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Issues of justice and peace

30 November, 1999

John Murray’s book is about social analysis. Social analysis involves examining economic, political, cultural and social structures to gain a more complete understanding of social situations. The aim is to investigate the way things are and why. It is one of the “Into the Classroom” series designed for teachers at second-level teaching the new Leaving Certificate religious education syllabus. But it is a book of much wider application, and will shed light on the economic, political, cultural and social issues that are part and parcel of our life in Ireland and globally today.

146 pp. Veritas Publications Ltd. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


Series Introduction 

1.1 Social Analysis 
1.2 Social Analysis in Action 

2.1 Visions of Justice 
2.2 Visions of Peace 
2.3 Religious Perspectives on Justice and Peace
2.4 Violence 

3.1 Religion and the Environment 
3.2 Religious Traditions and the Environment

Outline of the Course 

Concerning the Use of Websites  and Other Resources

A Shorter Bibliography


Never really optional
Section F is an optional module in this syllabus, one that will probably be a popular choice (1). It is a familiar topic, clearly significant for the lives of teachers and students. Issues of justice and peace are to be found everywhere: newspapers, news headlines, films and novels, the school curriculum, the professional concerns of teachers and the personal concerns of students, and throughout society. To be fully engaged in the real world as a morally aware person, one will inevitably face the challenge of understanding and interpreting fairly issues of justice and peace (and the central concepts involved). Issues of justice and peace are never really optional.

A controversial and complex area
The subject matter is controversial, unavoidably so if one is to be accurate and specific. This makes the area potentially very interesting, particularly at senior level where students can be expected to engage with complex and debatable issues in some depth. This is not a cut-and-dried syllabus module, presenting neat answers to every question and ready-made solutions for all problems. An approach that is simplistic is to be avoided, especially one that sees all issues of justice and peace as a battle between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ (as many popular films portray them). Often, the reality is that the opposing  ‘sides’ in disputes disagree about the relevant facts and the appropriate interpretations of the situation, even though they are equally committed in good conscience to justice and peace as ideals. What is needed is the virtue to find and face the relevant facts, to interpret them in the light of a clear knowledge and understanding of ‘justice’ and ‘peace’, and to act justly for peace.

Accuracy and fairness are essential
The controversial nature of the material should not encourage vagueness to avoid offending anyone or ‘disturbing the peace’. Some types of ‘offence’ can be socially responsible and some types of ‘peace’ ought to be disturbed. Needless controversy should be avoided, however, as a polemical approach tends to generate more heat than light. The study of justice and peace will come down to specifics at some stage and it is then that a good teacher will help students to become aware of personal biases and prejudices and how to deal with them. A concern for justice will entail a commitment to accuracy and objectivity in one’s critical thinking, especially when dealing with points of view that differ from one’s own. Anything that prevents us from being accurate or fair is a serious obstacle to the successful teaching or study of this section of the syllabus.

Some common errors to avoid
Another danger of stressing the controversial nature of the subject matter is found in the temptation to see ‘justice and peace’ as a totally subjective or relativistic moral area. We can be tempted to conclude illogically, from the fact that not everything in the area of justice is clear-cut, that nothing is clear-cut. We move from the true observation that we do not know everything in this area to the false conclusion that we cannot know anything. One of the most common expressions of this non sequitur category of logical fallacy is the idea that because morality is not always black or white, it is (always) grey. Another popular slogan is that there are no absolutes in morality, because not every element of morality is an absolute and because we can always learn more and improve. None of these conclusions are logical. We do not have to see everything in this section as totally clear-cut, known, black or white, or absolute; nor do we have to see everything as vague, unknowable, grey, or relative. Some things are not totally clear; some things are absolutely clear. Our aim is to work out which is which, or to at least show how we can go about doing this. We may not be able to specify all the possible answers to questions of justice and peace but we should be able to clarify some answers, to demonstrate and facilitate how to find further answers, and to explain how still other ‘answers’ are inadequate or even just wrong.

One cannot be totally neutral
I believe that it may be possible and useful for a teacher (or an author) to be a temporarily ‘neutral’ chairperson of the discussion of issues of justice and peace, to facilitate discussion and exploration by others, but I do not think one can be neutral ultimately or totally. One cannot ‘do justice to justice’ by always sitting on the fence: the reality of justice demands commitment at some point. Even though one is always ready in principle to revise one’s position in the light of further knowledge or insight, one must take up a position of some sort. Pupils will often ask what the teacher thinks on a particular matter, and it will not always be appropriate to dodge the question or refuse to answer it. To claim to be ‘neutral’ is in fact to take up a position of sorts. Such ‘neutrality’ might even teach (falsely) that no position is correct, or that all are acceptable, or that one is as good as any other. None of these positions are adequate; each fails to grasp moral truth. Teaching is always concerned with truth (2). Besides, any teacher teaches in a school with a particular ethos or identity, and this ethos will never be neutral on the basic issues of justice and peace. Nor should it be. A teacher should always teach in harmony with the ethos of his or her particular school.

