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Why did Pope John Paul II found the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in 1994?

By 1994, Pope John Paul II had already made several major contributions to Catholic social doctrine, and was thus acutely aware both of the need to keep abreast of changing social and economic conditions and of the increasing difficulty of doing so. In 1991, he observed in Centesimus Annus that the Church “needs more constant and more extensive contact with the modern social sciences” if she is to make her own contributions effectively. Three years later, he established the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to serve as a kind of think tank whose research could offer the Church “elements which she can use in the study and development of her social doctrine.” Writing about the mission of the Academy, he noted that the Church had developed her social doctrine “[in] close collaboration, on the one hand, with Catholic social movements, and on the other, with experts in the social sciences.” The Academy gives “new expression” to this long-standing dialogue.

How did he follow the work of the Academy? Did he take a personal interest?

The highpoint of the Academy's Annual Plenary Session was always our audience with John Paul II. Over the years, on those occasions, he would comment on the topics we had chosen and the publications we had produced. His suggestions regarding the substance, method, and spirit of our work were and remain very valuable to us. Social scientists, for example, need to be reminded from time to time to pay attention to the practical implications of their work! Pope John Paul II made clear to us that we were not to regard our secluded meeting place in the Casina Pio IV as an ivory tower where scholars commune only with each other. As you might expect from the philosopher-Pope who traveled the world speaking truth to power for twenty-eight years, he frequently reminded us that we were to bring the wisdom of the social sciences to bear on human realities “with a view to finding solutions to people's concrete problems, solutions based on social justice.” He always exhorted us to stretch our capacities, to be bold and creative in deploying the resources of our disciplines.

What did John Paul teach you about the response of religious persons to scientific research in the social sciences, including politics, economics and culture?

Perhaps the most important lesson he taught us by word and personal example, was to “Be not afraid” in the quest for knowledge. That was his message to the original members of the Academy when he welcomed them in January 1994. He urged us on that occasion to search for “all the grains of truth present in the various intellectual and empirical approaches” of the disciplines represented in our midst. As a model, he held up St. Thomas Aquinas whose unrestricted desire to know led him to seek dialogue with the most advanced natural and human science of his time, and to fearlessly engage the ideas of the great minds of pagan antiquity.

For us, of course, the contemporary model par excellence was John Paul II himself, in his critical engagement with other modern and post-modern thinkers. His method was always to try to seek out and affirm what is true and conducive to human flourishing while discerning and naming those elements that are false and harmful.

John Paul II's example also taught us confidence that the relationship between Catholic social thought and the social sciences could be a two-way street, that the social teachings could not only assimilate what these various disciplines have to contribute, but could also help them to open themselves to a broader horizon. In countless ways, the Academy's work has been influenced by his exhortations to us to help to insure that social science and social policies do not ignore the spiritual nature of human beings—their deepest longings that transcend the merely biological and material aspects of life.

Why would non-Catholic scholars of international renown accept (non-remunerated!) membership in the Academy, especially when they are already too much in demand?

Many people are surprised to learn that among the thirty-three members of our academy are several non-Catholics. That group includes two American economists, Nobel-prize-winners Kenneth Arrow and Joseph Stiglitz, who share many of the concerns that animate the social doctrine of the Church. I believe many distinguished scholars were also drawn to the Academy by their admiration for John Paul II, by their sympathy with the advocacy of Holy See in international settings, and by their appreciation of the worldwide humanitarian activities of the Catholic Church.

The work of the Acton Institute lies at the intersection of faith (religion) and social sciences (economic and political liberty)—are there particular subjects the Academy is working on that would be of interest to R&L readers?

Nun with baby

All of them! In its first ten years, the Academy concentrated mainly on three areas where it seemed to us that new developments posed acute challenges for the human family, for policy makers, for the social sciences, and for Catholic social thought: the changing world of work, the risks and opportunities presented by globalization, and the dilemmas of democracy.

Last year, we held our first Plenary Session on a new topic to which we gave the name “intergenerational solidarity.”

Our aim in taking up this subject was to move well beyond standard debates over the “welfare crisis,” and to focus on the deeper, underlying crisis of meanings and values. Changes in family behavior are fueling, and being fueled by, changes in ideas about dependency, the human person, and family life that have far-reaching implications for the human prospect—for the world's experiments in self-government, for the health of economies, for human rights, and for the future of our social and natural environments.

By lifting up the concept of “solidarity” we sought to challenge solutions based on conflict models that are grounded in flawed concepts of personhood and society. With our reference to “ecology” we signaled that we would be searching for ways to shift probabilities in favor of keeping the human person at the center of concern. With the help of some remarkable guest experts such as Francis Fukuyama and Jacques Vallin (head of the French National Demographic Institute), we emerged with a set of findings that we hope will be helpful to policy makers around the world as they grapple with the problems posed by declining birthrates and greater longevity.

Continental European religious thinking has often been suspicious of economic liberty. Has that been discussed in the work of the Academy?

Our diversity of membership, one of the greatest strengths of the Academy, also poses one of our greatest challenges. Our thirty-three members from five continents mirror the Church's fascinating universality, and the vast breadth of her concerns. Each is a specialist in at least one of the human sciences, and many have held high public office in their own countries. As one may imagine, it has not been easy for this diverse group of men and women to learn to communicate across disciplinary, cultural, and linguistic boundaries! But in ten years we have made great progress, educating and being educated by each other.

