By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Sister Helen Alford, of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena of Newcastle, KwaZulu Natal, 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 4 September 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. Sister Helen has also authored numerous publications on management theory and corporate social responsibility.
In an interview with Vatican News, Sr Helen explains 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.
In service of 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 notes. “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 Sr. Helen hopes to channel her energies towards, albeit in the long term, is re-evaluating how we think about the human person. Taking a cue from today’s society, Sr. Helen points out that a lot of our social relations have become dominated by “economic thought” marked by an “individualistic idea.” To remedy this, she stresses 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”.
Linking this to the Pope’s vision of society in the “The Economy of Francesco,” Sr. Helen said that it 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.
Integrating knowledge for development
Sister Helen considers her recent appointment to the Pontifical Academy as an extension of her work at the faculty of social sciences of the Angelicum.
She explains that for almost 25 years, she has tried to build some 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 points out, was born from observing the shared difficulty that universities 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 hopes 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.