Social Justice Activism as Religious Experience:
The Transformation of the Jesuits

by Peter Bisson, S.J.
Regina, Canada

The second half of the twentieth century has seen the emergence of a new kind of religious experience as well as a new way of practicing social justice: social justice activism as a form of religious experience. While the phenomenon has roots in nineteenth century religious responses to the new forms of poverty caused by the transformation from agrarian society to industrial capitalism, it seems to have intensified and become more comprehensive under the contemporary change from industrialization to globalization. Some observers of religion are calling this new form “engaged religion”. In this paper I will examine one example of this transformation, the Catholic religious order called the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits. In 1975 they made a decision to make the “promotion of social justice” –as they put it- an integral part of all their work, thereby intentionally transforming themselves into a religious corporate agent of social justice, or at least trying to. I hope not only to analyze the contours of this new religious experience and practice as reported in their documents, but also to uncover some of the contemporary sources of religious commitment to social justice. To do so I will draw upon methods of religious studies and theology. Furthermore, I write as a participant observer, for I have been a Jesuit for just about twenty years.

1. Background: The Jesuits

Before explaining this transformation of the Jesuits, some introductory comments about them are in order. The Society of Jesus is a religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic church. It was founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and a group of companions for the general goal of promoting Christian faith and life, and to be ready to be sent for whatever seemed better for the common good and the greater glory of God[1]. Ignatius was a minor noble from a Basque family in northern Spain, who had, by his own account, a powerfully transformative religious experience that led him, and a group of companions who shared aspects of his experience, to found the Society of Jesus. Today the Jesuits number about 20,000, and are spread throughout the world, with the greatest concentrations in India and the United States. Over the centuries they became known for their work in missions, education and in the humanities and sciences.

A brief word about Jesuit spiritual practices will help give insight into their religious identity. They are known as an active religious order, and their spirituality is geared to action and to engagement in “the world”. Their personal and corporate spiritual practices use imagination and reflection to cultivate self-awareness, reflective evaluation and engagement or generous, disinterested service oriented toward whatever might be the greater common good, or at least that is the intention. Organized for mobility, they have a well-articulated, flexible hierarchical structure organized in communities whose work and life depend on familiar and frank communication between superior and subject and within the communities. These practices are rooted in two founding documents, The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, and the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, both composed by Ignatius of Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises are a practical compendium of suggestions that guide one through a personal, imaginative reconstruction of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Constitutionsare an open-ended pedagogical tool for the development and organization of personal and corporate Jesuit life, and are a blueprint for a social embodiment of the Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises are today the foundations for a family of spiritualities in Catholicism[2], identified as “Ignatian” after Ignatius of Loyola, whose distinguishing feature is the cultivation of self-awareness and self-appropriation through careful attention to the quality of one’s involvement in one’s own religious experience and practice[3].

Because of the transformation that I will discuss here, the Jesuits have also recently become known for work in social justice. Let me give an overview of what this looks like today. What Jesuits call “social centres” -offices or organizations that work in social justice through analysis, activism, education and other means- today number about 125, with particular concentrations in South Asia and Latin America. Typically these and similar centres are staffed by a variety of people, Jesuits and Catholic lay men and women, and people of various faith traditions. Their work may be empowerment of women and Dalits in India, social analysis and lobbying in North America, popular education and empowerment of indigenous groups in Latin America. They work in partnerships with other groups, especially with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). Internal networks within the Society serve to exchange information and reflection on issues like Third World debt, development, migration or ecology. Two organizations sponsored by the Jesuits deserve special mention because they are international in scope and behave as transnational advocacy groups or networks: the Jesuit Refugee Service founded in 1980, based in Rome, and the African Jesuit AIDS Network founded in 2002, based in Nairobi. The Jesuit Refugee Service, or JRS, works with refugees in camps, and does advocacy on asylum and integration issues. The African Jesuit AIDS network seeks to help people with HIV and AIDS, and promotes AIDS awareness throughout Africa. Jesuit high schools and universities, which are numerous, try to promote concern for social justice in their education and research. Generally the style of social justice work of Jesuit-associated groups has three components: an intellectual one of research and analysis, an activist one of advocacy and education, and a spiritual one of prayer and worship. Finally, social justice work, because of its political and public nature, is controverted. The Jesuit involvement in social justice work has provoked suspicion in some high-ranking church officials, as well as from numerous state officials. Indeed since the more corporate contemporary involvement in social justice in 1975, over 40 Jesuits have been killed because of such work. Other Jesuits consider them to be martyrs, even though there might not yet be official church sanction for such a view. That the Jesuits (and other groups) should maintain involvement in social justice at such a risk and cost is an indication of the seriousness and depth of the commitment.

