Ekskluzivno izlaganje s. Helen Alford na Međunarodnom simpoziju o socijalnom nauku Crkve u Splitu (ENG)

Ekskluzivno izlaganje s. Helen Alford, OP, predsjednice Papinske akademije društvenih znanosti i dekanice Papinskog sveučilišta svetog Tome Akvinskog – Angelicum na Međunarodnom simpoziju o socijalnom nauku Crkve u Splitu

Facing Today's Crisis: Drawing on Catholic Social Thought and Christian Democracy

 I’d like to begin with a phrase from Benedict XVI’s talk at Westminster Hall in 2010: “Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation”. He had just spoken about the need for solid ethical principles to undergird the work of government, principles discoverable through natural means (scientific, historical, and through participatory dialogue) and of how faith could “purify” and “shed light” on these principles, while reason could “purify” and “structure” faith, such that the “world of reason and the world of faith . . . need one another”. Here, I want to use that phrase, and the context in which it was said, to set the tone for this discussion, that is, that religion, and specifically Christianity, can make a “vital contribution” to the “national conversation” around our crisis.

Which raises the question as to what is the crisis? It seems to range from very concrete practical issues, like the cost of living crisis or the Ukrainian crisis, to fundamental philosophical or intellectual issues such as the identity crisis, to the existential threat of the ecological crisis.

We seem to see the word crisis around us all the time.

We could say that we are in “a great crisis of values, perceived by some as a global crisis of Western civilization and connected to a growing de-Christianization.”

Except that that phrase, as written, refers to the 1920s and 30s, to the period 100 years ago where the crisis of values had already led to the rise of Soviet Communism and Italian fascism and was preparing the way to German Nazism, all against the backdrop of the Great Crash on Wall Street and the sense that democracy and modern liberal thought as a whole would not survive.

“Catholics in particular conceived this crisis as a change of epoch in which a civilization that for two thousand years had been based on Christianity, fed by its sap, and inspired, more or less explicitly, by its ethics and dogmas, had decided to expressly cease being Christian and to follow other paths—other paths which seemed to lead to a precipice” (Burgos, p.3)

So it may be interesting to look at how CST and Christian democracy were reacting to this period of crisis to help us in facing our crisis. Official CST at that time was mostly focused on the idea of corporatism, a medieval social form that had been abolished by the French Revolution because it was seen as against individual freedom, but which had continuously circulated among Catholic thinkers and leaders since then as a possible alternative to modern liberal politics and economics. In 1884 at Fribourg, a group of leading Catholic thinkers had defined corporatism in this way: “a system of social organisation that has at its base the grouping of people according to the community of their natural interests and their social functions, and, as true and just organs of the State, direct and coordinate work and capital in matters of common interest”. In the 1899 “Social Programme of Christian Democracy” written by Giuseppe Toniolo, now blessed, the first of its 12 points calls for “the gradual organization of society in professional corporative associations”.

So by the time we get to the early 1930s, and in the face of the crisis we are talking about, it is no surprise that Pius XI makes corporatism a core feature of his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno. It seemed like a realistic way forward in the face of the crisis in Western liberalism brought about by the 1929 crash and in order to prevent Communism spreading across the whole of Europe. As we know, however, the practical applications of corporatism, at least at that time, were not very successful, though we should say that this was at least in part because almost all these attempts were in countries with historically weak political institutions and, at that time, totalitarian governments (Italy and Portugal being the two classic examples). Indeed, Pius XI includes a thinly veiled criticism of Fascist corporatism in the same encyclical. Nevertheless, in the end, corporatism in CST gets inevitably tarred by its association with Fascism, even if the Pope tries to separate a CST-inspired corporatism from a Fascist controlled one. Interestingly, corporatism is not in the index of Fogarty’s magisterial book “Christian

