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


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Faith and Justice in a Postmodern World

Faith and Justice in an Individualized World

Fernando Polanco SJ



oes there exist some passion in our present-day culture that positively enlivens our hearts? Does there exist some cultural flame that can compete today with that faith which inflamed our passion for justice in past decades? One group of persons engaged in cultural analysis(1) is taking note of a passion that nowadays permeates our whole reality. It is a passion that presents itself with such force that it elbows its way into our midst and competes with everything that up till now has motivated our lives. It is something that questions our more communitarian values and is even capable of questioning a life dedicated to justice and selfless commitment. We are talking about a passion that “consigns to chaos” whatever is institutional and deep-rooted. In his work, The Normal Chaos of Love, Ulrich Beck says of matrimonial crises:


“When the youthful enthusiasm is gone, when there are no longer any visible goals or objectives, the old question arises: ‘Who am I?’. Then another passion enters the scene: the passion for autonomy, for self-affirmation, for one’s own life ... And that produces the totally normal, everyday chaos of love.”(2)


We cannot deny the absence of common objectives in our world, nor can we deny that such absence seems closely related to a disquiet about oneself, that is, to a passionate living of one’s own life or an earnest seeking of one’s own identity. Sociologists speak of paradigm changes.(3) Until now the world has lived by other great passions, and our own western culture has passed through several great paradigms of passion: passion for the cosmos, passion for history, and passion for the social. Today we are experiencing a passion for individuality.(4) From the “socio-historical subject” we pass now to the “personal subject”. From the social utopias we pass now to emphasis on individuality. The individual today, more than at other times, exercises her autonomy by defining her own values and making her own decisions. Tradition and other people’s opinions matter less, and the exercise of one’s personal liberty is what counts.(5) In a way, we are in an epoch of personal conviction rather than of social custom. The subject seeks, selects, chooses and organizes her horizon of meanings in order to bestow an orientation on her own biography.(6) This is the process we call “individualization”.

We live today face-to-face with globalizing forces, inhabiting a market-driven pluralised world ridden with insecurity and risk. In this world where many people are excluded and savage competition constantly devalues human labour, we find ourselves, as it were, “forced”(7) to be concerned about ourselves as individuals. It is not that we are more self-centred than before; rather, the supports that in former times bolstered our identity and shored up the construction of our “ego” now assume more “liquid” forms, to use the metaphor of Zygmunt Bauman.(8) Tribes, peoples, nationalities, along with their political, social, economic and cultural institutions, shift from “stable forms” to “liquid forms”, that is, forms that are highly malleable and fluid. There appears to be no solid institutions on which to seize or to support oneself.

In a global, plural world our horizons and possibilities become broadened, and we must learn to decide among many different options: there is need for an ever greater number of individually realized actions. Life, death, gender, corporality, identity, religion, matrimony, relatives, social bonds – everything is becoming the object of decisions. Once everything is fragmented, then everything becomes individualized, and everything must be decided. In order to avoid failure, individuals struggle constantly to plan ahead; they have to adapt themselves to frequent changes, recognize obstacles, accept defeats and try new solutions. The opportunities, dangers, errors and successes that before were experienced in a more social or communal setting are now processed individually. The consequences, as regards both opportunities and liabilities, now fall upon individual persons, who naturally, in the face of life’s complexity, experience anguish.(9)

How curious. Our passion for individuality is often frustrated because our daily existence is pressured by the constant demands we make on ourselves and so becomes ever more wounded, disordered, and embittered. And when children and young people succeed in adapting to the new forms of our “individualized” ambience, it is because they have had to learn how to be constantly on the move, how to cut short relationships, how to judge the father’s or the mother’s distance; they have realized that love does not last forever and that all that is “pretty normal”. The “children of freedom” repudiate what is organizational and institutional; they abhor all that smacks of formalism; they are guided by sensitivity as their relational pattern – they are the so-called “me-generation”.(10) They practise a morality that explores and experiments and that manages to unite things that appear to be mutually exclusive: concern for oneself and altruism, personal realization and active compassion.(11)

For its part, individualization changes the face of social injustice: exclusion become profoundly individualized, and ever greater numbers of persons are “individually” affected. Isolated individuals find themselves suffering unemployment to the same degree that others are accumulating private wealth. Social psychologists are already writing about one decisive consequence of this process: the individualized society is also become a depressed society. The last decade has witnessed the appearance of a “depressive” society that is on the verge of implosion; it is a society where individuals, for lack of any project or dimension that relates them to other people, find themselves confined to their solitary subjectivity and forced to make their solipsism the be-all and end-all of their lives.(12) However, we cannot really exist except as ethical and communal beings. If a person does not take care in “constructing” himself, he will end up living from the offerings of the consumer society and the welfare culture.

