“The Social Commitment of the Society of Jesus,” Pedro Arrupe (1971)

The extended selection below is one of four papers Pedro Arrupe wrote and asked be circulated among the members of the Society of Jesus following his meeting with North American provincials in the spring of 1971. Arrupe’s time in California was part of larger visit to the Jesuits’ American Assistancy. The letter by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus faults the American Jesuits for their “certain passive resistances” to enact social changes, as they have been instructed by Arrupe and his predecessor. The letter begins with a brief overview of the Jesuits’ “moderate success,” continues with the reasons for what Arrupe describes as the men’s “insufficient commitment” to social issues, and stresses, among other topics, the importance of discernment in a Jesuit’s vocation.

For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.



I. Limited Implementation of Directives

1. Twenty Years of Moderate Success

The purpose of the following pages is to make a frank and honest appraisal of the social commitment of the Society of Jesus in the world of today. During the past twenty years, from the 28th to the 31st General Congregation, from the letter of Fr. Janssens on the social apostolate to my own letters in 1966 to the Provincials of Latin America on the same theme and in 1967 to the Jesuits in the United States on the racial problem, the Society, animated by a greater sensibility on the part of the Church, as expressed in its more recent official documents, has not ceased to insist on the gravity and the urgency of social problems, and on the necessity of giving them priority in our apostolate.


We can now ask ourselves if all these decrees, directives and exhortations have succeeded in giving our manifold apostolic efforts the new orientation so necessary to ensure the presence of the Society in the world of today. We must answer this question with honesty and candor. We should at the same time preserve the equanimity and the realism required to avoid falling into a downright negativism or into a destructive radicalism which would solve nothing.


We cannot close our eyes on what has been realized in the social sphere during these last twenty years.


It would be equally unfair to assert that these efforts have had no impact on the other areas in which the Society deploys its apostolic activity, especially in the fields of education and pastoral care. My recent voyages and the resultant contacts with the Provincials of the entire world have made me aware of the various projects and experiments calculated to give a new impulse and a new orientation to our apostolate; chiefly through Commissions for the choice of ministries now being established in the different Provinces, in pursuance of Decree 22 of the 31st General Congregation, and as a result of the Survey of the Society.


I can also testify to the genuine desire of the great majority of our Superiors to put in operation the directives on the social apostolate emanating from the Council, from our Congregations, from the Fathers General, and in some cases as well, from the national or regional conferences of the Fathers Provincial.


2. Why Slow Organic Reaction of the Society

In spite of everything it must be admitted that in the field of the social apostolate there still remains an appreciable gap between the intentions publicly expressed and the reality of our apostolate. Despite a considerable number of genuine attempts, the Society as a whole has not taken the direction indicated and decided on, and has failed in the promptitude and energy demanded by the gravity and urgency of the present situation.


This slow, inconsistent and organic reaction of the body of the Society in regard to the directives laid down, if on the one hand it manifests an inadequate understanding of the social problem, on the other it causes surprise inside and outside the Society; this tends to obscure the full credibility of our witness and to diminish our apostolic efficacy.


Various causes can explain this lack of reaction of the body of the Society to the incentives given it: fixed habits, attitudes and mentalities imperceptibly developed in the course of the years and impossible to change overnight, rigidity in works and structures. I believe, however, that we should look for the principal cause of this situation on a deeper level, and ask ourselves whether certain aspects of our spiritual life and our general attitude are not largely responsible for our lack of enthusiasm and promptitude in satisfying all the demands of our social commitment.


3. The Law of Charity: Semper Magis

To answer this question I am going to refer to two fundamental laws of all spiritual life which St. Ignatius makes his own, putting them at the center of the Spiritual Exercises: the law of charity, of a charity that knows no bounds: “semper magis,” “usque ad mortem”—and spiritual discernment, a product of prayer and intimacy with God, which helps us to discover where and in what manner, in the concrete circumstances of life, our charity should be manifested: by a love which attests its vigor in making it capable precisely of “discerning.”


In general the foundation of our external activities of charity and justice, which are basic for full human development, is found in an intimate connection, in the theological identification between the vertical dimension and the horizontal dimension of Christian love: this is one and the same charity. It is only through love for God in transcendent Trinity, rendered visible in the person of Christ, that we can explain the perfect love for our fellowmen that leads us to wish to identify ourselves with them in their sufferings and to wish to come to their rescue.


Christian theology and anthropology, resting in the, last analysis on the Incarnation, the death, the resurrection and the eschatological return of Christ, will make us avoid the incomplete horizontalism of a secularized or atheistic philanthropy; they will bring us to the constant reflection necessary to modify the existing social situation when considered unjust; they will make us embody in a horizontal dimension of charity towards the neighbor the vertical relation of our sincere charity towards a personal and transcendent God.


I am not speaking here of charity as distinct from justice but of charity that demands and lays the foundation for justice, which procures justice, and makes it possible by effecting a transformation in the hearts and the mentalities of men—the charity which constitutes the essence of the gospel message.


In the sphere of the social apostolate we speak, and with reason, of justice, of a just order based on equity. But perhaps there is danger of forgetting that it is in the name of Christian charity and love that we desire this just order, and that we are striving to obtain it.


4. Discernment in the light of Faith

Discreet charity: this is the watchword for our efforts in this sphere as in all others—but in this sphere especially today. In our day it is impossible to have a genuine charity without feeling a deep preoccupation with the social problems that rend mankind and dehumanize the life of the majority of men. It is impossible to have a genuine charity without hearing the appeal and coming to the rescue. And a discretion which does not discern in the light of the faith the means possible to answer this appeal will no longer avail. Further it is not only a question of response by individual action, but also and above all by the combined action of the Society.


That is what we mean when we speak of the “social commitment of the Society.” In recent ascetical language the word “commitment” has come to signify the same thing as the traditional “devotion:” devotion or gift of self, but emphasizing that we cannot stop at sentiment but we must go on to act; it means that we cannot seek the spiritual solely, but we must embody our commitment in an actual situation: in persons and in real events.


