As dean of social sciences at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (also called the Angelicum), Dominican Sister Helen Alford is the first woman faculty head of the university, whose famous alumni include the late John Paul II.

She is also only the second woman to head a department at any of Rome’s pontifical universities. Born in South London, Sister Helen studied engineering at the University of Cambridge before joining the Dominicans and coming to the Angelicum in 1996.

She recently spoke about her journey to the faith, her views on Pope Benedict XVI’s first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), and the impact the document is likely to have on economics today.

Have the Dominicans always been dedicated to social justice, or is it something that has only really evolved since Vatican II?

The order has a particular way of looking at it, but because numbers are going down, people are concentrating on what you might call the core business of the Dominicans, which is obviously more in theology and philosophy and to be more direct evangelizers and preachers.

But there is a tradition of Dominican involvement in social justice. … St. Thomas [Aquinas] has a lot of writings, being a pre-Reformation theologian, on politics and economic questions, and a worldview from the point of view of Christian revelation. So, Dominicans have always been interested in this.

Everyone thinks of [Hugo] Grotius as the founder of international law, but really, when people look at it, they realize that Francisco de Vitoria was very important — and Francisco Suarez. And not only Dominicans, but Jesuits as well.

The Dominican tradition goes right back [to] when they would talk about usury, a little bit about slavery, and there’s still some of that going on, questions to do with bonded labor, and that was much more important than slavery.

What got you interested in this field?

It really started at university. I wanted to study engineering, and I liked sciences, but I didn’t want to do natural sciences, so I thought it would be more interesting to do engineering.

When I was, I think, in my second year, one of the lecturers gave us this paper to read — “Engineers and the Work People Do” by [Howard] Rosenbrock of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. That really hit me between the eyes.

Would you say there’s visible evidence that economies have become more human-centered?

It’s possible to think that it has, but it depends a lot on a number of factors: How short-term is the vision of the management? How much do they see the importance of the human being?

Would you say the corporate world has become more just?

It’s really difficult to say. It has changed, but whether you could say overall it has become more just, I don’t know.

In the encyclical, the Pope points out that in some areas we have seen progression, but in others regression, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to say. It wouldn’t cost these people that much more to give people [living in labor camps and sweat shops] a living wage and not to practically lock them up in camps.

In a way, because those jobs would be going to poorer people at home, we’re playing off the poor people in our country against even poorer people in a poorer county. But these rich people are playing off vulnerable groups in society and getting the best deal for themselves, saying in the end it’s best for the poor people.

Does the encyclical address these issues well?

Well, it does talk about international inequalities. It’s already a very long document, and some people have said it’s a bit too long. It’s very aware of this issue, and anyone who wants to take Catholic social teaching seriously in this kind of field — top Catholic managers who have plants in Angola or Dubai, for example — if they read this kind of thing, they should ask themselves twice.

It’s not easy to find a solution because they’re not necessarily the ones ultimately pushing for this.

Behind them are all the shareholders, so they’re not always in an easy position, but when they say they can’t do anything else — anyone who knows anything about business strategy knows there’s always another way of doing things.

You can find another way if you want to. That’s another way this encyclical is important because it gives people a motivation.

Interestingly, the encyclical says that love is this motivational force that makes us work for development. He focuses first on that. And, you know, these top managers are not nasty people with no ethical values — if they really have that force of love within them to push them, they could come up with better solutions than this.

It comes down to the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” If they only realized that, perhaps?

Yes, absolutely. Sometimes people feel completely powerless in the face of the huge world economy, but in terms of the world market, there are 700 big multinationals. They control the vast bulk of trade that’s going on.

Okay, it’s 700, but it’s not thousands or millions; it’s 700 top managers around the world who together influence what’s going on. It’s not an impossible number to deal with, given the size of the employees and that kind of thing. They’re used to dealing with big numbers.

They could come up with much better solutions but must have motivation to do it. It’s also very important that the shareholders too pick this up, and that’s where ethical finance is very important. If you have shareholders really grinding down on you for short-term results, it is much harder to come up with creative solutions.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.