How, then, are we to educate this passion which either exalts us or depresses us, and how can we to relate it to ethical and communal values? How can we to learn to contend with the passion for individualization in a way faithful to the gospel?


The Paschal Gospel in an individualized world


Western culture, which has extended itself in varying degrees to most corners of the planet, has evolved from its passion for the cosmos to a passion for history, and from the passion for history to a passion for the social. Today we are witnessing a new passion: the passion for leading one’s own life, for individuality, for identity.(13) In the light of this rapid description of the changing paradigms, we can see clearly that as Christians we deal with challenges by engaging them in dialogue with our faith. And it has been characteristic of our faith, it seems to me, that it has always acted as an “interlocutor paradigm” with any emerging cultural paradigm. Following, therefore, the way of the Spirit, which over the centuries has guided us in the way of the Son, we may discover that our faith shows signs of being an “interlocutor paradigm” also with respect to individuality.

In ancient times the Church knew how to engage the human passion for the cosmos in dialogue with the doctrine of creation in Jesus Christ. St. Augustine went so far as to say, You made us for yourself, and St. Thomas was able to view human creation as a presupposition for the uncreated grace of the incarnate Son. We realized that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Jesus Christ to devote ourselves to the good deeds for which God has designed us” (Ephesians 2,10).

We know that modern times opened the way for our human passion for history – history which Hegelian philosophy explained as a dialectic of passion that carried human reality towards its ultimate realization. That passion for history was made to dialogue above all with the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: the incarnation of the Word as “fully realized anthropology” acted as the central interlocutor, confirming the value of history. We learned to speak of the “history of salvation” and of “God’s revelation in history”, and we affirmed that it is not a dialectic that will bring history to its fullness; rather, “the incarnation of God is the supreme and unique case of the essential realization of human reality.”(14) Later, new conceptions of society unveiled the “struggle of classes” in history. The passion for social liberation extended to every corner of the globe, and the Church was also challenged to engage in dialogue. And just as one day the incarnate Son manifested his great desire to free captives and bring liberation for the poor, so in the Church there flourished a new passion for a faith that was wedded to justice. The 60s, 70s and 80s of the last century were for many Christians three decades that were very like those three years of Jesus’ public life, as he announced throughout the land the coming of God’s kingdom among the poor. This passion in the Church produced an extremely enriching dialogue between faith and politics, faith and society, faith and justice, from all this dialogue there flowed what we now call Political Theology and Liberation Theology.

Today the Church fears that it is reaching the end of its public life. We are very fearful of becoming irrelevant, of losing our flame. But as we experience the Spirit’s urgings, which bond us to creation, to incarnation and to the proclamation of the Kingdom, we may now feel ourselves invited into dialogue with the next stage of Jesus’ life: the Pasch. The paschal dimension of Christianity offers itself as a paradigm for the dialogue that is needed with the great challenges presented by our desires for personal self-realization. We need to narrate and rediscover our “paschal existence” in order to resituate ourselves coherently with relation to the great many exclusions and possibilities that today’s world presents to us. In such a context, individuality does not necessarily have to be considered an enemy. The Pasch allows us to transform the demand for individualization into a way of following Christ. If we “pay attention” to our individuality, dedicating time to what groans within it, our most holy longings for justice can be easily redirected by the world’s proposals. Today, more than ever, the joy and the ardour of working for a just world require that we recognize that we have within us personal desires for meaning and for fullness that must participate in the Pasch in order to be reordered toward the good of creation, of history and of society.

With his life, death and resurrection, Jesus brought into being an individuality that was related to his own mystery, to other people and to community; it was an individuality united to the whole of creation by means of history and in expectation of the definitive revelation. Since ancient times an individual’s desire for meaning and fulfillment has been “educated” by traditions and environments that favoured an ever greater bonding with all of creation, history and society. Today, however, we are “unconnected”; there is no current that carries us along. And if today we as individuals, with the help of prayer, discernment, dialogue, and service networks, do not place importance on these communitarian values, then the world will not do so either. Doing this will require that we create anew the paschal sense, which is what gave birth to Christianity.

