Votes : 0

Justice in the Global Economy: Building sustainable and inclusive communities

GianPaolo Salvini, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Mar 25th 2020

Justice in the Global Economy: Building sustainable and inclusive communities.1

In June 2016, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, sent a document to his fellow Jesuits proposing a greater commitment to the cause of global economic justice in order to better serve our brothers and sisters victimized by unjust economic and social structures.[1]

The document was inspired by Pope Francis’ eloquent and critical appeals – in speeches, homilies, and other writings – for us to address unjust economic systems. “He insisted that we identify the cruel and unjust forces of a mercantile economy that leave so many people behind and deprived of basic necessities.”

To this end, a group of economists, theologians, Jesuits and lay experts from all over the world, summoned by the Secretariat for Social Justice and Ecology and the Secretariat for Higher Education, met at the General Curia of the Society of Jesus and drafted a document titled, “Justice in the Global Economy: Building sustainable and inclusive communities.”[2]

The purpose of that document was not to treat every important question exhaustively, but rather to serve as a basis for further dialogue, research and concrete action for advocacy. Even at the level of individual Jesuits, communities and local institutions, care must be taken so that these topics are not overlooked because we mistakenly believe they are beyond our power to change since, individually and collectively, we seem so small and insignificant; that is, we deem ourselves too small and too weak to confront such large-scale problems. “We must remind ourselves that true progress is possible with a united and persistent effort to change habits, institutions and structures.”[3]

Pope Francis has said on many occasions that the human race finds itself at a critical crossroads. The possibility of moving forward is given by the fact that increases in access to education at all levels, better healthcare assistance, more advanced technology, and faster communications systems over the last decades have made it possible for many to reach a significantly higher level of well-being (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 52). At the same time, the pope has tirelessly insisted that too many people barely get by. Therefore, the global human community finds itself at a turning point: Will the economic gains benefit all, or will they be enjoyed exclusively by a privileged minority? The pope’s diagnosis leads us to pass severe judgment on the road we are traveling: large swaths of people share no part in the higher standard of living possible today.


The pope’s best-known affirmation – for its dire tone if nothing else – is that we must say “‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills” (Evangelii Gaudium, 53). The pope makes the provocative statement that “inequality is the root of social ills” (Ibid., 202) in that it perpetuates poverty and exclusion. To confront it, we must reject the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and turn our attention to solving the structural causes of poverty.

In a way similar to St. John Paul II, Pope Francis proposes the virtue of solidarity, defined as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is, to commit to the good of all and of each individual.”[4] There are indeed hopeful signs that a change in attitude to help the poor is possible. The document, comprised of five short chapters, is directed to that optimistic end.

The signs of the times

Poverty rates remain high despite notable economic growth over the last several years. The poverty level has been reduced from 44 percent to 12.7 percent. Nevertheless, there are still 2 billion people living on less than two dollars per day. Inequality has been growing at a constant rate. The overwhelming majority of people have experienced only marginal gains. About half of the world’s population has no access to “wealth”: that is, they lack accumulated assets. Indigenous peoples and marginalized ethnic minorities have been victims of discrimination if not simply excluded systematically from the process of development. Women are more subject to poverty and economic disparity than men.

The nature of work is also in a phase of transformation, and this transformation tends to benefit those with a higher level of education and minimizes opportunities for those lacking such an education. Financial markets have experienced enormous expansion, exacerbating inequality in development. The private sector has become increasingly more important. The violence afflicting us in modern times is often provoked by economic factors. The role of the media, both commercial and social, has risen dramatically. This allows for a democratization of information and more widespread awareness of situations, but access to the media is too often restricted to the privileged few.

There are, however, signs of hope. These are most notable in relationships formed at the level of the global economy, and these positive signs can be weighed against the list of challenges. Many local communities are working in creative ways to establish economies that are more just and inclusive. These communities are often led by women or marginalized minorities. A new global civic society is emerging, expressions of which can be found in transnational associations, united through mass communication and sustained by local communities. Some governments and commercial organizations are clearly showing a willingness to contribute to sustainable development, which is now understood in a new way that places the human person and care for the environment at the center.

There is widespread effort to persuade large companies to assume responsibility as they search for greater balance between economic, environmental and social values. This shows that the accumulation of capital has enhanced the desire to monitor business activity. Many people, communities, and government leaders today are fostering – or could foster – a more just global economy.

The main challenges today

Economic growth and the concomitant increase in the production of goods and services have an impact not only on the developed world, but also on many countries that are still in various phases of development and that have had a greater price to pay for development than nations already industrialized. The number of persons who live in conditions of extreme poverty has been cut in half five years prior to the target set out by the Millennium Development Goals (set for 2015). This has allowed for a decrease in the rate of poverty from 44 percent in 1981 to 12.7 percent in 2012, even if the overall number of people remains unacceptably high.

Living in a state of severe need remains the plight of nearly a billion people. Moreover, the poor are often lacking the education and human contacts they need to participate in civil society. The poor are often stigmatized and considered unworthy of the social support they need to pull themselves out of their present conditions. In some social classes there is virtually no hope of mobility. Some nations are in a state of stagnancy and others in complete decline. Sadly, in sub-Saharan Africa the number of persons in poverty doubled from 1981 to 2010 and now stands at 414 million.

