By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service     6/14/2017

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Leaders in the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development are seeking to tap the rich heritage of Catholic social thought emerging from U.S. Catholic higher education to help shape global development so that human dignity remains at the center.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, dicastery prefect, and Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, former Vatican observer to the U.N. agencies in Geneva who now works in the dicastery, spent three days in Washington with 40 leaders of academic centers and institutes, hearing about their work, their role in the church and their desires for greater collaboration.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, also attended part of the meeting.

Such a significant investment of time reflects how highly the Vatican values the work of the centers and points to a belief that the centers can be important in promoting Pope Francis’ vision of human development that allows human dignity to flourish.

Cardinal Turkson told Catholic News Service it was important to spend time with some of the foremost U.S. thinkers on Catholic social teaching during the May 31-June 2 meeting at Georgetown University so the dicastery can help shape the church’s message.

The cardinal later told the gathering that he also wanted to tap the directors’ experience and knowledge as the Vatican prepares to review and revise the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Catholic social thought, or teaching, on the threats to human dignity can provide the platform for human-focused global development. Human progress cannot be focused solely on economics and the financial bottom line, but on how people can live their vocation in the world, Cardinal Turkson explained.

The dicastery continues to take shape at the Vatican. Cardinal Turkson, who was tapped as prefect after serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has been charged with pulling together the tasks under his old office with those of the pontifical councils Cor Unum, Migrants and Travelers, and Health Care Ministry to respond to the needs of people around the world. Pope Francis has assumed responsibility for the work associated with migrants and travelers himself.

Catholic social thought is particularly important in tackling the concerns being addressed by the dicastery given that the United States is stepping back from its traditional leadership role in development around the world, institute directors and faculty said.

Attendees from across the academic landscape attended meeting. The institutes represented ranged from small to large universities from across the breadth of Catholic social teaching. Participants said they left the gathering realizing they can help build understanding from their diverging viewpoints while bridging the divides that exist within the U.S. church in order to advance the pope’s vision for a more merciful church.

John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, who organized the meeting, described the gathering as a first step to “sharing Catholic social teaching more broadly and deeply and advancing the message of Pope Francis in the universal church.”

“Catholic social teaching unites people who often aren’t together,” Carr told CNS. “So all this suggests that there is an opportunity and a responsibility here to do a better job. The responsibility comes from the power of the tradition. We (Catholics) have just have better ideas about how society can advance the common good. And the opportunity is the leadership of Pope Francis.”

The meeting was funded by the GHR Foundation in Minneapolis. Amy Goldman, CEO and chair, said that her family-run foundation supported the gathering because the concept meshes with the foundation’s goal that global development be “informed by Catholic social thought.”

“We believe the next step is for Catholic social thought to continue to be made more concrete and more relevant in a lot of areas across the U.S. in particular,” Goldman told CNS. “Our current public dialogue around immigration, migrants and refugees, Catholic social thought and the Catholic Church in general have a real leadership role there. Catholic social teaching is a strong anchor to have that debate.”

Center and institute directors said their efforts can play an important role in the church because they analyze and teach about social issues through the lens of the church’s long-standing social teaching. Directors told CNS they appreciated the opportunity to come together at a time when both the country and the church are polarized and feel that the church’s social teaching can serve as a bridge to bring people together to create a just world.

Michael J. Naughton, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the U.S. Catholic higher education system is one of the most extensive in the world and can benefit the church with a renewed emphasis on promoting Catholic social thought.

“I didn’t hear anybody at that meeting saying they didn’t have an interest in the church,” Naughton told CNS. “We want to serve the church.”

The question becomes, he said, “how do you connect the resources of this intellectual capital to serve the church?”

Joseph E. Capizzi, executive director of the 14-month-old Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America, said it is important for centers such as his to promote the mission of Catholic social teaching. The centers also can promote civil dialogue in a polarized society.

“In the U.S. in particular, we see that productive argument is really a scarce resource,” he said. “Not only can we be avenues where that occurs, we can model that together … and show people there’s room within the church and room within the culture for people of good faith to say ‘This is how I see it,” and this is the way you engage with each other.”

Several directors said the gathering also showed that more diversity is needed in center staffing, noting that of the 40 people present, about 25 percent were women, and African-American and Latino representation was much lower.

But that does not invalidate the value of coming together, said Kathleen Maas Weigert, professor of sociology at Loyola University Chicago, who helped establish centers of Catholic social thought at two other schools.

She urged the group to ground its work in the experiences of “real people’s lives.” She pointed to Pope Francis as providing the vision to guide the institutes so they bring the values of Catholic social teaching to all corners of the church and wider society.

Arturo Chavez, president of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, came away from the meeting eager to collaborate with his colleagues and the dicastery.

“Francis certainly has priorities and the cardinal made that clear, around the environment, ecology, economics, the poor, the migrant, and they are so interrelated. We have a starting point for ongoing collaboration,” Chavez told CNS.

“I think we need to deliver soon, not sit back.”