Though this is not the place to go into the matter in detail, I believe that there is a problem in the lack of explicit attention in this syllabus to the issue of truth, particularly religious truth. There exists a real, though unacknowledged, challenge in teaching coherently in a religious school a course in RE that does not directly treat the school’s religious faith as true, that deals with the ‘meanings’ of various faiths and philosophies, but does not take any position on whether any one of these is better or more accurate than the others. In reality, no curriculum is ever entirely neutral, even if it aims to be. This book assumes that the new RE exam curriculum can be taught in a way that respects all faiths and philosophies and is fair in its investigation and presentation of them, whilst being faithful to the ethos of a school, which most often in Ireland will be of a Catholic ethos. How this can be done is not entirely clear to me and I have not addressed it directly in this book. It is an area that deserves and needs further attention from all concerned.

My approach
My approach is not neutral. This book, which is practically focused, will deal mainly with the teaching of this section within the context of a Catholic ethos. This is the tradition I know best and the one I accept as true. It is the tradition that most potential readers of this book will share. I believe that much of what I write should be readily acceptable to other traditions because the Catholic moral tradition is reasonable and open to the truth present in other traditions.

I write as a Roman Catholic who is committed to a ‘natural law’ approach to ethics, one always informed by Divine Revelation as understood and taught authoritatively by the Catholic Church. Natural law is examined in the other primarily moral section of the syllabus (Section C: Moral Decision Making), but it may be helpful to outline here the Catholic understanding of it.

Natural Law
By natural law, the Catholic tradition means our grasp of moral right and wrong by reason. Human persons are created in God’s image (a truth that is foundational for much that will be examined in this book). This suggests we have a God-given ability to know moral truth by the light of our reason reflecting on what it means to be a human person living in community. We do not have to rely totally on our access to God’s law through our faith-response to God’s Revelation to know moral principles and norms. We can know them by thinking clearly about our human potential and the various goods at stake in living a human life as an individual in community with others (and in relationship with our natural environment).

Faith in God’s Revelation is not superfluous, however, as the natural law is not always clearly known and it does not tell us all we need to know about God and his full plan for us. Though morality can be grasped by all rational persons in principle, we need God’s specific guidance in Scripture and Tradition to enable us to be certain and confident about morality in practice (3). The following is a prime example of this complimentary relationship of reason and faith. We can know the truth of the Golden Rule – ‘in everything do to others as you would have them do to you’ (4) – by reasoning about the common humanity that makes all humans equal. As a compliment to this essentially personal rational grasp, we can know the truth of this rule by our acceptance in faith of the Gospel and the authority of Jesus Christ as the Son of God who teaches us the truth about how to treat each other. In this case, faith backs up reason and strengthens its authority, but it does not supplant it or contradict it. The moral ‘reasoning’ referred to here is the characteristic feature of ‘natural law’.

Even one who does not accept the theological explanation of natural law given above (referring to the human person as created in God’s image) can know the reality of natural law. From a secular perspective, this is seen in understanding morality as essentially rational and objective. (I do not mean by this to neglect the very important emotional aspect of morality but to emphasise that morality is not purely emotional. It is always necessary to judge prudently and fairly whether our emotional reactions or responses are appropriate.) True principles of right and wrong, and consequent rules of behaviour, are not arbitrary impositions of the will of the stronger on the weaker (the State on the citizen, for example, or the school principal on the student). True morality is a matter of reasonable principles, norms and rules. We can discover what the principles, norms and rules should be by using our reason well. This enables us to know the rightness of the good laws and policies we already have and to be fully committed to them; it also enables us to criticise and reform those laws or policies that are faulty (that is, unreasonable). A natural law approach, at least in a general form that emphasises the reasonableness of morality, is implied in any kind of ethics that allow for a justified, reasoned critique of the existing society, or any subsection of it, and its laws, policies, customs and behaviour.

A natural law type of approach is very much in keeping with the spirit and letter of the present syllabus and this section in particular. One of the aims of the RE syllabus is to foster an appreciation of non-religious views as well as religious views’ – natural law emphasises that a non-religious approach to morality can be compatible with a religious approach (and vice versa) insofar as both are reasonable. Natural law provides a kind of bridge between faiths and between all people of good will.