Now let us examine how this commitment evolved.

2. The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice:
The Emergence and Development of an Insight and a Commitment

2.1 The Crucial Decisions

While I have identified 1975 as a watershed date for the Jesuits, social justice work was nothing new, neither for Jesuits nor for other Christian groups. Indeed what is today called social justice work in Catholic circles has its roots in the practices of social Catholicism that emerged in Europe in the mid to late nineteenth century in response to the new forms of poverty generated by industrial capitalism. What changed in 1975 however, and what quickly became deeply controversial, was the newly comprehensive and corporate nature of the commitment. Social justice  - or the social apostolate as it is called  - was no longer one ministry among many, but was to be instead a constitutive dimension of all Jesuit ministries, from university administration to parish preaching, and of the very Jesuit vocation itself, understood as a whole. This was not only a change in the status of social justice; I believe that it also provoked a change in the practice of religion. In effect, this change has been an intentional reconstruction of a religious identity. Before sketching the history of this transformation and analyzing some of its characteristic features, I would like to introduce the meetings where the changes were decided upon and the key documents that both expressed and mandated them.

The two meetings I rely on for my analysis are called General Congregations. One met for three months from December 1974 until early March 1975. It was the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, or GC 32, and it initiated the new commitment to social justice. The other, the 34th General Congregation, or GC 34, met twenty years later, in 1995, also for three months, and it affirmed and greatly enriched GC 32’s original commitment. A General Congregation is the highest legislative body of the Society of Jesus, and is probably the only time when the Jesuits govern themselves along the lines of representative democracy. It is comprised of elected and appointed representative Jesuits from everywhere the Society exists, and meets only at need, usually to elect a new superior general, who is elected for life, or to make major decisions about the Society’s work and life which are beyond the scope of normal Jesuit government.

GC 32’s corporate commitment of the Jesuits to social justice was articulated as a re-expression of the Society’s traditional mission. It was enshrined in a document called “Our Mission today: The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice”, which I will refer to simply as "Our Mission Today". It re-expressed Jesuit mission as “the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement”[4]. The decision was a surprise, even to most of the delegates themselves, and it was received in the wider Jesuit world either with great enthusiasm or with confusion and division. Twenty years, one General Congregation and almost forty violent deaths later, GC 34 reaffirmed GC 32’s decision and enriched it. As in GC 32, this decision too emerged in a surprising manner, although not as dramatically. The renewed end enriched commitment was expressed in four linked documents intended to provide orientation for all the Society’s ministry: one document served as the unifying hermeneutical key for the other three, and the others dealt with the Society’s mission and, respectively, justice, culture and interreligious dialogue. The key document for my analysis here is the first of these four, called “Servants of Christ’s Mission”. It reads, construes and evaluates the previous twenty years of social activism as a prolonged and corporate religious experience, and in effect sketches the outlines of a new religious identity and agency constructed in a context of engaged religious social activism. GC 34’s guidelines for Jesuit mission and its integration of religious faith and social justice were received by the larger Jesuit body with peace and a sense of recognition, unlike the response of turmoil and division to GC 32’s versions of the same things.

Both “Our Mission Today” and “Servants of Christ’s Mission” have legal status and high moral authority for Jesuits. As decrees of General Congregations they are prescriptive documents, even if their language and intent are not legal but pastoral, spiritual, exhortatory and sometimes didactic. Both documents intend to give a comprehensive orientation to the Society’s mission, and so for each and all its ministries. The more recent “Servants of Christ’s Mission” does not supplant "Our Mission Today" but presupposes it and builds on it. While it would be very helpful to summarize the two texts, I will forego that for the sake of brevity.

