A seminarian I taught recently asked me to name the most influential document on church social teaching since the Second Vatican Council. He was surprised by my unhesitating and vigorous response: “Justice in the World,” the statement from the world Synod of Bishops of 1971. Surprised, I suppose, because if it were really so influential, one would expect to hear more about it in this 40th anniversary year of its publication. But there seems to be no official Vatican celebration; the document is not on the Vatican Web site, nor is it included in the Vatican’s monumental Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
“Justice in the World” appeared at a critical moment in church and global history. As a consequence of ripples and rapids of changes in the Catholic Church stirred up by the winds blowing through the open windows of the Second Vatican Council, the church was called to be ready for engagement with the political events of the day. The liberation theology of Latin America was one among many influences that shaped this engagement. The ethics of the social revolutions of the 1960s, the heightened tensions of the cold war, the increasing focus on the socioeconomic challenges of the so-called third world and the expansion of the media were other global factors that a church in the modern world could hardly ignore.
In the 2010s, we Catholics find ourselves in a similar ecclesiastical and global environment. Living with the recent experience of two powerful popes, grappling with scandals that raise questions about ecclesial integrity and accountability and facing declines in lay membership and in priestly and religious vocations, the church is again called to examine its message and its structures. The challenges of the global economic crisis, the unpredictability of terrorism, mounting environmental problems and the emergence of new power centers in the developing world also call for effective responses from the church. If “Justice in the World” is more relevant today than when it was first published, why has a pall of official forgetfulness fallen over the anniversary? I suggest two reasons: its source and its message.
It is appropriate to ask whether the evident sidelining of the statement in Vatican circles has as one of its causes the downgraded role of the synod of bishops in church governance. The synod, established by Paul VI after Vatican II, was designed to implement the collegial character of the episcopacy. But as greater emphasis has come to be put on the papacy and centralized Vatican institutions, collegiality has been a subject of heated differences within the church.
One consequence has been that periodic assemblies of the synod of bishops—called by the pope to discuss both topical and regional issues—have not been asked to produce magisterial statements. Their messages have been secondary to the post-synodal apostolic exhortation made by the pope. Of the 23 synods held since 1967, only the third gathering, in October 1971, issued on its own a major teaching document, “Justice in the World.” Synods, even when meeting with the pope, have been denied any teaching authority of their own.
There may be other reasons “Justice in the World” has not been accorded prominence in this anniversary year. Its principal message, some of its language and a number of its recommendations are controversial and have given rise to disputes in both ecclesial and political circles.
The document’s message can be summed up in one well-known sentence: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation” (No. 6). The promotion of justice is a necessary feature in the task of evangelization. There simply is no sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ if the commitment to justice is downplayed or eliminated.
Use of the word constitutive has been a bone of contention. In two significant articles in Theological Studies (June 1983 and June 2007), the theologian Msgr. Charles M. Murphy explored in depth how this word came to appear in the text and noted various interpretations given to it in subsequent discussions. Instead of understanding the word to mean “necessary” or “essential,” some have interpreted it to mean only “integral” (simply one part among many in the evangelical message) or merely “helpful” (assisting the work of spreading the Gospel). But when constitutive is taken to mean an absolute requirement, then work for justice cannot be ignored in any ecclesial project. This has been the widely accepted understanding of the term in the justice and peace work I have seen in the United States and in Africa. Is it fair to say that the official oblivion into which “Justice in the World” has fallen is due to the discomfort this understanding caused for some more conservative elements in the church?
“Evangelii Nuntiandi” (the apostolic exhortation of Pope Paul VI published the year after the 1974 Synod of Bishops) spoke of an evangelization that includes messages “about life in society, about international life, peace, justice and development—a message especially energetic today about liberation” (No. 29). But the discussion guidelines (lineamenta) for the 2012 Synod of Bishops, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” mentions the promotion of justice only in passing.
“Justice in the World” offers a brief but powerful scriptural analysis emphasizing God as liberator of the oppressed in the Old Testament and Jesus as preacher of justice for the poor in the New Testament (Nos. 30-33). But it is especially in describing the scriptural link of justice and love that the document makes one of its strongest points: “Christian love of neighbor and justice cannot be separated. For love implies an absolute demand for justice, namely a recognition of the dignity and rights of one’s neighbor” (No. 34). If I say I love my neighbor, then I want my neighbors’ dignity respected, their rights recognized, their development promoted and effective community solidarity effected. These demands of love are essential elements of social justice enforced in the political context of today’s world.