Democracy in Western Europe 1820-1953”, which shows, I think how discredited it had become in the 1950s, since I find it hard to imagine that Fogarty did not know about the importance of corporatist thinking in Christian Democratic circles for the first 100 years of the period he covers. In contrast to this attitude, which I think was common among Catholics at the time (i.e. that corporatism was discredited – and who talks about it now in the Church?), it is worth noting that, subsequently, corporatism has been taken quite seriously by a number of social analysts, especially in the Nordic countries, and is still discussed among some scholars; as recently as 2019, for instance, a book came out published by Routledge on “Corporatism in Africa: Comparative Analysis and Practice”, which argued that it was quite strange that no study had yet been done on this phenomenon in Africa. Many of the same kind of thinker have argued that, in various forms of what is usually called “neocorporatism”, corporatism is still with us. Nevertheless, corporatism does not represent such a helpful source for us in the face of our current situation as the second type of reaction to the crisis of the 1920s and 30s on the part of the Catholics.

For at the same time, there was another group of Catholic thinkers, almost all of them lay people at the beginning, and almost all very devout Catholics, who were very influential over the subsequent development of CD and who developed another response to the crisis: the idea, movement, approach

– there are various words for it – called “personalism”. They focused on the question of “who is man?” or “who is the human being?”, rather than on the structures of social order, as in corporatism, and reacted against the individualism of modern liberal thought and the collectivism (still based fundamentally on individualism) of totalitarian systems like Communism and Fascism.

Unlike corporatism, personalism is given a high place in Michael Fogarty’s book, being included in the title of the first main chapter of the part of the book on the thought inspiring Christian Democracy.

This chapter has the title “Personalist, Not Individualist”, and it is about the current relevance to our crisis of the idea of personalism that I would like to devote most of the rest of this talk.

I’d like to say three main things about personalism in the past, as it developed in the 20th century, before focusing in on the part of personalism that I think can help us in facing our crisis today.

Firstly, perhaps because this was largely a lay-led movement, without much guidance or direction (or interference?) from the hierarchy, we find that, especially in its early phase, there are many forms of personalism. Some are nearer to existentialism (Marcel), some nearer to phenomenology (Wojtyla) and some nearer to Thomism (Maritain). The most well-known thinker in the movement, Emmanuel Mounier, was somewhere between existentialism and Thomism, since he owed much to Maritain, but until very near the end of his life, he resisted the idea of developing a personalistic philosophy as such – he wanted it to be a “perspective”, as for instance, we see in his 1947 book, “What is Personalism?”:

“it is not a system, nor a political machine. . . It is a perspective on human problems . . . The best thing would be that, having reawakened in sufficient people the complete meaning of the human person, it

would disappear without trace, so as to merge with the allure of our days”.

This resistance on the part of Mounier towards any kind of systematization was compounded (and this is our second point) by what was going on within Thomism. In the Thomistic synthesis, Catholicism had a very strong philosophical starting point within which to develop a personalist approach. Indeed, I think it is the Thomistic version of personalism that is the most useful for us today. But in the 1920s Thomism was seen as the “official” theological and philosophical system of the Church, and, thanks in part to the modernist crisis that had been raging less than 20 years before, even though it had been focused on biblical scholarship and not on social questions, many Thomists saw their job to be that of defenders of the Thomistic system against modern thinking. Nowadays, we would see the kind of Thomism they were defending as “neo-Thomist”, a kind of Thomism that had been influenced by the struggles with the Enlightenment and, in the process, had indeed adopted some Enlightenment ways of thinking that were alien to St Thomas and which the “ressourcement” in Thomistic thinking in the last

70-80 years has helped us unravel. In this difficult context, Maritain was continuously attacked by other Thomists for his work in developing a Thomistic personalism. This all means that the impact personalism could have had more widely was limited because of the infighting over its development between Thomist experts.

All this leads, then, to our third point (more applicable to the UK context, perhaps, than the Croatian one): if personalism was so important and good, why has almost no-one ever heard of it? One of the key reasons must be the premature death in 1950, at the tender age of only 45, of Mounier, its leading exponent, just at the moment when he was beginning to think of personalism more as a philosophy in its own right. For this, and probably for other reasons, as Paul Ricoeur has argued in two important texts, personalism did not develop into a fully-fledged philosophical approach, so it could not compete with the two main alternatives on offer at the time: Marxism and existentialism. As Burgos says: “Ricoeur’s thesis is that in the confrontation with those two formidable philosophies, personalism easily succumbed because it did not deploy conceptual instruments for maintaining a substantial fight. In the intellectual confrontation between a movement or inspiration and two philosophies, the result was foreseeable.” p. 188

Overall, then, personalism did not succeed in affirming itself, except within the movement of Christian Democracy, where it was really quite important, as Fogarty’s book shows very well. This may well be one of the key reasons why CD has so often been misunderstood by political scientists and others (see the writings of van Kersbergen on this point). Furthermore, Christian democrats, unlike Marxist politicians, did not have access to economic, political and social theories that started from a personalistic understanding of the human being, meaning that its basic philosophical orientation had difficulty in playing itself out on the practical policy level. This, among other factors, may well have contributed to its decline in the face of the neoliberal onslaught from the 1980s onwards.

So why turn to personalism now? Primarily because the problems we are facing today, that are at the root of our crisis, are largely social and systemic, but our basic mindset, provided by the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, starts from an individualistic view of the human person and makes it hard for us to imagine how we could deal with problems that we share (social problems) or that require coordinated (systemic) action in a way that does not do violence to human freedom. Personalism has the potential to help us with that.

So what is personalism, at least in its Thomistic form? I’m going to draw on the 1947 book of Jacques Maritain, “The Person and the Common Good,” to give an outline:

The idea “person” is developed in early Christian theology to explain how God could be both

one and three at the same time: one substance, three persons. In God, then, the three persons are “pure relation”, since God is one, as we know from the Old Testament. We also know from Genesis that human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God, so it should be possible to apply this idea of the person, by analogy, to the human being too, but no-one had actually tried to do that in any systematic way until the personalists started trying to do it in the last century.

Maritain starts by saying that the human being consists of two “poles” – a material, or “individual”, pole and a spiritual, or “personal”, pole – and that we live in the tension between these two poles, even if the two poles constitute one substance, or one being. In fact, we are used to recognizing two dimensions to the human being – body and soul, matter and spirit, and so on – so thus far, there is nothing especially new. There are also other theories that have this kind of dual nature, like the wave- particle theory of light. Maritain uses the example of a work of art that, on one level, is a set of chemicals, layered on top of each other, but when we look at the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa, we see something that raises our spirit. In a sense, then, the work of art also has two dimensions to it. And just as the work of art is entirely a structured order of chemical layers, as well as a profound image with deep meaning, so the human being is both “entirely an individual and entirely a person” at the same time.

It is our material dimension, our bodies, that individuate us (fix us in space and time). Insofar as we are individuals, we are needy – we have survival needs (food, clothing, shelter, healthcare) and to satisfy them, we can sometimes be in competition with others. We can see how an individualistic mindset could work when we think about this aspect of our being, and why economic theories based on individual preferences and competition between us can work up to a point – they are partially right, because in a real sense, we are individuals. Since we are individuated by our bodies, we are all individuals of a particular species, which we can name – homo sapiens sapiens – and so the same rule applies to us that applies to all members of animal species – the good of the group (in our case, the common good), takes precedence over the good of the individual. And we know this in practice. As employees, we can get paid if the business we work for can produce the income it needs – our good, as employees, depends on the good of the group to which we belong, that is, on the good of the business.

