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The most admired visionary of her generation

How much the Church and humanity owes to the catholic economist Barbara Ward

"Mankind owes much, the Church no less," wrote Father Bernard Lambert in the "L'Osservatore Romano" of 23 June 1981, remembering the death of a woman of exceptional qualities, Barbara Ward.

Her education was unusual: born in 1914 in a town in Yorkshire, the daughter of a Quaker lawyer and of a deeply Catholic woman, Barbara Ward attended first, in England, a religious school then, in Paris, the Lycée Molière, after this the Sorbonne and then another university in Germany, the Guggenheim, graduating from Oxford in 1935 with the highest honours in a Masters in philosophy, economics and politics.

Undoubtedly an uncommon prospect, supported by a particularly brilliant mind, a lively eloquence which was accompanied by a prodigious memory, that made her a most admired public-speaker. She had a great gift for languages, but also for music - so much so she even contemplated becoming an opera singer during a certain period of her youth. These were qualities which were accompanied – writes Lambert – by "an infinite humanity, modesty and a wonderful smile."

The first example we have of this was when, after having become acquainted with anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany where she lived as a young university student, she worked for the Catholic movement in opposition to Nazism, “Sword of the Spirit”, of which she was the secretary.

Deeply religious, she showed the greatest proof of her spirituality in the last days of her life when - while separated from her husband and suffering from a tumour, against which she had struggled for 15 years and which had made it difficult for her to ingest food - she said that her struggles were her secret way of offering her suffering to alleviate the misery of the children who suffered from hunger and thirst around the world.

She published her first book at only twenty-four years age. The International Share-Out was indicative of her vision of international political relations and human development, a vision which strongly influenced the thinking of several generations.

It was this book that drew the attention of the director of '"The Economist," Crowther, who, in 1938, offered her work in the prestigious magazine where she remained until 1950, the year of her marriage. In her early thirties, in 1947, Crowther entrusted her with a socio-economic investigation in the United States to understand “ what was on the U.S. mind ”. Barbara completed her task brilliantly, as might be expected, fully deserving the positive comment from the weekly magazine "Time" which wrote that: "The Director of the Economist confidently sent a girl to do a man's job." Her training as an economist also took her to the American universities of Harvard and Columbia in New York where she had a dazzling career as a professor of political economy.

Barbara Ward was always attentive to the future and it is from this that her participation beginning in the seventies in environmental issues derives, which made her, as President of the International Institute for Environment and Development, the first advocate of sustainable development. Of particular significance is the fact that, when she was appointed President of the Institute, she changed its name from the International Institute for Environment Affairs to the International Institute for Environment and Development, to demonstrate that the study of the environment could not be considered apart from a reflection on prosperity and international justice.

But this was not all; her vision allowed her, even in those years, to predict the importance – an importance which has grown throughout the years - of the participation of society, especially in relation to environmental issues. In one of her most well-known books, commissioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the environment, written with the scientist René Dubos, we read: "given that a politics of the human environment requires both an assessment of a social character as well as specialized scientific knowledge, intelligent and informed non-professionals can often contribute to its formation as much as experts. In certain cases, they can actually be more astute judges because their general view of the complexity of human problems is not deformed by the parochialism which often goes alongside technical specializations. "

The copyrights for that book , One earth. Care and maintenance of a small planet - a best seller at the time - went to a trust fund for environmental education, which was to be spent according to the aims of the United Nations Conference on the human environment. Barbara Ward participated, with a leading role in all the major UN conferences of her time: the Stockholm Environmental conference (1972), in Bucharest on Population (1974), in Rome on nutrition, in Mexico City on Women (1975) and in Vancouver regarding habitats (1976).

Considered one of the leading international experts in the twentieth century, she was described, by the weekly magazine 'Time' in relatively recent times as, "one of the major and most influential visionaries of the twentieth century."

Over fifty years ago, Barbara Ward argued that a global economic system which has the participation of all nations needs global institutions, to moderate the international dimensions of inequality and exploitation, and she pointed out that, the great powers, having created a single world economic system in competition with each other, the interdependencies could not be ignored.

Many elements of this vision of development and of the international order can be found in a small valuable book entitled The Angry Seventies written and published in 1971 at the request of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, an organization she was a member of for almost a decade.

Barbara Ward was one of the first women to play a leading role in the Church, particularly in creating and starting off what is now the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the ministry of the Roman Curia willed by the Council Fathers. During the Second Vatican Council Barbara Ward was part of a small group of experts on the problems of the world (the “conspirators”) from a common background of ecclesial experiences and work to alleviate poverty, who tried, with success, to add to the document on the Church in the contemporary world, the theme of human development.

James Norris, a personal friend of Paul VI and Mother Teresa, who was part of this group, intervened in the aula on the basis of a famous memorandum drafted by Barbara Ward in 1963 which was then circulated during the third session entitled World Poverty and the Christian Conscience , which put great emphasis on the enormous gap between rich and poor countries. To address this problem, according to Barbara Ward, ecumenical cooperation was indispensable, a proposal that Paul VI welcomed when he gave the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace its final statute. The day after the establishment of the commission, Barbara Ward was appointed as a member by Paul VI and remained so until the end of her life in 1981. During this period, at the request of the Commission, Barbara Ward wrote a short book entitled Towards a New Creation? In preparation for the UN conference on the environment.

Pope Paul VI also appointed her as lay-consultant attached to the Special Secretary of the Synod of Bishops in 1971, dedicated to the theme of justice. Even there, her involvement in the ancient Aula of the Synod did not fail strongly to impress cardinals and bishops who, in such an environment, for the first time, found themselves listening to a woman who spoke, moreover, on technical topics, also giving pastoral suggestions.

One can well understand, therefore, how Barbara Ward would have been decorated for her work with the highest British honours and also nominated in 1976, as a peer of the realm. When she died, "The Times" of London called her "one of the most significant and admired women of her generation."

The story of Barbara Ward is told by the first lay woman to become part of the summits of the Curia, having been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. An expert in economics and social politics, she grew up in Brussels and graduated in political science, Flaminia Giovanelli - who is fluent in four languages - began working in the Vatican in 1974, and was soon highly regarded for her ability to manage and tackle the thorniest issues.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 20, 2020