presence on the ground, sharing a concrete life with those who suffer, is not enough to change the living conditions of the poor. We also have to attempt to understand the structures and larger dynamics that produce poverty and exclusion. Poverty and exclusion cannot be understood properly unless the structures that govern our life together are taken into consideration. This requires analytical competence that can only be acquired at the cost of long years of study and intellectual work.

     Moreover, the response to such structural complexities of injustice and poverty – now taking on new and violent shapes in our globalised world – calls for political action beyond the necessary direct care of those who suffer. There is therefore a need to develop transdisciplinary communities of people, devoted to the study of the structures, in interaction with those who suffer and committed to political action and advocacy. The way to construct such communities becomes a subject for fundamental theology. Ignatian spirituality may support such community building through, for instance, its sensitivity towards those who are humiliated and suffering, its understanding of personal and communal discernment and its wise and loving commitment (discreta caritas).


1.3  When the word “contextual” is used today, it refers not only to our immediate, tangible environment or to face to face interactions with the people in our immediate vicinity. As will appear in other contributions, our context is also global and worldwide and in it new challenges arise and new types of injustice appear. One of the challenges for theology is to ask who, in such circumstances, are the theological actors or subjects. We are used to looking at individual human beings, at the individual theologians in their very particular contexts or at individual Jesuits with their own mission in a precise geographical spot. Today, the understanding of “subject” or “actor” has to go beyond the individual as the individual can no longer cope with worldwide structures of injustice. For this reason, larger “entities” are also today considered as theological “bodies” or subjects. In the global world, the Society of Jesus, as a whole, becomes a theological body called to emerge as a global actor, addressing global issues that individual people cannot tackle. This body, calling, as it does, for global actors, requires a new vision and understanding of the complexities of governance within the Society of Jesus and the Ignatian Family. Here again, the context requires us to look at the notion of “community” and of “life together”.


1.4  I come from a continent (Europe) and a cultural and religious tradition that have not always respected the style of conversation required for contextual theologies to creatively and constructively interact in a genuine manner. Europeans did not always understand the importance of religious and cultural conversation, and instead of creating frontiers of encounter where new visions and understandings of our relationships with God emerge and are constructed, we invaded other cultural and religious spaces, treating them harshly as conquered territory. We excluded them from our civilised world, considering them barbarians who had not reached full development. Moreover, Europeans have sometimes confused culture and religion and then imposed both on others. We still continue to feel this today as the consequence of a colonial mindset and a misunderstanding of universality. To do contextual theology on a worldwide scale, we will have to address these underlying structures and histories of injustice that infect our relationships. We will be challenged to transform the “victim – perpetrator” trap in which some of us are imprisoned.

     This reflection on contextuality suggests the importance of relationships, of life together and of the building of communities of solidarity. Justice appears as a contextualisation of God’s love for the world and for us in creation and in the incarnation, as well as of God’s promise about the Kingdom of God. Such contextualisation remains faithful to core theological insights, which we can also illustrate from an Ignatian perspective.


2. Ignatian Theological Perspectives


     The Ignatian tradition suggests a theological framework inspired by spiritual insights and practices that emphasise the relational structure of reality and of the understanding of God. These insights and practices are larger than the Spiritual Exercises alone, and we are also called to study the foundational texts and Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Ignatius’ letters, too, help us to understand the mode of governance and the relationships between friends who have become companions to build an efficient body at the service of God’s church and of God’s poor and downtrodden. In today’s context some Ignatian perspectives are worth following up: they link up issues of justice, faith, love and community-building in a spirit of creational solidarity.


2.1  The call towards compassionate relationships with the people around us, especially with those who suffer injustice and with those who commit injustices (sinners), originates in an intimate, narrative relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, in a special sensitivity to his humiliation, his exclusion, his suffering and his surrender to the Father.


2.2  The awareness of injustice – in the meditation of the incarnation – is the heart of the God experience as it reveals what is at stake for God in our world. This revelation brings about a challenge in our experience of God, giving us a vision, a mission and a calling. This leads to an intimate relationship with God in Jesus the Christ, through whom we become empowered in our mission, as individuals, as Society of Jesus and as Ignatian Family.


