A Crisis, All in the Family; Old World vs. New

Pontifical Academy Focuses on Welfare Woes

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ROME, MAY 6, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Along with the first tulips and lilacs, Rome has seen the arrival of some other perennial favorites this week. The Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences hosted some of the foremost minds in the world at its yearly meeting at the newly restored Casina Pio IV in Vatican City, from April 30 to May 3.



This year's meeting addressed the topic of "intergenerational solidarity." For some this title might mean older folks learning to tolerate pop music and teen jargon, but the academy chose to focus on one of the most serious social problems looming in the not-too-distant future -- the welfare crisis.

Hans Tietmeyer, president of the German Bundesbank, laid out the problem succinctly in the report he presented to his fellow academicians. Increasing life spans and declining birthrates are creating a broadening gap in the ratio between working age people and retirement age people, and thus threaten "the erosion of the economic foundations underlying the welfare state," he said.

The academy also invited outside experts to shed light on the problem, and their papers revealed deeper and even more troubling levels to the crisis.

One example of this phenomenon emerged in several of the papers. Behind the welfare crisis, the scholars noted, lies a deeper crisis of the family. Profound changes in family and marriage behavior that took rise in the mid-1960s have led to the redefinition of roles in care-giving and therefore to a loss of the natural and traditional practice of the family caring for its weakest members -- the oldest and the youngest.

Oddly enough, policy-makers rarely confront this aspect when discussing the crisis in welfare.

Invited speaker Father Richard John Neuhaus was unable to attend the conference but contributed a paper in which he underlined an openly "anti-familial" attitude in many societies.

In Academy President Mary Ann Glendon's concluding remarks, she noted another ominous trend that is gaining ground as cracks appear in the foundation of welfare states: "a growing toleration in many societies of the abandonment or even extermination of persons who become inconvenient and burdensome to maintain at life's frail beginnings and endings."

As discussions continued, a third level to the crisis gradually emerged.

Beneath crises of welfare and the family lies an even deeper spiritual crisis. Glendon reminded the academy that in his postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Europa," John Paul II identified the Old Continent as suffering from a loss of hope stemming from "an attempt to promote a vision of man apart from God and apart from Christ."

This forgetfulness of God "led to the abandonment of man," writes the Pope, which opens the door to nihilism and a self-serving outlook toward life.

Francis Fukuyama, author of such best-selling books as "The End of History" and "The Great Disruption," offered a ray of hope by proposing that this moral decline would not end in disaster, since moral sense is an inherent part of human nature. He suggested rather that such decline forms part of a cyclical process, and that many times throughout history societies have undergone great disruption but were able to "re-norm themselves."

Father Neuhaus, in turn, challenged policy-makers to "learn from the ways in which people, given the opportunity, actually order their lives together as they think they ought to order their lives together."

The Holy Father, in his address to the academy, called for cooperation between the "respective competencies of the state and the family" underscoring the latter's "irreplaceable role in the building of intergenerational solidarity." John Paul II founded the academy in 1994 to advise the Holy See regarding changing social situations.

Addressing the Holy Father on behalf of the academy, Glendon recalled that the Pope has continually exhorted them to be "bold like St. Thomas Aquinas, who fearlessly engaged in dialogue with the best natural and human science of his time." The academy comprises an interdisciplinary, religiously pluralistic group of scholars.

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Continental Divide

Another interdisciplinary group of experts came together at this week's conference on "Catholic Thought and World Politics in the 21st Century," hosted by the Gregorian University.

The Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, together with the Gregorian, held a two-day session to study questions of the Church's moral role in the global political scene. The first day's closed-door session was limited to scholars only, while the second day opened its doors to all those interested.

The opening speaker, Antonio Baggio, professor of social ethics at the Gregorian, expounded the commonly held European view that the "unilateral attitude" displayed by the United States in Iraq had been damaging to the work of the United Nations, the preferred global instrument of peace.

George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of "Witness to Hope," the biography of John Paul II, summarized developments in Catholic thought on international conflict resolution from its origins in Aquinas and Augustine, to John XXIII's "Pacem in Terris" and developments in the later 20th century, to emerging new realities of the 21st century.