The new conditions of life in the world, characterized today by the industrial development, the demographic explosion and socialization have made the Christian conscience more sensitive to this appeal to social commitment. The Society of Jesus, thanks to the numerous apostolic enterprises in mission lands, has played the role of pioneer, has had then by anticipation a clear sense of the Christian value of the initiatives of social and human progress. It has then still more reason for feeling concerned today about this appeal.


5. Nature and Grace

Today the Church has understood more clearly a thing which of course has never been overlooked by Catholic theology. Creation and grace, even since the appearance of sin in human history, are not divergent designs in the divine order. Sin is the enemy of grace, but it is also the enemy of nature. It is only by illusion that it can present itself to man as his good, since sin is always a shabby and selfish good, which strips man of his more authentic greatness. There is only one supernatural design: creation was fashioned for man to help him attain better his true end.


It is in the light of these principles that the occasionally conflicting realities of our world, agitated by the acceleration of all its evolving processes, acquire their true meaning for a Christian. The aspirations and the efforts of man to reach human maturity by means of technical progress and a more just and more perfect social structure are radically conformed to the creative and salvific divine plan. Contrary to this divine plan are the human misery and frustration in which so many millions of men still live, the selfishness with which the more developed peoples achieve their advancement without sharing it with other peoples, the lack of real liberty the majority of men suffer, prisoners of different kinds of slavery from which they cannot free themselves.


God calls us through Jesus Christ to be His children, and it is a call to a sublime liberty. But this higher liberty is in reality threatened and fettered by many slaveries of human origin. God wishes us free. The world and society should be the place where we can meet God in freedom. We are born capable of being free; our approach to freedom runs counter to a force aiming at conquest and domination. Human history has been the road of our progressive liberation, though it has been marked constantly by false steps and by recessions. Today the hopes and the menaces are at their apex.


The Jesuit of today who knows how to read “the signs of the times” understands the message of history and discerns in its light the actual call of God. He understands the divine love for the tens of millions of men who struggle for their advancement and their liberation, especially in the Third World—in a manner sometimes dramatic—but also in certain handicapped areas of the developed countries. He sees in the misery and the frustration which makes them slaves the clearest effect of the “mysterium iniquitatis” of which St. Paul speaks. Animated by this vision he ought to wish to offer himself personally for this task, ready to combat with lucidity and with courage, along the lines of the “third degree of humility;” desiring to resemble Jesus Christ more and to imitate Him more.



II. Reasons for Insufficient Commitment

6. Difficulty in the Change of Mentality

We can ask ourselves if our mentality as Jesuits, formed in the school of the Exercises, has sufficiently assimilated this vision of things. I do not doubt the initial generosity or the sincerity of our first gift. Nor am I less aware of the fact that we are weak men and that many of our deficiencies are the inevitable consequences of our human limitations. But in spite of this, it seems to me that our actual effectiveness, in the face of the anguish of the world, is quite inferior to what people could expect. And I ask myself: what are the reasons for this?


The answer cannot be a simple one. Among other factors, two arc particularly important: the difficulty in the change of mentality demanded today, compared to the purely “spiritual” manner of seeing things in an earlier though still recent tradition; the danger of weakening the spiritual and apostolic vocation of the Society—a real danger, into which some holding extreme positions have already fallen.


The first difficulty cited is very real and easy to understand. Only in this century have there been posed in all clarity the problems in all their urgency and with a progressively accelerated rhythm. Our tradition could not give us models fully ready for the new modes of action demanded of us. Many humanitarian enterprises were conducted by non-Christians and sometimes intermingled with antireligious activities. There arose some apprehensions and some understandable fears, though in the main they were neither Christian nor Ignatian. Let us not judge this recent past; let us try, moreover, to rise above its imperfections.


Yesterday, there was no solution to a number of problems. But today there is. For that reason, we have today a new responsibility.


The possibilities presented to man today by technical and scientific progress are beyond imagination. Never has mankind had at its disposal so many and such powerful means to control nature and even its own existence. In comparison with this immense power and this extraordinary richness, the misery and the oppression in which the greater part of mankind still lives ought to be in our eyes a grievous scandal, a thing incomprehensible and absurd; as sin is absurd and incomprehensible. It is needless to cite facts: we all know or we have heard of the Third World, of the world of the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, or the ill-nourished, of those without lodging … ; a world which, instead of diminishing, goes on increasing every day.


We possess all the data. And in different places in the world where the Society toils some measures have already been adopted to meet this dramatic and urgent problem. I do not doubt it. But I ask myself if most of us live this situation as a permanent reproach, if we live it as a sort of collective sin in which we all share, at least by omission, and in the measure of our responsibility; I ask myself if we have really made up our minds to employ our industry and our possibilities, whatever the field of our apostolate may be: Exercises, philosophical and theological studies, education, pastoral action, means of communication, to cope with this mystery of iniquity.


Perhaps we have distorted the biblical concept of sin, reducing it to disobedience to a positive law of the Church, or to sin of the flesh. For us the greatest sin is no longer, as it was in the eyes of the prophets and of Christ, “iniquity.” The sins we generally accuse ourselves of in confession concern for the most part private or family life, and not public life as such. When people know of the inequalities among men, the obstructions often put in the way of justice, the oppressions which affect so many millions of men in so many countries of the world, it should not be surprising to hear people in confession accusing themselves of faults on some such grounds: I have more than what is necessary, and I do not give any of it away; the power I possess I employ only to keep in servitude the people who depend on me; I take no part in any of the collective activities to resolve the social problems of my country, etc.


One of our theologians has been able to assert: “The commission to reform the socio-economic structures so that many may transform the world, and it may regain its true and universal meaning of serving the interests of the whole human community, is not a secular commission, but truly Christian and ecclesial. For that reason, the silence which is complicity, the clear identification with unjust socio-economic structures, not only in the past but also in our day, constitute the “great sin of the church” … the “peccatum ad mortem,” that most opposed to the essence of Christianity as love of the God-love for men.”