2.3  The emphasis on creation as an interconnected whole to which we belong, leads ultimately to a loving response and action in a pattern of friendship. Justice, therefore, is profoundly related to the unfolding of loving relationships expressed in mutual giving. The faithfulness to this original creational solidarity and to its fulfilment in God’s Kingdom also explains the loyalty to the Church, understood as the effort at building the communal life desired and promised by God.


2.4  The capacity to build up a committed body lies at the roots of the historical origins of the Society of Jesus. This happens through discernment (individual and common), as well as through the community building dimensions of the religious vows. We need to understand and live our religious vows as rules to build communities, as part of the effort to articulate a new set of relationships. It means that we learn how to articulate the relationships between companions and to act as a body that is more than the sum of its constituting individuals. We move towards serving God better in our world precisely through the service of solidarity, particularly with those who share the fate of the humiliated, suffering and crucified Christ.


2.5  The communities that we build as Jesuits or as members of the Ignatian Family constitute bodies that, in their turn, act as community builders in the wider world. Such bodies are also new theological actors and the meaning for them of the process of the Spiritual Exercises has to be further clarified.


3. Analysis of a Text of GC 34


     The introduction to the third decree of GC 34 reveals the main components of the understanding that the Society of Jesus has of its own mission in today’s world. The brief paragraph covers complex interactions between several elements: the relationship with God, loyalty to the Church, friendship with the poor (both those who are poor of necessity and those who have chosen to become poor in solidarity), with faith, justice, love, the service of the Kingdom and the need to be transformed, that is, to embark on that inner journey so necessary for individual and societal commitment in the world.


“In response to the Second Vatican Council, we, the Society of Jesus, set out on a journey of faith as we committed ourselves to the promotion of justice as an integral part of our mission. That commitment was a wonderful gift of God to us, for it put us into such good company – the Lord’s surely, but also that of so many friends of His among the poor and those committed to justice. As fellow pilgrims with them towards the Kingdom, we have often been touched by their faith, renewed by their hope, transformed by their love. As servants of Christ’s mission, we have been greatly enriched by opening our hearts and our very lives to ‘the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted’” (GC 34 D 3 n. 1).


     An analysis of the interaction between the various terms reflects a theology and a spirituality. We can only point to some of the issues at hand and remark that we will have to continue to deepen our theological understanding of the interactions suggested in the words quoted above. Our main priority now will no longer be to provide nice formulations of an ideal and a mission that have already been phrased and coined in powerful, stimulating and empowering texts, but rather to implement them. We are aware that precisely this implementation – which may be lacking – is necessary to better understand our mission and vision. It is in the practice of just relationships which make for inclusive communities of solidarity that we discover the deep relational meaning of justice as the expression of God’s love. This love finds its empowering way in our attempts to love one another while becoming aware of our creational co-belonging.


3.1  The text points to the crucial interaction between faith, love, hope and justice. These four elements constitute a theological whole, and missing out on any one of them implies a misunderstanding of the others. These relationships should be explored and I can give only a few examples. One needs faith to persevere in one’s concrete commitments and actions for justice in particular situations where inevitable oppositions have to be overcome. One needs faith to trust that love and justice are, indeed, attitudes and forms of relationships to be pursued in a world that emphasises and rewards other attitudes. One has to remain aware of the dimension of hope or the eschatological proviso as the core of a vision of justice and love, that is, be willing to rely on God’s promise, but also ready to enact a vision that is out-standing. (2) And so on.


3.2  In the texts of GC 34, particularly in its second decree, “justice” is the “justice of the Kingdom”, and this points to a relational understanding of justice. Indeed, the vision of the Kingdom, often painted in the Bible as a banquet and a feast, where people – including the excluded and the poor – join at the table of peace and joy, is a vision of a healed community assembled around the Lord. This is also the deeper sense of the words that in various languages refer to the “church”, to the “église” as the community that arises in the encounter with the Lord who proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, and out of the Lord’s call to practise the Kingdom of God. Justice touches, therefore, primarily the relationships between people. When are such relationships to be considered “just”, given the life of Jesus of Nazareth as an example? What does it mean to maintain and sustain life-giving relationships in our world today, in the light of the Kingdom? The Kingdom is the vision of life together, the unfolding of life together as set out in creation. The consequence is, therefore, that justice is always a social adventure and that it concerns the healing of suffering caused by unbalanced and disordered relationships. I use the word “disordered” here in a relational context, as we are too often acquainted with its inner and individual meaning inside a privatised spiritual experience. Given our many failures, we do not easily trust our capacities to build these types of communities and life together. In that sense “justification” means the strength and empowerment we receive from God, who believes that we can work towards a community that remains, ultimately, God’s gift, but that is written in our hearts since creation itself and addressed to us as a promise in the life of Jesus.