Now I would like to sketch how this remarkable transformation came about.

2.2 The History Behind the Crucial Decisions

The fist phases of this story, until the mid-twentieth century, have to do with changes in Catholicism. Jesuits had been involved in social justice work, or the “social apostolate” as it was called, since the advent of modern papal social teaching in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum novarum, “On the Condition of the Working Classes”. This, in turn, was a papal expression and confirmation of unofficial Catholic practices and reflection that had been emerging in Europe in the mid to late nineteenth century that today are referred to as social Catholicism.

Many Christians in the nineteenth century, not only Catholics, had been seeking ways to respond to the new forms of poverty caused by the rapid rise of industrial capitalism. These were urban forms of poverty, basically that of the new urban, industrial and largely unchurched factory workers. Since the churches were still based in rural, agrarian life, they were ill-equipped to meet this new challenge, and the Catholic church in particular was preoccupied with its defensive reaction to revolutionary changes in Europe and to growing secularization. Despite the distraction of the papacy and other parts of the Catholic hierarchy, many Catholics sought to make a difference for the urban working class. Under the influence of socialist and communist groups, some, such as the archbishop of Mainz, came to the insight that poverty was neither natural nor willed by God, nor was it (usually) caused by laziness, but was instead socially constructed. If this was the cause, then the solution had somehow to be socially constructed also. This change in the traditional religious explanation of poverty represented the beginnings of the crucial insight that the solution to poverty and similar problems is not charity but justice, especially social justice.

Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 letter on the condition of the working classes was an acknowledgement of this insight and a papal blessing on social Catholicism. It was also the beginning of a new openness of the papacy to the modern world. All of a sudden the reactionary Catholic church was taking the side of the working classes. While there were still many defensive aspects to this position, nevertheless it was a major change. Indeed, contemporary official Catholic social thought is usually marked as beginning with Leo XIII’s letter.

At this point the Jesuits began setting up centres to teach the new thinking, and to educate and organize workers’ groups. These efforts multiplied in the first decades of the twentieth century, and such “social centres” were set up all over the world, especially in Latin America. Jesuits became involved in wider Catholic efforts to set up Catholic worker movements and Catholic student and youth movements, efforts to “Catholicize” or at least have a Catholic presence in worker and student movements. Through these innovations, Jesuits and many other Catholics built up a body of practices that was to provide the experiential foundations for the transformation I am examining here.

After World War II came the Second Vatican Council, usually simply called “Vatican II”. It met from 1962 to 1965. Convoked by Pope John XXIII to renew the Catholic church and bring it “up to date” with the modern world, Vatican II brought together in Rome most of the bishops of the Catholic world with their advisors and observers from other Christian groups, every fall, for four consecutive years. Together with the pope, such a council is the highest legislative body in the Catholic church. Its deliberations and decisions changed the Catholic church: Catholicism’s attitude toward itself; its attitude toward other Christians and other religions, especially Judaism; and engendered a new openness to the modern world. The old defensive, dialectical relationship with secular modernity largely disappeared, although it can still be found readily enough. Vatican II and Catholicism’s new openness paved the way for the next changes in the Jesuits that produced the new comprehensive commitment to social justice.

Now our story moves from general changes in the Catholic church to specific changes in the Society of Jesus. As Vatican II was concluding its work, the Jesuits had to call a general congregation, for their superior general had died, and a new one had to be elected. The 31st General Congregation met in 2 two-and-a-half month sessions in 1965 and 1966, and began applying Vatican II’s changes to the Society. Two of its changes are particularly relevant to our story. One is the man who the general congregation chose to lead the Jesuits in the post-Vatican II period, Pedro Arrupe. He was a Basque from northern Spain, trained in medicine before becoming a Jesuit, and had been profoundly shaped by his experience in Japan, where he had been training novices in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped. Together with the novices he quickly organized a makeshift hospital for survivors. Arrupe became a charismatic and much loved leader, and many now consider him to be a saint. His leadership was crucial in promoting the new commitment to social justice. Indeed, a conviction had been growing among the Jesuits since before the war that problems of injustice were becoming more and more serious around the world, and that the “social apostolate” had to become more central.