Not totally subjective
There are different views of what constitutes ‘natural law’ (6) and of what is ‘reasonable’: this is an area of some debate amongst those who agree that morality is essentially reasonable. There are also some emotivist or intuitionist approaches to morality that leave out reason altogether. Such approaches seem plausible in the face of the wide-spread disagreements about ethical matters. It is extremely important, nevertheless, to emphasise the rational nature of ethics, rather than an ethics based on emotions or conventions or mere prudent avoidance of trouble. The obvious fact of disagreement on moral issues, or even on fundamental moral theory, does not prove, as many assume, that ‘morality is subjective’ (another example of a common fallacy in moral discussion and teaching). In fact, the more moral disagreement there is, the more we have to work at discovering the objective morality that will enable us to find, or at least work towards, unity and peace. Tolerance of pluralism is not enough in itself to build and maintain a community; there must be some shared values to ground a common basis for living in society with others.

‘Justice’ cannot be merely a totally individual idea inside each person’s head. What is subjectively in one’s head should match the objective reality outside one’s head. This in turn should be reflected in the understanding of others so that we can share morality, at least at a basic level, and so live in peace as a community. Reference to ‘justice’ does not sit easily with a subjectivistic approach to morality – the common understanding of justice is that it is an appeal to objective standards, not merely individual preferences or claims. When one claims ‘That’s not fair’ one is not referring to purely personal preference but to what one hopes will be accepted as an objective standard proving that the particular act or situation objected to is not actually fair. Not totally relativistic
So justice is properly understood as not purely subjective, but objective. Nor can it be understood adequately as totally relative. Justice is not a completely culture-based or society-based set of ideas or moral rules. A relativistic approach, seeing justice as a society or culture-bound set of conventions and opinions, does not allow for any justified critique of cultural injustice or society’s injustices nor a more global view of a ‘higher justice’ transcending ‘lower’, local versions of justice. Unless we can agree on the basics of justice, we will not be able to address responsibly the many problems facing individual societies and the world, such as poverty and environmental degradation (which cannot be solved by mere tolerance or lack of discrimination). So we must avoid being drawn into any distorted or reductionistic view of justice. There must always remain the possibility of a shared search for, and agreement on, the ‘common good'(7).

This rejection of relativism does not deny that there can be some valuable diversity and an essential open-endedness in how a shared morality can be applied to various situations and societies in a plurality of ways. Such varying applications can be right and just. There may be more than one right answer to the questions of justice (and more than one wrong answer too). We will need to be committed to objective moral principles while being respectful of the plurality of potential ways to apply these principles. Before respect for pluralism, however, comes knowledge of, and commitment to, objective moral principles: this suggests how the teacher might approach this section of the syllabus.

My main aim
One of the most important things necessary for teaching this syllabus is a clear understanding of the key concepts and their interrelationships. Providing this understanding is the main aim of this book. It does not provide a ‘one-stop’ book containing everything needed for a teacher to teach the section. (This book may be teacher-friendly – but it’s not that friendly!) This would make for a more unwieldy, much bigger book. It is hoped that other authors, especially those from other religious traditions, will contribute further material for the syllabus. I have not tried to provide many examples from current affairs and analysis to illustrate and back-up my discussion. Examples given here are more typical than topical. Topical examples go out of date quickly. Students are not impressed by stories that are even a few years old. To the teacher they seem like only yesterday; to the student, they are ancient history! If a teacher knows what to look for, it will not be difficult to find up-to-the-minute examples and information to use in teaching about justice and peace. Some practical ideas regarding this are given throughout the text. Also, copious references will be made to specific websites and other sources to aid research (8). (I have included a large number of such references to allow some choice to teachers and students and to show the breadth of material available on the various matters in the syllabus. I am not suggesting that teachers or students ought to read everything I mention; nor do I necessarily agree with everything in all the references I give. I expect all references will be used judiciously.)

The importance of the religious aspect
Justice has been a popular topic for religion teachers over the years. Unfortunately, the specifically religious aspect of the subject matter can be neglected. It can be tempting to teach the topic in a mainly (or even exclusively) ‘secular’ way, noting examples of various injustices and dealing with the definition of the central concepts in a generally moralistic way, without ever really dealing with what justice and peace have to do with faith in Christ (or with what Christian faith has to do with justice and peace). This secular approach might seem appealing because of fears that students will be hostile or apathetic towards explicitly religious material. Teaching this way, however, fails to integrate reason and faith, which is a major aim of good religious education. One also suggests to students by this non-religious approach that the secular approach is ‘real life’, whereas the religious approach is not. Section F of the senior RE syllabus is not exempt from this danger if it is read superficially or interpreted in a particularly narrow fashion, (focusing on the first half of the section, for example, which is quite non-religious in its language) (9). In order to facilitate the integration of the philosophical and the theological approaches to justice and peace, this book deals in extended detail with the five perspectives on justice (in part 2.1), the Judaeo-Christian vision of justice and peace (in part 2.3), with theological challenges in interpreting environmentalist arguments (in part 3.1) and with the concept of stewardship from a Christian perspective (in part 3.2) (10). It is worth mentioning in regard to the integration of the religious and the ethical, that a new book has just been published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a book which should help to explain how justice, peace and Christian faith are linked. This is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2004). Unfortunately, it appeared too late to be used much in the writing of this book, and I have referred to it directly only a couple of times. I would highly recommend it as a support for, and development of, what is presented here (11).

