Justice in the World

April/May 2012, Volume IV, No. 2

No, you can't have faith without justice, so you can't keep faith out of politics. This issue of Open Space highlights the fortieth anniversary of the ground-breaking document, Justice in the World, and also asks why this anniversary has not been more celebrated.

The 40th anniversary of the influential 1971 Roman Synod document Justice in the World passed by in silence in the official Church both at the Canadian and Vatican levels. That raised some worried eyebrows, because anniversaries of an important encyclical or statement are very often used by the Vatican to re-emphasize the teaching that was the point of the document.
But this 40th anniversary was noted only by a few ardent social justice voices, who asked: why no celebration? Seven years earlier the same voices had asked: why was this significant document omitted from the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine, issued in 2005 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace?

And yet this still timely document on social justice was affirmed in 1971 by a vote of 94% of the bishops at the Roman Synod which was held that year and was devoted to the obligations laid on the Church by the Gospel itself to hunger and thirst—and act—for justice.

It was approved by Paul VI and was discussed widely in the church and in the public forum, both favourably and critically.
The challenging core message of Justice in the World was a new, even revolutionary way of making a point that the Bible has been trying to get us to understand ever since the writing of the Book of Exodus: “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.” [#6] And again, “… unless the Christian message of love and justice shows its effectiveness through action in the cause of justice in the world, it will only with difficulty gain credibility.” [#35]

Justice in the World was prophetic also in other ways. For example, it used the language of ‘reading the signs of the times’, and of liberation, solidarity and the option for the poor, although these terms were “a red flag” for some Catholics because they were the language of Latin American liberation theology.

Also, for the first time, the statement made concern for ecology a dimension of Catholic social teaching.

It was far-sighted in recognizing the emerging socio-economic and political interdependencies arising from the globalizing of communications, technology and the management of capital. And it introduced concepts of “social sin” and “sinful social structures” that had only recently found their way into Catholic social theology, as the Catholic tradition absorbed from the social sciences an enhanced awareness of the power of economic and social structures in shaping human society and culture.

Finally, Justice in the World challenged the Church herself to make an examination of her own life and practice in order to be able to give credible witness to her teaching on justice.


In its method, this Synod was a bit different from the beginning. The Synod Secretary, Archbishop Rubin, gave the task of drafting the preparatory document to the new Pontifical Commission (in 1988 re-named Pontifical Council) on Justice and Peace . Philip Land sj, an economist and professor at the Gregorian University, became the chief drafter. He was supported by associates of the Justice and Peace Commission, such as the French Dominican priest Vincent Cosmao and the eminent Catholic lay woman, Barbara Ward, a former editor of the magazine The Economist.

Canadians played a significant role in this Synod process from beginning to end. Land himself was a born Canadian. Cardinal Maurice Roy, archbishop of Quebec City, was then President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. At the time I was Director of the Office for Social Affairs of the Canadian bishops. Under that hat I was asked to prepare, in cooperation with US theologian Father Joe Komonchak, a draft entitled “Liberation of Men [sic] and Nations – Some Signs of the Times.” (Catholic Mind, New York 1972)

That document was prepared as a draft of a possible North and South American bishops’ response to the Roman preparatory document for the upcoming Synod. As such it was presented at a meeting of the Inter-American Bishops in Mexico City, as they prepared for the Synod.

The document received enthusiastic support from the Canadian and Latin American bishops. The U.S. bishops were divided, with Cardinal Dearden and Bishop Bernadin supporting the draft and Cardinal Krol hostile to it. In any case, the author was invited by the Canadian bishops to be a peritus (Latin for “expert”) with their delegation at the Synod.

The Canadian bishops had prepared carefully for the Synod on Justice in the World. When it opened on November 30, 1971, each Canadian bishop-delegate spoke in the name of all the Canadian bishops, because the core ideas of their presentations had been presented and accepted at a previous plenary meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). The Canadian team were Cardinals Maurice Roy and George Flahiff, Archbishop Joseph-Aurèle Plourde of Ottawa, and Bishop Alexander Carter of North Bay. Archbishop Plourde, then President of the CCCB, was elected to chair the drafting committee of the Synod.

The talks given by Bishop Carter and Cardinal Flahiff made a noticeable impact on the Bishops gathered for the Synod, and also made headlines in the press, particularly in the major French newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde. Carter’s presentation on the then sensitive issue of the abusive power of multinational corporations in poor countries, won him an invitation to the headquarters of UNCTAD [United Nations Conference on Trade and Development]. And Pope Paul VI warmly congratulated Cardinal Flahiff for his intervention on education for justice.

A paragraph from Flahiff’s speech has been quoted hundreds of times by social educators and activists. He asks why our Church’s social teaching seems to have had so little impact. He suggests that this is because we have believed that teaching a theoretical knowledge of the guiding principles of social justice is the most important, if not sufficient, responsibility of leaders of the Church with regard to justice. And he goes on to say:

“I suggest that henceforth our basic principle must be: only knowledge gained through participation is valid in this area of justice; true knowledge can be gained only through concern and solidarity. We must have recourse to the biblical notion of knowledge: experience shared with others.

