A rich reflection


20 Aug 2023

Social justice is integral to living a fully human life. As situations change so does the Gospel-inspired social justice tradition.

Social justice is often seen as a garden shed of the Church whose living quarters are faith and personal morality. People who speak about social justice and advocate for it are regarded as hired staff rather than as family. As a result, in times of financial stringency the social justice budget is one of the first to be cut.

This view, however, reflects an impoverished view of the Church and of social justice. Central in the Catholic Church and to social justice are human beings and what a fully human life looks like. As human beings we are defined by our relationships: those within ourselves as bodily beings, with God, with friends and family, with our environment, with institutions such as schools, hospitals, workplaces, prisons, shops, corporations and governments, with other races, religions and nations, to name a few. All these relationships are interwoven and our relationship to God is expressed in each of them. Jesus Christ, who took on all this variety of relationships in his own time and world, did so to heal broken relationships and to offer a way of just, kind and devoted living. Because all our relationships intersect and are involved in our relationship with Christ, the division into personal, religious and social relationships is only for convenience. It should not distinguish what is central from what is peripheral within the Church.

That said, the tradition of Catholic reflection on social justice is very rich. It deals with the human relations between government and citizens, employers and employees, corporations and governments, asking how they ought be shaped if they are to contribute to decent human living. It does not confine itself to generalities but looks at the detail of economic and other settings. As situations change so the social justice tradition inspired by the Gospel will grow.

This becomes evident when we study how Catholic reflection on social justice responded in 19th century Europe to the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the relationships between employers and workers. Responding later to the totalitarian regimes of Left and Right and the Depression it focused on the relationships between governments and persons. The massive wars and development of nuclear and other lethal weapons prompted further questions about human flourishing.

Under Pope Francis, the scope of reflection on social justice has expanded beyond the economy, migration and war to include our relationships with the environment. This recognised that human beings can flourish only if our personal and collective relationships to our world are respectful. Pope Francis has spoken of Integral justice to insist that in all our relationships we need to take account of our environment.

The recent concern about the development of Artificial Intelligence suggests that the scope of social justice must broaden even further. The public concern about AI has so far focused on its effect in on employment in industry, planning, in creative work and in publications. Unemployment is not simply an economic matter. It affects the health and welfare of the people who lose their work. We can also see how AI might affect our trust in governments and in communications, and so feed polarisation in society.

AI, however, is only one of many technologies that can affect a full human life. Advances in genetic and nano technology offer similar possibilities of altering human beings according to our wishes. We can imagine the power of genetic engineering to prevent hereditary illnesses, and the possibility of designer babies, and of the creation of babies in a laboratory. All these developments and the profit that might be made by promoting them pose important questions about what it means for us to be social beings, and so about the heart of the Gospel.

Such questions will also be intertwined with the those dealt with in Christian reflection on personal morality and will lead to shared deep reflection on the implications of the Christian Gospel. We shall need to think seriously about what technological possibilities will respect our shared humanity and which possibilities will diminish it. Integral justice will then need to include both personal justice and technological justice, our relationships to ourselves as human beings and to the tools that we have made to enhance our lives.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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