Integrating this section with other sections
As well as the challenge of understanding the section as an integrated whole, rather than a set of separate bits about justice and peace issues and opinions, there is also the challenge of integrating this section into the senior cycle RE syllabus as a whole. This lies beyond the scope of this book but I will finish this introduction with a few remarks on how this section might link up with other sections (and with the respective books in the present series that deal with the sections).

The first section that immediately springs to mind is section C: Moral Decision Making. This section makes reference to ethical topics directly relevant to section F: Issues of Justice and Peace. These include human rights and their charters (part 1.2), the common good and individual rights (1.3), the relationship between morality and religion (2.1), the idea of ‘right relationship’ in the preaching of Jesus (2.2), social sin (2.3), moral conflict and debate (3.1), moral theories such as natural law and virtue ethics (3.2), the role of conscience (4.2), and various areas of moral decision making in action such as political and economic questions, crime and punishment, and medical ethics (4.3).

Section A, The Search for Meaning and Values, sets the context for the entire syllabus (and is therefore obligatory). The first and last parts of section A link up with section F. In particular, it is useful to deal with issues of justice and peace in a way that respects the transcendent questions of meaning and identity that give rise to the emergence of values, as studied in section A. Putting this in a simpler way, I would suggest that for a Christian the issue of justice and peace cannot be understood merely as a practical matter of finding some way of getting along with one another without trouble or harm. Though this is no mean challenge in itself, there is a further dimension than the immediately practical. Why be just? Why search for peace? The Christian answer will include reference to God and his plan for our happiness and fulfilment as human individuals in community. The Christian views morality not as an arbitrary set of conventions agreed by the majority, nor as only an application of reason or logic to human interrelationships; Christians see morality as a response to God. ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Our commitment to justice and peace arises out of our being created by God, saved by God and sanctified by God. It is hard to see how justice or peace could fully make sense in a meaningless world: God creates the meaning of our world and the ‘sensibleness’ of justice and peace.

Other sections deal with justice and peace issues. Religion and Gender and Religion and Science are the two that clearly specify topics with a definite justice angle – issues such as sexism and genetic engineering. One could also keep the themes of justice and peace in mind when treating the sections on the Bible, Christianity, and world religions.

There is plenty of scope for the teacher to combine elements of Section F with other sections of the syllabus. One
certainly should not see justice and peace concerns as confined to Section F. As I said at the beginning, issues of justice and peace are not optional; they constitute an important dimension of virtually every human situation or topic.




