John Paul II's Challenges to the Social Sciences Initial Responses of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

Article excerpt

Time and again, by word and example, John Paul II urged social scientists to reexamine some of their most fundamental presuppositions. He asked them to be mindful of the unity that underlies their fragmented disciplines, to question their assumptions about personhood, and to be not afraid in the quest for truth. The Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, the think tank created by the late Holy Father in 1994 as a sister academy to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, has made considerable progress in four main areas where the principles of Catholic social thought have to be applied to a host of new things: the world of work, the promise and perils of globalization, the dilemmas of democracy, and the relations among generations. The principle of subsidiarity along with sensitivity to the concept of human ecology, the social systems that undergird and support human flourishing, have provided some tentative but promising avenues for the future of the social sciences.


When one finds something new and deeply thought-provoking each time one rereads a text, that generally is a good sign of the work's enduring significance. It will surely be so with the social encyclicals of John Paul II. The ideas in those documents are so fertile that much time will be required to draw out and develop their full implications. At least that is the experience of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, the think tank created by the late Holy Father in 1994 as a sister academy to the venerable Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

On a first reading of Centesimus Annus (CA), for example, a social scientist is likely to be gratified by its expression of esteem for social studies as indispensable aids to the development of Catholic social teaching. "In order better to incarnate the one truth about man in different and constantly changing social, economic and political contexts," we are told, the Church "enters into dialogue with the various disciplines concerned with man, assimilates what these disciplines have to contribute, and helps them to open themselves to a broader horizon" (CA, 59). We now know that when John Paul II penned those lines, he was already planning to put that dialogue on a more systematic basis by establishing a social science academy. Three years later, in the Motu Proprio establishing the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, he noted that the Church "has turned with growing interest" to the social sciences, and that in order to make her own contributions more effectively, "she needs more constant and more extensive contact with the modern social sciences, with their research and with their findings." (1) Accordingly, he charged the academicians with a double mission: to promote "the study and progress of the social sciences, primarily economics, sociology, law and political science," and to offer the Church "elements which she can use in the development of her social doctrine." (2)

Yet, even as John Paul II was acknowledging the value of the social sciences, he was issuing a profound challenge to many of their most deeply entrenched assumptions. By asking them to "open themselves to a broader horizon," he was inviting their practitioners to critical self-examination in the light of the perspectives underlying the Church's social doctrine. His own methodology, in fact, calls into question several habits and assumptions that are prevalent among economists, lawyers, sociologists, and students of politics.

To take one obvious instance, Centesimus Annus posits the unity of knowledge ("the one truth about man") and the consequent need for cooperation among the various human sciences (CA, 59). Though few social scientists would dispute the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, such efforts are often impeded not only by the intrinsic difficulty of the effort but also by the relatively autonomous development of fields and subfields, not to mention interdisciplinary rivalries. …