The second change that GC 31 accomplished was a new, more comprehensive understanding of “mission”. Until then, the term “mission” referred to “the missions” or “mission work”, which meant bringing Christianity to where it was not, converting people to Christianity. Furthermore, “the missions” were understood as one work or ministry among others. GC 31 used the term in a new way, to refer to all the different work or ministries of the Society in one comprehensive concept, “the mission of the Society” or “Jesuit mission”. This was a new, comprehensive way of thinking about Jesuit work and of conceiving Jesuit religious identity. In effect it was an emerging global consciousness among the Jesuits. Indeed it paved the way for a sense of worldwide priorities for the whole Society, which Arrupe strongly pushed in the next years. He saw four priorities: theological reflection, education, social action and the media of mass communication[5]. Social action, what would later be called social justice, was third of the four priorities.

Now we come to the changes that interest us more immediately. GC 32 was called not to elect a new general superior, but to evaluate and renew the Society’s overall commitments, in part in light of the unfolding effects of Vatican II. The meeting was to begin in late 1974, but preparations began in 1971. This preparatory period was an exciting time in Catholicism: liberation theology in Latin America was being articulated in systematic ways, and Catholic leaders throughout the Third World were expressing concern for social justice in more and more acute ways. Certain writings of Pope Paul VI encouraged this attitude. Furthermore, the pope had requested that the Jesuits respond somehow to atheism. In the months leading up to GC 32, there was much lobbying, especially by Mexican Jesuits, that the Society address themes of social turmoil, and make international justice a criterion for shaping all aspects of the Society’s mission and lifestyle.

In effect something like this is what happened. Extending the lines of global thinking that had begun in GC 31, many delegates became convinced that the Society needed a “priority of priorities” and that it had to include social justice. In terms of the pope’s request about atheism, it was felt that the major cause of unbelief or disbelief was social injustice, and so in order to serve faith better it was essential to promote justice. And so it came about. The “priority of priorities” evolved into the two-part formulation quoted earlier in the paper, which I quote in full here:

The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands reconciliation of people with one another[6].

This formulation of Jesuit mission is usually referred to in the shortened form “the service of faith and the promotion of justice” or even more simply “faith and justice”.

I stop the flow of the story for a moment to point out the religious innovation here. The very expression “faith and justice” puts together terms that in the modern context of religion belong to two different worlds of discourse: faith belongs to the religious world, and justice belongs to the political and secular world. In the context of standard Catholic theology in seminaries and theology faculties even today, social thought is twice removed from the religious discourse about primary concern, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, grace, the church. Moral theology, the application of these insights to the realm of personal and interpersonal life, is important but derivative, an application. Catholic social thought about the institutionalized relations of politics, economics, society, gender, culture, etc. is not even taught as part of moral theology, but as a further application and derivation. In the context of Jesuit mission and the evolution of global consciousness that I have been tracing, GC 32’s formulation took GC 31’s generalized understanding of Jesuit mission and similarly generalized the promotion of justice to be no longer one ministry among others, but a dimension of the entirety of Jesuit mission. Indeed it was to be an “integrating factor” of Jesuit work, community life and spiritual life[7]. In the context of Catholic belief and practice, especially in the context of modern understandings of religion in tension with the secular, this formulation took what was secular or at best derivative and raised it to the level of primary religious discourse, of relationship to God and the supernatural in general. In one lapidary formulation, GC 32 turned modern Western understandings of religion inside out, made social justice religious and religious faith social. In so doing, the “traditional” heavily policed (on both sides) boundary between religious and secular that had defined religious identity since the Enlightenment was made religiously irrelevant. This strongly suggests that a distinctively post-modern form and practice of religion was emerging. I will analyze this further shortly, but now I resume the development of this transformation into its more recent phases.

