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ROME – According to the new president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, despite contemporary society’s tendency toward polemics, the Church’s social justice doctrine is not a left vs right issue but is about properly caring for the human person.
Speaking to Crux, British Sister Helen Alford said, “the Church’s social teaching is different from this sort of right-left socialism versus communism, because all of those ways of thinking come out of this modern Enlightenment system I’m talking about, in which each of us is seen as an individual.”
“The Church’s social teaching is much more about us as relational beings, as beings who are able to build relationships that are important in themselves, and that’s the basis of the common good, that’s the basis of participation,” she said.
For Alford, social justice is “not an either or, an either rightwing or leftwing, it’s almost as if there’s another dimension.”
Alford, 58, is Dean of the Faculty for Social Sciences at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also called the Angelicum, and was appointed president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences by Pope Francis on April 1.
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Please read below for Part Two of Crux’s interview with Sister Helen Alford:
Crux: Social justice issues have really come to the fore in recent decades. Would you say, from your perspective, that social justice is one of the most urgent areas in need of a response that the world is confronted with today? Is it perhaps the ‘topic of the times?’
Alford: Pope Francis says we’re not in an epoch of change, we’re in a change of epoch, and I think that is especially true in the western world. We came out of a situation in which the basic philosophical presuppositions are set in mid-1700s, and they were set in the face of a set of problems that especially Europeans, but very soon also the United States, were confronting. Things like the end of the Thirty Years’ War, and things like this, so they wanted religion to be a private thing… they thought that would help to create a more peaceful society. They wanted to put human freedom in the center, because they thought this would create less tension in society. So, they set up their system, so we’ve had this system for about 250 years now.
I think it’s no surprise that it’s not really able to help us with the problems we have now, partly because these problems, to some extent, are created by that system, especially when you look at economics, economics is just about creating as many economic resources as possible, so the only really important factor is economic growth, you will do whatever is necessary to create it, and that’s why we have all this terrible degradation of the environment, not to mention all the social justice issues created by many economic systems.
We don’t want to demonize it, it still has a lot of strengths, that system, (but) we need a much more relational view of the human person. We need to think much more about social goals…We’ve got all kinds of ways in which now, in practice, we accept social goals, but the theories don’t accept that yet.
I think the Church has a lot to offer in a situation like that. I think it is the moment of Catholic social teaching now because of the situation the world is facing. This voice is needed.
Would you say that the solutions Pope Francis spelled out in Fratelli Tutti, for example, he offered a clear vision, would you say that can be a solution to the challenges society is facing?
I think he’s laid out some basic groundwork, but solution is maybe too strong a word, because we have to actually put flesh on it, we have to build it forward, we have to connect it to all those different sciences that can help us to come up with concrete solutions based on this.
You said earlier that the Church’s social doctrine wasn’t something well understood in its early phase, and it’s still not understood now. I think for example of those who accused Pope Francis of being a communist, and he responded that his view was not communism, but the Church’s social doctrine. Do you think there are still big misconceptions about Catholic social teaching? Is there a problem, and if so, how can it be confronted?
I think that the Church’s social teaching is different from this sort of right-left socialism versus communism, because all of those ways of thinking come out of this modern Enlightenment system I’m talking about, in which each of us is seen as an individual. These are systems that are based on individuals making their own individual choices, having their own individual freedom.
The Church’s social teaching is much more about us as relational beings, as beings who are able to build relationships that are important in themselves, and that’s the basis of the common good, that’s the basis of participation. So, it’s not an either or, an either rightwing or leftwing, it’s almost as if there’s another dimension.
I think it’s a kind of false dichotomy, the Church is not on the communist side or on the free market side, it’s on the side of a more realistic view of the human person in which freedom is important, and that’s where some, historically, if you look at Church teaching has developed, it’s tended to be more tolerant of the free market than the communist, because that doesn’t give any place to freedom. But it’s still got quite a lot of questions about the liberal system, because it’s just too narrow. It’s not realistic enough about what it means to be human, and it doesn’t give enough importance to our relational dimension.
I think that’s where the problem is, and people can be very defensive about what they think is under attack. A lot of people feel that freedom is under attack, that free markets are under attack, and that can generate this negativity or this defensiveness, but I think if they could see more clearly that it’s not about a rightwing-leftwing fight, this problem. I think it’s about building a relationship, learning from each other a bit more.
We just celebrated the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election, so after a decade of having the social agenda be very visible, do you think it’s sinking in, not only for Catholics, but also political leaders and the world at large?
We talked about social and environmental problems. We can see the deepening of these. We are not able really to move toward these green technologies that are there, they exist, but we’re not able to mobilize them quickly enough and invest in them, and that’s where the business system is important. I really do not want to give a negative view about the economy, it’s really, really important, but it needs to be integrated into a bigger picture of what it means to be human.
In that sort of area, in the areas dealing with family life, we see a deepening crisis occurring, so I think people are open, they are opening, but they are not yet able to fully see what to do because, as we said before, Fratelli Tutti is a kind of blueprint, but it needs to be more connected with the social sciences, with the policy making, so people can see, what can we do on the basis of this teaching to make things better?
I think the thinking and the teaching of Pope Francis is attractive to people, but they don’t yet really know what to do with it, it’s not connected enough… We have to think about how can we, even if we want to do this, how can we reel in this big system? This is where, at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, we can make some of these catalytic interventions. We might help to speed up the process, make some key links that can then grow on their own without us.
How do you see the academy’s role in helping with this process?
I think this issue of getting relationality into our theories, into our policy making, that’s something that we can really work on. We’ve got some really good sociologists now in the academy who are interested in this relational thinking, so we’ve got a basis there and if we could have some key meetings or interventions or encounters; it might not just be our own work, it might be with the UN, or it might be with other players to start to make this relationality more present in the thinking and then also in the practice.
Pope Francis is really interested in are the social movements. We have some people in the academy who are big experts in the social movements and have a lot of contact with them, so this is another area.
I’m sure your priorities will be shaped by your meeting with Pope Francis, whenever that happens, but do you have any personal priorities that you’d like to move forward on?
I’m really interested in this thing about getting relationality into the social theory, because I really am convinced that ideas can really change the world. If we could change these assumptions, from which these theories start, that would have huge knock on effects, probably all of which we wouldn’t see in our lifetime, it would be over the next generation. I think this is a very important topic.
Another thing I’d like to see, but I’m not sure the pontifical academy is the right place to do it, but I’d like to see more data literacy in the Church, partly because I think it’s just where the world is going, and just like we use the resources of philosophy to help explain, now we need to use the resources of data to help tell our story, help us live a more complete life.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen