(Source: MJ/Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ, Vatican News)
Sister Helen Alford, of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, says she hopes to be of service to society, the Church and the world in her new role as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
Pope Francis appointed her to the position on September 4 2020.
Sister Helen is currently the Vice-Rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, also known as the Angelicum.
Born in London, she graduated in Management Engineering from the University of Cambridge, from which she also holds a doctorate degree.
She is a professor in the faculty of social sciences at the Angelicum – where she teaches economics and ethics as well as the history of Christian social thought – and is a consultor for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, now integrated into the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
Sister Helen has also authored numerous publications on management theory and corporate social responsibility.
Sister Helen explained that her appointment to the Pontifical Academy puts her in a community alongside other experts who are tasked by the Pope to study certain topics in the field of social sciences.
The members, though, are also free to decide their work program, research and publish texts, as well as vote in new members to the Academy.
Currently, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences comprises 23 members, with the possibility of having up to 40 members.
At the service of the Church
Sister Helen joins the Academy with the aspiration of lending her expertise towards a lot of issues. One of those issues is publishing “a lot more data about the Catholic Church.”
“Most people don’t know what the Catholic Church is doing,” she noted.
“They don’t know that so much of the AIDS care in the world is provided by the Catholic Church. They don’t know what the Church is doing to contrast trafficking; they don’t know about the massive impact that the Catholic Church has through education.”
Regularly publishing more data through the Academy, she says, will be “a real contribution to help people to understand what is going on in the world today, and what the Church is doing in the world.”
Rethinking the human person
Another area Sister Helen hopes to channel her energies towards in the long term is re-evaluating how we think about the human person.
Taking a cue from today’s society, Sr. Helen said that a lot of our social relations have become dominated by “economic thought” marked by an “individualistic idea.”
The 2007-2008 global financial crisis, global warming and now the COVID-19 pandemic – “these are some of the results of a too individualistic mindset,” the nun denounced.
“I think we’re seeing now in a lot of our societies a kind of competition that’s become so extreme that it’s really breaking down the underlying bonds in society,” she added.
To remedy this individualism all too common in the world today, Sister Helen stressed the need for a new way of thinking that brings back a sense of community that separates social thoughts from economics, because the “most crucial factor in our happiness is our network of relationships.”
“We don’t want to throw individual freedom out – that’s good – but it needs to be put back into a bigger vision of a good human life,” the nun stressed.
Linking this to the Pope’s vision of society in the “The Economy of Francesco” online event planned for this November, Sr. Helen said that the conference fosters a parallel bottom-up approach, as opposed to a top-down approach, that brings young people into conversation with governments and intellectuals.
This, she said, gives young people hope for the future and contributes to achieving some of the aims of the Pontifical Academy.
“The papacy has enormous ‘pulling power,’” the nun said with regard to the “Economy of Francesco” event.
“We can bring people together who might not normally listen to each other, and foster the new, generative thinking that could emerge from this.”
Integrating knowledge for development
Sister Helen considered her recent appointment to the Pontifical Academy as an extension of her work at the faculty of social sciences of the Angelicum.
She explained that for almost 25 years, she has tried to build a kind of “transversal knowledge” across the social sciences which connects with the social problems we face today, including the systemic problems of caring for our common home, social exclusion and inequality issues.
This idea, she pointed out, was born from observing the shared difficulty that university academic have in talking to each other across disciplines, even though many of them are experts in one field.
Stressing the need for an improved “integration of knowledge,” she hoped through the Academy to “be in contact with an even wider global range of actors” who will help put this knowledge “at the service of society and the common good, and especially of the most excluded people in our society.”
Already, Sr. Helen has begun this dream concretely at the Angelicum through educational programs.
She is closely involved with an initiative called “Strong” which helps migrants get an intellectual and practical university education in order to become “change agents” in their local environment.
She is also working on an upcoming program called “Create” which is to be a regional program with the purpose of spreading Catholic social thought.