3.3  The word “love” is used in the text, and it indicates reciprocal relationships, not charity from above, unilaterally directed as in a vector with its point of origin and its point of arrival, from the rich to the poor in a paternalistic (and even colonial) act of mercy. Love is mutual, as Ignatius claims in the Spiritual Exercises, and thus the community is based on mutual learning, giving and receiving. Emphasis falls not on the unequal relationships of power, but on the fact that, even when power is involved, we belong to one another in mutual service. The concrete enactment of this mutual love in a world which rich and poor cohabit is a daunting task, calling for deep discernment on the motives and fears that move us. The “colonial tension” indicated above is but an example of these difficulties.


3.4  GC 34 insists on the “theological” journey of the Society of Jesus. The commitment to justice and faith, and the practice directed towards realising the Kingdom of God has become more complex in our world, as indicated by references to the many cultures and religions as well as to the environmental challenges, but it is also an opportunity to discover and deepen our relationship with God. We re-discover and deepen our understanding and experience of God in building ourselves into a new body.


4. Theological and Spiritual Challenges Today


     I want to conclude by stressing some of the theological challenges that face us now, at this precise moment of time. I start by stressing the community-focussed and theological view that lies beneath these ideas: justice and love are relational expressions, pointing to inclusive community building in which mutuality and reciprocity are respected and fostered as creative and enriching tools. Justice and love in their interactions reflect God’s very being and God’s action and commitment in creation and incarnation, as well as God’s empowering promise of the fulfilled community in God’s Reign.


4.1  Today, we live in an unimaginably complex worldwide context in which urgent issues of sustainable life, poverty, violence, exploitation and injustice have to be addressed. All of these are issues of “justice” and of “love” that allow us to unfold our lives as beings who share life and a world; they are issues that require faith and that are also born out of our faith in the God who committed Godself in the Incarnation and in the ongoing presence of the Spirit in our lives. The faith we need can only come if we become more deeply aware of our inter-dependence and our co-belonging in the one world we share. This means that contemporary challenges such as globalisation and environment require us to concentrate on inclusive community building as the source of shared life. We need to pay attention to methods and approaches that will help us to do so, for instance, communal apostolic discernment and transdisciplinary practices and relational constructionism. Such methods are new to us and call for a change in our mental attitudes as well as our criteria of how knowledge and action are generated. In theology therefore we have to foster the habit of looking not only at our (individual) relationship with God, but at our (collective) relationships amongst ourselves and towards God. “Common” and “shared” should belong to the vocabulary of our methods and modes of thought. Moreover, these challenges increasingly require global actors – actors who are capable of looking at the whole and of developing a holistic view. The Society of Jesus and the Ignatian Family have the potential, as worldwide organisations with an enormous capacity for intellectual research and political action as well as a natural attention for spiritual commitment, to attain that holistic view. They are increasingly called to act as such global actors, that is, to constitute “bodies” with an efficient commitment at the service of God’s Reign, through the alliance with God’s poor, who are the carriers of creative transformation. Needless to say, inner governance is needed for us react and function as a body.


4.2  Ignatian spirituality and resources are more than the Spiritual Exercises alone, especially when interpreted in an individualistic and subject-oriented way. We must not underestimate the importance of the foundational texts, of the Constitutions and the letters and the life of Ignatius Loyola, to arrive at an understanding of our way of acting. It is not only the individual spiritual experience that counts but also the capacity to build a body, to move from individuals who are friends in the Lord to a body of companions that becomes a global instrument in God’s hands and that discerns as a body. By this I mean a body that practises communal apostolic discernment. Here we touch the issue of good governance. In these texts, we will always have to stress the apostolic dimension and mission of the Ignatian Family and the Society of Jesus: the saving of souls. In a way the Ignatian Family is a community that wants to include all, and desires to embrace the world in its relationships of love and justice.


