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Talking to some young Jesuits about social justice and evangelization

My concern is that an exaggerated stress on the fostering of justice in the political and economic arena can compromise the properly evangelizing mission of Christ’s Church.

Clergymen applaud a speaker during a June 8, 2018 prayer and informational event in San Diego's Chicano Park that drew Jesuits and laypeople to show solidarity with immigrants and for immigrant rights issues. On June 9 the group was among hundreds who attended an ordination ceremony in San Diego for four Jesuits. (CNS photo/David Maung)

While I was in Chicago for the Christmas break, I had a wonderful meeting with around thirty young Jesuits, all in their “pre-tertianship” period of formation. This means that these men had already passed through their lengthy education in philosophy and theology and had been involved for some time in a ministry of the Jesuit order.

The group I addressed included high school teachers, university professors, journal editors, and doctoral students—and almost all of them were ordained priests. After a simple lunch of soup and sandwiches, we plunged into conversation. We were at it for well over an hour, but I enjoyed the exercise so much, it seemed like about fifteen minutes. They were massively impressive people: smart, articulate, passionate about their work, and dedicated to the Gospel.

They were very interested in my ministry of evangelizing through the social media, and so we spent a good amount of time talking about the “nones,” about the cultural challenges to proclaiming the faith today, about the new atheism, and about the pros and cons of the digital world. We also spoke a lot about prayer and the play between one’s interior life and one’s ministerial commitments.

I especially enjoyed telling these young men about the Jesuits who have had an impact on my work: Bernard Lonergan, Henri de Lubac, Michael Buckley, Avery Dulles, the at least erstwhile Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Michel Corbin, who was my doctoral director at the Institut Catholique in Paris.

Toward the end of our time together, one of the men posed a question that, he warned, would “put me on the spot.” He said, “We Jesuits have been criticized a good deal in recent years. Do you think any of these critiques are justified?”

Now, I think it’s rather bad form to come into someone’s house and offer criticisms, but since I felt so comfortable with them, and since the question had been so directly asked, I responded, “Well, I think perhaps since the Council, many Jesuits have embraced the social justice agenda a bit too one-sidedly.” No one got up and left, which was a good sign! In fact, the discussion became especially lively and illuminating. I’d like to share some of what I said to these young Jesuits in order to address a general issue that I consider to be of great importance in the life of the Church today.

At its 32nd General Congregation in 1975, under the leadership of the charismatic Pedro Arrupe, the Jesuit order committed itself to propagate the works of justice as an essential part of its mission. And since that time, Jesuits have become renowned for their dedication to this indispensable task. My concern, I told my interlocutors, is that an exaggerated stress on the fostering of justice in the political and economic arena can compromise the properly evangelizing mission of Christ’s Church. Mind you, a commitment to doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to righting social wrongs, to serving the poor and needy necessarily follows from evangelization. One of the permanent achievements of Vatican II is to show that conversion to Christ entails not a flight from the world, but precisely a deeper love for the world and a desire to alleviate its suffering. There is simply no question about it: an evangelized person works for justice.

But when we squint at the issue from the other end, things get a bit more complicated. On the one hand, striving for justice can indeed be a door to evangelization. What attracted so many people in the first and second centuries to take a look at Christianity was none other than the Church’s obvious care for the sick, the homeless, and the poor: “How these Christians love one another!”

But on the other hand, the commitment to social justice, in itself and by itself alone, cannot be sufficient for evangelization, which is the sharing of the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is risen from the dead. The reason for this is obvious: a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a secular humanist, even an atheist of good will can be an advocate of social justice. One can fully and enthusiastically embrace a program of caring for the poor and the hungry without, in any sense, espousing faith in Jesus Christ. Many statistical studies reveal that young people today understand (and applaud) that the Church advocates for justice, even as they profess little or no belief in God, Jesus, the Resurrection, the Bible as an inspired text, or life after death. I would argue that this disconnect is, at least in part, a result of the hyper-stress that we have placed on social justice in the years following the Council.

I told my young Jesuit conversation partners that they ought to follow the prompt of our Jesuit Pope and go not just to the economic margins but to the “existential margins”—that is to say, to those who have lost the faith, lost any contact with God, who have not heard the Good News. Go, I told them, into your high schools, colleges, and universities and advocate for the faith, speak of God, tell the young people about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. Don’t for a minute, I continued, abandon your passion for justice, but let people see that it is grounded in Christ and his Gospel.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 164 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you, Bishop Barron, for this article.

    It’s time Catholics considered proportionality in their good works on faith and social justice. Proportionality entails that social justice works must be of the faith and be reasonable, considering the competing interests of different groups at hand.

