1971 Synod of Bishops
Justice in the World

A Summary Article by Gerald Darring

The representative bishops, gathered in synod, acknowledge that it is not their job to elaborate a profound analysis of the situation of the world (a. 3). The starting point of their treatment of justice and injustice is the tremendous paradox they see in the world: powerful forces are working to bring about a unified world society at the same time that forces of division and antagonism seem to be increasing in strength (a. 7-9).

The bishops are very concerned that the world by its perversity contradicts the plan of its creator (a. 5). They are concerned about oppression, unjust structures and systems, about a set of injustices which constitute the nucleus of today's problems (a. 20). They express alarm at the serious injustices which are building around people a network of domination, oppression, and abuses (a. 3); people suffering violence and being oppressed by unjust systems and structures (a. 5); the stifling oppressions of today's world which produce large numbers of marginal people, ill-fed, inhumanly housed, illiterate, and politically powerless (a. 10); international systems of domination (a. 13); social structures which place obstacles in the way of conversion and the realization of charity, and systematic barriers standing in the way of solving social problems (a. 16); various forms of oppression which result in silent, voiceless victims of injustice (a. 20); oppressive atheization (a. 23); forms of oppression that restrict individual rights, such as political repression, torture, inhuman treatment of political prisoners and prisoners of war (a. 24). The announce the hope that the People of God be present in the midst of the poor and of those who suffer oppression and persecution (a. 74), and they call on the poor, the oppressed and the afflicted, to cooperate in building a just world (a. 77).

In the course of their discussion of oppressive structures and systems, the bishops touch on various specific world problems.

They speak of the environment, saying that the demand for resources and energy endanger the essential elements of life on earth (a. 11): natural resources, air, water, and the small delicate biosphere of the whole complex of all life on earth must be saved and preserved as a unique patrimony belonging to the whole human race (a. 8).

They assert that the arms race is a threat to life; it makes poor people yet more miserable, while making richer those already powerful; it endangers peace and threatens to destroy all life (a. 9).

They note that basic human rights and civil rights are being obstructed by economic injustice (a. 9). They make specific mention of these injustices: hunger, poverty, rapid population growth, rural stagnation, lack of agrarian reform, urban migration, unemployment (a. 10); the unequal distribution which places decisions concerning three quarters of income, investment and trade in the hands of one third of the human race (a. 12), or, in other words, unequal relationships within the present world complex (a. 17); discrimination in access to opportunities and collective services (a. 16); migrant workers often facing discrimination or insecurity (a. 21); the many millions of refugees and others persecuted for racial, ethnic, or tribal reasons (a. 22) or because of their faith (a. 23); and the many millions of people abandoned by their families and by the community: the old, orphans, the sick, and all kinds of people who are rejected (a. 26).

The bishops discuss these realities in terms of sin. They teach that the world is marked by the grave sin of injustice (a. 29). Aware of the evangelical principles of both personal and social morality (a. 49), they speak of the social manifestations of sin (a. 51) and the social dimension of sin (a. 58), and they teach with Christian hope that the Holy Spirit frees people from personal sin and from its consequences in social life (a. 5).

A major thread running throughout the text, then, is liberation: the Old Testament God is liberator of the oppressed (a. 30); God's plan of liberation and salvation was fulfilled once and for all in the Paschal Mystery of Christ (a. 6); a new awareness spurs people on to liberate themselves and to be responsible for their own destiny (a. 4); genuine liberation takes place when people turn away self-sufficiency to confidence in God and from concern for self to love of neighbor (a. 33); the Church has a mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation (a. 6); the mission of preaching the Gospel dictates that we should work for people's liberation in their present circumstances in this world (a. 35); we must all cooperate with God to bring about liberation from every sin (a. 77).

Liberation implies a demand for change: the general condition of being marginal in society must be overcome (16). The bishops assert that it does not belong to the church to offer concrete solutions for justice in the world (a. 37), but they are willing to mention certain things that will make a difference in the world.

The bishops tell all the people and nations of the world that: the right to development must be seen as a dynamic interpenetration of all those fundamental human rights on which personal and national aspirations are based (a. 15); the concept of evolution must be purified of all that results in a kind of deterministic and automatic notion of progress (a. 16); there must be effective mediation in an atmosphere of dialogue (a. 28); all governments should ratify the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (a. 64); the United Nations should be supported in all its efforts for peace (a. 65); international conflicts should be settled by means other than war, and conscientious objection should be granted legal recognition (a. 65); the aims of the Second Development Decade should be fostered (a. 66); there should be new institutional arrangements for granting decision-making power and equal participation to developing nations in international organizations concerned with development (a. 67); the specialized agencies of the United Nations should be strengthened (a. 68); multilateral channels should be used for development aid (a. 69); the rich should accept a less material way of life, with less waste, in order to avoid the destruction of the environment (a. 70); and the right to development should be fulfilled by allowing people to attain development in accordance with their own culture, by enabling people to become the principal architects of their own economic and social development, and by making it possible for everyone to cooperate on an equal footing for the attainment of the common good (a. 71).