With what I have just said I think I have explained a little why it has been and is painful for us to realize the “metanoia” demanded of us. The new reality has arisen abruptly and it supposes a new perspective, a universal compassion, a conscience more alive to the actual possibilities of man; in a word, a veritable conversion which all can realize in an equally rapid and complete fashion. For this reason perhaps the young—whose sensibilities are naturally more lively and vigorous—feel sometimes of this point what alienates them most from the generations preceding them.


7. Weakening of our spiritual and apostolic ideals

These considerations, which purpose to reconcile a realistic vision of the world with the demand of the actual theological reflection can at least in my opinion, help to create the conviction of the necessity of an authentic “social commitment” of the Society to meet our world.


For—and this is very important—here no longer are half measures and timid solutions admissible. He who today is not with Christ in the advancement and liberation of man, in the struggle against the sinful structures which torture man, is against Him. He lacks love and that true charity which is the love of God and our neighbor, and which is affected by the most urgent needs of our brothers. His faith stumbles on the most important point; what modern thought to some extent has set down by way of accusation under the term “religious alienation.” We are in the world and we have a concrete and historical social structure, bound in many ways to other structures of society. When the latter become unjust, the simple complicity of our silence can be a grave offence against supernatural charity and a serious blow to our will in religious life.


And yet all that has just been said, all this urgency with which the love of Christ brings us today to social commitment, does not entirely solve the concrete problems posed to us by this commitment. A just reserve will exist in the spirit of many as long as they do not find an adequate response to the second difficulty we raised above: the danger of weakening the spiritual and apostolic vocation of the Society. A real danger, we may say, into which certain extremist interpretations of social commitment actually fall today. It cannot be denied that the concrete manner in which certain individuals have realized this commitment awakens some just suspicions. Can such a type of social commitment be that of a religious? Does it correspond to the charism of a vocation consecrated to the witness and to the announcing of the Word of Salvation? This problem is not peculiar to the Jesuit. It is a problem which concerns the Catholic conception of what is proper to the religious and priestly life.


To put this problem a little more clearly let us have recourse again to some general preliminary considerations, drawn from a realistic vision of our world and from a balanced theological reflection.


8. Ambiguity of Progress and Development

First of all, in Progress there seems to be a latent ambiguity which cannot be denied. It is a fact that progress, though interested to liberate man, often increases his slavery. The present criticisms, coming from all horizons, directed to the “consumer society,” are eloquent enough. As the power of man grows there grows also the dramatic possibility of using this power to set aside, divide, oppress and destroy men, to push mankind into an unprecedented materialism. We have already recognized this above; and we have found precisely in this fact one of the reasons which ought to impel us most strongly to combat this selfishness of monstrous proportions, this collective and objective sin. If we are consistent, this verification leads us to maintain that progress does not automatically produce the liberation and the salvation of man. It tends in that direction, but it can go astray, and in fact it does. Progress does not make us go back to its source, to the authentic and specific values of religion and Christianity. Only these values—for I do not speak of a form of sanctimonious religion, which can be insincere and constitute an evasion—will be able to give to progress its ultimate and genuine meaning, as well as a support to heal it and correct it in its deviations.


9. Double role of Grace

We lay stress, in the light of Catholic theology, on the double character we have just been underlining. “Gratia elevans, gtatta sanans.” It is quite clear that we do not intend to go backwards, to deny the value of progress considered in itself and its “Christifying” signification. We do not wish to fall back into a spiritualism which puts Christian salvation outside human history and unconnected with natural values. We maintain what we have said but we specify it.


Development, with all its economic, social and cultural dimensions, by itself constitutes a liberation of man, though hard to realize and admitting of ambiguities. The cosmos and society are the place where man does his apprenticeship in liberty and where he attains self-realization. But this expression of liberty is not yet for that sole supreme liberty which man will find better in his free response to the initiative of God who calls him, in Christ, to a human-divine communion, to a participation in the divine nature. And this “liberty of the children of God,” though already present and operating among us, because “we are already sons of God,” does not yet appear clearly; it will manifest itself in its plenitude only at the last moment of human history. It is the grace of God which in Christ elevates human progress and gives it its ultimate meaning. The Christian professes it in his faith as believer; the religious and the priest, each in his own degree, place at the center of their personal vocation the will to advance the knowledge of this ultimate and transcendent meaning of progress. In that consists their principal contribution to progress understood in its completeness.


The first effect of grace, which is practically identified with his intimate nature, is to elevate man; but it has also that role of healing of which theology speaks. The rending produced by sin, more precisely that provoked in each man by the tension between that infinite call to the love of his God and the selfish contraction which tends to make him retire within himself, that rending and the wound that it brings on call for continual medication. The remedies are the word of God, the action of the Church through the “signs” by which it creates and restores the community of salvation, the example of Jesus who “went about doing good and curing.” And we find again the irreplaceable value of the priestly and religious vocation.


10. Special role and function of priest and religious

Within the people of God religious and priests have a vocation and functions of their own which are not confounded with those of the other members, even if all are converging towards the same end: to establish the Kingdom of God, to realize in ourselves and in all men the plan of salvation.


As religious we ought to be the witnesses of this, that “for God nothing is impossible” and, for Him, to freely conform our life to the plan traced by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. We have been called to realize in our lives the kingdom of the beatitudes, and to symbolize by our universal and unreserved love for all men the infinite love of God.


As priests, for the same reason as all other priests, we are subject to the mediation of the bishop, successor of the Apostles, and in subordination in his regard, in dependence carrying on the apostolic mission. Beyond the universal priesthood of the faithful, we share in that function of the Spirit which Christ received on the banks of the Jordan and after which Jesus launched out into the preaching of the Kingdom. This mission of Christ of preaching the “good news,” the gospel of the Father, is realized in Jesus, living Word; this mission is fulfilled in its highest point, in the complete sense of the word, in His body made Eucharist, sacrifice and sacrament at once. Our priestly vocation consists precisely in prolonging this word and this sacrifice: the Eucharist demands the realization in fact of what we celebrate in it mystically.


