UST prof: Diversity, dialogue aim of Vatican conference that included Sanders

| April 26, 2016 | 1 Comment

A two-day April symposium at the Vatican drew international attention not for its focus — the 25th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus” — but its guest list, which included U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Also present were two socialist South American presidents, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.”

Given the Church’s historically critical stance on socialism, the prominent socialists’ presence caused a media stir, one witnessed firsthand by Michael Naughton, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Naughton was among the 36 conference attendees at the April 14-15 symposium, “‘Centesimus Annus’: 25 Years Later.”

Michael Naughton

Michael Naughton

Sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California, the conference wasn’t designed to highlight or favor one economic structure over another, but rather to re-create the diverse, cross-cultural sharing that went into creating “Centesimus Annus” ahead of its 1991 release, according to conference materials.

Other presenters included Russell Hittinger, a philosopher from the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Margaret Archer, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences president; Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York; and Daniel Finn, an economics professor at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville. Participants hailed from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, with 14 from the U.S.

Organizers for the April symposium stressed the event would not be “a commemorative event but a serious academic discussion” focusing on questions surrounding economic, political and cultural changes since  “Centesimus Annus,” and how Catholic social teaching has engaged the world since with an eye to the future.

As the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’s democratization played heavily into “Centesimus Annus,” the 2008 financial crisis and “corruption on Wall Street,” as well as globalization and growing inequality between the rich and poor factored in the symposium discussions, Naughton said.

“Centesimus Annus” — Latin for “Hundredth Year” — marked the centennial of “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII’s landmark document known as the first of the modern social encyclicals.

Social encyclicals focus on economic and political questions as well as the fundamental importance of marriage and family, said Naughton, who has worked the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the vocation of the business leader.

“Faith has social implications; faith is not simply a private reality,” Naughton said, adding that the Church has an interest in understanding how to “institutionalize” the common good.

The presence of prominent socialists at the conference — despite the diverse views represented by other symposium participants — was an unfortunate distraction, Naughton said.

“This was an academic conference to foster dialogue, to foster a conversation and debate,” he added. “I think it’s very important to bring in people of practical life. . . . but when you bring in presidents and you bring in a presidential candidate and you bring in a lot of press, it’s hard for that conversation to take place.”

Naughton doesn’t think organizers intended for the symposium to take on political overtures, but that perception was unavoidable with Sanders, whose participation may have “concealed rather than reveal” the symposium’s purpose to a wider audience, he said.

However, Pope Francis “is trying to push us in ways that some of us may get a little uncomfortable with. He’s trying to get us better connected with the poor, better connected with those who are marginalized,” he said. “We should be trying to engage the poor, and people who may not be aligned with our personal political parties or a bit on the edge may have something to tell us, and maybe we should hear from them.”

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