Social Justice Week: Fair you say?

Social Justice Week was established by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference in 1997 as an ongoing commitment in the Catholic calendar for the week beginning the second Sunday of September. This is a time to consider, reflect and take action on a particular current social justice issue in the light of Catholic social teaching. Social Justice Week falls during the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. This is a period in which the liturgical readings teach us about discipleship. This year the Social Justice Week theme is Fairness.  

New Zealand Catholic Bishops Social Justice Week Statement 2019

Ahakoa he iti he pounamu - Although it is small, it is greenstone

In 1993, New Zealand’s Church leaders described social justice as:

-          Fairness in our dealings with other people;

-          Fairness in the way responsibilities are shared;

-          Fairness in the distribution of income, wealth and power in our society;

-          Fairness in the social, economic and political structures we have created;

-          Fairness in the operation of those structures so that they enable all citizens to be active and productive participants in the life of society (Social Justice Statement).

  ‘Fairness’ is an expansive concept, as those Church leaders observed, and the basis of our Catholic social teaching is formed around this principle. In looking at any issue we need to ask the question, “Is it fair?”. This is challenging because what one person might see as ‘fair and just’ may not be the case for another. We need to be aware of the limitations of our own perspective.

Inequality and unfairness concern Catholic social teaching because when people are disadvantaged or divided, due to unfair income or discrimination, the solidarity of the human family begins to break down. Unfair treatment of individuals or communities undermines the human dignity all members of society should enjoy. In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he said regarding justice and common good, “I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving them what pertains to them in justice.” We all have a valid claim to share in the goods of the earth, since these are a result of God’s gifts to us.

As we reflected on this year’s Social Justice Week theme of fairness, many human realities and experiences came to mind; discrimination, the state of our environment, poverty, the housing and rent crisis, the struggles of refugees and migrants – the list goes on. The injustice that we can observe in our world may seem overwhelming and it is easy to become disheartened, but what is important is our desire to understand those affected, and then act not out of embitterment, which so often leads only to revenge or a simplistic turning of the tables, but out of love.

We are reminded of St Mother Teresa’s words, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Jesus himself was well aware of the power of small steps. He would constantly use small, seemingly mundane moments and encounters to heal those whom he met along the way of ordinary daily life, bringing to them great renewal of purpose and life. We too are called to do our part, however small, to bring fairness and hope into our world.

This Social Justice Week, our communities are called to pay attention to the issues that are relevant and experienced in our contexts. We need to notice. Do we observe injustice in our community, do we seek to understand and discern what is fair, and do we then act – in small or big ways? Pope Francis has called for a “revolution of tenderness”: a love that comes close and real; a movement starting from the heart which flows to the eyes, ears, and hands. His insight is personal and practical. He challenges us to ‘get off the couch’. The oppressed, or those who are treated unfairly, are people before they are a ‘category’. He reminds us that “they are a real presence, a person of innate dignity”. They are as likely to be close by as far away. As Pope Francis reminds us, “the other has a face” and a name.

Our challenge then is to look and see individually and as a community what are the points of social tension or inequity or injustice prevalent in our society, and then discern what would they might look like if addressed with fairness. May we take this Social Justice Week as an opportunity to develop empathy and discernment as to where and how the Holy Spirit is leading us to act. We should not feel confined by one week a year to act with a tender heart but may we all grow and learn to act out of tenderness, working towards a fairer world, every day.

✠ Patrick Dunn, Bishop of Auckland and NZCBC President

✠ Charles Drennan, Bishop of Palmerston North and NZCBC Secretary

✠ John Dew, Cardinal Archbishop of Wellington

✠ Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hamilton

✠ Paul Martin, Bishop of Christchurch

✠ Michael Dooley, Bishop of Dunedin