The worldwide infant mortality rate for children below the age of five has been reduced by more than 50 percent, except in sub-Saharan Africa and the developing regions of Oceania. This figure causes great concern because half of the global demographic growth between now and 2050 will occur in Africa. On the other hand, life expectancy throughout the world has increased from 65 years for men and 69 for women (2000-2005), to 68 years for men and 73 for women (2010-2015), and it is still on the rise.

According to the Christian faith, every human person possesses an inherent dignity and sacredness that merits respect and social support. The scandal of poverty presents a serious challenge to the Church and society. Jesuits should particularly heed the invitation to exercise greater care for the poor in a spirit consonant with St. Ignatius, and with due awareness of the Society’s commitment to serving the poor from its very conception. “Bringing justice to the poor is a key aspect of the Christian and Jesuit vocation.”

Poverty is aggravated by the increasing inequality between the wealthiest elements of society and the rest of the population, an inequality that has been steadily increasing in almost every country since 1980. The benefits of economic development are being distributed in a decisively unequal way, especially within individual nations. According to the International Monetary Fund, “less than 100 individuals in the world have more wealth than half of the world’s population.” Women are at a greater risk of poverty and economic disparity than men. In many developing nations, while 80 percent of men earn an income, only half of the women of working age earn an income. Also, the situation of young people is not entirely encouraging since they often do not have easy access to the workforce and they find it virtually impossible to support a family. Young people’s limited access to the workforce is notable in places like Europe, but it also exists in the Middle East and elsewhere.

This also is the result of an uneven playing field among businesses (i.e., oligopolies and monopolies), and of unregulated and deregulated financial transactions. The search for an “acceptable” level of inequality is not much of a consolation. The experience of countries such as Sweden, Slovenia, Montenegro, Hungary and Norway shows that the phenomenon of increasing inequality can be avoided. Political choices, when they are supported by a commitment to social solidarity, can result in less inequality and a reduction of poverty.

The negative picture outlined above is partially due to the unequal growth of financial markets, which in turn gives birth to financial instruments that go well beyond the “real economy” of goods and services, creating new possibilities for the manipulation and abuse of trade mechanisms. Many governmental leaders and institutions have tried in vain to invoke the regularization of this delicate sector at national and international levels.

The economic wounds suffered as a result of poverty and inequality divide society in increasingly dangerous ways because they work together to undermine hopes and prevent actions oriented toward initiating a positive change in the social arena. At the same time, economic inequality and exclusion increase pressures that lead to migration.

Injustice becomes a form of violence when the privileged use their power to keep others in a state of poverty, or even deprive them of the little they possess. Social exclusion, which is one facet of inequality today, renders the connection between economic injustice and conflict in a particularly dangerous way, especially when one considers the enormous amount of resources available to us.

Jesus’ invitation to his disciples to be peacemakers is therefore closely connected to his call to be promoters of justice. This is a truth reaffirmed again and again in numerous documents of the Church.

Scientific analysis, as explained in the encyclical Laudato Si’, affirms that the current rate of mining natural resources is unsustainable. If consumption continues at the current rate, we will face serious risks for both ecological stability and for the well-being of humanity. But the breakdown of the environment and society can still be checked if we have a greater awareness of these risks and take up concrete initiatives to avoid dangerous scenarios. This is all the more necessary insofar as the poor are the most vulnerable to the damage caused by deforestation, non-sustainable agriculture, pollution and decreasing amounts of arable land. It is quite conceivable that one day we will see millions of people turned into true refugees as a result of environmental degradation.

The biblical story of creation highlights the intrinsic worth of natural resources and the value of living creatures in such a way that economic activity, politics and institutions should serve to protect the dignity of all men and women. Often, however, human action only enflames “conflict,” as can be seen in nature due to its finiteness.

A new vision

An effective solution to the challenges outlined above must be decisively oriented toward the common good. “The idea of the common good has a long history, but its meaning is rarely spelled out with any precision.” One possible definition is “the interconnected set of social values that are shared by all of a community’s members to at least the degree required by their common humanity.” To give an example, the common good is a healthy and sustainable environment from which both the community as a whole and its individual members may benefit. A true common or shared good is not therefore equivalent to the total aggregate of goods possessed by the individual members of a society. The measurement of per capita GDP does not take into account how the revenue and goods are distributed within the society itself.

The various meanings of the word “justice” as conceived by ancient Greek thinkers can also shed light on the situation today. Distributive justice, for example, is the opposite of contributive justice. In fact, it regulates the way in which the common good of a society is distributed or made accessible to its members. Already in 1963, St. John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris, affirmed that the institutions that govern international political and economic interactions are inadequate for the task of promoting the common good among all people. Generally, the principle of subsidiarity must be at work, but “if national communities and civil society are unable or unwilling to take action needed to secure the common good, regional or global organizations of governance can be required to do so.” The common good is therefore considered through the lens of a wider vision of the global human community. Nevertheless, to prevent a distorted use of government power, the decisive involvement of civil society is essential.