It is thus that the Church wanted us in accepting us as priests and as members of a religious Order predominantly priestly. Such also certainly was the initial charism of our Founder. In our days in which the social reality has changed, there is also in process of profound change the manner in which we should understand many aspects of this vocation, and in particular, its interrelations with the different aspects of the human, personal, social and communitarian development. We cannot pretend to know in the last detail and under all their aspects the changes the future is still reserving for us. But we can and should maintain that the vocation of the Jesuit will always be priestly and religious. And that if the Society is to exist, this will be as a religious, apostolic and priestly Order. Integral human development will be our great work for the glory of God. But our specific contribution to this integral development will clearly have its center of gravity in aspects more properly spiritual, those in which the grace which elevates and heals penetrates into the world. Our vocation will make us the continuators, in a total dedication, of the manner of life (witness and proclamation of the Word) which Jesus of Nazareth adopted for the salvation of the world.



III. Special Situations

11. Development within the frame of our calling

Naturally, to locate the center of gravity of our action in this way does not mean that the Jesuit cannot employ a great part of his activity—perhaps the greatest part in some cases and in some determined situations—to tasks of human advancement (economic, social or cultural). This means only that he should always have present in spirit the positive finality of all his actions, and that he should take care that the gift itself of his person to further these aspects of human development is a living testimony of the supernatural and transcendental finality of all development. This signifies also and here we touch upon the most difficult and the more delicate point of our subject—that he should avoid activities and the taking of positions, which, though of themselves legitimate and really leading to human development, are in fact less compatible with the most specific aspect of our proper vocation, which is to be witness and announcement of the word of God, minister of the Eucharist, servant of the ecclesial community.


A delicate and difficult point, as there is a constant question of marking out limits in the living complexity of a human situation, where each aspect in some fashion implies the others, where the fluidity and the variations of time and place quickly render unreal a line too sharply drawn from theory.


12. Political Dimensions

Thus there is the problem of taking positions politically, a polemic and burning subject in many cases, in the present division of mankind into political ideologies which form opposed and apparently irreconcilable camps: If the problem exists for every Jesuit it is more important in regard to the whole Society. I am going to try to say something to clarify it.


It is obvious that just as we cannot forget the economic aspects of our social commitment, we cannot any more ignore its political dimension. Apoliticism, or systematic refusal of all presence in politics, is today impossible for the apostolic man. We cannot remain silent, in certain countries, before regimes which constitute without any doubt a sort of institutionalized violence. We should denounce, with prudence but openly and clearly, policies inconsistent with “the global vision of mankind which the Church possesses in its own right.”


13. Don’t encroach on the laymen’s field

However, according to one of the clearest teachings of Vatican II, the priest should not encroach, especially in the political sphere, so closely bound to the exercise of public power, on the domain proper to the layman, to whom in this area belongs the last decision. This regard is not inspired by diplomacy or tactics, but it derives from the very nature of the priesthood. Above all, when it is a question of party politics, however necessary, the priest, because he is at the service of all men and of the whole truth, because he is the minister of a Church which should rely only on the power of the Cross and of the Resurrection, and which utilizes only the means furnished by the Gospel, cannot extend his political commitment to the point of becoming militant or leader of a party.


Jesus Christ, in His prophetic and priestly work renounced the use of political power to realize the profound liberation of man; in following His example and His spirit, we too renounce party politics as an instrument of the apostolate. This implies a voluntary renouncement and limitation which we share with Christ, this attitude can sometimes give rise to false interpretations or to reproaches, and with some justice on the part of those who understand best the tragedy of the present situation and who, seeing the limits we impose on ourselves, will judge us inconsistent or insincere.


If the Jesuit ought to be present in politics and even in concrete politics, this will be in a role clearly distinct from that of the layman. The priest and the religious should bring to politics the gospel witness and the gospel announcement of salvation; “those lights and those energies,” which, deriving from “the religious mission of the Church,” can contribute “to the establishment and the strengthening of the human community according to the divine law.”


14. Jesuit’s principal service

The principal service a Jesuit can render, in the temporal sphere, and particularly in the political sphere, is not to take the place of the layman in his own role, but rather, in dialogue with him, to help him to take cognizance of the ethical elements involved in his decision. His service consists in developing in this dialogue the ever new expressions the immanent law of human existence assumes at each moment, a law which is inscribed in the conscience of every man, and which culminates in the Gospel. The fact that, in the accelerated evolution of history, the situations are often without precedent obliges us to employ a greater care and concern in the formation of the individual and social conscience, something that for centuries has been one of the principal tasks of Christianity.


Here I am thinking of concrete policies and of positions that imply options open to discussion, that is to say, positions which, in the normal democratic process, are adopted and defended by political parties. As opposed to the militant party attitude I have presented another role, the true role of the priest and religious: to inspire and contribute to the formation of the layman’s political conscience, in a Christian sense. However, circumstances, can cause this distinction to become less precise, as when, for instance, in totalitarian communist regimes and in other countries, restrictions are placed on a just political freedom. In these socio-political contexts a person may at times adopt a party point of view which is simply a fundamental ethical position in favor of the rights of man in the light of the Gospel, prior to the concretion of a definite policy. It would not be just, in these circumstances, to reject on principle as inadmissible according to established criteria ethical positions taken—though they coincide at times with the “desiderata” of a definite political option—for the fact that they result in criticisms of the established power. A great deal of supernatural prudence and discretion will be necessary to define the limits of what can be permitted, and still more, what can be counseled in these circumstances. One can sin by both extremes. One can refuse the authentic guidance coming from the law of charity and from a long-range view, that goes beyond the immediate present to take account of the future as well.


15. Recourse to Dissent

The situations to which I have just alluded, in which the general political framework does not permit a development of political action for transforming the structure of society according to the demands of justice, certainly create the most agonizing problems of conscience. One of these, perhaps the most serious, is the recourse to “dissent.”


