Closing Statement on "Vanishing Youth"

Mary Ann Glendon of Academy of Social Sciences

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 3, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of a concluding statement on the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on the theme "Vanishing Youth? Solidarity with Children and Young People in an Age of Turbulence."



Mary Ann Glendon, the academy's president, presented the statement to journalists on Tuesday.

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The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences was founded in 1994 so that the Church's social doctrine could benefit from the best scholarship in the social sciences. Each year the academy holds a plenary session on a specific theme. This year the plenary session included over 30 presentations from scholars from every part of the world, meeting for more than 30 hours over five days. As usual, the proceedings of the conference will be published after being properly assembled in the customary scholarly fashion.

Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the historic encyclical "Centesimus Annus." The late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, on whose initiative the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences was founded, wrote that the Church's social doctrine must come into contact with the world of the social sciences:

"The Church's social teaching has an important interdisciplinary dimension. In order better to incarnate the one truth about man in different and constantly changing social, economic and political contexts, this teaching enters into dialogue with the various disciplines concerned with man. It assimilates what these disciplines have to contribute, and helps them to open themselves to a broader horizon, aimed at serving the individual person who is acknowledged and loved in the fullness of his or her vocation" ("Centesimus Annus," 59).

The academy, whose membership includes non-Catholics, offers the Church the best social science scholarship. In return the Church's social doctrine offers the social sciences a broader horizon against which to integrate the various disciplines concerned with the human person in his personal, social, economic, political, legal, cultural and religious dimensions.

This year the plenary session also included two novelties: i) regional reports from North America, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, and ii) six invited young people from the different continents to listen to the academy's proceedings and to give us their feedback.

We invited young people because this year our theme is: "Vanishing Youth? Solidarity with Children and Young People in an Age of Turbulence."

The theme is part of a multiyear project of the academy which is examining the broad implications of the demographic changes of the last few decades. Two years ago, the academy's plenary session looked at the aging population, with specific reference to social security and health systems.

This year we looked at those same changes and their impact on children and young people worldwide. This opens a new possibility for Catholic social teaching, which to date has not focused as explicitly on the situation of young people as it has, for example, on labor, or women, or those living in poverty.

The academy's deliberations do not aim to produce an immediate statement of conclusions, but I would like to highlight for you some of the principal themes that emerged in our considerations:

Dark shadows

Many of the world's children live under dark shadows of oppression and exploitation. Many do not live to see the light of day, or are abandoned to die in the first days of life. This is particularly true for girls, as the male-female imbalance is now pronounced in populous parts of the world.

Professor Mina Ramirez of the Asian Social Institute in Manila, Philippines, surveyed the state of family and child law across Asia, noting how policies on child labor, family law and marriage practices often limit the opportunities of young people for social development.

Professor Paulus Zulu of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, detailed how poverty, weak governments, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS push children to the margins, even excluding them altogether from society.

"Demographic winter"

While the world is quite familiar with the one-child policy of China, Professor Gérard-François Dumont, Rector of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, observed that one-child families are now dominating Europe -- without government coercion. This involves a certain "refusal of the future" that will lead to a culture without brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or cousins.

"By nature, love looks to the eternal," wrote Pope Benedict XVI in his message to the academy, taking up this same theme. "Perhaps the lack of such creative and forward-looking love is the reason why many couples today choose not to marry, why so many marriages fail, and why birthrates have significantly diminished."

Vanishing parents?

Ms. Cherie Booth, Q.C., international human rights lawyer and wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, spoke about how "children are forced to grow up so quickly … having to take on the responsibilities of adults or being pressurized to adopt the preoccupations and problems of older people but without the support they deserve from us." Ms. Booth, an invited guest, emphasized that solidarity with young people means spending time with them -- a difficult but necessary obligation of today's busy modern parent.

Prolonged adolescence

Alfonso Cardinal López Trujillo addressed another aspect of youth culture in speaking about "the syndrome of endless adolescence." Marked by an avoidance of responsibilities, a desire to maintain all available options instead of permanent commitments, and a refusal of moral limitations in the sphere of human sexuality, such a syndrome makes it almost impossible for young people to assume the enduring sacrifices on which stable marriages and families are built.

Spiritual emptiness

Professor Kevin Ryan of the University of Massachusetts took up a similar theme, observing that North American young people have too much recreation and not enough education. The dominance of electronic entertainment -- as much as 40 hours/week -- means that the sphere of values and religious education is marginalized. A massive program of catechesis is required to provide young Catholics in particular with the foundation required to live a deep, spiritually fulfilling life.

Professor Mloch of Charles University, Prague, and Professor Vymêtalìk both underscored that in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe a certain spiritual emptiness has taken hold. Disappointments in the transition to a free society have produced a disillusionment that prevents deep ideals from taking hold. Professor José Raga of Madrid also noted this existential emptiness of young people today -- the fruit of liberty without values.

Hope for the future

The nature of social science research is that it identifies problems -- especially enduring problems, which do not admit of easy solutions. Yet the academy members did not lose sight of the fact that young people are inherently hopeful, that they bring not only problems but solutions, and that their generosity and creativity remain always the greatest resource any society possesses. Professor Ombretta Fumagalli Carulli of the Catholic University of Milan noted that the 20th century was a "children's century" in terms of international charters and treaties to protect young people. The experience of the Church during these last decades has also been one of surprising vitality among young people.

No society, no culture, can afford to suffer a "vanishing youth," for with them would also vanish the real hope and noble ideals of every nation.

[Original text in English; adapted]