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Faith and Justice?

On the second of December 1974 a large group of Jesuits gathered in Rome for what is called a General Congregation. They were called upon by their Superior General to look at a variety of issues relating to the Society of Jesus and its place in the modern world and Church. One of the topics they discussed was what the mission of the Society of Jesus ought to be today. At the end of their discussions they promulgated the (in)famous decree: ‘Our mission today: the Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice.’ This decree has shaped the Society of Jesus ever since.  Not only did this decree become important as a way of seeing their mission in this world, it also influenced how they saw their own identity. Therefore I ask myself how to understand this relationship between faith and justice, and consequently their identity, especially since I’m a young Jesuit myself.

At a first glance the service of faith seems rather obvious when talking about a religious order like the Jesuits. They are men of faith and therefore they promote their religious beliefs among others. The Society of Jesus is a priestly order therefore the administration of the sacraments, preaching and other acts of faith are linked with their identity. However this is not all there is to say about the matter. He can only help others in faith when one is firmly rooted in his own faith. For a Jesuit, and indeed any Christian, this is a living personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a relationship with the Christ of the Gospels. It is the Christ that dined with the poor, healed the sick and was close to all those who were marginalised. The relationship with this Jesus is what should be most central to the Jesuit way of being faithful. Therefore the promotion, even the integration, of justice in their work should be essential to their mission simply because it was Christ’s way of living his faith. I would even dare to claim that a faith that is not concerned with justice is no faith at all. However, it must be said that this has been a major topic of dispute ever since Luther pinned his 95 theses on the Church in Wittenberg. Is faith alone enough to be a good Christian? The Jesuit response seems to be a clear no! In other words we have a faith which is called to practice.

Sadly, there is a major trap lurking around the corner. A work of faith without a concern for justice is not founded on good faith. But a work of justice without faith can still be considered a good work. There seems to be some dissimilarity between the two. In contrast to works of faith work of justice seem to have no underlying presupposition in order to be good. The trap then is that a work of justice remains nothing more than a work of justice. Sadly, some Jesuits ended up more as social workers than as priests doing social work thereby losing a very important element of their identity.

Consequently the mission of the Society of Jesus is a tricky one. One constantly has to move between the tendency to do too little for the service of faith or too much. A service of faith without the promotion of justice misses the point but so does the promotion of justice without the service of faith. If this is the case then the search for the mission of the Society of Jesus, the search for its identity, should be found somewhere in between these two extremes.

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