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The Society of Catholic Social Scientists, based at Franciscan University, provides 'a fuller picture of man in the full light of Church teaching.'
BY Brian Fraga
Contrary to what some academics might think, it is possible to be a serious scholar who presents a Catholic perspective to the study of economics, politics, sociology and any other social-science discipline.
"So much of our social policy, political thinking and economic thinking is laced with ideologically fashioned premises," said Stephen Krason, a political science professor and chairman of the Department of Humanities and Catholic Social Thought at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
"Church teaching, on the other hand, is not an ideology. The Church has a great balance in her teachings, because they are based on what man is and of what men’s end and purposes are," said Krason, who also serves as the president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, which he co-founded in 1992.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Society of Catholic Social Scientists brings together Catholic scholars, professors, researchers, practitioners and writers from across the country who combine objective scholarly analysis with fidelity to the magisterium.
"It’s a group of people who share some common values," said Richard Myers, the society’s executive secretary and law professor at Ave Maria School of Law.
"They share certain perspectives," Myers said. "The Society of Catholic Social Scientists is a group of people who are supportive of Catholic social teaching. They find that the mainstream scholarly organizations in their fields tend to have an underrepresentation of people with pro-life commitments and Catholic social thought."
Examining information and data in light of Church teaching and natural law, the society’s members challenge the secularized approach to the study of social sciences that is ingrained in the modern university.
The society seeks to obtain objective knowledge about the social order, provide solutions to vexing social problems and further the cause of Christ. The society’s scholars aim to "promote awareness of the social teachings of the Church" and to compile "a body of distinctively Catholic social-science scholarship."
"The Catholic perspective, which was always a minority perspective, has almost completely disappeared from view in the academy," said Kenneth Grasso, a political science professor at Southwest Texas State University. Grasso also serves as second vice president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, which he said is committed to carrying on the Catholic intellectual tradition.
One dimension of the society’s mission is "intellectual, bringing the Catholic mind to bear on modern social science," Grasso said.
"Part of the mission is also spiritual in nature," Grasso added. "It’s a spiritual brotherhood of like-minded people … who are deeply and authentically Catholic."
The society held its 20th annual conference Oct. 26-27 in Uniondale, N.Y., where more than 200 Catholic academics, educators and activists participated in more than 70 panel sessions on a wide variety of academic, moral and religious issues of importance to the Catholic worldview. Participants included Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of New York, and Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Since its founding, the organization publishes The Catholic Social Science Review on an annual basis and offers a theology master’s degree program in partnership with the Graduate Theological Foundation. The society’s members have also published a Catholic Social Thought book series, as well as two volumes of the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science and Social Policy. The society also helps to conduct the Summer Institute of Catholic Social Thought, which offers a weeklong introduction to Catholic social thought, emphasizing both theory and application to specific academic disciplines in the arts and human sciences.
Every year, the organization also awards its Pope Pius XI Award for the furthering of a true Catholic social science, as called for in the 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On the Reconstruction of the Social Order).
"I don’t know if it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, but it’s really kind of striking, in that this group of volunteers does as much as it does," Myers said.
"We don’t get much funding, but these are groups of volunteers and individuals who have developed a number of programs and publications that are readily available," Myers added.
The idea for the society, Krason said, developed from a remark that current Newark Archbishop John Myers, then the coadjutor bishop of Peoria, Ill., said to Joseph Varacalli, a sociology professor at Nassau Community College-SUNY, during a conference at Princeton University about Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) in the late 1980s.
"Where are the sociologists who are defending the Church?" Archbishop Myers asked Varacalli, who mulled the question over for years until he contacted Krason in 1992 to talk about picking up on the archbishop’s idea.
Following the 1992 annual convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Krason said a "good number" of social scientists expressed interest in forming a new organization that developed into the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.
From the beginning, the society’s members sought to resume the work of the many Catholic scholarship organizations that had studied the social sciences in the years before the Second Vatican Council. In the turmoil that followed Vatican II, Krason said Varacalli’s research found that many of those organizations either secularized or went out of existence.
The organizations "may have continued, but they didn’t stay loyal to the Church," said Krason, who noted that very few Catholic universities retained a strong Catholic identity in the years after the Council. "The general atmosphere was one of the Church opening itself to the world, but that often became an opening to and embracing the secular culture to some degree — and that’s where I think academics are prone to that kind of thing," Krason said.
"There was a big gap there. We sought to meet that challenge by building up Catholic scholarship in the social sciences, informed by sound philosophical principles and Catholic social teaching," Krason added. "The society gives Catholic social scientists a venue to perform social scholarship, and it is an opportunity for camaraderie in these fields. Many of these people are operating in mainly secularized venues."
Grasso said the society is among several initiatives that are trying to re-create a Catholic mind that is able to engage the modern world. The modern academy, he said, is often hostile to scholars such as himself, who do not operate from secularist presumptions.
"It’s very much an uphill climb," Grasso said. "You very much find yourself positioned as an outsider, trying to get your voice heard and your perspective taken seriously. There is just not a lot of interest in the secular academy on the kinds of subjects you study."
Myers said the organization’s activities have helped open up "a whole new world" to some younger professors on how they teach and think about their respective disciplines.
"It’s helped them to appreciate the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition on these issues so they can become better sociologists, economists and political scientists," Myers said. "I think Catholic social thought has a real rich perspective that isn’t adequately appreciated."
Grasso said he sees the society’s work fitting in with the New Evangelization. "Obviously, Catholic social teaching is an integral part of the New Evangelization," he said. "Catholicism has a very rich intellectual tradition, dating back to patristic times. Bringing that tradition, both developing that tradition and presenting it in a contemporary context, is an important part of the New Evangelization."
Myers said the society’s work has engaged Catholics and the broader academic community. "It’s a way of demonstrating the real strength of the Catholic intellectual tradition on these issues," he said.
Krason said he has seen more Catholics, and even non-Catholics, discovering and embracing the Church’s social teachings: "It’s kind of the Church’s best-kept secret in the United States. The Church’s teachings have a lot to offer that the secular perspectives don’t offer. ... You see a fuller picture of man in the full light of Church teaching."
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.