Social justice is not a spectator sport

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It is both tempting and risky to name significant events as watersheds in their effect on public attitudes. Tempting, because they have such immediate impact; risky because in many cases nothing seems to change.

Two young women volunteering at a community garden (Getty Images/ Thomas Barwick)

With that qualification, later Australian historians may see the bushfires as a turning point in people’s attitudes to the environment and to what they demand of politicians. At a more abstract level, too, they may mark a shift in the way we think about social justice. As we commemorate the International Day of Social Justice on the 20th of February, leading to the Catholic Social Justice Council conference, this bears reflection.

Thought about social justice has developed over many centuries, as can be seen even in a broad and vastly over-simplified summary. In the pre-modern world justice was set in the context of relationships between individual persons. It explored what was due to and from people in their relationships, taking account of the differences in status of the parties from commoners to kings, women to men, adults to children, and slaves to free. Today the ways in which their conclusions reflected the unspoken values of their societies are evident.

Thought about social justice as we know it developed in the nineteenth century when theorists like Karl Marx responded to the appalling conditions of the poor by demonstrating the power of institutions and public attitudes that perpetuated poverty and locked in wealth. Reflection about justice then needed to take into account not only the persons involved but the ‘it’: the social structures that shaped their relationships and often denied the dignity of the poor.

As Catholic reflection on such topics as war, labour relationships, regulation of large corporations and the treatment of refugees developed, it insisted on the inalienable dignity of each person made and the importance of personal responsibility, but set this dignity in the context of the institutional relationships that affirmed or denied it. This led to the recognition of social as well as personal rights. Their extent and importance are disputed among Catholics as well as in the larger society. Some still see justice primarily in terms of personal relationships; others give greater importance to the institutional relationships that implicitly affirm or deny personal dignity.

More recently the ecological crisis has pointed to a further set of relationships that shape us as persons, societies and world citizens. These are our relationships with the natural world of which we are part, and particularly with the non-human and inanimate world. The bushfires have burned into our consciousness that our world is threatened by global warming, and that we are unlikely to pass on to our descendants a nurturing and fruitful place. This threat arises from uncontrolled exploitation of the world for private gain, and is fed by the failure of political leaders to take it seriously.

 

'Thinking about social justice is not a spectator sport. It involves personal reflection on how far its insistence on respect for the dignity of persons and of the natural world are embodied in our personal relationships and practices, in the working relationships and practices in our own institutions, and in our relationships with the public world and its institutions.'

 

This reality underlies the further development of reflection on social justice to embrace our personal, communal and institutional relationships with the world, our home. Catholic reflection on social justice has been supercharged by Pope Francis, who in his encyclical Laudato Si declared the Cry of the Poor and the Cry of the Earth to be central to faith. He also insisted that neither could be addressed simply by technological fixes but required personal conversion to see the world as gift to be respected, a home, and not as a prison or a mine.

In Catholic thinking about social justice, the future challenge is to hold together the three calls revealed in its history. The first dimension is always to focus on the inalienable dignity of each human person within community. This implies both standing with people whose dignity is violated and insisting that people are not isolated and competitive individuals but are defined by the relationships in communities.

The second call is to respect the dignity of each human being within all the group and institutional relationships that shape our lives — in work, migration, international relationships, economic settings, freedom of speech and of religion, respect for diversity and so on. This involves standing with people whose dignity is violated institutionally, and insisting that governments and institutions and their representatives be accountable for what they do.

The third call is to respect the dignity of each human being and of all beings, seeing them in their interconnections, personal, institutional and ecological. This involves considering the effect for good or ill upon the world of the way all human enterprises are conducted, including those in which we have a part.

Thinking about social justice is not a spectator sport. It involves personal reflection on how far its insistence on respect for the dignity of persons and of the natural world are embodied in our personal relationships and practices, in the working relationships and practices in our own institutions, and in our relationships with the public world and its institutions.

That challenge can be faced as a burden, and wielded against others like the scythe of the Grim Reaper. If so it will not be met. It must be nurtured by developing a vision of a splendid and interrelated world whose health will lighten, not darken our lives. That sense is found in the theme of the Catholic Social Justice Conference: ‘serving communities with courage and compassion’.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. He will co-present a workshop on eco-justice during the Catholic Social Services Conference 'Serving Communities with Courage and Compassion' with Dr Bronwyn Lay, Ecological Justice Coordinator for Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Two young women volunteering at a community garden (Getty Images/ Thomas Barwick)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Social Justice Day, social justice, catholic social teaching

 

 

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Andrew thank you for you insightful words and your admonition:"That challenge can be faced as a burden, and wielded against others like the scythe of the Grim Reaper. If so it will not be met. It must be nurtured by developing a vision of a splendid and interrelated world whose health will lighten, not darken our lives." They affirm Pope Francis' "The universe (creation) unfolds in God, who fills it completely" Laudato Si. His words reflect the whole import of what the mystics of our Christian tradition have ever taught and challenge all to acknowledge the interdependence of all existence whose unity is with-in God. How contrary to the seemed common ethos of our Australian and Western society that "God" is irrelevant to our enlightened mind?
Terry Cobby | 20 February 2020


Fr Andrew, within this Juassic skeleton we call the Catholic church, women are not equal. TheConvention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and entered into force on 3 September 1981. Australia has been a party to CEDAW since August 1983. It defines discrimination in its article 1 as “… any distinction,exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” Such discrimination encompasses any difference in treatment on the grounds of sex which: • Intentionally or unintentionally disadvantages women; • Prevents society as a whole from recognizing women’s rights in both the private and the public spheres; • Prevents women from exercising the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled. Are not Australia's Bishops discriminating against women within the Catholic church by not insisting that they have exact equal rights with men in church governance?
francis Armstrong | 20 February 2020


That "vision of a splendid and interrelated world" will require due recognition by all, as philosopher Charles Taylor notes, of the individual's dependence for meaning and identity on a society that is animated by, shares and is committed to values that actively promote human life. It's no accident that alienation is a prominent theme in modern and postmodern western writing.
John RD | 20 February 2020


pope francis certainly has given us a challenge and it is not easy to change ones habits when there is so much ignorance about the damage that we have caused to our mother earth we will just have to keep putting the message out there that we have to love our mother earth and show people how to change
maryellen flynn | 21 February 2020


Andy's promotional fervorino requires an additional paragraph or two. We need to meet and go beyond his Middle Way. Pope Francis's recently applauded remarks on homosexuality and the desirability of married Amazonian clergy are not enough! Christians should be shining beacons in tackling discrimination and stigmatisation. Indeed, Leo XIII, with his unique appeal to Scripture in laying the foundations of Catholic Social Teaching, ensures that the core message of CST is that of Jesus siding always with indiscriminate love! In recent days we've seen +Francis dither on this question, opting to dance the Argentine tango: one fetching step forward and two in reverse, with an alluring white-skirted shimmy in between. Maintaining a deft and nifty silence just isn't good enough. The Catholic Social Justice Council should know this after the Bishops shut down the Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace. And, accordingly, many - perhaps even the majority of Catholics are justifiably alienated - especially at this late stage of Pre-Synodal preparation, when the Bishops have once again high-handedly brushed aside so many recommendations for cultural and structural reform, particularly in regard to the participation of women and laity. Inflections about personal aspects of sin and injustice simply wont wash!
Michael Furtado | 21 February 2020


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