Very often, action from below by groups within civil society is essential to confronting extreme poverty and environmental degradation head-on. Nongovernmental organizations, Caritas and many other organizations – many of which are associated with the Church – enjoy a privileged position of leadership in these areas, because the Christian community has global reach, and many of its members are themselves at risk economically and environmentally. Simply by forming a network – something quite manageable given today’s technology – one can contribute to making joint initiatives more effective.

The document then proposes a list of reforms at the national and international level to improve the living conditions of the poor. Each of these needs more room than this article provides for a full description. Besides, they are outlined only in a summary fashion in the document itself. The intent of the document seems to be to indicate priorities and the direction we need to move in. Here, therefore, let us simply list those reforms, even if put this way they appear rather vague and generic, perhaps even a bit banal: (1) to encourage public government policies that redistribute wealth; (2) to apply laws that protect the environment and favor a good governance of natural resources, including minerals; (3) a stronger regulation of economic and financial markets; (4) to support political initiatives that reduce the power of high-level lobbying of government and to combat corruption; (5) to promote the creation of decent jobs; (6) to advocate the need for the most developed nations to devote 0.7 percent of their GDP for the development of the poorest countries;[5] (7) to stimulate the participation of additional actors in civil society.

The document also proposes a brief list of reforms at the international level that actually seem to be included in the preceding list or at least to overlap them: (1) a more stringent regulation of international economic-financial markets; (2) more just trade treaties among states and multinationals; (3) a regulation of countries known to be tax havens and the subjection of multinational agencies to stricter financial rules.

Obviously, there will never be true change until a deep, interior conversion takes place (cf. Laudato Si’, No. 217). No renewed relationship with nature can take place until each individual undergoes a genuine renewal. A newfound commitment to solidarity will make us more aware of the goods we amass and make us more capable of curbing consumption. Despite passionate appeals to live more simply and to enjoy human relationships and friendship, our ongoing concern for the economy and a better life style continually point us in the other direction.

A spirituality that corresponds to the needs of our times must be rooted in a genuine concern for justice that extends beyond our national borders. Our national communities need our participation and commitment in order to come up with just solutions. At the same time, however, our globalized world requires us to go beyond local issues and notice how they connect with questions on a national, regional and even global level. We lack, for example, a culture of hospitality when we deal with people in need, even if civil agencies tend to show greater compassion than larger institutions.

The Society of Jesus has a particular mission within this global initiative: it must act as a voice for the poor, listening to them and trying to help them find ways to change their situation. Jesuit institutions must be transformed into instruments of economic justice and reconciliation, trying to resolve the problems hinted at in the Church’s encyclicals on social justice. “We should leverage our commitment and reputations for sound research and clear positions through direct advocacy.” Jesuit institutions must utilize “their network of institutions to turn a spotlight on significant policy issues and to pressure for greater international cooperation in reforms that would make the lives of the poor more humane and just.”

Some observations

We have only given a rough outline of a document that on the one hand is generic and almost “as big as the world,” and on the other, notable for its uniqueness. The document does not propose a new economic system, much less a specific alternative to the way that things are done. It neither discusses capitalism nor a market economy nor a planned economy explicitly so as to avoid sterile comparisons. But it does dare to indicate a series of things to bring about a series of incisive reforms that, if put into practice, would challenge whether the economic system should stay the same or if it should become something quite different.

Given that the mass media constantly draws attention to the declarations of Pope Francis that emphasize the distortions and the inequalities of the global economic system, the document also repeatedly draws attention to positive things. In the last decades, the world economy has made possible a higher standard of living (even if not for everyone), has extended life expectancy, taken billions of people out of extreme poverty, and accomplished other things. This is why Pope Francis always gives a positive title to his documents (Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’, and so on). Yet he also wants to avoid that, by emphasizing the positive results already obtained, the cry of alarm – the biblical “cry of my people” – goes unheeded and forgotten as we lull ourselves to sleep with the trust we place in the presumed automatic positive development of the economy. The pope wants to emphasize that the heavy burdens of poverty in today’s world are not isolated incidences but are rather “symptoms” causing alarm insofar as they are structural.

The text makes compelling and well-informed proposals, even if it only sketches a rough outline of possible interventions. It does not present a single, clear plan of action, which is indeed hard to do in such a dynamic and complex world economy as we have today. It is not intended simply to make us more optimistic, but to show that Christian hope, even in the conflicted and selfish world we now live in, can find positive signs that can bear fruit and render hope itself more meaningful and richer.

[1] Letter of Fr. Nicolás to the entire Society recommending a document we intend to present, Rome, April 19, 2016.

[2] The text can be found in Promotio Iustitiae, published by the Secretariat for Social Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit General Curia, No. 121, 2016/1. The document was edited by Fr. Patxi A?lvarez, and the editorial coordinator was Concetta Negri.

[3] Letter of Fr. Nicolás cited in footnote 1.

[4] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 38.

[5] This commitment, which had already been reduced from a minimum of 1 percent to 0.7 percent, was reaffirmed by the United Nations in 2016. Thirty-five countries have adhered to the pledge, but even then it is considered merely an ideal target.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.