Dissent is not merely a public expression of an opinion or a criticism. The chief characteristic appears to be an appeal to public opinion by means of declarations, manifestations and actions with the purpose of impressing authority, and thus make it recognize certain rights or modify certain attitudes, official positions or decisions. It attempts to influence decisions in a new way, by renouncing direct dialogue with the authorities, regarding this as fruitless, impossible and impracticable. It resorts to opinion, inside or outside the Church, to bring pressure on authority.


Dissent of itself is not a negation of authority; besides, in implicit fashion, it frequently involves the recognition of authority.


The phenomenon is universal. Sometimes it manifests itself in the Church under forms similar to those it assumes in civil society. It rises spontaneously in the wake of the cultural revolution which wishes justly to raise man to the dignity of an agent responsible for his own destiny. It registers protests against the different representatives of the exercise of authority: governors, company heads, bureaucrats, experts, adults, and against the “system;” in a way there is a general rejection of the varied image of “father,” which includes in paradoxical fashion the nostalgic search for new types of leaders.


In the Church dissent arises from the discovery of the participation and of the co-responsibility of the priest and the layman in the Christian community.


Dissent does not always arise in the first place from theological questions or in connection with the role of the priest; it comes more frequently from differences in pastoral commitment in the political and socio-economic reality of a country or even of a continent. It arises often from the lack of consistency between the declarations of authority and its concrete realizations or omissions.


One cannot deny dissent a positive role in the present situation. It has frequently made authority conscious of actual situations and problems, and has even brought it to modify its decisions in a positive way. There are cases where silence is only an admission of a lack of a sense of responsibility, or of a lack of courage in doing one’s duty.


Dissent, whatever the responsibility of its origin, constitutes a replacing of the communitarian relation by one of force; in other words, within the community concerned the expression of tensions and conflicts through normal channels is replaced by the recourse to extraordinary or non-institutional channels.


Consequently, legitimate dissent should include, as far as possible, the quest for a normal communitarian relation; it should not strive to transfer itself into a sort of permanent institution in the Church, much less to introduce into the Christian community a dialectic of classes. It is quite clear that if authority seems implicitly to recognize as normal this form of dialogue, it does not follow that it admits conditions unacceptable on its part, as for example, the necessity of conforming in all cases to the opinion of the majority. Yet such an expression on the part of the majority ought to be weighed very carefully by authority.


16. Violence and Revolution

I have no intention of writing a treatise on the ethics of political action in general, nor of declaring what is or is not licit in the use of violence in political action, nor, above all, of promoting a rapid transformation of structures. It is not amiss, however, to note in passing that the word “violence” is used ambiguously today in very different contexts.


In our society there are different forms of violence. The extortion more or less openly practiced, the moral pressure on: the weakest groups (on the young, on women, on the rural proletariat…); the monopoly of information and propaganda. All this renders the problem very complex and very delicate, just as the options open call for discernment. In the face of these options it is necessary to consider the future as well as the present, universal as well as local interests. And great care must be exercised not to waken the “demon of violence” which, once unloosed, does not withdraw easily, nor without leaving behind a heap of ruins.


Here too our judgment is determined by the kind of life which is in keeping with our vocation, and which makes us pursue as closely as possible the line of conduct of Jesus Christ. We seek to renew among ourselves the very life of the group of men whom He brings together to diffuse His witness and His radical message of salvation. In God’s name, let us not think that this aim can be in the long run less fruitful and less effective.


Christ addresses Himself to man, to his conscience, to his sense of personal and social life in order to attack at their very roots the effects of sin, which, originating in the heart of man, crystallizes in his works and is translated into social sin, into inhuman structures, when he oppresses and despoils his brother.


In this way, the liberating action of Christ is truly revolutionary, but on another level: that of man’s conscience in his twofold personal and communitarian dimension. Only from this liberated conscience will be born the new man capable of constructing a new society.


The Jesuit, because of the bond which unites him to Christ prophet and priest cannot, when faced with violence and revolution, follow another road or refer to other criteria than those chosen personally by Christ. He ought to be permanent witness of the only love capable of creating between men the communion without which human and Christian love is impossible. He ought to bend every effort that his message may reach the free conscience of men, that they may free themselves from the personal sins which of necessity become objective in unjust structures and inhuman systems; for it is the same man who is their author and who maintains them.



IV. Ecclesial Perception in Discernment

17. Refining the Sensitivity of the Whole Community

It is certain that the human conscience cannot break the bonds with which the social structures in which it expresses itself and which, in turn, objectively condition the moral goodness or perversity of that same conscience. Consequently, the conversion of this free conscience, to be real, often implies the destruction of certain social objectivations whose liquidation attests the reality of the conversion of conscience to the Spirit of Christ. However, it will not be possible always to discern ecclesially these social objectivations of sin, at least immediately. Only a continual refining of perception of the whole ecclesial community will make a continual discernment possible. And in a certain sense, it is still more difficult to bring forward genuine socio-political alternatives to replace those actually existing and deficient. The field is thus open to a prudent cooperation, guided by Christian conscience, with all men and with all programs of “good will;” for only such cooperation and the human discussion that goes with it will be able to awaken a powerful ethic and social imagination capable of establishing more human conditions of existence.


In any case, neither as priests nor as religious can we forget this: the subtlety of ecclesial perception in discerning the social embodiments of sin and the vigor of the specific Christian contribution at the world level are in direct relation to the real capacity of the Church to live in its integrity the mystery of Christ, the mystery of the concrete humanity of God. It is precisely the intensity of life of this mystery of Christ that is the aim of our priestly ministry and our religious life. The more the Church in its entirety really lives the mystery of Christ—true God and true man—the more the Church will know how to give its life for the life of the world, denouncing the malignant forces which deform our social life.


Consequently, to be priest or religious of itself implies a radicalism greater than any definite socio-political option. The Jesuit, like Christ, has no mission to work in behalf of definite socio-political, cultural or economic structures, whose temporal autonomy ought to be respected. But like Christ he will have to proclaim unceasingly the human values and the human dimensions which must be respected by every conception and every construction of Society. Such is his authentic and specific commitment in history and for the service of man, stemming from his priestly and religious mission.