Where economic liberty is concerned, I believe we have all benefited from hearing a wide range of perspectives. One principle upon which I believe we all agree is that stated in Pope John Paul II's address to our first Plenary Session: “The economy, systems of production and exchange, the State, and rights, are always at the service of the concrete individual and not the other way round.” I wish I could say we have found the key to the central puzzle he posed—how to provide a “moral and juridical framework” to discipline, without stifling, the creative energies of the market. But to use an expression of Abraham Lincoln's, that is a hard nut to crack.

Many social scientists—at least in North America— are often hostile to religion, considering it something to “overcome” in the building of a more equitable, just society. Has the Academy's work changed any minds in this regard?

It is always difficult to determine the effects of scholarly work, especially since a change of mind often takes place over a long period of time. But it is encouraging to note that our work has been respectfully received in secular circles. The Academy's Report on Intergenerational Solidarity, for example, was presented to the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics and may have been one of the factors that influenced the Council to expand its agenda to include consideration of the ethical dilemmas facing an aging society.

What can be said with certainty about the influence of the Academy is that it helps to train the spotlight on the human dimensions of social issues—dimensions that are too often ignored by value-free, or purely secular social scientists. Our work has been aided in this respect by features that set us apart from other learned academies: our international character, and the fact that each of our topics is discussed from a variety of perspectives—economics, law, demography, political science, sociology, education, and of course its relation to Catholic social doctrine.

How did John Paul II, who chose you to head the Holy See delegation to the 1995 Beijing Conference, influence your own work as a social scientist?

As a special in comparative law, I have concentrated most of my research on how the legal systems of various North Atlantic countries handle a broad range of problems in the fields of labor law, property, family law, and constitutional law. My methods were heavily influenced by the legal-sociological work of my teacher Max Rheinstein who was a student of Max Weber. The experience of representing the Holy See at the Beijing Conference prompted me to broaden my horizons to include developing nations, and to intensify my work in the field of human rights.

In the 1980s, when I began to read the writings of John Paul II, I had the sense of someone giving expression and structure to ideas I had only vaguely formulated. I realized with some amazement how many of the topics I thought I had randomly chosen for comparative analysis were central to Catholic social thought. The Pope's mode of thinking about these topics was so congenial to me that I wanted to be actively engaged in working along the lines he was opening. What had the most galvanizing effect on me, though, were his writings on the role of the laity. He reminded all of us laypeople that in baptism we received a vocation not only to holiness but to evangelization. Then he told us that we, the laity, were to be in the forefront of the New Evangelization—and that we should carry out that mission in the secular sphere, using all our gifts and talents wherever we find ourselves. No excuses. That was a real wake-up call.

Further Reading: Publications of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

The study of the tension between human equality and social inequalities from the perspective of the various social sciences. First Plenary Session, 24—26 November 1994, Vatican City, 1996, pp. 229

The future of labor and labor in the future. Second Plenary Session, 20—23 March 1996, Vatican City, 1998, pp. 422

The right to work: towards full employment. Third Plenary Session, 23—26 April 1997, Vatican City, 1998, pp. 370

Democracy. Some acute questions. Fourth Plenary Session, 22—25 April 1998, Vatican City, 1999, pp. 452

Towards reducing unemployment. Fifth Plenary Session, 3—6 March 1999, Vatican City, 1999, pp. 345

Democracy—reality and responsibility. Sixth Plenary Session, 23—26 February 2000, Vatican City, 2001, pp. 423

Globalization: ethical and institutional concerns. Seventh Plenary Session, 25—28 April 2001, Vatican City, 2001, pp. 408

Intergenerational Solidarity. Eighth Plenary Session, 8—13 April 2002, Vatican City, 2002, pp. 251

The Governance of Globalization. Ninth Plenary Session, 2—6 May 2003, Vatican City, 2004, pp. 408

Intergenerational Solidarity, Welfare and Human Ecology. Tenth Plenary Session, 29 April—3 May 2004, Vatican City, 2004, pp. 440

Social Dimensions of Globalization. Workshop, 21—22 February 2000, Vatican City, 2000, pp. 95

Globalization and Inequalities. Proceedings of the Colloquium, 8-9 April 2002, Vatican City, 2002, pp. 194

The Meaning of the Priority of Labor. Forum, 5 May 2003, Vatican City, 2004, pp. 112

Democracy in Debate: Reports, Final Proceedings and Final Document, Vatican City, 2005, pp. 320

Holding Hands

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.  She currently serves as a Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and as a member of the Board of Supervisors of the Institute of Religious Works (Vatican Bank). She writes and teaches in the fields of human rights, comparative law, constitutional law, and political theory. Glendon is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (serving as President from 2003-2013), and the International Academy of Comparative Law.  She is also a past president of the UNESCO-sponsored International Association of Legal Science. She served two terms as a member of the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics (2001-2004), and has represented the Holy See at various conferences including the 1995 U.N. Women's conference in Beijing where she headed the Vatican delegation. Glendon has contributed to legal and social thought in several widely translated works, bringing a comparative approach to a variety of subjects. They include The Forum and the Tower (2011), a series of biographical essays exploring the relation between political philosophy and politics-in-action; Traditions in Turmoil (2006), a collection of essays on law, culture and human rights; A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001), which the New York Times reviewer said should be the definitive study of the framing of the UDHR; A Nation Under Lawyers (1996), a portrait of turbulence in the legal profession, analyzing the implications of changes in legal culture for a democratic polity that entrusts crucial roles to legally trained men and women; Rights Talk (1991), a critique of the impoverishment of political discourse; The Transformation of Family Law (1989), winner of the legal academy’s highest honor, the Order of the Coif Triennial Book Award; Abortion and Divorce in Western Law (1987), winner of the Scribes Book Award for best writing on a legal subject; The New Family and the New Property (1981), and textbooks on comparative legal traditions.