Following the excerpt from the Official Bulletin of the Vatican Press, an exclusive Interview for IDI – International Dominican Information. Brought to you by br. Javier Abanto

The Holy Father has appointed as ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences the Reverend Sr Helen Alford, O.P., vice rector of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
Sister Helen Alford, O.P. is appointed member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

Sister Helen Alford, O.P. is appointed member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

Appointment of ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
The Holy Father has appointed as ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences the Reverend Sr Helen Alford, O.P., vice rector of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

Vatican Press – Resignations and Appointments, 04.09.2020

Curriculum vitae

The Reverend Sr Helen Alford, O.P., was born in London on 1 May 1964. She graduated in manufacturing engineering from the University of Cambridge, where she was also awarded a PhD. She is a religious sister of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena. She has taught subjects related to economic ethics and the history of Christian social thought in several universities. She has served as consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. She is currently vice rector of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome. She is the author of numerous publications on management theory and corporate social responsibility.

Interview with Sister Helen Alford, O.P. – Member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

Sr. Helen Alford, O.P. in the interview for IDI – International Dominican Information
  1. What will be your main job as Specialist in social sciences?
  2. From your research and experience, what can contribute, in terms of university formation, to the Social Doctrine of the Church?
  3. What are the most urgent questions for the Social Doctrine of the Church?
  4. COVID 19 Pandemic place us in a new world scenery for the “Dominican preaching”?
  5. If you have some words for the Dominican Family.
  1. What will be your main job as Specialist in social sciences?

It’s a good question! All the members of the Academy have some kind of specialisation, but they work in a very open way, exploring topics by bringing the various disciplines of the social sciences together to analyse and discuss key problems of the day, from human trafficking to democracy, and from the future of work to human rights. What can I bring to these discussions? I think one of the most important things is my nearly 25 years of experience in our Faculty of Social Sciences at the Angelicum, where we train students in five main areas: Catholic social thought and social ethics; economics and social communications; law and international relations; sociology and psychology; history and politics. We are not training experts in any of these subjects, but people who understand the basic theories and philosophical presuppositions of these disciplines, and who can talk to experts in these fields. Our aim is to train “change-makers” or “problem solvers”: people who can analyse social problems from the different points of view of economics, sociology, political science and so on, and then, on the basis of an ethical/philosophical framework informed by faith, synthesise responses that take into account the rich insights that the different social disciplines can give us. For instance, we have a special programme for migrants, called “STRONG”, and each year we do a research project with these students, helping them to be able to analyse their situation and improve it. Two years ago, we studied the business start-ups created by migrants in Rome; this year, we are studying the mental health problems of migrants (https://angelicum.it/academics/social-sciences/programs/). I think the Academy does something very similar, and I will be able to contribute to what the Academy does especially because of my background in the unique academic environment that we have in our own Dominican Faculty of Social Sciences here in Rome. 

  1. From your research and experience, what can contribute, in terms of university formation, to the Social Doctrine of the Church?

Let’s mention three points. Firstly, I can set up and run various programmes in the Faculty. We just mentioned the programme for migrants, which was relaunched in Dec 2018 to coincide with the signing of the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants, as a sign of support to Pope Francis who did so much to make those compacts happen. Another programme we hope to launch next year is aimed at spreading Catholic social thought more widely through targeted actions in solidarity with a particular region of the world. Called “CREATE” (Cst Rome Exchange: Advanced Training Experience”), it will include a special set of “Salamanca Process” scholarships which will offer Dominicans, men and women, the possibility to study for a doctorate or to do post-doc work with us, according to the approach of the “Salamanca Process” as proposed by more than one General Chapter.

Secondly, I can work on new ideas and these can feed into the university level formation of students in Catholic social thought. For instance, I recently wrote a preface to a book to be published in Mexico on how the idea of the common good can contribute to our ideas about development; I am also working a lot with a movement based in the UK called “Blueprint for Better Business” which brings the ideas of Catholic social thought into the boardrooms of big business to help them think more profoundly about the purpose of their business, and from that to start to think about how to apply principles like solidarity, subsidiarity and so on (https://www.blueprintforbusiness.org/). All these experiences can then be used to develop and renew the formation we offer in the university. Lastly, I am also involved in on-line education, through the diplomas we have with Domuni on “Social ethics” and “Catholic social thought and contemporary society” (only in Italian, for the time being at least: https://www.domuni.eu/it/offerta-formativa/pensiero-sociale-cattolico-diploma/).