Like Christ, the Jesuit does not choose violence for the affirming of the human values and the human dimensions of all society.


The Jesuit will also have to see clearly that he cannot confuse his obligation to form the conscience of men according to the demands of the Gospel and that of denouncing all form of injustice or oppression with an alleged duty of spurring action (or the simple persuasion of such a duty) to obtain by violence the elimination of injustices and of every form of oppression. It is not the way chosen by Christ to free man, and it cannot be the way of those who have been called, as we have, to continue the mission and the attitudes of the Lord. The Jesuit must observe that only this fidelity to his mission will prevent him from falling into a new clericalism, and that it will also enable the other members of the People of God, that is to say, the laity—the citizens—enlightened by their own right conscience and the demands of the Gospel, to decide with full responsibility and after mature reflection what their attitude ought to be, and what are the means suitable for freeing their brothers from oppression and injustice.


18. Life of Faith and Prayer

The Jesuit knows that in order to “discern” and adopt these delicate and difficult attitudes, a life of intense faith and an intimate contact with God in prayer are necessary. If he fails on this point he runs the risk of being blinded by human passion or by criteria opposed to the Gospel.


He should never forget in all his actions, even in those in which he feels himself most involved, that he is only a “missus” of his “ecclesia,” from the local Christian community up to the universal Church.


It is false to believe that the world wishes to reduce the priest to “the lay state” and that it expects from him only a secular competence. “The world,” to establish itself in “humanity,” has need of the unique qualification of the priest. It is a typically clerical illusion to confuse “integration” into the community (even the radically secularized community) with the dissolution of priestly identity.


The priest is minister of the Word of God and not of his own or that of other men. Christ has said: “He who hears you hears me;” but this “you” denotes a Church, and a Church whose Word culminates in the Magisterium. The terms God, Church and Magisterium are certainly not synonyms; but to believe oneself to be minister of the word of God without incorporating oneself in the Church and submitting to its Magisterium, is an aberration which ends in the sin against the Spirit. This Word is not learned once for all and it demands a permanent “docility.”


19. Positive Social Commitment

The emphasis put on these last paragraphs is due to the delicacy of the subject at the present time. But in concluding the limited account of our social commitment I do not wish to leave the accent on this unique aspect; this could give an overall impression that would be too restrictive. And this is not my intention as you have been able to realize. I think we ought to encourage each other, for the love of Jesus Christ and of men, to fulfill a serious social commitment in favor of justice; we must of course understand it in its completeness, and accept with joy the precise role of promoters of the ultimate supernatural meaning of the development which is in keeping with our vocation and with this role we accept also the limitations it entails for us in definite aspects of the commitment.


20. Corporate Effort

Particularly at the end of my account, when we have come to the more delicate aspects of the political implications of the commitment I have deliberately employed a language which would refer immediately to individuals, to different Jesuits. In fact it is difficult, in the face of these problems, for the Society to be able to adopt an attitude which it imposes on all its members. The social commitment of the Society of Jesus will simply be the total resulting from the different commitments of its members. The Society, as you know well, has no doctrinal authority in the Church, and it prescribes to its members no other doctrine than that “approved” by our Holy Mother the Church. The Society holds to the decisions of the Hierarchy and should strive to have them accepted. But she does not have to present, as Institution, her personal version of the consequences which flow from Christian and Catholic doctrine.


Jesuits as religious and as priests have the inalienable duty of prophetically denouncing injustice. And they can, in doing this, suggest with charity and prudence how far, according to their personal judgment, the consequences of the principles of the Gospel and the Church go; how they view the incidence of these principles on the practical options which present themselves in the lives of the people.


21. Pluralism in the Positions Taken

In the present state of uncertainty in the world this leads almost inevitably to a great pluralism in the positions taken on these problems within the Society. We have here perhaps one of the points on which we seem obliged today to make accommodations that are neither easy nor pleasant, but prove fruitful in the long run. St. Ignatius, while recommending that we have “the same sentiments and the same language,” qualified this with “quantumfieri potest.” Today this is still more necessary, especially when the problems coming from our social commitment affect the domain of scientific research and of public opinion.


If we are prudent and humble in assessing and defending our own point of view, if we strive to listen to each other and mutually understand each other with that charity which ought to animate us all in our whole social commitment, if we know how to observe the rules of justice and discretion when we refer to those among us who have different opinions on points open to discussion, the result will be favorable; we will mutually enrich ourselves and will give Christian people an example most needed today. Sometimes the laity will be scandalized at first at our differences; but they will find them reasonable in the end, especially in these matters and if they are kept within the limits indicated.


22. Shifting Boundaries

The difficulty, of course, is certainly greater where the limits are not yet clearly drawn. And we hope that the future will bring us more accord. This shifting of boundaries is largely due to passing circumstances, to be explained historically. Among those who profess the selfsame loyalty to the principles of the Gospel and the Church some may think that such and such a political option can still be upheld, while others may think that it can no longer be defended. Some will judge that such and such a situation or such and such a political option is gravely unjust, while others will continue to justify it, at least up to a certain point. Consequently, some people will judge that a Jesuit, who wishes to keep his position in the field of evangelical action without opting for such and such political party, has the right to reject this or to collaborate with that, while others will hold that there is already a question of a partisan action that goes beyond the limits marked out by the priestly and religious vocation.


Such differences of judgments are today inevitable. And they call all the more urgently for mutual respect, understanding and fraternal dialogue. We must learn to love each other and respect each other despite our different opinions—a genuine mark of the human maturity of our fraternal love. Thus we will be truly a “sign” and a “witness” of an adult and mature charity for the other human communities in a pluralistic world and in a Church which recognizes more each day the value of diversity in substantial unity. It is the Superiors, representing authority in the Society and guaranteeing its unity, who ought to indicate to a Jesuit when his words and his actions, independently of what he himself can judge in his own soul and conscience, become incompatible with the minimum of indispensable unity or go beyond the limits permissible to a religious. It is they also who, after a sincere dialogue on each occasion, may assign or change for each Jesuit the task or the duty of living his vocation and with that, his social commitment.


