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Rome Notes: A Crisis, All in the Family; Old World vs. New

5/7/2004 - 7:00 AM PST

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Pontifical Academy Focuses on Welfare Woes

ROME, MAY 7, 2004 (Zenit) - Along with the first tulips and lilacs, Rome has seen the arrival of some other perennial favorites this week. The Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences hosted some of the foremost minds in the world at its yearly meeting at the newly restored Casina Pio IV in Vatican City, from April 30 to May 3.

This year's meeting addressed the topic of "intergenerational solidarity." For some this title might mean older folks learning to tolerate pop music and teen jargon, but the academy chose to focus on one of the most serious social problems looming in the not-too-distant future -- the welfare crisis.

Hans Tietmeyer, president of the German Bundesbank, laid out the problem succinctly in the report he presented to his fellow academicians. Increasing life spans and declining birthrates are creating a broadening gap in the ratio between working age people and retirement age people, and thus threaten "the erosion of the economic foundations underlying the welfare state," he said.

The academy also invited outside experts to shed light on the problem, and their papers revealed deeper and even more troubling levels to the crisis.

One example of this phenomenon emerged in several of the papers. Behind the welfare crisis, the scholars noted, lies a deeper crisis of the family. Profound changes in family and marriage behavior that took rise in the mid-1960s have led to the redefinition of roles in care-giving and therefore to a loss of the natural and traditional practice of the family caring for its weakest members -- the oldest and the youngest.

Oddly enough, policy-makers rarely confront this aspect when discussing the crisis in welfare.

Invited speaker Father Richard John Neuhaus was unable to attend the conference but contributed a paper in which he underlined an openly "anti-familial" attitude in many societies.

In Academy President Mary Ann Glendon's concluding remarks, she noted another ominous trend that is gaining ground as cracks appear in the foundation of welfare states: "a growing toleration in many societies of the abandonment or even extermination of persons who become inconvenient and burdensome to maintain at life's frail beginnings and endings."

As discussions continued, a third level to the crisis gradually emerged.

Beneath crises of welfare and the family lies an even deeper spiritual crisis. Glendon reminded the academy that in his postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Europa," John Paul II identified the Old Continent as suffering from a loss of hope stemming from "an attempt to promote a vision of man apart from God and apart from Christ."

This forgetfulness of God "led to the abandonment of man," writes the Pope, which opens the door to nihilism and a self-serving outlook toward life.

Francis Fukuyama, author of such best-selling books as "The End of History" and "The Great Disruption," offered a ray of hope by proposing that this moral decline would not end in disaster, since moral sense is an inherent part of human nature. He suggested rather that such decline forms part of a cyclical process, and that many times throughout history societies have undergone great disruption but were able to "re-norm themselves."

Father Neuhaus, in turn, challenged policy-makers to "learn from the ways in which people, given the opportunity, actually order their lives together as they think they ought to order their lives together."

The Holy Father, in his address to the academy, called for cooperation between the "respective competencies of the state and the family" underscoring the latter's "irreplaceable role in the building of intergenerational solidarity." John Paul II founded the academy in 1994 to advise the Holy See regarding changing social situations.

Addressing the Holy Father on behalf of the academy, Glendon recalled that the Pope has continually exhorted them to be "bold like St. Thomas Aquinas, who fearlessly engaged in dialogue with the best natural and human science of his time." The academy comprises an interdisciplinary, religiously pluralistic group of scholars.

* * *

Continental Divide

Another interdisciplinary group of experts came together at this week's conference on "Catholic Thought and World Politics in the 21st Century," hosted by the Gregorian University.

The Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, together with the Gregorian, held a two-day session to study questions of the Church's moral role in the global political scene. The first day's closed-door session was limited to scholars only, while the second day opened its doors to all those interested.

The opening speaker, Antonio Baggio, professor of social ethics at ...

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