  1. An outline of section F is found in Appendix One. Readers can use this as a way of keeping track of the course as they read through this guide. The outline is my own; it is not intended as a substitute for the official text, which should be studied carefully.
  2. it is appropriate in this regard that the publisher of this book is `Veritas’, a name which means ‘truth’.
  3. Various Protestant traditions emphasise Scripture over tradition and some would be very wary of ‘natural law’ because it seems overconfident, in the light of sin’s effects on our intellects and wills, of our natural ability to know right and wrong. The well-known reference by St Paul in Romans 2:14-15 to the ‘law written on the hearts’ of the Gentiles has been understood by most Christians, nevertheless, as a warrant for accepting the possibility that all people can to some substantial degree grasp God’s moral law by the natural use of reason, even though supernatural grace and truth are practically necessary for fully clear moral knowledge and the ability to live by this knowledge.
  4. Matthew 7:12. All Bible quotations in this book are taken from The Catholic Bible: New Revised Standard Version (STL, 1993).
  5. The fourth aim of the syllabus is this: ‘To appreciate the richness of religious traditions and to acknowledge the non-religious interpretation of life’, syllabus, p. 5. The syllabus in full is available online at www.education.ie/servlet/blobservlet/1C_religion_sy.pdf and is published in hard-copy by The Stationary Office, 2003.
  6. Some consider ‘natural law’ to be exclusively the simplistic approach of the Catholic Church behind its condemnation of contraception – the view that what is artificial is wrong and that we must never intervene in natural processes. This is not the concept of natural law in the present work. Nor is it the view behind the Church’s condemnation of contraception, nor her understanding of natural law in general. I deal in more detail with this in part 3.2 below.
  7. See on this, and on other matters mentioned in this paragraph, the fine book by David Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  8. Please see Appendix Two for criteria for using web sites and other materials.
  9. The third overall aim of Section F in the syllabus is worth noting: ‘To identify and analyse the links between religious belief and commitment and action for justice and peace’, Syllabus, p. 59.
  10. Though the book does deal with some major issues of methodology, especially in chapter one, it does not attempt to gauge how much material should be taught at each stage of the course, nor how the various parts of the section should be proportioned to each other, nor how much time should be spent on each topic. In some cases, it may not be practical to refer in class to all that is explored in the present book, but it is hoped that all will be useful. It is also hoped that the treatment of issues here will be of interest to others outside the context of second-level schools.
  11. There is a kind of compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine available online: The Social Agenda, by the Council for Justice and Peace, at www.thesocialagenda.org. The new Compendium is similar to this, though much more developed – it is more than five hundred pages long. It has an extensive index that will enable the reader to quickly find what the Church has to say on specific topics dealt with in this book (and on further important topics). Though the style is highly compact, and difficult to read and probably not suitable for any direct use in a classroom, it is a sound and comprehensive treatment of the main issues and its overall vision is very inspiring.





The first and second general aims for the section (syllabus, p. 59) relate directly to the concerns of its first segment – Part One: Reflecting on Context. The first reads: ‘To introduce the principles and skills of social analysis’. The second is: ‘To encourage the application of these principles and skills in the local context, and in a selection of national and global contexts’. This chapter explains what these terms mean so that teacher and student can achieve the specific objectives listed in the areas of knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes (syllabus, p. 60). ‘Reflecting on Context’ requires examination of the concrete social world with a critical eye in order to understand it better. The chapter does not engage in specific social analysis or make any detailed empirical claims about society or issues, but instead explains what social analysis is and how it can be done.

Overall structure of the course
Why does the section begin with social analysis, before one has studied the central concepts of justice and peace? Beginning in this way emphasises that ‘Justice’ and ‘Peace’ are not purely abstract or theoretical concepts; they arise out of, and apply to, specific situations and real people. Part 1 focuses our attention on concrete reality and questions will be raised by this initial analysis. Then part 2 (to be looked at in the next chapter) looks at the moral principles of justice and peace in order to shed light on the questions raised by the initial social analysis. One could revise one’s initial social analysis in the light of the moral principles studied in the central part of the course. As written, however, the syllabus leads the student on to look at new issues (from part 2.4 and through part 3), namely violence and just war and environmental concerns, rather than looking backwards at the specific issues analysed in part 1.

  • Part 1.1 deals with the central concepts of social analysis;
  • Part 1.2 deals with applying social analysis to selected, specific contexts.


There are various ways one might go about analysing society. The syllabus indicates a particular approach and gives a brief outline to guide the process (syllabus, p. 61). This draws heavily, almost word for word, on a classic text by Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice (1983) (1). Mention should also be made of two books, also published in the early 80s, by Irish writers Seán Healy and Brigid Reynolds, both well-known in the justice and peace movement in Ireland. These are Social Analysis in the Light of the Gospel (1983) and Ireland Today: Reflecting in the Light of the Gospel (1985) (2). The latter contains a detailed social analysis of Irish society at that time and would be very useful as an example of the kind of thing looked for in the syllabus, although it would have to be up-dated considerably in its reference to empirical observations and measurements. This chapter draws extensively from these three books in looking at part 1.1, although I have avoided frequent references in order to shorten the number of footnotes.


Social analysis involves examining economic, political, cultural and social structures to gain a more complete understanding of social situations. The aim is to investigate the way things are and to ask why they are so. One explores issues, and, more importantly, one tries to get behind the issues to understand their causes. Holland and Henriot explain the importance here of moving from the anecdotal to the analytical: ‘We must move from issues[ … ] to explanations of why things are the way they are. To stop with anecdotes, to concentrate only on issues, obscures the comprehensive systemic picture. If the picture is obscured, one becomes trapped in immediate ad hoc solutions (3). Second level students, and indeed many other people, express their views on issues such as the place of travellers in Irish society or the role of the Gardai by way of stories or examples (sometimes at second or third hand). Social analysis, however, goes deeper than recounting stories of injustice. A clear focus on social analysis as a precise kind of investigation will help us to avoid mere conversation or casual discussion, mere ‘sharing of ignorance’.