The innovative part of personalist philosophy regards the way it thinks about the spiritual or non-material dimension of the human being, that dimension called the “person”. The crucial innovation here is that Maritain argues that our soul or spiritual dimension is “intrinsically” relational, because it is personal, like the persons of the Trinity. Whereas as individuals, we relate to others so as to achieve our individual, survival goals – so our relationships with others are “useful” or “instrumental” – as “persons” we relate to others because we find ourselves in doing that, in other words, our relationships are “intrinsic” to who we are. We do not relate because we are needy, and need others to help us get what we need, but because we are overflowing with abundance, desiring to give, to share, to love. We relate to others as persons from a position of strength, not weakness. We can see here why the happiness research gives us the results that it does – that across the world, independently of culture, the happiness of human beings correlates more with the quality of their relationships than with any other factor. People who are very poor experience the pain of not having enough of the basics, but beyond a very modest level of economic wealth, the key factor which makes people feel happy is their relationships. As persons, we are not part of an animal species – in a real sense, we are each our own species, (we know that we are each unique and each loved personally by God), in a way not dissimilar to the angels (as you may know, St Thomas teaches that each angel is its own species). Furthermore, as persons, as spiritual beings, we have a destiny that goes beyond this world, and therefore in the sense that we are persons, our good is not subject to the earthly common good, but rather that common good supports each one of us.

This last point leads us to a brief discussion of the relation between human beings and the common good – a crucial issue if personalism is going to help us resolve our social and systemic problems.

Firstly, we should place the common good between two extremes – either a totalitarian good of the whole (Maritain talks of “good of the beehive”) or the sum of nothing more than individual goods. Maritain says that the “common good of a society of persons is common to the whole and to the parts”. Thus, human society is at the same time a “whole made up of parts” and a “whole made up of

wholes” (just as there are two poles to the human being, so there are two poles to the common good). Our society is in between the pure, divine society of the Trinity, and the improperly called “society of animals”; in this sense, animals, being individuals of a species, when they are together are more like a collective, or collection of individuals, than a society like ours. So the crucial point to make here is that the relationship between society and the human being is one of “reciprocal subordination and mutual implication”. Insofar as we are individuals, we are subordinated to society; insofar as we are persons, with an eternal destiny, temporal society is ordered to the good of each one of us. The most dramatic example of this recognition can be found in the situation of war. In such a situations, the state can ask, and even obligate people to expose themselves to the risk of death in combat, but when a mission requires the almost certain death of those who carry it out (the so-called “suicide mission” in English), it is a well-established practice in the military to ask for volunteers, so that those who participate are not

constrained to die, but freely and voluntarily offer their lives for the sake of their community. As Maritain says, the state authority cannot “decree the death of a man for the salvation of the city . . . The person can be obligated in conscience and, if necessary, constrained to expose its life, but never can it be branded like an animal for the slaughterhouse. It is still as master of itself and by an act of virtue that it faces death”. Another way of saying this, as Maritain does, is to say that we are each a part of society, but not “by means of all that is in us”. In saying that, Maritain uses the example of the athlete. In running the race, an athlete is completely involved; he or she couldn’t be doing something else while in that race. But that race does not involve that person as a whole – it does not involve their knowledge of French, or their skill as a teacher, or any other capacity they have. He also gives the example of a mathematician. The state, representing the common good, could require him or her to teach mathematics, and perhaps to teach a certain number of hours, or a certain timetable, or in a certain school. However, since the principles of mathematics do not depend on the community but come from the understanding of the human intellect which forms part of the higher, supra-temporal order of the accomplishment of the person as person, the state cannot require the mathematician to hold or teach a mathematics that is “politically correct”, such as an “Aryan” mathematics, or a “Marxist-Leninist” mathematics. In other words, it cannot require a teacher to hold as true something that he or she regards as false or mistaken (we might today think about the arguments over sexual identity, and the possibility that teachers of biology might be pressured to change their teaching to make it more amenable to gender theory. While we might well want to inform the children that there are people who do take this position seriously, but we should also be able to show them how we think this position is mistaken). Our knowledge is part of our rational, spiritual nature, and that goes beyond the temporal common good. We have to be left free to teach what we think is true, even if we need to have the humility to recognize that we might be mistaken and that we always need to be open to learn (as a woman, I wouldn’t be standing here before you, as Dean of a faculty in a pontifical university or President of the Academy of Social Sciences, or even perhaps giving a talk like this at all, if we hadn’t learnt over the last 100 years or so that this was a good thing!).

