History as the Teacher of Life

F. Russell Hittinger, who was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences by Pope Benedict XVI in September, speaks about his new role.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed professor F. Russell Hittinger in September to be a member of the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, established in 1994 by Pope John Paul II.

Hittinger, 60, is the Warren chair of Catholic studies at the University of Tulsa, where he is also research professor of law. He is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on social, political and juridical theory.

An adviser to the academy, his task will be to help further its mission of promoting social, economic, political and legal sciences in the light of the Church’s social teaching.

Hittinger spoke about that role and what his contribution will be.

What are your expectations of working with the academy?

I gave one of the keynote addresses at the 2008 plenary session on the coherence on the four basic principles of Catholic social doctrine. The other speaker was Bishop Roland Minnerath of Dijon [France] whom I had met for the first time and whom I was very impressed with.

I also had a chance to meet one of the leaders of the academy, a sociologist called Margaret Archer who’s at the University of Warwick in England. And then there was Pierpaolo Donati from Bologna who’s one of the best — if not the best — Italian sociologists. So I was very impressed and spent a week with them and got along with them quite well, so I already have a sense of being able to work with that group.

Also, of course, Mary Ann Glendon [head of the pontifical academy] is a very old friend of mine. We’ve been comparing notes about pontifical academies for years because I’ve been on the governing council of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

This is the fourth year of my being “consigliere” for that. That academy was founded by Leo XIII. If any academy was founded for the purpose of social doctrine, originally it was the Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

How can you best serve the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences?

I’m not a conventional social scientist. I study history, law and political science — they are all social sciences. But today I think social sciences are much more identified with what I would call mathematical models, especially economics.

Economics has become the really big player in the school yard and perhaps history less so, although I would count history as the mother of all the social sciences.

All of my work in philosophy, law and theology has a very distinct historical groundwork to it. My expertise is more in the recurrent patterns than in the novelties. And there is a big difference, even in social science, if you’re trying to study the recurrent patterns and/or what seems to be the exceptions and novelties of these studies. I’m on the side of these recurrent patterns. But you need both — you have to have both.

So you’re very much of the view that we have a lot to learn from history, that we should return to looking at history to better understand the world of today?

You bet. If you go back to John XXIII’s opening speech at the Second Vatican Council, that’s exactly what he said to all of the bishops. I think he said history is the teacher of life. That’s pretty much my view.

I don’t believe in reducing things to history, but it’s the best evidence for beginning one’s study in nearly anything.

For those unaware of pontifical academies, what important role do they play in the Church’s life?

These academies have an interesting history. There’s the Pontifical Academy of Science, which is really the oldest of them, then the Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 19th century — then called the Roman Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Social sciences didn’t become an academy until 1994. That was a real contribution of John Paul II.

But in Church documents, which I’ve studied going all the way back to the French Revolution — I’ve read hundreds of them — they talk about social issues all the time, but you never see them use the term social science.

Those two words, social science, really start to crop up around the time of the Second Vatican Council; because until then, social doctrine was primarily studied philosophically and theologically.

So, it’s more about applying those theories?

Yes, social doctrine is put under moral theology, which means it pertains to actions.

Would you also say this field has taken on a distinct humanitarian aspect since the Second Vatican Council?

Exactly. At the next plenary session in April or May, whose theme is “Crisis in a global economy, replanning the journey,” I’m slated to make some remarks in the first session on the impact of the crisis on persons and institutions. But if you look at the plan for this session, you just won’t believe how detailed it is.

It gets into everything, from the problem of the housing market in Third World countries to food production — you name it. So the Academy of Social Sciences has one foot in the perennial Catholic social teachings and the other really in concrete social realities. Of course, as we know, the big thing happening now is the largest economic crisis in a century or thereabouts.

How much does the academy advise the Pope?

In all these academies, we serve at the pleasure of the Holy Father. Academy can mean two things: One is purely honorific, sort of like the Academie Francaise, I guess. You don’t do anything; it’s just a profound honor to be in one.

Then the opposite extreme is an academy that actually gives degrees.

Most pontifical academies are somewhere in between — they actually do work, and the work is usually done in consultation through the Curia of the Holy See on issues that are important and that the Pope wants the academy to think about.

Many members of the academy are Europeans. Do you see your role as perhaps offering a more robust, American perspective on issues related to the natural law, for example, and Catholic social doctrine?

I’m not very self-conscious about that. I do think, from having worked for several years at the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, that American scholars tend to work hard, and they tend to be very professionally responsible. I think our European and South American and Asian colleagues would agree.

So if you invite an American to be on an academy, it’s almost guaranteed that he or she is going to do work. I think that’s the thing that most distinguishes the Americans.

As for the natural law, that’s probably true, too. Americans have always been known for their interest in natural law. But it has an upside and a downside to it.

The American fascination with natural law is not all light and roses. It has a very dark side to it, too, using it for perverse purposes.

We should never forget that the two most serious mistakes made by our Supreme Court were the Dred Scott [v. Sanford] case, in which the court made a natural-law argument in defense of slavery, and Roe v. Wade, in which a natural-law argument was virtually used to argue for the pro-choice position.

Perhaps it could also be said that these perversions in natural law have, inadvertently, resulted in a fine tradition of experts in natural law in the United States?

I would say the majority of important thinkers on natural law are American.

What is your perspective on the role of natural law in American politics today? Do you have any perspectives that you could bring to the academy?

There is an ongoing debate and conflict over this issue, particularly the life issues. The Catholic Church in the United States is probably the best organized group of Catholics in the world on these questions of human life and the public order.

So Americans have a lot of experience with that. But as I say, it’s also a place in which there’s a great deal of anguish and disappointment, too.

You’re working on a book on the evolution of Catholic social theory and doctrine during the 19th and 20th centuries. What insights have you come across in your research that can help us better understand the role of Catholic social doctrine in today’s world?

Catholic social doctrine really does have a beginning. It’s not really in the mists of history. It’s pretty easy to find out where it began.

It began right after the Napoleonic Wars, which not only caused great devastation in Europe, but brought into existence a new kind of entity called the state everywhere, based on the French model. The state was liberty, equality and fraternity — and it reduced fraternity to citizenship. This is why the Catholic Church said almost immediately: “We have no problem with liberty and equality — they sound like good things, but we’re not quite sure about this fraternity business.”

This was dangerous because, back then, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, fraternity meant a secularist reduction of human fellowship to citizenship, and, therefore, social doctrine begins just at that moment: when the Church had to defend social orders or fraternities higher than the state and lower than the state.

The Church uses a scissors-like criticism of the modern state; it forces the modern state to understand there are fraternities that are higher and lower than politics. So the Church gets into the basis of defending the Church, the family, marriage, voluntary associations.

This is why the Catholic Church, very early on, was even further ahead than the liberals in developing a theory of normative pluralism in the social order.

How did the Church view these issues before the Napoleonic Wars?

She tended to view them on an ad hoc basis because before the Napoleonic Wars all of these countries were Christian or Catholic. Therefore, if an important issue arises about the social order, that’s treated by the local Church and the sovereign.

So Versailles takes care of those kinds of problems in France, or the Emperor Joseph takes care of those kinds of issues in Austria and its dominions. The Church didn’t have this universal teaching voice on these issues because these belonged to the Catholic sovereigns and their courts.

So could one say the Napoleonic Wars helped the Church’s concern about these issues to become more universal?

The greatest thing the French Revolution ever did for the Catholic Church was that it made us a single Church, and the revolution taught the papacy how to regain its teaching mission. It’s a great irony that this change was occasioned by the French Revolution, which attacked the papacy!

The popes regained their munus docendi (mission of teaching), and because of it, it became necessary to protect the universality of the Church against the modern state. That’s what my book is about, just that very problem.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.