A visit to Vatican City

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences held its 12th Plenary Session at the Vatican from April 28 to May 2 on the theme of “Vanishing Youth? Solidarity with Children and Young People in an Age of Turbulence”. As part of the meeting, John O’Neill (right), distinguished research professor of sociology in York’s Faculty of Arts, delivered the plenary lecture to academy delegates. O’Neill was one of 33 academics invited to participate in the session which brought together academics, policy makers and youth from around the world.

The conference, which was organized by the University of Bologna in conjunction with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, was the second plenary session the academy has devoted to aspects of the topic of intergenerational solidarity. The subject is one of the four major themes upon which the academy has focused since its founding by Pope John Paul II in 1994. Conferences and studies exploring these topics (human work, democracy, globalization, and intergenerational solidarity) have resulted in several publications that have helped to deepen understanding in a manner relevant for the teaching of the Catholic church.

O’Neill’s lecture, titled “The Circle and the Line: Kinship, Vanishment and Globalization Narratives in a Rich/Poor World”, was delivered on April 28.

“The prospect of ‘vanishment’ represents the cultural horror of the lost child or generation, the unmarked grave, the end of the line,” said O’Neill. “In a rich/poor world we experience a crisis of kinship, shifting patterns of reproduction and gender relations, responding to globalized imbalances of wealth, health, education, employment and security.”

In his lecture, O’Neill analyzed the conflicting narratives contained in works by futurist Thomas Friedmann, The World Is Flat (2005), economist Branko Milanovic’s Worlds Apart (2005) and Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sach’s The End Of Poverty (2005). “What emerges is a vision of the world as either a globalized children’s war for the best jobs, or as a ladder with vastly uneven steps between the very rich and the very poor, yet one whose misery, poverty and disease could be charitably, painlessly and enjoyably ended for a few cents on the US dollar.”

O’Neill proposed that “we must learn to globalize our moral map by drawing upon the long history and practices of welfare state regimes that are embedded in a narrative of corrigibilty and intergenerational justice.”

He concluded with a plea for the recovery of the intelligence, generativity and citizenship of puella sacer…the world’s female child whose “vanishment leaves the patriarchal world stumbling on one leg.”

In its 2004 Plenary Session, the academy considered the issue of changing intergenerational relations primarily from the point of view of their impact on the aged and infirm. Among the conclusions of the 2004 meeting, however, were that the great demographic transitions of the late twentieth century have jeopardized the care of the very young as well as the frail, elderly and other dependent persons. The phenomenon was manifesting itself, in different forms, both in welfare states and in countries where government’s role in providing social services is minimal or non-existent.

With the 2006 Plenary Session, the academy continued its intergenerational solidarity studies by focusing on those at the beginning stages of the life cycle, with a view toward analyzing problems and finding solutions that shift probabilities in a more favourable direction for all concerned.

More about John O’Neill

John O’Neill is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto, a member of the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

He was a senior scholar at the Laidlaw Foundation (1993-1994), working on the Children at Risk Program. He is co-editor of the international quarterly, Philosophy of the Social Sciences and of The Journal of Classical Sociology. Currently, he is working on the political economy of child suffering, welfare state theory and civic practice.