30 Years of Struggling for Social Justice

Center of Concern | Thu, Jan 31, 2002

By James E. Hug, S.J.
"An analysis of the global situation from 30 years ago is only too insightful for today's world. What implications does that have for our work for justice? How do we maintain hope when progress is so slow? Or is that what it means to be part of the struggle?"

During a recent review of social justice literature, I came across a particularly insightful reading of the current global situation. See what you think:Explicit talk about ""social justice"" has not always been a prominent element in discussions of the meaning of development. But a change is in the air now. There is growing disillusionment with economic growth, its measures in terms of GNP and per capita income, and the development theories underpinning it. On the average, ""developing countries"" did in fact achieve an unprecedented growth rate of 5 per cent during the Sixties. But the ""trickle-down"" effect did not work â€" for the most part, only the rich and privileged benefitted.... For about two-thirds of humanity the increase in per capita income has been less that one dollar a year for the last twenty years, with the poorest forty per cent of these populations sharing no increase at all or slipping even further into misery.... It is becoming painfully clear, however, that people in the ""Third World"" are more and more unwilling to leave unquestioned the present massive concentrations of political, economic, and social power and privilege. Cruel facts have exploded the myth that individual goods and individual values add up to a common good and a social value for all. People are not looking for mechanical or even wholly ""rational"" solutions to development problems; they want to participate in the decisions that control their destiny. Increasingly they want to do this within a framework of recognized human rights, a framework of national and international social justice that comes to grips with the problems of power, privilege, of unemployment, social services and income distribution.... It may not be necessary to choose sharply between economic growth and social justice. There are studies appearing, for example which bring together evidence from Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere that the very strategies which cause the greatest improvement in the welfare of the entire population also have the greatest effect on reducing population growth; it can also be an engine of balanced growth when whole populations participate in it. At the UN Environment Conference, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal expressed his pessimism about the future of the human environment as long as the ideals and ""life styles"" of those presently steering our course prevail. Changing or replacing these values will not be an easy task. Perhaps we can take some hope from the fact that ""social justice"" is creeping back into the vocabularies and theories of economists, social thinkers and policy makers. Social justice is, after all â€" when made operational through hard-won consensus â€" the best guarantee that the human person, in community, is the first value and ultimate criterion of all development thinking, policy and action. But we should not underestimate how difficult it will be to translate the ideal of social justice into a global fact. We will need not only to see things in a whole new way, but also to be willing to act and live in a new â€" and more just â€" way. This is a penetrating and cautiously hopeful analysis of the contemporary global scene. The only disturbing element is that it was written by William F. Ryan, S.J., then-director of the Center of Concern, nearly thirty years ago in Issue #2 of Center Focus! On May 4, 1971, the Center of Concern was formally launched in a ceremony at the United Nations that featured UN Secretary General U Thant, Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe and USCC/NCCB General Secretary Joseph Bernardin. As the Center enters its 30th anniversary year, Center staff will be reflecting on the current shape and directions of our program in the light of the accumulated insight and wisdom of a rich 30 year history. In reviewing that history â€" as exemplified in the excerpt just quoted â€" there is a first major obstacle to be overcome. Discouragement. Many of the analyses from the earliest years could be reprinted today with minor editing and still be accurate and instructive. So, what have we been doing for the last 30 years? Center staff and our colleagues have worked hard;Center donors have generously sacrificed to support that work. What has it all accomplished? In reflecting on this question, a number of reasonable answers arise. The Center of Concern has been a leader in educating generations of social activists. It has built relationships and networks of colleagues. It has gained access to key leaders in church and society and has earned a reputation for high quality work. It has stayed focused on key structural issues of global justice and on the central message of Catholic Social Thought, adapting, applying and promoting it through publications and programs. It has played a significant role in shaping the social consciousness and justice outreach of the U.S. Catholic community and of its ecumenical and interfaith partners. It has become a respected leader in international women's movements. It played a leading role in securing modest debt relief for the poorest countries.... These are legitimate achievements, and we invite you to celebrate them with us as we turn 30. It is also tenable too, I think, to put a ""positive spin"" on the fact that so many of the articles written in the Center's first decades remain insightful and valuable. It confirms the Center's reputation for high quality work. Still, from the point of view of bringing about social change and greater justice, it remains a bit chilling to see so little progress. Perhaps the best answer to ""What have we accomplished? Is it all worth it?"" comes from Center of Concern oral history, something that until now had not been recorded in Center Focus. The true story goes like this. Mike Schultheis, S.J., a member of the Center staff during the early and mid-1980s, threw a dinner party for a few close colleagues. The dinner conversation turned to the efforts of the ecumenical community to stop the oppression and war in Central America. Frustration and disappointment at their inability to change U.S. policy and the situation on the ground in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala was heavy. At one point, Mary Jane Patterson, the director of the Presbyterian office for social justice, who had been quiet until then, threw up her hands and burst out, ""You white folks are so spoiled! You think that because you decide something and work at it, it should happen. You don't have a clue what it means to be part of the Struggle!"" She went on to tell about her work in the early days of the civil rights movement. She described how she went as a young woman to South Africa when the African National Congress was in the early days of its organizing and Nelson Mandela was still in prison to taste the Struggle there and breathe in its inspiration. It was a moment of enlightenment for the other people at the table. It needs to continue to light the response of the justice community today. It is important to plan carefully and work hard to make a difference. It is important to evaluate our efforts and to keep asking what we are accomplishing and how we might engage the mission more effectively. But it is most important to stay aware always of the privilege of being invited into the Struggle for the Reign of God. In this special issue of Center Focus, which begins the Center's 30th Anniversary Year, we celebrate you -- all the men and women who have built the Center with your dedication, your hard work as staff members, colleagues and board members, your attention to and engagement with the Center's ideas and analyses, and your generous supporting gifts. You have made and continue to make it possible for the Center of Concern to embrace the privilege of being engaged in the Struggle for justice with and for all our brothers and sisters around the world, all God's people. In This 30th Anniversary Issue: Maria Riley details the very significant evolution of the Women's Project at the Center. The 1974 Annual Report pointed to ""the rising force of women's consciousness throughout the world."" It announced the appointment of Sr. Betty Carroll, RSM, to coordinate a new Center project on Women in Church and Society, which would ""focus on the justice aspects of the issue and on the deprivation a society suffers when half its members are excluded from policy- and decision-making processes."" As Maria's article reveals, the passage of the Center's Women's Project from that moment to this can serve as a brief history of the growing analytical and political sophistication at the cutting edge of the Women's Movement itself. It is a passage from the demand to be included in the systems of development and power to the demand for a transformation of those systems so that social policies have priority over economic policies. Aldo Caliari addresses the structural and institutional questions related to that transformation. The demand to put economic policy within the framework of social policy and the common good requires an important shift in the power relationships between the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and the UN and its agencies. Barbara Kohnen offers a brief glimpse of how the Rethinking Bretton Woods Project evolved from the plea for help from Maryknoll missionaries to do something about the suffering of their people caused by debt and Structural Adjustment Programs to its current focus on who really exercises the power to make and implement the economic policies that create poverty in the Global South. Peter O'Driscoll and Rowena Gono update us on developments in preparation for two important UN conferences, the UN Conference on Financing for Development and the World Conference Against Racism. These articles are but the latest embodiments of a Center commitment that reaches to its earliest days. The first dozen issues of Center Focus contain articles reflecting the Center's involvement in the Third UN Conference on Trade and Development [1972], the World Population Conference [197], the Law of the Seas Conference [1974], the World Food Conference [1974, the International Women's Year Conference [1975], the Seventh Special Session of the UN focused on restructuring a just global economic order [1975]; and there are hints of 3 more conferences to follow in 1976! The Center's goals remain today what they were from the beginning: using these global meetings as important opportunities for working for greater development justice, linking social/structural analysis and faith-based, spiritually-grounded judgment of the issues, informing and engaging the U.S. faith community in these important processes, facilitating the voices and concerns of people from the global South in the international fora and in the U.S., and linking global and domestic issues to ""show that a single problematic of justice exists."