We have too frequently separated evangelization from social action, and reserved social involvement to the elites and eventually to the clergy. Unless we are in solidarity with the people who are poor, marginal, or isolated we cannot even speak effectively about their problems.

Theoretical knowledge is indispensable, but it is partial and limited; when it abstracts from lived concrete experience, it merely projects the present into the future.”

And he adds another factor. “Programs are stamped by the age of the persons who conceive and execute them. Church programs in which youth have not been involved will lack a sense of daring and courage as well as an acceptance of mistakes.”

(Cardinal George Flahiff)


The final statement of this 1971 Synod on Justice in the World has had more circulation and influence, especially in North America, than any other statement of a Roman Synod. For example, the Canadian bishops issued 25 social statements in the decade following the Synod – most of them applying to particular situations and issues (unemployment, technology and disarmament, etc) the principle that faith and justice are inseparable. These Canadian church statements were deliberately echoing the Synod’s teaching that the doing of justice is a const-itutive, essential dimension of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Religious congregations in North America used Justice in the World extensively to educate their members in Catholic social teaching. Congregations of Sisters applied its principles as they promoted the role of women in the church and in society. The Center of Concern in Washington took Justice in the World as a kind of manifesto. Working out its principles as applied to church and society, the Center published a tabloid-sized resource entitled Quest for Justice that sold over 200,000 copies and was used widely in workshops on social justice.

And in 1975, when a General Congregation of the Jesuits decided after 13 weeks of discernment to describe their mission in the present age as, inseparably, ‘the service of faith and the promotion of justice’, the Decree expressing that conviction quoted resoundingly from Justice in the World.


So why hasn’t that fruitful document been greeted with grateful celebration on its 40th birthday, either in Rome or in Canada? Has the disagreement concerning some of its ideas or wording, felt in some networks from the moment of its publication, won out over the conviction of the bishops synodically gathered in 1971?

The use of the term ‘constitutive’ to describe the relationship of justice to evangelization has been seen by some bishops, right from the beginning, as misleading or too strong. Their objection seems to stem from a conviction that the Church – as Christ’s body – is a perfect society and so cannot be essentially linked to earthly justice, which is never perfect.

Phil Land recounts that one of the Cardinals at a meeting at which the draft of Justice in the World was presented shook his finger at Phil and shouted, “You are destroying the church!” But that un-named cardinal’s fear does not seem to have prevailed in Rome. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict all have affirmed this essential link between faith and justice –and, just as essentially, between love and justice.

Some commentators think that the practical recommendations made in Justice in the World explain why Rome does not want to draw attention to the document forty years later. For example, one such recommendation urges that a high level commission be set up to consider seriously the future role of laity –especially of women—in the church and in society. And others think that the use of terms from liberation theology still jars some people in Rome.
Justice in the World pointed out, of course, that the Church should make a serious examination of its own lifestyle and practices to ensure that it gives a genuine witness to what it presently preaches on justice. Such self-criticism is always difficult, for any organization. The Canadian bishops did issue a statement in 1972 on Justice in the Church, suggesting criteria and guidelines to be followed.

But like it or not, in recent decades the Church has been so pressured by the highly publicized scandal of sexual abuse by clergy, and bishops’ slowness to take it seriously, that that one issue has, as it were, absorbed all the energy available for the risk/effort/opportunity of critical self- examination.

Do the difficulties just mentioned explain the absence of attention to Justice in the World on its 40th birthday? Partly, perhaps. And like it or not, Canadian culture has been shifting to the right; enthu-siasm for social change is much less popular than it was in 1971.

With church attendance down, bishops do not today have the financial resources nor the lay and clerical expertise as readily available at their Conference as they were in an earlier time. Episcopal statements come more rarely, and they get less media coverage.

On the Vatican level, there has been a de-emphasis in recent years on collegiality and so on the magisterial significance of synods of bishops. In the theology of Pope Benedict, Roman synods, like episcopal conferences, do not have the ecclesial stature that
Vatican II and Pope Paul VI seemed to have been willing to give them. Archbishop Maxime Hermaniuk of Winnipeg argued bravely at several Synods that such gatherings should be seen as deliberative, not merely advisory. But his pleading found no echo in the official synod documents.

So perhaps the core teaching of Justice in the World - that the doing of justice is an essential dimension of evangelization - is not what is being down-played. Perhaps what the Vatican does not want to emphasize these days is precisely the teaching status of synods.

If so, we can still hope and pray that the upcoming synod on The New Evangelization will integrate into its own teaching the 1971 Synod’s bold conviction about the vocation of believers to struggle for justice—precisely because of their Christian faith. “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.” Surely that fundamental conviction deserves a central place in the Church’s 21st century understanding of what it means to evangelize the world.
Bill Ryan sj