One of the primary reasons why GC 34 was called was because of growing frustrations with GC 32's understanding of justice, and a desire that that understanding be substantially expanded. GC 32 tended to understand justice in social, political and economic terms, but by the early 1990's people involved in social advocacy had come to see that justice also had to include gender and race relations, relations with indigenous peoples, awareness of culture, relations with other religions, a practice of dialogue, and concern for ecology. In fact the problem with GC 32 was not only its understanding of social justice  - which was quite up-to-date in its day -  but more importantly how it put together justice and faith. It raised the promotion of social justice to the level of an integrating religious principle in the exercise of Christian mission, but apart from this made no other significant adjustments in its understanding of faith.

Apart from greatly enriching the understanding of justice, even making it more complex, GC 34’s chief contribution to the development I have been tracing was to read explicitly the previous twenty years’ experience of working for social justice in the service of faith as a sustained religious experience. This reading is an unfolding along the pathways of the traditional Jesuit characteristics of religious experience of the transformed understanding of social justice, of Christian mission, and indeed of religious faith that GC 32 had mandated out of insight and conviction, but for which it had as yet insufficient corporate experience to flesh out. This brings me to the heart of my paper, a mapping of what this religious experience looks like to the Jesuits from the point of view of GC 34.

3. The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice:
A New Religious Experience

A comparison of the language of the two documents “Our Mission Today” and “Servants of Christ’s Mission” yields much insight into the shape of the new religious experience. GC 34’s integration of religious commitment and the commitment to social justice in “Servants of Christ’s Mission” was far more seamless than that in GC 32’s “Our Mission Today”. The language of “Our Mission Today” tended to be abstract and explanatory, and in some places read like a brief social analysis or political call. There the chief actor or agent of mission, both grammatically and theologically, was the Society of Jesus, and often “faith” or “justice” was used as an abstract category. The language of GC 34’s “Servants of Christ’s Mission” was much more experiential, less abstract and explanatory, and more explicitly religious. The first third of the text construes the previous twenty years of trying to promote justice in the service of faith, with its mistakes and consolations, as one prolonged religious experience, as an encounter with the crucified and risen Christ actively on mission in the world today, especially in anyone who is poor, marginalized or oppressed. It drew more explicitly and more thoroughly upon the religious resources of the Jesuit spiritual tradition, as well as of Catholicism in general. Furthermore, the chief agent in the text, grammatically and theologically, was Christ present and at work in the world today. Indeed mission and the various activities of mission such as the service of faith and the promotion of justice tended not to be discussed as abstract or impersonal categories but rather as the actions of theological subjects or agents, such as Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, and also the poor.

Thus awareness of religious experience and agency were basic characteristics of the language of “Servants of Christ’s Mission”, and hence of the religious experience it attempted to present. Indeed, the references to corporate religious experience and to corporate religious transformations were the closest that the document came to a justification for combining faith and justice, for combining the religious and the secular. Indeed, no argument was explicitly made, but the legitimacy of the connection was simply taken for granted. This is noteworthy, given the previous controversy. Instead, the implicit argument was that the promotion of justice in the service of faith had brought the Jesuits religious experience –experiences of Christ through social advocacy and through friendship with marginated and excluded persons- and had religiously transformed them for the better. There was no moral persuasion, no tremulous awareness of innovation or trailblazing, little intellectual explanation, simply an account of religious experience and transformation, and an implied invitation to the same.

A religious experience is an experience of something. Throughout “Servants of Christ’s Mission”, the central object of this experience is always asserted to be Christ. But this is not just a generic Christ. It is an experience with a definite and consistent configuration. This is Christ present not in heaven or in some post-mortem world, but in this world, here and now, in history and in people’s midst. Moreover Christ is not simply present either, but is active, busy, at work –to make the point in the text’s terms of reference, Christ is “on mission”. Furthermore, he is on mission here and now not simply in self-sufficient isolation but inviting others to join him on this mission. This Christ is also frequently asserted to be the crucified and resurrected Christ. Indeed the most vigourous debate during the entire Congregation was whether to stress the crucified or risen Christ. Those who opted for crucifixion wanted to assert solidarity with people’s suffering of injustice, and those who opted for resurrection wanted to empower and encourage those trying to deal with suffering and injustice. A compromise balance was reached, but with an emphasis on Christ’s ongoing, accessible and active presence. Thus the theme of agency and action was is central to the new religious experience, whether the religious agency of Christ or of the Jesuits. Interestingly enough, Latin American liberation theology, a similar socially engaged form of religious practice that appeared at about the same time as the Jesuit transformation, has the same strong emphasis on the religious experience of God’s current activity in the world, and of the invitation to join in that activity. Thus there is a religious pattern here that goes beyond the Jesuit experience.