So, how can personalism help us with our problems today? Maritain gives proper recognition to our individual dimension, which makes sense to mainstream thinking today, while expanding our vision to a richer, more complete picture of the human person. Using such a model requires economists and political scientists to expand their limited, (we could also say reductionist) view of the human person, but not to abandon everything they have done so far; rather, they are called to build on what they have done and what they know, develop it, and thereby, of course, also fundamentally change it. Once economists, political scientists and sociologists will have developed economic, social and political theories that can imagine and model intrinsically valuable (not just useful) relationships between the various types of actor in the economy and society as a whole, we will start to have the tools to understand and develop the common good, a shared good held between the members of a community. We will be able to confront the problem of exclusion, because we will be modelling relationships in a more profound way. We will be able to confront the systemic problems of environmental decay better, because we will be able to imagine systems, like communities, better. What we are talking about here is nothing less than a revision of the fundamentals of the social philosophy that became established as the norm in the West around the middle of the 18th century and which has provided the basic framework for our modern system up to our day. That system was devised to deal with the social, political and economic problems that society faced at that time. But our problems are different, and this synthesis no longer has the capability to help us with the social and systemic problems that we must face today, built, as it is, on an individualistic idea of the human being. With the help of relationally-rethought economic, social and political theories, we can imagine and model a new world in which we have the potential to resolve the current problems underlying the crisis we face.

You can all see that this has been a rather theoretical talk, and I am sorry about that. It is partly because the application of the personalism I am talking about here to practical problems is not very developed so far. We started to do something with it in the Blueprint for Better Business, and maybe other people

here have other experiences, such as in the Economy of Francesco. I hope that in the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences over the next three years in the project “The Fraternal Economy of Integral and Sustainable Development”, driven by Jeffrey Sachs, we will start moving towards the thinking needed. Here is the project outline:

“An important element of this new series of workshops will be an investigation of the metaphysical and anthropological vision underlying The Economy of Francesco articulated by Pope Francis and other leading thinkers. The ethical themes of fraternity, relationality, subsidiarity, and dignity of the person will be cross-cutting features of each meeting, as will be the intrinsic relationship between economics and ecology. Workshops will also consider the anthropological perspective, contextualizing economic behavior in the totality of the human being, including the themes of work, love, and happiness, and the spiritual and cultural dimensions of the fraternal economy under the tripolar model of State-Market- Community. The third sector – work in voluntary organizations and non-profit activities – will also be considered an integral element in the fraternal economic vision.


First, the new economy of sustainable and integral development should promote the happiness (beatitudo) of current and future generations and respect the planetary boundaries of Earth’s physical systems. Second, the new economy should promote the fulfillment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both of which have been agreed upon by all the UN member states.

The objective is an actionable synthesis based on scientific findings, philosophical wisdom, and theological teachings. Research collaborations, academic publications, policy reports, and active policy work with governments are expected outcomes.

Sessions will cover topics such as the alignment of business and civil society with the ecological and energy transition (Europe’s Green New Deal); corporate law and purpose; the design, role, and limits of values-based investing, ESG investing, and shareholder activism; trade and investment agreements, Investor-State dispute settlements, and environmental sustainability; public development banks and sustainable development; the role of business in rule-making and politics; Intellectual Property Rights; digital surveillance, transparency, privacy, and service regulation (health, education, and commerce); and the regulation of new biotechnologies.”

What is sure is that we will need people with many different competences working on these kinds of projects: academics in many disciplines and people with many different kinds of practical and technical skills and experience.

Maybe it is only now that the real importance of Christian Democracy can emerge, because, thanks to our work, it will begin to have the personalist, rather than individualist, social and economic theories at its disposal to help it come up with the policies and legislation that put into practice the basic personalist idea that it tried to champion in the 20th century. Perhaps future historians, looking back at this time, will be able to say that the Christian Democratic movement of the 20th century, which many commentators think is dead and gone, was only a kind of “pilot project” for the much bigger and more profound phase of a similar, personalist movement that you and I can help launch in the 21st century. Let’s hope, pray and work that it may be so.


Thank you very much.


Burgos, J.M., 2018, An Introduction to Personalism, Washington D.C., Catholic University Press