Though the influence of “Justice in the World” on subsequent teaching is not always explicit, Pope Paul VI was especially strong about the unity of justice and love. He proposed building “a civilization of love,” a program that is echoed in subsequent papal teaching. Pope Benedict XVI has written two encyclicals on love, dedicating one of them, “Love in Truth” (“Caritas in Veritate”), to the memory of Pope Paul XVI and has developed the idea of political charity, a concept that pope would have approved.
In its discussion of pertinent issues of the day, “Justice in the World” uses a method that enjoys wide currency (although not always accepted in some ecclesial circles), the well-known triad “See, Judge, Act.” This method, articulated clearly in Blessed John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical “Mater et Magistra” (No. 236), calls for observing reality, analyzing and evaluating it in light of Catholic social teaching and responding to it with effective action. Its wide use in Latin American pastoral work was sidelined by the 1992 meeting of Celam in Santo Domingo but reinstated in the 2007 meeting in Aparacida, Brazil.
This method emphasizes an inductive, experiential approach to designing responses to social challenges rather than a deductive, top-down approach that relies on already stated positions in theories or instructions from hierarchical sources. Thus “Justice in the World” emphasizes the need to listen to “the cry of those who suffer violence and are oppressed by unjust systems and structures,” since the hopes moving in the world today “are not foreign to the dynamism of the Gospel” (No. 5).
In its analysis and recommendations “Justice in the World” was able to take up, with a certain freshness and urgency, specific issues like world hunger, fair trade, migrants and refugees, abortion, human rights, religious liberty, environmental concerns, the role of media and promotion of the United Nations. That these issues were discussed in this 40-year old document demonstrates that “Justice in the World” remains relevant to the contemporary struggle for justice in the world.
The “See, Judge, Act” method, or reading the signs of the times, as it was more often called, became widespread in the social-pastoral work of many bishops’ conferences and national and diocesan justice commissions. Religious communities adopted it especially in their work with the poor. In the United States it lay behind the 1976 U.S. bishops’ convocation of the Call to Action Conference in Detroit, Mich. Ultimately it resulted, in the 1980s, in the bishops’ two influential pastoral letters on peace and economic justice.
The method also contributed to the emphasis in “Justice in the World” on the relationship of social structures and the promotion of justice. While this element might earlier have been present in Catholic social teaching, it is made explicit in the synodal document. In speaking of a growing demand for the right to development, it cautions, “This desire however will not satisfy the expectations of our time if it ignores the objective obstacles which social structures place in the way of conversion of hearts, or even of the realization of the ideal of charity” (No. 16).
This appreciation of social structures accounts for the document’s teaching about social sin and its recognition that “education demands a renewal of heart, a renewal based on the recognition of sin in its individual and social manifestations” (No. 51). Indeed, pastoral attention to social sin is called for in the sacrament of penance (No. 58).
Eventually Pope John Paul II, generally regarded as an opponent of liberation theology, adopted the notion of structural sin, like that of liberation, into his own teaching (“On Social Concern”). Pope Benedict XVI made the analysis of sinful structures his own in “Love in Truth.”
Justice in the Church
The 1971 synod statement broke new and important ground—however controversial—in its call for an internal examination of conscience: “While the church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence, we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and life style found within the church itself” (No. 40).
This was explicitly developed with mention of respect and promotion of rights within the church, the need for administration of temporal goods in a way that does not diminish evangelical credibility and the call for a “sparingness” in lifestyle among all Christians, including bishops, priests and religious.
Regarding rights within the church, for example, “Justice in the World” spoke of the wages of church workers and the roles of laypeople in administrative positions. The synod stated: “We also urge that women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and likewise of the Church” (No. 42). To assure action on these calls, a special commission was proposed for serious study.
One need only think of the scandals that have rocked the church in recent years to see how relevant this call is for an honest examination of conscience. While major strides still need to be taken, especially with regard to the bishops’ accountability for sexual abuse by Catholic priests, some exemplary bishops have performed public and private acts of repentance and reconciliation with victims. Pope John Paul II, though he seems to some to have been blind to this crisis, made repentance for the church’s offenses a distinctive personal ministry. He made tens of apologies to offended groups, put corporate self-examination and repentance on the agenda of the Great Jubilee Year 2000 and personally led the Service of Pardon that opened that year.
Some celebration of the 40th anniversary of “Justice in the World” is in order. Good theology, keen social analysis and relevant practical recommendations make it one of the most influential documents of the Catholic social tradition. It is taught in many formal and informal courses around the world. And it has influenced the identification of the contemporary mission of Jesuits and other religious as “the service of faith and the promotion of justice.” A commission of a Rome-based international group of major superiors of men’s and women’s religious orders is planning a seminar in November to explore the statement’s implications for religious life. Now more than ever the world needs the good news, in which justice is a constitutive dimension.