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ROME – Sister Helen Alford, the new president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, has said she believes Pope Francis’s insistence on the Church’s social doctrine is not only in full step with previous pontificates, but is also key to evangelization.
Speaking to Crux, Alford said she believes that every pope since the founding of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences by John Paul II in 1994 have “made a really crucial contribution.”
“I would say Pope Francis has made his own contribution,” but at the broader level, he alongside popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have “all made really great contributions to defining this identity, which I think is still in itinerary, it’s on its way, it’s being defined,” she said.
Alford said social justice is “a crucial part of the church’s teaching, it’s not just something that’s useful to know about on the basis of which we can teach the faith, it’s actually part of the faith, it’s part of the proclamation the church should be making.”
Often, it is not seen or emphasized in catechetical programs, meaning it is still largely unknown to many Catholics, however, “I think it’s a crucial part of evangelization,” she said.
Speaking of Pope Francis, she he is “the perfect, from my point of view in what I’m dealing with, follow up to John Paul II and Benedict, he’s able to add something they couldn’t add but in a way that’s so compatible with what they were doing.”
“I don’t think people always see that, but I think it’s really compatible with what they’ve done,” she said.
Alford, 58, is currently Dean of the Faculty for Social Sciences at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also called the Angelicum. She was appointed president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences on April 1.
Please read below for Part One of Crux’s lengthy, sit-down interview with Sister Helen Alford, which has been edited for length:
Crux: How do you see the role of the academy today?
Alford: If we look at the statutes of the academy, it says the aim is promoting the study and progress of the social sciences, and then it says, ‘through an appropriate dialogue,’ and I think these two crucial things offers the Church the elements which she can use in the development of her social doctrine, and then reflects on the application of that doctrine in contemporary society.
We have this sort of inward-looking face, and this outward looking face. Looking into the church, what should we be doing to help the social teaching be more complete, more life-giving, and mostly in that vein we’re listening to Pope Francis and trying to put more flesh on some of the amazing ideas he’s handing out. Then looking outwards, we’re often trying to see how we can interact better with the social sciences so that we can gain from them, and they can gain from us, and then how can the social teaching be more put into practice. Not just at the individual level, but also in terms of theories.
This is a big task. Do you have any specific ideas or initiatives you’d like to put into action?
The first thing I should do is listen, listen first of all to Pope Francis. I haven’t had a chance to meet with him yet, but as soon as I can, listen to what he thinks is important, because that’s really crucial for us, but also to listen to the other academicians, and really to anyone else that wants to say something to me.
Then also, be really discerning…we have to find what are those key points, those key interventions, how can we be catalytic to bring about change processes which will then take on their own momentum, that can be in the wider society or within the church, using those two faces.
Pope Francis has a very clear social agenda. He’s the first pope from Latin America, and he has big social priorities. Do you think that changes the nature of the academy and what it does?
The academy is pretty young compared to the Academy of Sciences, which is hundreds of years old. This was only founded in ‘94 so in a way I think the academy is still defining itself in relation to these huge issues that we have to deal with.
I would say that all the popes, Pope John Paul II who founded it, Benedict XVI and Francis, they all made a really crucial contribution. I would say Pope Francis has made his own contribution, but I think John Paul II really did bring social teaching out certainly to the wider church, and to some extent beyond that… he was a real academic, so people often didn’t really understand. People needed help to understand.
Benedict had some really intriguing ideas, like bringing gratuitousness into the economy. He challenged the economy to think some new thoughts. Then Francis has really brought the global south into the discussion in a very powerful way and focused us on the most marginalized groups, the most excluded groups. That’s where you need to put your energy, is into those groups, following in the steps of our Lord, in the steps of Christ.
They’ve all made really great contributions to defining this identity, which I think is still in itinerary, it’s on its way, it’s being defined, and Pope Francis has given an absolutely crucial contribution to that.
I’m glad you spoke about the contributions of John Paul II and Benedict too, as they aren’t always associated with social justice. How would you describe the development of the church’s social doctrine in recent decades, including through past three pontificates?
One of the things that’s interesting is, you often hear this term, ‘Catholic social teaching is the Church’s best kept secret.’ I tried to find out where that term came from. I might be wrong, but as far as I know it goes back to 1976 with a document that was produced by the Center of Concern of the Jesuits in the United States, and they were using that term.
That’s really interesting because Vatican II was quite an interesting moment for church social teaching. It has this amazing document Gaudium et Spes, but also things like Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate…documents to do with the freedom of belief and the importance of other religions, and things which are also very crucial for social teaching. But, the actual term social teaching went into crisis at the time of Vatican II…it was seen as a sort of bourgeois term and not really connected with the groups that really needed it. So, it gets dropped very quickly afterwards and by ten years later, we’ve got this phrase, ‘it’s the best kept secret of the Catholic Church.’
One of the crucial things that John Paul II did was put Catholic social teaching back on the agenda to give it an identity. He saw social teaching as part of moral theology. The department that I’m in now, social sciences here at the Angelicum, it was founded when Pius XII went to the Angelicum, and he also did the same thing at the Gregorian, he went to these two universities and said, please start teaching seminarians about modern social problems. So, these courses started originally both of them in the faculty of philosophy…And John Paul says, no, it’s part of moral theology.
I think the reason he does that is to say, it’s a crucial part of the church’s teaching, it’s not just something that’s useful to know about on the basis of which we can teach the faith, it’s actually part of the faith, it’s part of the proclamation the Church should be making.
I think we still haven’t really grasped this. If you think about where Catholic social teaching is in terms of catechetical programs for instance, it doesn’t often get much (space), even in seminaries it’s not very big. It’s not seen (but) I think it’s a crucial part of evangelization. It’s also about living a good human life and being in dialogue with non-believers and helping to build a better world, but it’s also about evangelization, it’s about showing what the Gospel is doing in society.
We think about what Solidarity in Poland did, the way it managed to bring down a system that was so unjust. Of course, there were other things too, it wasn’t the only thing, but it was a crucial factor. It was sort of a solidarity on a global level between all these actors trying to improve the situation. So, when you see something like that it changes the world. It’s grace in action, this is the life of the Church in action.
Then Benedict had these intriguing ideas. He’s the most intriguing of all, and maybe also the most abstract, but sometimes the people with the most abstract positions come with great ideas. He had this idea of how gratuitousness needs to come into the economy. The average economist was just scratching his head, he didn’t have a clue what that was about. Now I think, 15-20 years later, with social enterprise, with some of the ways things are going in terms of sustainable development goals, we can see much more what that was saying.
Then Francis is so important for making it, if you like, in practice a core part of the church’s legacy. I remember when Pope Francis was elected, somebody I knew, he wasn’t Catholic at all, said oh, Pope Francis has revolutionized the Catholic Church! I said, I don’t think he’s revolutionized the Catholic Church, I think you are seeing a face of the Catholic Church that you never saw before.
That is absolutely crucial, apart from the fact that he’s made the situation of the poorer parts of the world much, much more present, much more urgent. And his way of speaking to people is so connected…In a way, I think he’s the perfect, from my point of view in what I’m dealing with, follow up to John Paul II and Benedict, he’s able to add something they couldn’t add but in a way that’s so compatible with what they were doing. I don’t think people always see that, but I think it’s really compatible with what they’ve done.
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