The Pasch was a time in which Jesus experienced that the conditions of the Kingdom were passing more than ever before through the mystery of his very own person, “through his way of proceeding,” which heard his inner identity utter a profound unity with the Father, whence flowed the Spirit as the force of the Kingdom. This was the road the led him to absolute fulfillment within himself, so that “all his life was kenosis, and he faced life forgetting himself, not seeking to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(15) Through this kenosis, God established his definitive Reign. Jesus recognized that what was most individual in him is bread that is shared; he acknowledged himself as eucharist, as the mystery of donation. Today individuality needs to be experienced most urgently in the mystery of donation. We are being swept toward a type of individualization that leads only to a desperate seeking of self, but we never arrive at what we really are without passing through a death and resurrection that come inevitably by way of prayer, community life, and an ethical and evangelical commitment to a better world.

In rising, Jesus disappears, uniting us to that Mystery of God which arouses us to be concerned about the whole of this world that surrounds us. If the world would make us indifferent, the Pasch gives us a new sensibility. Today Christ joins us to his paschal sentiments and sensitivity. Asking for the sentiments(16) of the Crucified and Risen One gives us the sensibility that makes it possible for us to be truly human. Then we can be fully and completely ourselves, and therefore at the same time we can be totally open to the network of relationships by which we become true persons. This is a new way of founding ourselves in hope before the forces, the enthusiasms and the failings of individualization. If the world has the strength to make us concerned about ourselves, the Pasch of God embraces us so that our encounter with ourselves becomes an opening beyond ourselves, toward society, toward history, toward all of creation. God raises us up and gives us a hope that is capable of making of our own life a gift for others. The Good Shepherd comes to each of us, searching for something he has chosen from all eternity, since every human being has the eternal value of his Body and his Blood. The Lord has the strength to love us personally, to the point of our feeling proud that we are each something unique for him. Thus this love does not foster our narcissism, but makes of us dedicated persons, impassioned to love with God, for the sake of his justice in the world. Today God gives us the gift of his passionate loving.


Fernando Polanco SJ

Correa y Cidrón, 28

Zona Universitaria

Apartado 76



Original Spanish

Translation by Joseph Owens SJ



(1) Most noteworthy among these are Ulrich and Elizabeth Beck (Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage 1992; Un nuevo mundo feliz, Paidós, 2000; The Normal Chaos of Love, Polity Press 1995; Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences, Sage 2002); Alain Touraine (¿Podremos vivir juntos?, FCE, 1997; A la búsqueda de mismo, Paidós, 2002); Anthony Giddens (Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge Polity 1991); Manuel Castells (The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Blackwell Publishers). Studying this also from the perspective of psychology are: Toni Anatrella (La sociedad depresiva, Sígueme, 1999); Carlos Domínguez Morano (Los registros del deseo, Desclée de Brouwer, Bilbao, 2004), among others.

(2) Ulrich Beck y Elizabeth Beck-Gernshein, The Normal Chaos of Love, op. cit., back cover.

(3) Alain Touraine, Un Nuevo Paradigma: para comprender el mundo hoy, Paidós, 2005.

(4) Alain Touraine, Farhad Khosrokhavar, A la búsqueda de sí mismo, op. cit.

(5) PNUD [UN Development Program] 2002, p. 189. Cited by Jorge Costadoat, El Catolicismo frente a la individualización, in Teología y Vida, XLV (2004), 605-610.

(6) Tony Mifsud SJ, La gran ciudad: interrogantes y propuestas éticas. Available at:

(7) Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society, Polity Press 1999.

(8) Zigmunt Bauman, Liquid Life, Polity Press, 2005.

(9) Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck, Individualization, op cit.

(10) Ulrich Beck, Los hijos de la libertad, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.

(11) Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernshein, Individualization, op. cit.

(12) Tony Anatrella, Contra la sociedad depresiva, Sal Terrae, 1994, back cover.

(13) Alain Touraine, Un Nuevo Paradigma: para comprender el mundo hoy, Paidós, 2005.

(14) Karl Rahner, Escritos de Teología IV, Taurus, pp. 139ff.

(15) GC35, D. 2, n. 14.

(16) Spiritual Exercises, nn. 193 and 221.