The bishops address certain messages specifically at the people of the developing countries. They must have a determined will for development (a. 13). They must take their future into their own hands through a determined will for progress, responsible nationalism, new political groupings, measures necessary for overcoming inertia, and sacrifices demanded by the growth of planning (a. 17). The developing nations must experience both an increase in wealth and social progress by the entire community (a. 18). Modernization should be accepted in a way that serves people's needs and preserves their cultural heritages (a. 19). Education for justice in the developing countries should involve awakening consciences to a knowledge of the concrete situation (a. 51). In the end, the bishops call on everyone, but especially the poor, the oppressed and the afflicted, to cooperate with God to bring about liberation from every sin and to build a just world (a. 77).

A major concern of the bishops is where the church belongs in the effort to establish justice in the world. At the very opening of the document they state that in the synodal preparations and discussions they questioned themselves about the mission of the People of God to further justice in the world (a. 1). They then proceed to teach by their example the means to be used by the church in working for justice: scrutinizing the signs of the times, seeking to detect the meaning of emerging history, sharing the aspirations and questionings of other justice workers, and listening to the Word of God (a. 2).

The bishops insist that the Word of God should be present in the center of human situations (a. 57). They lead us in listening to the Word of God because it shows us new paths towards action in the cause of justice in the world (a. 29). God is revealed in the Old Testament as the liberator of the oppressed and the defender of the poor (a. 30). Christ lived his life as a giving of himself to God for the salvation and liberation of people (a. 31). Thus, the Christian message presents love as implying an absolute demand for justice, and justice as attaining its inner fullness only in love (a. 34).

The bishops present the church's role in the effort for justice as being fulfilled in three functions: proclamation/education, witness, and action.

Proclamation and education.

The church has a mission which involves defending and promoting the dignity and fundamental rights of the human person (a. 37). Therefore the church has the right and the duty to proclaim justice on the social, national, and international level, and to denounce instances of injustice (a. 36). Our mission demands that we should courageously denounce injustice, with charity, prudence, and firmness (a. 57). It also demands that we be present in the heart of the world by proclaiming the Good News to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and joy to the afflicted (a. 5).

The basic principles applying the Gospel to contemporary social life are found in the documents of the church from Rerum Novarum to Octogesima Adveniens (a. 56). These principles should be carried over into our systems of education, which should not encourage narrow individualism (a. 50). Education should promote a human way of life in justice, love and simplicity (a. 51), and it should come through action, participation, and vital contact with injustice (a. 53). Its content should involve respect for the dignity of the human person (a. 55). Our educational efforts should include setting up centers of social and theological research (a. 72), and we should remember that the liturgy can greatly serve education for justice (a. 58).


The church has a mission to give witness before the world of the need for love and justice, a witness to be carried out in church institutions and in the lives of Christians (a. 36). The church is bound to give witness to justice and recognizes that whoever ventures to speak to others about justice must first be just in their eyes (a. 40).

One should not be deprived of one's ordinary rights because one is associated with the church in one way or another (a. 41). Such rights include: the right of lay people to fair wages and opportunities for promotion (a. 41); the right of women to a share of responsibility and participation (a. 42); the right to suitable freedom of expression and thought (a. 44); the rights to know one's accusers and to a proper defense (a. 45); and the right to share in decision-making (a. 46).

Our evangelical and prophetic witness demands of us a certain sparingness in the use of possessions, and the Church is obliged to live and administer its own goods in such a way that the Gospel is proclaimed to the poor (a. 47). There is also the vital Christian witness of one's life (a. 49): our lifestyle must exemplify that sparingness with regard to consumption which we preach to others so that the hungry can be fed (a. 48). Moreover, our denunciations of injustice must be an expression of our lives (a. 57).

That the church may be a sign of solidarity, it should show in its own life greater cooperation between the churches of rich and poor regions (a. 59) ,with our separated Christian brothers and sisters for the promotion of justice in the world (a. 61), and with believers and nonbelievers in the fostering of social justice, peace and freedom (a. 62).


The bishops teach that the Christian message of love and justice must show its effectiveness through action in the cause of justice (a. 35), action inspired by love in accordance with God's grace (a. 39). Our denunciations of injustice must be manifested in continuous action (a. 57).

The Christian works out his or her salvation by deeds of justice (a. 56). Christians should act as a leaven in their family, professional, social, cultural and political life, testifying to the power of the Spirit through their action in service to others (a. 38). Some action finds its place in the sphere of social and political conflicts; other Christians prefer the way of nonviolent action (a. 39).

In teaching about action for justice, the bishops of the synod make a statement which has turned out to be one of the most quoted in all the documents of Catholic social teaching: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation" (a. 6).