What is meant by ‘structures’? The ‘structures’ metaphor refers to socially organised ways of behaving or being in relationship, the systems that shape the way we live in community with others. These include institutions, behaviour patterns, organisations (on the more objective side) and common values, prejudices and belief systems (on the more subjective side). Structures are relatively stable, permanent and common, rather than temporary, ad hoc, random or individual.

Four types
Structures become more concrete when examined under the four headings given in the syllabus (4):

  • economic structures
  • political structures
  • cultural structures
  • social structures

Each of the four types of structure is treated separately below. After an initial definition, various typical questions are listed to show how one can analyse society under each particular heading. These questions are not answered here; they are merely typical guides to what the specific structure refers to in concrete detail, mainly in the national context. It is not expected that all the questions will be answered whilst studying this syllabus. After each type of structure is defined and outlined by questions, some related matters are discussed, including some cross-curricular possibilities. When all four types of structure have been examined, some final remarks conclude the first half of this chapter – how there are different levels of structures and analysis, how the four structures are interconnected and related, and how a balance between Right and Left approaches is important for accurate analysis.

The four structures and four associated issues
The syllabus mentions looking at the four types of structure with four issues in mind: the availability and allocation of resources, the determining of power, the shaping of relationships and the according of meaning to people within specific contexts.. Holland/Henriot and Healy/Reynolds link each type of structure with an issue as follows:

  • economic structures with resources
  • political structures with power
  • cultural structures with values
  • social structures with relationships

Though the wording of the syllabus does not tie an issue to a type of structure as specifically as this, this way of making the links seems quite natural and is the approach I will take here. The links, however, are not meant to be seen as exclusive. The four types of structure are not totally separated from each other, but interact, and so, too, do the four issues. So, for example, political structures can influence the allocation of resources; this is not an exclusive area for economic structures alone.

(a) Economic Structures

‘Economic structures’ refer to the way in which resources are organised in society, or, in other words, how ‘the availability and allocation of resources’ are influenced or shaped (5). In coming to understand how the economy is structured we need to look at its various sectors: business, commercial, agricultural and industrial. What are the natural (and other) resources of the country? We examine the processes of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. In other words, we ask:

  • How are things made (or services rendered)?
  • How are they made available to people?
  • How do people access them?
  • How do people use up the resources?

An area of weakness – wealth production neglected
The syllabus wording does not emphasise production as such. The wording seems to assume that there are resources that are simply available and then allocated. (It is assumed in the syllabus, however, that resource availability can be influenced for better or worse by structures.) It has been observed, however, that resources are not simply ‘there’: wealth has to be produced. This issue features in the debate around whether to analyse society from the Left or the Right. The Right emphasises the importance of wealth creation; the Left focuses on wealth distribution. Both are important features of the economy and should be included in social analysis. It is an important theme of this book that both Right and Left approaches should be respected and combined whenever possible, rather than focusing on either one exclusively. The syllabus wording could lead one to focus on resource distribution and ignore or neglect wealth creation.

Typical questions regarding economic structures
One might continue to ask questions such as: Is the production highly technological or labour intensive? Are the centres of production concentrated in a few areas (to the detriment of others)? Is distribution dominated by monopolies or is it more widely dispersed? Is it a free-market, or a planned, or a mixed economy? If mixed, how is the ‘mixture’ proportioned? What kind of budgets are produced from year to year? What were the economic elements of the last budget? Is consumption wasteful or excessive? How do interest rates affect spending? How are interest rates set? What about inflation? What kind of labour force is there? Where is there poverty? What are its patterns? What is the income distribution in the nation? What is the employment/unemployment rate? What are the trends in these rates? This is not a comprehensive list of possible questions, but should give some idea of the range of relevant economic ‘structures’ to be scrutinised.

After many of these questions comes the further important question: Why? In other words, we ask why is it that the particular economic structures exist. Answering these questions leads us into the historical dimension of social analysis, where we examine how the various structures are created and maintained by people making choices over time. This will be looked at further under the heading of ‘political structures’ below.

A philosophical and methodological issue – Business or Religion?
One would need some knowledge of business studies or economics to understand the concepts fully and answer the questions accurately. Many religion teachers are not fully conversant with economics or business. Perhaps, like me, they went into teaching partly because they were not inclined towards business. How are such teachers to deal with this aspect of the syllabus? Not all students will be business or economic experts either.

