Jesuit commitment to ecology and the environment over the past 50 years: Is ecological justice integral to social justice?

Jesuit commitment to ecology and the environment over the past 50 years: Is ecological justice integral to social justice?

Xavier Jeyaraj SJ

Ecological justice may be seen from two angles. One is the angle of genuine concern for biodiversity, endangered nature and its entire species where the environmental balance and beauty are lost. Protecting, conserving and restoring the ecosystem is the primary focus. The other is to see the interconnectedness of nature with the human person, especially in places where indigenous or rural communities face the consequences of nature and environmental degradation and large-scale projects, such as mining and hydroelectric dams.

Monday, 3 December 1984, remains a day of catastrophe in India. The Bhopal gas leak, the world’s worst industrial disaster, killed around 20,000 poor people, most of whom lived in slums. Half a million who survived suffered and continue to suffer even today from respiratory problems, eye irritation or blindness, and other disorders resulting from exposure to toxic gas. Amidst legal battles in India and the USA and protests by the victims and environmental activists, “justice” remains an elusive mirage and far-fetched dream for millions.

I remember the shock of seeing those ghastly images of dead bodies on the streets. A question that has kept daunting me since then is: why do the poor always have to be the victims of such “man-made” disasters? Are they genuinely natural?

Over the last four decades, we have become more conscious of how human decisions and actions have damaged our interconnectedness with nature. The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, particularly the vulnerable indigenous communities, are becoming loud and clear. As Pope Francis says, “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (Laudato Si’ 139)

The evolution of ecological justice in the Society of Jesus

Following the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972 and the Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development or UNCED) in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in which six Jesuits working in the field of environment participated, there emerged a growing concern from Jesuit Provinces that recognized the relationship between the promotion of justice and the challenges of environmental degradation. The general feeling was that the option for the poor and care for our common home were inseparable, as ecological degradation drastically affected the poorest more than it affected others.

The Society of Jesus, for the first time in 1995, during the 34th General Congregation (GC), officially recognized the world’s growing ecological and environmental problems and their impact on the poor, the vulnerable, and nature. This concern emerged from Jesuits who already saw and experienced its effects in some of their mission countries. Hence, the GC recommended to Father General to make a study and orient the entire Society of Jesus for its future mission on ecology. The Social Justice Secretariat (SJS) was invited to make a study and published its results in We Live in a Broken World: Reflections on Ecology in 1999.

Subsequently, in 2008, reflecting further during the 35th General Congregation on the ecological challenges faced, the GC called every Jesuit to establish the right relationship with God, with one another and with creation. It invited everyone to reconcile with the creation and “move beyond doubts and indifference to take responsibility for our home, the earth.” To do this in an organized and collaborative way, the GC invited the Jesuits to “build bridges between rich and poor, establish advocacy links of mutual support.”

Secretariat for Social Justice and Ecology

After GC35, recognizing that social justice is possible only with ecological justice, Father General in 2010 entrusted the Secretariat with the responsibility of coordinating both social and environmental justice and rechristened it as Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES). With this mandate, a Task Force was formed to collectively discern, plan and prepare a plan of action for ecological justice at all levels.

The outcome was the document Healing a Broken World in 2011, a kind of Jesuit precursor to Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis. The Secretariat pursued responding to the call of networking and established Global Ignatian Advocacy Networks (GIAN) in 2008. One of the four networks is known as Ecojesuit.

Having gone through a year of discernment within the Society of Jesus – in communities, Provinces, Conferences, and the universal Society – Father General promulgated the four Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) in February 2019 after getting them confirmed by Pope Francis.

For the Society of Jesus, to collaborate in the care of our common home together with the Church and the entire human society can be a door of entry to fulfil concretely the mission of the UAPs in bringing reconciliation and justice for the next ten or more years.

Xavier Jeyaraj SJ is the former Secretary of SJES (2017-2023) and this article is published in Jesuits Global and part of the yearbook Jesuits 2024 – The Society of Jesus in the world.

This article is also available in French and Spanish.

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