  1. What are the most urgent questions for the Social Doctrine of the Church?

In some ways, the urgent questions are the same as they have always been: How to defend human dignity against the many and varied ways in which it is undermined (including abortion and the other life issues)? What about the problems of workers, the slow pace of development and the need for peacebuilding? Some problems are more recent, such as those created by international finance, climate change and the migration crisis. Some are just emerging, such as the impact of artificial intelligence on society and the effects of the current pandemic.

Whatever the specific problems, however, the basic principles and approach of Catholic social thought helps us to confront them, so learning about it will help us deal with each problem as it arises.

  1. COVID 19 Pandemic place us in a new world scenery for the “Dominican preaching”?

The pandemic has created a shared painful experience across the world – a kind of “globalised grief”. In some ways, this painful experience of our common vulnerability can unite us across the divisions that we had before. At the same time, as I heard it said recently: “we are not in the same boat, but we are in the same storm”. The impact of the pandemic has been very different within our societies; often the most vulnerable workers have been the most exposed to the damage the pandemic has caused. So, our preaching needs to take into account both the shared negative experience of this crisis and the way in which it has widened social divisions between people. Then there is the impact of the pandemic on the way we preach.

Preaching during the Eucharist has been through very great changes – preaching online is not the same as preaching to a physical gathering of people! Preaching through education and teaching is also very different if done through digital means, and even if it is done with students in class, the need to wear masks at all times and maintain social distancing means that the social dynamic in the classroom is quite different. Some of these changes will not be permanent, as long as we can find a way to prevent or treat this pandemic, but the move towards using digital means for preaching and teaching is likely to continue. Perhaps such changes would have occurred anyway, but now they have been significantly speeded up.

In the Angelicum, we will be looking into some of these issues through the major research programme that we are just about to launch, called “CRISIS: Christian Responses In Solidarity to crisIS”. The various project groups will work for a year and produce their results by July 31 2021. The actual projects are in the process of being approved, but one of them, if it is approved, will look at how the pandemic has affected the religious practices of the different Christian traditions, and preaching will be part of that.

  1. If you have some words for the Dominican Family.
Sr Helen Alford, O.P. for IDI
Sr. Helen Alford, O.P.

When Pope St John Paul II wanted to found the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in 1990, he turned to a Swiss Dominican brother by the name of Arthur Fridolin Utz, a member of the Province of Teutonia, to help him to do it. This historical fact shows something of the importance of Dominican social ethics, and the part it has played in the foundation of this Academy.

As a Dominican Family we have a marvellous tradition of thought and action on social questions. In the two “Preaching Justice” books that Francesco Compagnoni and I edited, we were able to bring together and recognise some of that tradition, both among the brothers and the sisters. I must admit that sometimes over the last 25 years, when we were struggling to keep our Faculty of Social Sciences going, I began to wonder if we Dominicans were starting to lose the sense of our preaching mission in the social sphere. This was the reason why Francesco and I produced those two books – to record that tradition and to help to keep it alive. Now, however, I can see a greater awareness of, perhaps even a kind of reawakening of interest in, Catholic social thought among the members of our Dominican family. I hope that this nomination of one of our members to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences will help to renew our commitment further. 

Our African brothers and sisters say: “it takes a village to raise a child”, and now I would say: “it has taken the Dominican Family to raise this Academician”. Thank you for all your help along the way! Let me offer special thanks to the sisters of my congregation, St Catherine of Siena of Newcastle, KwaZulu Natal, for all that you have given me, and to the many Dominican sisters from many congregations from whom I have had the chance to learn a great deal. Thanks, too, to the many friars, especially in the English province and in the Angelicum, as well as some memorable lay Dominicans, who have helped and inspired me too.

Interview for IDI – International Dominican Information
by br. Javier Abanto O.P.

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