While a religious experience is always an experience of something, in Catholic discourse, it is also always an experience mediated by something else. The medium thereby acquires great religious significance. Through its recounting of twenty years of the promotion of justice in the service of faith as a religious experience, “Servants of Christ’s Mission” presents social justice activism as a medium of religious experience, thereby bringing justice and the secular into the primary religious level of interaction with the transcendent as did GC 32, but this time through experience instead of through explanation. Other significant media of contact with Christ on mission are the poor and marginalized, especially in relationships of friendship. The church too is presented as another medium of religious experience. In GC 34’s other related mission documents, contact with other cultures and with other religions are both extensively developed as media of significant, even transformative religious experiences. These media of religious experience go beyond the standard media of sacred text and myth, of sacred time in ritual, of sacred place in monasteries and deserts, and indeed beyond all the normal boundaries of the Catholic church. This suggests that something very interesting is going on about religious boundaries, and therefore about religious identity. I will return to this shortly, but first I turn to the subject whose religious identity this is.

The careful attention to the nuances of experience, its objects and media, its transformative effects, and the focus on agency, all suggest a high degree of self-reflection and heightened self-awareness, in other words, reflexive attention to the subject of religious experience and action. As discussed earlier in this paper, such evaluative attention to self-awareness in religious experience is a characteristic of Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality. Thus we see traditional spiritual techniques for personal transformation alluded to in a context of corporate self-transformation. Furthermore, the heightened emphasis on action and agency in social activism has demanded and produced in a Jesuit religious context heightened self-awareness, but a corporate self-awareness. Indeed, the text barely even alludes to the individual Jesuit. The religious subject at hand is almost always the whole Society of Jesus taken as one single, corporate religious subject. The text takes for granted that the subject of religious experience, identity and agency can be corporate[8]. The constant assertion of corporate or social religious identity and agency seems to be a further extension of the global or comprehensive forms of consciousness that began with GC 31. A comprehensive understanding of mission, a global sense of priorities, and a religiously comprehensive or global sense of social justice needed to be complemented by a similarly comprehensive sense of agency and identity. This transformation is quite like the discovery by NGO’s and social movements in the 1990’s that social understanding, protest and action had to be global, but a different form of globalization than that practiced by transnational corporations and other such agencies. In the Jesuit religious context, the same insight was extended to the nature of self-understanding.

To conclude my analysis of the religious experience of social justice advocacy as presented in “Servants of Christ’s Mission”, I would like to look at religious identity and agency from the point of view of boundaries, as I promised in the discussion of the media of religious experience. GC 32’s translation of social justice from a secular or derivatively religious level to a primary religious level and GC 34’s construal of social justice advocacy as religious experience effectively dissolve the boundary that separated the religious from the secular throughout the period of modernity, and indeed helped define the modern period. Yet even without this boundary that hitherto had kept religious identity distinctive and strong, religious identity is still strong. How can this be? Where did the boundaries go? What replaced them, if anything?

Symptomatic of the transformed boundaries and of the new identity they imply is the role of “the world” in the two documents. In “Our Mission Today”, “the world” operates as an explanatory category in this fashion: social justice is a major need in “the world”, and so promoting justice is a way for the Gospel, the church and the Society to make an important contribution to the world and thereby witness to the Gospel’s liberating power. Presupposed in this argument is the notion that faith and the Jesuits belong to the sacred, while justice belongs to the world of the secular, or at least the “not-church”. Thus in GC 32, despite the religious transformation of justice, the religious boundaries are still presumed to be characterized by an inside and an outside. In GC 34 this is no longer the case. The significant boundary is between justice and injustice, but it does not serve to mark religious identity, for that boundary passes through the religious subject being discussed and constructed. The evidence for this is that GC 32 acknowledges that Jesuits are also sinners, and GC 34’s important mission documents all acknowledge and ask forgiveness for some kind of violation of justice by Jesuits, including in gender relations[9].