In response to Baggio, Weigel indicated a number of failures, flaws and discrepancies in U.N. policies, and its distance from Catholic concerns, both in its own use of force and especially in its position on demographic and population questions.

It seemed from the outset that lines of continental division were being drawn.

Even visually, a certain contrast was evident. In their smart suits and shined shoes, the three Americans differentiated themselves from the more muted academic look of their elder European brethren.

As a younger nation, the United States seemed eager to deal with a constantly changing world, and able to assimilate new realities and intellectual challenges with the direct, head-on spirit that characterizes the young.

The three Italian scholars, from the oldest pontifical universities in the world, brought a wisdom and moderation from experience to the proceedings, stemming from a long history based here in Rome as well as the memory of war on their own soil.

But this meeting revealed itself as an overture to a dialogue between experience and energy, rooted wisdom and intelligent adaptability, the Old World and the New.

Afternoon speakers evidenced a considerable versatility in blending historical formulations of just-war theory with the need for creative solutions to new situations.

Professor James Turner Johnson of Rutgers University held up the just-war criteria as laid out by St. Thomas Aquinas as a modern model to follow. Professor Paolo Carozza of Notre Dame University analyzed the concept of a universal common good and its applications in a world where nation-states still form the basic political unit.

If one reads between the lines in magisterial texts, a similar contrast can be spotted.

In his postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Europa," John Paul II focused on a crisis of hope in Europe, leading to a "practical apostasy," whereas in "Ecclesia in America," he warns of the danger of the new continent discarding its Christian history and allowing for "a disturbing spread of relativism and subjectivism." At the same time, he adds, the Church in America, "so full of resources and hopes for the future," has an obligation toward global evangelization.

To curb what may be perceived as the active and often impetuous character of the Church in America, the Holy Father stressed the importance of prayer so as "little by little to acquire a contemplative view of reality."

The guests from the New World drove home one of the greatest messages of "Ecclesia in America": "The renewal of the Church in America will not be possible without the active presence of the laity. Therefore, they are largely responsible for the future of the Church."

Weigel reminded those present to uphold the "distinctive way of thinking of Catholics," and stressed the growing importance of the papacy as a "global moral witness."

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History's Papal Pivot

The impact on the papacy on history continued to mark discussions in Rome this week. On Monday, Father Michael Collins of Duquesne University presented his new book, "The Fisherman's Net: The Influence of the Papacy on History," at the Church of St. Sebastian on the Palatine Hill.

From St. Peter to John Paul II, the book surveys the role of the papacy in historical events such as the fall of the pagan world, the patronage of culture and learning in the Middle Ages, the Christianization of the New World, and the events of the 20th century.

The Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Bernard Davenport, introduced the book, saying that it "should be within hand's reach of every embassy to the Holy See."

I spoke to Father Collins after the presentation, wondering what made him want to write another book on the papacy.

"I was inspired to write the book having read Thomas Cahill's book 'How the Irish Saved Civilization,'" he answered. "In it, he noted that the Irish monks in the sixth century did not just bring Christianity to parts of Europe but also restored the art of writing and education. I was aware that most people see the popes just as religious leaders, whereas in reality they have made incredible contributions to the world of politics, medicine, music, art and science. Most of us overlook that."

The information in the book was put together not only from years of study and teaching, but also from "having had privileged access to some of the fascinating places in the Vatican over the past number of years."

Of all the 264 Popes, which one did you most enjoy writing about?

"Blessed John XXIII" he promptly answered, "not just because I was born in 1960, but also because he had a great sense of humor. When asked by a visitor how many people worked at the Vatican, he paused for a moment before answering, "Oh, about half of them!"

Reflecting on a particular insight this project had given him, Father Collins said that what he had learned about the papacy was that "that without it, the history of the world would be vastly different. For all its faults and failings, we Catholics believe it is the instrument of Christ for continuing his teaching in an ever-changing world."

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome Campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.