A common problem across the churches is the perception that “social justice” and “evangelisation” are for different interest groups, and even represent different politics. The focus on evangelisation frequently omits the social teaching and vice versa – the result is either a focus on personal salvation rather than on a vocational call to the common good, or a focus on campaigning or social action estranged from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. At T4CG, we believe that the gap between these complementary facets of God’s mission needs to be bridged.
Here, speaking about the Catholic Church, Sr Helen Alford sheds light on this false dichotomy, clarifying that it is not a case of either/or, but that social doctrine is to be understood as “a part of evangelisation: not just something useful to know – it is a crucial part of the Church’s teaching…actually part of the faith, part of the proclamation the Church should be making.”
Further, she clarifies that the true meaning of “social justice”, as understood within Catholic Social Teaching (CST), is neither left- nor right-wing” and as such is quite different from the distorted version so prevalent within the context of the culture wars. The CST understanding of social justice “is different from the right-left socialism versus communism dynamic… those ways of thinking both come out of the modern Enlightenment system in which each of us is seen as an individual.” Instead, the Church sees human beings as persons, “relational beings who build relationships that are important in themselves: the basis of the common good.”
Thus far however, the Church has not done well at forming her own people. While evangelisation is seen as core to lay formation, Catholic Social Teaching is still not widely known or is seen as optional: “it is not seen or emphasised in catechetical programmes, meaning it is still largely unknown to many Catholics.” Sr Helen believes that the Church’s social doctrine is the key to fulfilling the aims of evangelisation, and applauds Pope Francis for building on the social teachings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. She asserts that all three have made “great contributions to defining this identity, which is still being defined.”
Sr Helen is President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and was interviewed by Elise Ann Allen for Crux Magazine, April 2023. The interview is reproduced here with kind permission.
(1) The Church’s Social Justice is Part of Evangelisation
How do you see the role of the academy today?
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 evangelisation. 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 evangelisation, 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.
(1) Catholic Social Doctrine is Not Left or Right Wing
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?’
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 that economic system.
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 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 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.
Sr Helen Alford 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 in April 2023. An economist, she teaches courses on economic ethics, the history of technology, labour politics, and Catholic social thought. Sr Helen is from London and is a sister of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena.
This article was featured in T4CG’s Pentecost 2023 Newsletter. You can subscribe to our newsletter here
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