This is a religious education course, not a business studies course. There is some overlap between the subjects, though each has its own autonomy. One of the lessons of this section is that religion has to do with all areas of life in society. Without meaning to deny the proper autonomy of the different subject areas, it is important to remind students and teachers (and society) that no subject is entirely value-free. There is a moral aspect to virtually everything and it is important to focus on this moral aspect in a sustained and explicit way in RE class. This calls for an integrated vision of education that allows teachers and students to see the various subjects as parts of a greater whole. The subjects are not in separate ‘boxes’, sealed off from one another, as might be suggested by the structure of a school timetable. So the student can learn in RE class that there is a moral dimension to economics, although in economics class the emphasis is rightly on the more technical aspects of that area. (I presume this is not doing an injustice here to the ethical concerns of economics teachers!)

The value of religious knowledge
As well as a moral aspect, there is also a religious or theological aspect to many subjects, including economics. God is the creator of all people and all subjects of study. The central concepts of the dignity of all human persons, the social nature of the human person, the priority of the common good, the need for solidarity and subsidiarity, the value of all created things and nature as a unified whole, and more, all flow from a religious perspective and are strongly supported by religious faith. A religious aspect is not alluded to in section F, part 1; it is noted explicitly only at part 2.3. However, it cannot be left only until part 2.3 to mention religious concerns, not least because, if we leave religion out of the picture for the first few weeks, many students will quickly wonder why they are doing sociology or economics or geography in religion class! It is unwise to bring religion into RE only at the end, as a kind of imaginative colouring or optional extra. This would not do justice to the nature of a religious education course, which focuses primarily on religion and speaks from within a religious tradition, even when teaching ethical issues that are open to natural rational analysis. In a Catholic school, this religious perspective will be specifically Catholic, in line with the school ethos and philosophy (though not in a narrowly, exclusive fashion).

Further issues – religious or sociological? partisan or impartial?
How might social analysis in a RE class differ from that in a sociology class? As well as religion’s shaping of one’s understanding of human life and ethical principles, as mentioned above, there is another possible difference concerning commitment to action. It could be said that social analysis as the first part of a justice and peace course in a RE syllabus is concerned with diagnosing social problems with a view to seeing how justice can be done and peace made, whereas in an exclusively sociological course, social analysis would be more an end in itself, an exercise in scientific description for the sake of understanding, rather than action as such. Nevertheless, social analysis in RE must seek to be as scientific as that in sociology. We ought not to let our concern with social action for justice and peace interfere with a scholarly, honest, impartial pursuit of the truth about society and its structures. Our religious and moral commitments are to truth and honesty and, particularly in the school context, to scholarship. We must, in other words, be ready to follow the evidence wherever it leads us. We must not be afraid to revise our conclusions in the light of criticism (or even abandon them, if they are completely mistaken). Although we will probably come to a justice and peace course with religious and moral concerns for the improvement of society, we ought not let ourselves be controlled by partisan attitudes that blind us to bias and prejudice.

Some would argue against this view, claiming that social analysis is necessarily partisan. I think, however, that this first part of the section must strive for the most impartial approach possible to finding out the facts about society without letting ourselves be overly influenced by ideological interpretations of the facts. It is easy to fall into a ‘goodies and baddies’ approach to social analysis and justice and peace teaching. This simplistic kind of approach occurs, for example, when the Right ‘demonises’ those who hold socialist views as merely woolly idealists or worshippers of the state, and when the Left ‘demonises’ those who hold liberal economic views as essentially greedy and selfish individualists. Though sometimes there may be some truth in these criticisms, the reality is usually more complex. We must be fair towards the complexity, or else we will misjudge people and their views, not to mention failing to analyse society well. Also, we will miss the opportunity of learning from those who differ from us, and combining the best of both ‘sides’ in the justice and peace debate. Often the differences between Right and Left are not primarily ethical as such, but technical – they disagree over the interpretation of the data and over what to do to improve matters, rather than the ethical requirement to do good and avoid evil. One important sign of openness to the evidence and an attitude of strict impartiality will be our willingness to seek out diverse authoritative sources of information and interpretation of the social facts and figures and to try various techniques and approaches to teaching and learning. If we read only the authors we like and look at only the arguments we already agree with, we will never really test our convictions and sharpen our grasp of the truth.

Cross-curricular possibilities – the value of economic knowledge
It has been said that much of the Catholic Church’s social teaching is weak on the realities of business and economic life: bishops and socially-focused theologians are idealistic and moralistic but not realistic! (6). This criticism could perhaps be levelled at religious and philosophical approaches in general. There may be some truth in such criticism. There is an important distinction, for example, between the more abstract level of religious and ethical principle and the more concrete level of particular application to historical circumstances. This suggests that the teacher should study the area of economics, to some extent at least, to teach this specific part of the course well, and not confine him- or herself to the purely religious and moral areas. This book cannot go into any great detail in this regard, unfortunately. In every school there will be a business teacher or two who will no doubt be more than willing to share knowledge with the humble religion teacher! Indeed, there is great scope (and need) for cross-curricular consultation and team-work in teaching the whole of ‘Issues of Justice and Peace’, and not just in relation to business studies/economics. The religion teacher should view the challenges arising out of trying to teach this topic as an opportunity to widen his or her knowledge. Why not look over the text-book or teacher-book for business studies (or the syllabus for the subject); chat with the teacher(s); and/or get students who have studied the subject to talk to the RE class or make a formal presentation about the specific concepts and processes mentioned in the RE syllabus or arising in social analysis itself?

