Creating Space for Intellectual Debate: Pax Romana's Symposiums Explore Catholicism's Rich and Varied Traditions

By Sean, Michael | National Catholic Reporter, August 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Creating Space for Intellectual Debate: Pax Romana's Symposiums Explore Catholicism's Rich and Varied Traditions


Sean, Michael, National Catholic Reporter


Washington is a city where people like to be busy and, even more, like to be seen to be busy. An invitation to a luncheon or a dinner is never met with a simple yes or no, but with "Let me check my calendar." In the metro, in the elevator, even at the dinner table of a restaurant, people are buried in their BlackBerries. "Activity suggests a life filled with purpose," said Captain von Trapp in "The Sound of Music," and Washington took his instruction to heart.

But, on a recent afternoon, a dozen or so scholars met around a conference table at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies to discuss a chapter of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. There were a couple of philosophy professors, a sociologist, someone from the evangelization office of the archdiocese. There was even a rocket scientist, a former NASA scientist who went on to teach at the Naval Academy.

One professor gave a summation of the chapter, and then the group engaged in a conversation about the contents, the relevance of themes to contemporary issues, issues that seemed obscure--the nature of prudential judgment, the history of certain economic and political concepts. Sometimes the conversation got heated. At all times everyone was deeply engaged, wrestling with the tradition and trying to discern what it means for us today.

The symposium was held by the local chapter of Pax Romana. The organization began in the 19th century in Europe, as an intellectual apostolate to spread the church's social teachings as Western culture grappled with the industrialization of societies, universal education, and political democracy. It served as a proto-think tank for the Christian Democratic movement in the 20th century.

One of the group's chaplains in Italy was Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI. Illustrating some of the ideological diversity found within the organization, in Poland Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was a chaplain, and in Peru liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez was a chaplain also. Pax Romana played a central role at the original United Nations conference, especially in getting the new organization to set up working relationships with officially recognized nongovernmental organizations. Pax Romana's New York chapter continues to be active in sponsoring symposiums with the U.N.

In the early 1990s Joe Holland got a call from the group's U.S. leader, inviting him to join the board and breathe new life into the organization. Holland has a long resume of lay activism. He was founding director of the Pallottine Institute for Lay Leadership and Apostolate Research at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. He helped found the American Catholic Lay Network, which brought 250 laypeople to the Synod on the Laity, and he was a research fellow at the Center for Concern, a scholarly institute founded jointly by the U. …

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