4.3  The Society of Jesus and the Ignatian Family stand in need of good governance and strong companionship in a kind of shared leadership with regard to our goals. If we are a fine and well trained body we will be an efficient instrument in God’s hands. It is important, therefore, that we allow ourselves to be ever more deeply moulded by the love of the God who commits himself in the life of Jesus of Nazareth to work for the justice of the Kingdom, where reciprocal love (and not ‘vectorial’ charity) is the rule of life together. Justice, as respect for the other, is the litmus test for the real reciprocity of love. The vows that structure our religious life can be understood not only as the expression of individual ascesis and commitment, but as the rules of a game that is called inclusive community building. The more we build our communities using the vows in their relational and community building potential, the more our communities will be apostolic and prophetic, challenging wider societies and communities to move in the direction of more love and more justice. Here resides the vision of the communities of solidarity. Ultimately, communal apostolic discernment will bind us together as a body (as we learn to decide together) and make us more sensitive to the needs around us even in their global dimensions.


4.4  Theologically, ideas and practices that point to relations and community will have to receive more attention. Some of these are creation, the Kingdom of God, Church, the Trinity, the narrative relationship to Christ and a practice of liturgy and the sacraments geared to build the community. God’s own preferential option for the poor and the humiliated, which we discover in the Ignatian sensitivity towards the humiliated and suffering Christ, invites us to approach those relational and community endeavours precisely because we hear the cry of those who are excluded from the life giving communities. In this way we build up a preferential alliance. Attention has often been paid to the Kingdom of God, emphasising the eschatological dimension of hope. Now, attention has to be paid also to the idea of creation in its cosmological sense: God creates a whole, a body of life together, and, therefore, the deepest reality and challenge of creation is sustainable life together. This is an ontological claim that is critical of the idea that the subject is the centre of reality. This means also that sin is always the breaking of relationships. Justice and love are words to indicate the quality of relationships that sustain life together, not only as the decisions of individuals, but also as a profound requirement of our lives that cannot be sustained without intimate connection with the whole of creation. What these just and loving relationships are, we read from God’s own life: God’s inner-Trinitarian movements of love and justice; the joyful dynamism of creation; Jesus of Nazareth’s way of living as a commitment to the most excluded up to the point of becoming excluded himself, but remaining the logos or pattern for the structure of our life together; God’s promise of the Kingdom as the empowerment of the Spirit in our lives. In the personal encounter with this Trinitarian Creator God, concretely present in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and in the lives of those who follow him and embracing us in the empowering Spirit of the promise of the Kingdom, we know that the real depth of our being is community oriented and we are called to build up communities. These go to the farthest extremes of forgiveness and reconciliation and are therefore communities of solidarity, prophetic in their cry for justice and sapiential in the love and care that shape our relations with one another.


Conclusion: Core Theological Challenges


There is need for a deep ‘new’ theological perspective; we feel this need growing increasingly through the history of the successive General Congregations. There is also a need for a theological broadening of mind. The life of Jesus reveals the fruitfulness of God’s option for the poor and our alliance with the poor as expressed in the inner connections between the expressions “friends of the Lord” and “friends of the poor” (GC 34, D 2, n. 9). We need therefore to emphasise the theological foundation of the global common good, based on God’s Trinitarian communion and on a cosmologically respectful theology of creation that stresses the presence of Christ the Logos fostering a pattern of life together. The realism of such a perspective is carried by the vision and promise of the all-inclusive Banquet of the Kingdom.


Jacques Haers SJ

Windmolenveldstraat 44

3000 Leuven - Belgium



(1) Although I take responsibility for all the ideas expressed here, I also want to express my gratitude to many Jesuit companions who, by sharing ideas and reflections, teach me that common theological discernment is a reality. I particularly want to thank Peter Bisson SJ, Fernando Franco SJ, and Elias Lopez SJ for their generosity and patience.

(2) This is meant as a word play: it is an outstanding vision – one that can empower us because of its richness and beauty – but it is also out there, standing far away from us, not yet realised.