By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Though most reports about the Vatican tend to concentrate on its pronouncements on “sexy” subjects, two major conferences this week, on globalization and on climate change, illustrate the universal scope of its actual interests.
One is sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, titled “Charity and Justice in the Relations among Peoples and Nations,” and features an all-star line-up of internationally prominent speakers, including the Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, as well as former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
It is testament to the drawing power of the Vatican, by the way, that aside from airfare and lodging at the Casa Santa Marta, the five-star hotel inside Vatican grounds where the cardinals stay during a conclave, no speaking fees or other inducements were offered to any of these VIPs, Kissinger included. His typical speaking fee is $25,000.
Over the course of twelve sessions, the conference will examine the role of international finance and justice systems, water and respect for creation, international relations and the cause of peace, and a host of related themes.
The President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences is an American laywoman, Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School. In a Vatican news conference today, she laid out the logic for the conference, which by any standard has to rank as one of the most ambitious in recent Vatican memory.
First, Glendon explained, the event is the culmination of the “Globalization Project” that her academy has been working on since it was created by Pope John Paul II in 1994. That project, Glendon said, will “yield input and conclusions that will be submitted to the Vatican to those who are involved in formulating the social doctrine of the church.”
Second, Glendon said, the conference arose from a specific suggestion by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s former Secretary for Relations with States, who asked the academy to study the subject of “subsidiarity” with regard to international relations.
Third, Glendon said, the academy wanted to examine issues of globalization through the lens of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est. “For us social scientists, in a sense it’s a social encyclical,” she said.
As Glendon did for the academy’s last major conference, she brought a press officer specifically for the event: Canadian Fr. Raymond de Souza, who writes widely on church affairs in the Canadian press.
During the news conference, Glendon was asked about the choice of Kissinger to speak on world peace. Although he was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, he remains a controversial figure for his role in that conflict.
Glendon said that the academy had invited a wide cross-section of figures with both scholarly and practical experience in international relations.
“In a sense, we hear testimony from these people the way a congressional committee hears testimony,” she said. “We aren’t looking for guidance from them on our final conclusions, but we want the benefit of their wisdom and experience.”
New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman had also been expected to address the conference, but Glendon said he was forced to withdraw due to a recent surgery.
The conference on climate change is sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Justice and Peace, and features speakers such as the French Ambassador for the Environment, the English Minister for the Environment, and a variety of scientists who work on issues of the environment and climate change.
The stated goal of the event is to seek a balance between environmental concern and development for poor nations.
John Carr, secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace, is representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the conference.
In a telegram for the opening of the conference, Benedict XVI expressed the hope that it would result in “research and promotion of styles of life and models of production and consumption which are designed for respect of creation and the real exigencies of sustainable progress of peoples, taking account of the universal destination of goods, as has been repeatedly confirmed by the social doctrine of the church.”