    Take the case of illegal immigration, for example. Just because illegal immigrants are poor does not justify their dishonest deed and must be helped in violating immigration laws of the United States. Elsewhere, a person who sneaks into the back door of someone’s house (especially if using a child to break into a window and open the door to the adult intruder) is a crime. Aliens who cross a country’s borders unlawfully using their children as tools should not get the full sympathy of Catholic charitable workers.

    Unlawful immigration is unfair to legal immigrants who stand in the legal immigration line who have been waiting for decades to enter the country. Filipinos, for instance, have to wait for as long as 20 years for their petitions to be approved. They are poor people, too, but they don’t get the kind of help Catholic SJWs give to Latino illegals who, with their help, get ahead of the line, elbowing out those who legally wait.

    Illegal immigrants are like thieves who covet the rights and privileges that don’t belong to them by illegally appropriating them – where is Jesus in the Catholic’s works of mercy toward those who break just laws? Who would Jesus approve of – those who violate just laws, or those who follow them?

    Which brings to mind a story that a Franciscan friar told me of why many Latinos turn to becoming Evangelical Protestants instead of revitalizing their Catholic faith:

    In El Salvador, the friar said, when people look for food and medicine, they go to the Catholics. But when they look for Jesus, they go to the Evangelicals.

    How sad.

  2. As a Jesuit in formation, I want to thank you for this article! This is what I’ve been saying all along to anyone who would listen. There’s such a hunger for Christ and unless we are able to help others encounter him as the driving force behind our work, not only are we not embracing a faith that does justice, we cannot know what justice is.

  3. “One of the permanent achievements of Vatican II is to show that conversion to Christ entails not a flight from the world, but precisely a deeper love for the world and a desire to alleviate its suffering. There is simply no question about it: an evangelized person works for justice.”

    Whose justice? Which rationality?

    Roman Catholic Social Teaching is still a work in progress on these points.

  4. I applaud Barron’s point, but also feel like the entire piece projects a weird semi-reality, given the scandal that is now the Jesuits and the history of the “charismatic” Arrupe.

  5. Bishop Barron recounts his remark to young Jesuits: “Well, I think perhaps since the Council, many Jesuits have embraced the social justice agenda a bit too one-sidedly.”

    Every time I hear this refreshing view I am reminded on one Fr. Werenfried von Straaten, the “bacon priest” whose corporal works of mercy helped feed backstreet Germany following the Second World War. In the late ‘70s, with tattered hat in hand, he spoken to a packed audience at the Seattle University campus (when this Jesuit school was still remnant Catholic) and bellowed his correction to bumper sticker evangelization: “No Peace without Justice…AND no Justice without Truth!”

    His target was the irresolute Ostpolitik of Cardinal Casaroli toward the atheistic Soviet Empire. When the later-Pope John Paul II in Poland outsmarted the bureaucracy to exercise his building permit for the Church at Nova Huta—it was with the needed few million dollars of construction funds smuggled his way by the beggar-priest von Straaten.

    A countercultural monument in the heart of factory-town Socialist Realism! Can politicized “Jesuit spirituality” really produce an encore in the post-Christian empire of Secular Humanism?

  6. “One of the permanent achievements of Vatican II is to show that conversion to Christ entails not a flight from the world, but precisely a deeper love for the world and a desire to alleviate its suffering. There is simply no question about it: an evangelized person works for justice.”

    This certainly isn’t the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church. In fact, it is opposite of what the Church teaches. If we truly are followers of Christ, the world will hate us as Christ Himself said in St. John 15:18-21:

    “18 If the world hate you, know ye that it hath hated me before you.

    19 If you had been of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

    20 Remember my word that I said to you: *The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, **they will also persecute you: if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also.

    21 But all these things they will do to you for my name’s sake: because they know not him that sent me.”

    The world is Satan’s playground, our vale of tears, our temporary home where we work out our salvation. We are not to love the world but convert it to belief in and service to the Triune God where Christ instituted His one, true Church to provide the necessary graces and knowledge of how man, for all times, can accomplish this.

    Evangelizing isn’t a tool for “justice” if the Truth isn’t proclaimed and known. Vatican II’s only real “permanent achievement” has been to deny Christ by reaching out into the world and loving it as it is, not wanting to “offend” the non-believer, the heretic, and the schismatic nor teaching the Catholic the true faith or those “hard sayings” that the modern world cannot bear to hear.

  7. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Failing to give God his due, being lazy or indifferent toward the truths of faith and failing to teach others who are spiritually starving to death, these are great injustices of our time. We can do nothing without God.

  8. I suspect Bishop Barron will not be impressed by the toxic comments of those who seem to agree with his analysis of the Young Jesuits. I have watched with slight apprehension, some of Bishop Barrons young acolytes and wonder at their lack of intellectual, theological and indeed Christian attitudes particularly when faced with the world outside their American form of Christianity.

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