Church’s social agenda can help forge more equitable society, nun says

Church’s social agenda can help forge more equitable society, nun says

Dominican Sister Helen Alford, vice rector of Rome's Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, gives an interview at the university Sept. 10, 2020. Sister Alford is the newest member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. (Credit: CNS photo/Robert Duncan.)

Sister Helen Alford, the newest appointee to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, has said she believes the Catholic Church has a key role to play in fostering a more equitable economy based more on cooperation than competition.

ROME – Dominican Sister Helen Alford, the vice-rector of Rome’s Angelicum University and the newest appointee to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, says the Catholic Church holds a key to fostering a more equitable economy based on cooperation as well as competition.

“We need to find some way of helping people, helping theorists to be able to link together better cooperation and competition,” Alford told Crux in an interview.

“I think we’re seeing now in a lot of our societies a kind of competition that’s become so extreme that it’s really breaking down the underlying bonds in society,” she said, noting there’s a strong tendency today toward“competitive mechanisms, meritocracy.”

While it would be a good thing if everybody could climb the ladder, Alford said, if only those with resources can realistically get to the top, “a lot of people are completely excluded.”

“We need to find a fairer way of linking rights, equality…cooperation, everybody being treated equally with the possibility for people to express their real talents, to rise up in hierarchies, rise up in society,” she said, adding that she believes the Church’s tradition of social thought can be of use.

“I think that if we can work on this, make it more understandable to economists, sociologists, politicians and businesspeople, it will help us create a new mindset.”

Currently vice-rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, more commonly known as the “Angelicum,” Alford is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena of Newcastle, KwaZulu Natal, and holds a degree in Management Engineering from the University of Cambridge. She’s a member of the Angelicum’s faculty of social sciences, where she teaches economics, ethics and the history of Christian social thought.

Appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences Sept. 4, Alford has also been a long-time consultor for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which now forms part of the Vatican’s mega-department for Integral Human Development.

Alford voiced belief that given its international reach and standing as a sovereign nation, the Vatican, and particularly the Academy for Social Sciences, is in a prime position to pursue a vision of a more equitable system.

Through conferences and seminars, the academy can “convene experts,” she said, adding that if the pope asks a major global player to participate in an event, they typically come.

“The papacy has enormous ‘pulling power,’” she said. “We can bring people together who might not normally listen to each other, and foster the new, generative thinking that could emerge from this.”

Yet she also said this can’t just be a top-down exercise.

“Catholics on the ground can be involved in local citizens’ assemblies and local government deliberation,” she said, arguing that through such mechanisms, “We can engage with proposed changes on the basis of promoting human dignity and the common good.”

“One of the real strengths of the Catholic Church,” she said, “is how we can operate on so many different levels. Few other human communities can manage to engage in such a diverse set of ways.”

Alford stressed the importance of finding ways, at both the political and economic level, to hear and incorporate different points of view.

At the moment, she said, “We tend to have self-referential groups. We’ve got the big executive groups who are on each other’s boards, they decide each other’s pay, but they don’t necessarily have a lot of contact with other people…it’s not listening to the people who are out on the streets or the newly arrived migrants, or people in countries who are using their products but who are much poorer than they are.”

Once people feel excluded, they start “kicking against” the system, she said, voicing her hope that more careful listening will make people feel involved and lead to “quick solutions.”

She also advocated for changes in the legal and business spheres, pondering aloud whether it ought to be legally binding for businesses to include social and environmental goals in their strategic plans.

Alford believes Pope Francis’s coming encyclical on human fraternity, Fratelli Tutti, which will be released in October, will be crucial, “because if you think about brothers and sisters, there is an element of cooperation and there’s an element of competition.”

“If we separate free markets out from governments and say the free markets are where we need to have the mechanisms at, government is where we need to have equality recognized, we have these two sectors of society, but fraternity is saying that we need both.”

Alford pointed to truth and reconciliation commissions as an “undervalued” tool that could be used in bringing about a greater sense of unity and cooperation.

The main aim of these commissions, she said, “isn’t retribution or revenge or even necessarily getting justice, but the main point is the recognition of people’s heart, of the injustice that has been done.”

Noting that her appointment to the academy for social sciences falls at a time when there are increasing calls for the Vatican to be more inclusive of women in positions of leadership, Alford said she believes having women as part of such an “ideas-generating” group is crucial.

She quoted British economist John Maynard Keynes: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is run by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist…It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

With both men and women among its ranks, the academy, Alford said, “is likely to be more innovative and thoughtful, and that’s good for all of us.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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