The new religious identity and agency constructed in GC 34 do not depend on a dialectical relationship with a religious “other”, whether that other is the secular or another religion. Identity and agency seem to come from within, to be proactive instead of reactive. If there are any boundaries around this new identity  - and one presumes there must be -  then they are porous. As shown by the media of religious experience, the object of religious experience, God acting through Christ on mission, is found beyond the normal religious boundaries, and this affects how religious action is construed. Indeed, the primary action that “Servants of Christ’s Mission” is concerned about, mission, is not construed as a response to the absence of God and as the filling of an empty space with what was not there before. Instead mission is construed as a response to the presence of God already there, indeed as a discovery. The ubiquity of the presence and activity of God changes the nature and role of religious boundaries and therefore the behaviour and exercise of identity.

The religious activity that characterizes these new porous boundaries is dialogue. This term does not come up much in “Servants of Christ’s Mission” but it is frequently discussed in some of GC 34’s other mission documents, for which “Servants of Christ’s Mission” is the hermeneutical key. Dialogue presupposes that both sides will be transformed somehow by the exchange. Indeed, in the social practice of this religious identity and agency, Jesuit groups involved in social justice partner readily with other activist groups of very many religious or secular identities. The internal ecumenical and interreligious composition of Jesuit NGO’s is a further expression of this partnering and dialogue.

Concluding Remarks: Engaged Religion, a New Religious Form

The religious experience of social justice activism has led to a reconstrual of traditional religious practices and beliefs in social terms. This reconstrual both emphasizes and transforms religious experience, boundaries, identity and agency, at least with respect to how they were construed under the influence of modernity. Quite similar religious reconstruals in terms of social commitment have also occurred at about the same time in various contexts, for example in liberation theology in Latin America, which has both Catholic and Protestant expressions, and also in “engaged Buddhism” a form of Buddhism which first got this name in Vietnam in the 1960’s when Buddhist monks were trying to use Buddhism to make peace between the warring parties. Without going into the details of these other cases, it is nevertheless fascinating to note that quite similar religious transformations have occurred in different geographic and religious contexts when people have tried to integrate social and religious commitment. Since the transformations in the Jesuit case are not entirely unique, they are particularly instructive. Indeed the Jesuits make a good case study since they document themselves very well. (What can I say…)

The kind of religion I have just analyzed is a minority phenomenon within a larger religious tradition, in this case Catholic forms of Christianity. On the one hand the innovations of this new form have not led to separation from the larger body in order to form a new religion. On the other hand, these innovations have had some effect on the wider tradition, even if the majority of practitioners do not share directly in these changes. For example in Catholicism the language of social justice is more and more part of official public discourse.

This is a public form of religion. Indeed there has been a resurgence of religion in the public sphere in the past few decades, religion once again acting as a protagonist. However the kind of religious protagonism that gets reported on in the press and researched by scholars tends to be of the reactionary, even fundamentalist kind, with very different kinds of boundaries than those I have related above. The kind of religious practice I have just analyzed is another form of religious protagonism and resurgence today, and one that is enduring. It merits more study.

What differentiates the form of religious protagonism from other forms that get labelled as fundamentalist? Taking my cue from engaged Buddhism, the term “engaged” seems very apt to name the religious transformations of the Jesuits and of similar forms of justice-motivated forms of religious practice. All contemporary forms of religious protagonism are involved in the world somehow, but not all are engaged by it. Engagement, at least as the term is beginning to be used to name emerging religious forms, suggests a process of mutuality, where one not only seeks to change the world in a disinterested fashion, but where one allows oneself to be changed in the process. Involvement can simply be a process of the assertion of identity, whereas engagement suggests willingness to be changed as well. This willingness captures not only the porous and readily traversable boundaries of new forms of religious identity and agency, it also suggests the heightened self-awareness necessary intentionally to allow oneself to be engaged and to be changed. Thus I make the case that religiously motivated social justice activism leads to a form of engaged religion, a new form of religion that has emerged in the context of globalization. In the Jesuit case it first emerged in GC 32 in response to acute crisis in the world, massive social injustice. By GC 34 in 1995, the crisis had certainly not disappeared, and no one really knew if it had improved or not, but the new engaged form of religious practice was not articulated in terms of response to a crisis but in terms of primary religious experience.

This brings me to my final point. What are the religious sources of commitment to social justice today? In the Jesuits, it seems to me that the transformations I have just analyzed have themselves become sources of commitment because they are being used as sensibilities from which criteria for action and evaluation are being derived. This need not mean that the changes have themselves become a closed loop, but rather that they are being appropriated. They continue to be nourished by the wider Catholic traditions of which the Jesuits are a part, and I suspect that other forms of engaged religion also find sources for commitment to social justice in the wider traditions of which they are a part. In the case of the Jesuits, the Catholic penchant to use an analogical imagination is a source of social justice commitment. Analogical imagination means that Catholics prefer to seek and emphasize the similarities among things rather than their differences, including between God and humankind, creation, within humankind, between God and ecology, etc. The seeking for analogy leads to a sense of community wherever analogies are found. When this inarticulate sense of community is violated then a desire for justice arises to repair it. Other religious sources for a justice sensibility are possible, for example the dialectical imagination of Protestantism, which tends to prefer the differences between things, can generate a sensibility of respect for otherness. So each tradition has its own sources.

Finally, religion itself is a social phenomenon. No matter what sources each particular religion has that can generate a sensibility for social justice, the positive and negative changes associated with globalization seem to be bringing out aspects of that fundamental social dimension in new and previously untapped ways, and engaged religion is one of them.


Partial Bibliography

Documents of the 31st and 32nd General Congregations of the Society of Jesus; An English Translation of the Official Latin Texts of the General Congregations and of the Accompanying Papal Documents; Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1977

Documents of the 33rd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, An English Translation of the Official Latin Texts of the General Congregation and of Related Documents; Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1984.

Documents of the Thirty-fourth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus; The Decrees of General Congregation Thirty-four, the Fifteenth of the Restored Society and the Accompanying Papal and Jesuit Documents; Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995

Constitutions of the Society of Jesus and their Complementary Norms; Saint Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996

Bisson, Peter, S.J.; Toward a Soteriological and Theological Grounding of the Promotion of Social Justice: A Lonerganian Theological Reflection on Mission in Decree 2 of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus; Ph.D. thesis, Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 2002

Dykstra, Craig – Bass. Dorothy C.; “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices” in Volf, Miroslav – Bass, Dorothy C., eds.; Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life; Grand Rapids, MI – Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002; 13-32

Keck, Margaret E. – Sikkink, Kathryn; Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics; Ithaca – London: Cornell University Press, 1998

Klandermans, Bert – Saggenborg, Suzanne, eds.; Methods of Social Movement Research; vol 16 of the series “Social Movements, Protest, and Contention”; Minneapolis – London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002

Langstaff, Keith, S.J; The Third Week of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and Anti-Jewish Overtones, Th.D. thesis, Toronto: Toronto School of Theology, 1995

Neusner, Jacob, ed.; God’s Rule: The Politics of World Religions; Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2003

Queen, Christopher S. – King, Sallie B. King; Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.


[1] See the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus and their Complementary Norms, “Formulas of the Institute of the Society of Jesus”, n. 1, 1(Saint Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), p. 3-4.

[2] The Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian spiritualities may quite aptly be called Catholic, yet they are used by many who do not identify themselves as Catholic or as Christian.

[3] Keith Langstaff, The Third Week of Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises and Anti-Jewish Overtones, Toronto 1995, p. 226

[4] “Our Mission Today: The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice”, Decree 4 of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Rome, 1975, n. 2.

[5] Pedro Arrupe, “Our Four Apostolic Priorities” Yearbook of the Society of Jesus 1971-1972.

[6] “Our Mission Today: the Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice”, The 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Decree 4, paragraph n.2

[7] “Jesuits Today”, 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Decree 2, n. 9. GC 34’s “Servants of Christ’s Mission” twenty years later called it an “integrating principle”.

[8] Many of the spiritual techniques that explicitly rely on and develop this sense were developed here, in Canada, from the 1970’s into the 1980’s.

[9] See GC 34’s Decree 14, “Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society”.