23. Witness of Deeds rather than Acts of Authority

To those among us who favor clearly marked attitudes but in the opposite sense and would like to see the Society pronounce firmly on concrete questions, I suggest some realistic reflection on our human situation and the complexity of the world today. Believe also that the heritage of the same spirit, community life in charity and in dialogue will in the end put us more at harmony on the points in which we differ today. Acting thus, and without need of recourse to actions of authority, we will effect each day more agreement between words and actions, and the social commitment of the Society will become each day a more collective enterprise.


The witness of deeds is today most important. It is here that on the decisive points such as the choice of ministries, the manner of conducting ourselves, the exclusion even of the appearance of luxury and power … obedience can achieve very quickly and very effectively the rupture with unjust structures and make progress towards a commitment facilitating integral development.



V. Principles of Our Apostolic Presence in the Temporal Scene

24. Task of Re-creating Humanity in Christ

The Jesuit should never forget the social commitment to the service of justice and charity, without which there is no true religion. Nor should he ever forget that it is this beyond all technique and all politics that justifies his apostolic presence on the temporal scene.


To resolve the spiritual problem thus posed I am going to try to set forth some principles of renewal.


The created humanity which became perverted and transformed into a sinful humanity in which some men oppress others and prevent them from attaining integral development is also the humanity recreated by Christ. This re-creation of humanity by Christ constitutes an essential element of the historic situation of humanity.


The Jesuit has as his only raison d’etre his incorporation into the task of recreating humanity with Christ. On the degree of his complete and existential participation in the spirit of Christ, the restorer of mankind, depends more than on any other factor, the success of his mission in the history of the world’s salvation. The quest and the discovery in the light of the Gospel of the trait essential for the Christian work of renewal thus become a condition a priori of the reality of his action and the effort to assimilate them through study, meditation and divine illumination, is an essential requisite for his Jesuit existence.


Christ made His appearance historically to teach man, a member of a given society in which the iniquity of individuals went pari passu with the divine election, what the renewed man is. Consequently His teaching and His action have for framework a given historical society, but He has revealed to us in it what the renewed man ought to be. Nevertheless it is fitting to recall some distinctive traits of this society which justly evoked the action of Christ.


25. Society in which Christ Became Incarnate

Characteristics of the society in which Christ became incarnate and which served as concrete references for His action:

The contempt in which this society as so many others was held, on the cultural and structural levels: the poor, the oppressed, the man of humble condition, the enemy and the stranger.

The oppression and religious alienation created by a serried network of ceremonial and disciplinary laws, which openly served the interests of a. dominating priestly class and which stifled the humane, productive and free meaning of Creation.

The practical perversion of the meaning of human activity directed and in fact completely orientated towards riches and towards social preeminence (power).

The action of Christ in this society appears in the Gospels as a perfectly clear and uncompromising denunciation of the social “order.”


a) Indeed, faced with the contempt of the poor and of the enemy, Christ has preached the value of their persons, and with a truly astonishing insistence has placed poverty and persecution above riches and the exercise of power. Christ has based this denunciation of the individual and social contempt towards the poor and towards enemies on the universal fatherhood of God with regard to all the men definitively sealed in the Incarnation of His Son.


b) Without fearing the consequences which were in the end to prove fatal, Christ in ringing tones demanded the liberation of man from the religious alienation caused by ceremonial laws. He went on to put clearly as a condition of lawful worship respect and esteem for men—images of that God to whom we direct our worship. Christ has thus emphasized the provisional—and not absolute—character of every human institution, of the State as well as of the different forms of religious organization, having them judged according to their relation to man, work of God. It is impossible to identify with God any human institution whatsoever.


c) Christ has condemned that false orientation which puts human activity at the service of the economy and that which turns it completely to the conquest of power; therein lies the guarantee of all human activity that will not deprive the rest of men of their creative liberty.


d) The “campaign” of denunciation carried on by Christ, faced with the society of His time which presents so many analogies with our own, thus appears as a clear condemnation of every form of religion that permits the oppression of man and of every social commitment which denies God. It is precisely because God is creator and restorer of a free humanity that there cannot exist an authentic religion which would abet men in holding other men in slavery, nor a humanism forgetful of God.


26. Message of Positive Service

But the renewing action of Christ has not been merely a contestation with society. Christ has offered to the world a message which is a positive service rendered to humanity and supposing an authentic conversion of man on a religious basis.


Christ has in fact emphasized three points:

a) the necessity of aiding effectively all men who have need of us. He has gone so far as to make this service the very norm of the definitive judgment of God on each man, and He has identified Himself personally with the man in need;


b) solidarity of all Christians supporting and respecting each other mutually, so that their union is a visible sign of the unity of the Father and the Son and at the same time the necessary condition for being able, moved by the Spirit who lives in us, to call God: Our Father;


c) liberty for every man to realize himself on the religious plane; for that reason he has defended the right of sinners to coexist with the just, since God lavishes on one as well as the other the goods of creation.


27. Appeal to Conscience and Sincerity

This service rendered by Christ to a humanity which He reorientates and which He renews is characterized finally as an Appeal to conscience and not as a Power of social order which would impose its teaching. “The originality of the Christian message does not consist directly in the assertion that it is necessary to change structures, but in the insistence on the conversion of man which in turn calls for this change.” The effectiveness of the renovating message of Christianity is in keeping with our convictions.


There is an apparent value, then, closely connected with this accent on the religious conversion of man and, consequently, with a reserve placed on the employment of social power. This characteristic note of Christian style is Sincerity: yes, yes; no, no, manifested through the message and the life of Christ. We can speak of an. aversion of Christ for the deceitful practices, “tactics” employed to realize the renewal of mankind. This renewal should be achieved only by the force which justly constitutes the renewed man: a free being and a creature created by God. The consciousness of this reality, and this only, will be the generative force of a world renewed by Christ. But let us not forget the patience displayed by Jesus in the formation of His Apostles, and how He revealed Himself to them little by little. It is on a deep conviction on the characteristics of that action of Christ with which we have become intimately involved, that is to depend the efficacy and even the survival of the Society of Jesus in this historical moment that mankind is actually living. For that reason it would be intolerable if we were to have no part in the apostolic action which is leading the way to the renovation of the entire man and of all men in God.