There can be a tendency in religious circles to look on the free-market and profit as evil and this is something that the RE teacher should think critically about in teaching this part and the section as a whole. Knowledge of economics will help the teacher to gain a realistic understanding of how markets actually work, and their true strengths and weaknesses. Teaching ethical principles that do not make sense will help no-one. So, for example, it is best to avoid teaching that profit is always evil or that competition is always wrong or that the real national economic success of recent years is an illusion (because it is not completely perfect), and so on. Accurate economic knowledge will help the RE teacher and student to avoid falling into naive or simplistic assumptions or assertions, while enabling fair criticisms to be made confidently and persuasively.

Not for experts only – informed citizenship
Having said all that, there is another important point to make, one that may seem to contradict the emphasis on knowing accurately the economic area, and other areas, by consulting the experts. And the point is this: social analysis is not something exclusively for experts. In fact, one of the aims of promoting the importance of social analysis for all students and teachers, even those who have little experience in specialised areas such as economics, is to break out of an attitude that sees society as too complex for ordinary citizens to understand (and so criticise). This is an attitude of passivity that allows others to interpret social realities and policies for us, rather than being more ‘pro-active’ ourselves. We cannot rightly avoid the responsibility of making some personal judgment at some stage, even if only to decide if what particular experts say is reasonable or plausible, so why not work at making our judgement as accurate and informed as possible? We ought not be put off by the difficulty of understanding everything totally before we start – or else we will never start!

It is hoped that the promotion of social analysis as part of this new syllabus will contribute to the idea and reality of all young (and not-so-young) citizens taking responsibility in examining their society, trying to understand how it has come to be the way it is, appreciating the good aspects of how it works, and working out ways it ought to be, and can be, improved. An elitist attitude is to be avoided. Healthy democracy calls for the involvement of informed citizens, not just as an elite or a class of specialists. The mention of democracy brings us to our next heading: political structures.

(b) Political Structures

`Political structures’ refer to the various ways society organises power. Here we draw attention particularly to the institutions which shape society, which create the economic structures just looked at and the social and cultural structures to be examined below. Such institutions include government parties but not only these. Areas to investigate include:

  • Political parties
  • The Government
  • Democracy and its procedures
  • The legal system
  • Other ‘lobby groups’ in society (for example, trade unions, farming organisations)
  • Social partnership

A central issue to analyse is how democratic society really is, or, in other words, how widely-distributed power is in society.

Typical questions
Who has power? Who does not have power? In other words, who makes the decisions? Who influences or decides what will be done? What procedures are set up to facilitate the organisation of the various sub-sections of society and society as a whole? What forms of government are there? What philosophies of governance are there? Which forms or philosophies influence or shape the politics of this country? What are the political parties? What size are they? What distinguishes them from each other? Who joins them? How do they do their work? How is power distributed among them?      





  1. Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, revised and enlarged edition, (Washington, DC: Orbis Books in association with The Center of Concern, 1983). See especially the Afterword’ by Henriot, pp. 95-105, and also the whole of the first chapter.
  2. Both Social Analysis in the Light of the Gospel (1983) and Ireland Today: Reflecting in the Light of the Gospel (1985) were published in Dublin and printed and bound by Folens. Healy and Reynolds published them on behalf of the Justice Office, Conference of Major Religious Superiors, as it was known then. It is now the Justice section of CORI (Conference of Religious of Ireland).
  3. Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, p. 10. Emphasis in original.
  4. My description of the structures under the four headings draws heavily from Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, chapter one and afterword, and Social Analysis in the Light of the Gospel, chapter three.
  5. Syllabus, p. 61.
  6. See for example, the criticisms by Moore McDowell of the US bishops’ 1980s draft pastoral letter on the economy and, less stringently, of the Irish bishops’ 1999 pastoral Prosperity with a Purpose in his contribution to a conference organised by the Irish Centre for Faith and Culture: Eoin G. Cassidy (ed.), Prosperity with a Purpose: What Purpose? (Dublin: Veritas, 2000), pp. 59-77.




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