28. Process of Spiritual Discernment

However, the association of the Jesuit in the recreative action of Christ—that is to say, his denunciation of social and ritual institutions which alienate man from himself and his engagement in the service of humanity to reorientate it—does not guarantee that our concrete activities in the present state of the world will always be successful. We should recognize with sincerity and with humility the hazards in the accomplishment of these tasks. Apart from the ever present possibility that we are mistaken, we must consider the finality marking our service of men, that is to say, its positive orientation towards God is a Christianity in complete harmony with the divine plan. Both these factors should cause us to submit our activity to a process of spiritual discernment, which will testify to our responsibility before God and before the men with whom we work.


The necessity of this spiritual discernment is obvious to anyone who knows the continual variations which the social reality, and the possible interpretations thereof present at all times. This is still more true when, as in our days, these interpretations are strongly colored by the simplifying vision of groups of opposed interests. It is not strange, then, that many Jesuits can reach, in their interpretation of social reality and in their renovating apostolic action, conclusions which differ from those of other Jesuits. This divergence in opinions is in actual fact necessary. The degree of our experience and knowledge of society as well as the manner of our involvement vary with the individual. And it is advisable that this divergence should not disappear completely, since, thanks to it, we can reach a more adequate vision of society and the connection the Church and the Society should realize with it.


29. Principles from Ignatian Spirituality

However, the fact that we sometimes meet with opinions diametrically opposed, should rouse in us all the desire to analyze them seriously in the light of “the Spirit which renews the earth.” On the individual as well as on the community and Province level, we ought to be eager to test the spirit which animates our action and we ought to be suspicious of positions taken suddenly and without serious consideration. To assist us in this personal and community discernment of spirits we can draw from our spirituality very useful and very fruitful principles.


The preliminary condition for all process of discernment of spirits is affective and, if possible, effective detachment in our very real attachments to power, to riches, to our prestige in the intellectual field, to views of prominent personalities, to our natural movements of sympathy or of revulsion. To be able to go into depth in this personal or community analysis of our opinions, we must first begin a sincere and painful struggle to strip ourselves of all the interests which are not those of Christ the renewer of man, and to attain to genuine interior poverty.


As fruit of this detachment we ought to feel more disposed to accept the proposition of our neighbor than to reject it without taking the trouble to examine it. This attitude will be truly ours only if we accept sincere dialogue with those who have a different opinion and with the community. This real self-discipline can free us from all intellectual pride; it can help us to go beyond, over contrary opinions, the intellectual and affective limitations of every man.


We need a deeper study through all the means at our disposal of the true reality of our societies; it should make us reach a serious diagnosis which penetrates to the interior of the implicit system of the values and the attitudes which sustain this reality. We ought to say as much about the analysis of the different civil and ecclesiastical policies. Educated people cannot justify themselves in refusing to study problems so serious; nor can they rely, without any personal research, on the opinion of persons better informed. A lack of serious study would be equivalent to a failure of our responsibilities for which we will have to render an account to God.


It is essential to strengthen our Faith in the Spirit of God who acts in the Church which we serve, and continue in the fundamental conviction that if the Spirit can make use of us, individuals and communities, to inspire the Church, He can also dispense with us. All of us are the Church, but no one—neither alone nor in a group—is the Church to himself. We cannot implicitly attribute to ourselves a monopoly of the Spirit in our renewal action. In a word, we must have a profound Faith in the Spirit who acts in the Church and humility in our eventual role of supplying inspiration, especially for original actions.


30. Community Appraisal of Opinions and Plans

Once these fundamental conditions are fulfilled we can pass to the examination of our opinions and our plans of action, using reason and the discernment of spirits. This examination, for a Jesuit of a working apostolic community, should usually be communitarian and always with the supervision of the Superior. Then and only then will there be plurality in the essential unity of the Church and of dogma; for the Spirit is essentially a spirit of union.


Consequently, there should emerge in our action our religious commitment to the service of humanity. We will thus imitate the example of Christ who was stopped by nothing in His march forward, and held back by no fear of disagreeable or fatal consequences; we will imitate the example of His sincerity, alien to every maneuver fraught with dangers.


31. Conclusion: Directives not Lacking; Back to the Sources of Our Spirituality

The moment of conclusion has come. Some perhaps might have expected from me an enumeration of concrete and precise directives for renewing our apostolate. This has not been my purpose. The documents of the Church and those of the Society indicate to us already in a positive manner the course of that renovation. The precise problem I have undertaken to determine is the reason behind certain passive resistances, certain impermeabilities, which, even in the Society, can be met with, despite the sufficiently numerous and explicit directives.


I find the cause not in the lack of directives but rather in a deficiency of religious spirit. We have withdrawn from the sources of our spirituality: theology of Creation in the Foundation of the Exercises, participation in the mystery of poverty in following the road chosen by Christ, discernment of Spirits.


On these foundations of our religious life rest the most solid reasons for incorporating into our lives in the way of the gospels the most pressing and the most dramatic problems of the world.


There is no other motive for the act of faith with which I would conclude. The Society of Jesus—this least Society which wishes to put itself humbly at the service of the Church and of humanity, and particularly at the disposal of the Sovereign Pontiff and the College of Bishops—despite the difficulties it is meeting, already shows clear signs of this spiritual renewal. Indeed, thanks to personal and silent contact with the Lord in meditation, thanks to communitarian deliberation, thanks to apostolic action, the appeal of Christ is beginning to be heard in the Society; this Christ, though not being of this world wishes to be rendered present in the Society of men today that is swelling anew with hope.




Original Source:

Justice with Faith Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—II, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1980, “The Social Commitment of the Society of Jesus,” pg. 29–59.