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July, 2019

How to Put On a World-Class Symposium

By Richard Wilkinson


William Wagner

In October 2004 the cardinal who would soon become Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to CUA’s president, Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., asking the university to consider planning an interreligious symposium. Its subject would be universally held moral principles, i.e., the common denominator of the moral principles held by people around the world — a concept that in the Roman Catholic tradition is generally thought of under the rubric of natural law. The cardinal hoped that such a symposium could generate ideas on how to foster a global culture possessing the moral insight to address the world’s pressing problems.

The recommended symposium, titled “A Common Morality for the Global Age: In Gratitude for What We Are Given,” will take place March 27-30, just three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI himself visits CUA to give an address to the presidents of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities as well as leaders of diocesan education. The principal funding for the symposium is being provided by the William E. Simon Foundation and Our Sunday Visitor Institute.

The remarkable thing, however, is not that the symposium will happen, but how excellently it is being done. The symposium’s 23 main speakers represent a "who’s who" list of some of the world’s leading thinkers in theology, philosophy, law and political science. They include Cardinal Angelo Scola, the patriarch of Venice, Italy, an eminent moral theologian (who will speak via satellite hookup); Stanley Hauerwas, a Duke University professor whom Time magazine has called the nation’s leading theologian; and Rev. John Polkinghorne, a leading British particle physicist and theologian who in 2002 received the $1.2 million Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities. The full list of speakers is listed on the symposium’s Web site,

Only five of the 28 persons invited to give major talks declined the offer, giving the symposium’s organizer, CUA law Professor William Wagner, a stellar .821 “batting average” in tapping leading thinkers. Wagner is director of CUA’s Center for Law, Philosophy and Culture, which is sponsoring the symposium.

Wagner's success is no fluke. He has a track record of putting on international symposia that attract big-name speakers. His past efforts include a 2001 symposium on the morality of the death penalty, which attracted the participation of scholars that included Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., and Judge John Noonan of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Wagner’s 2004 symposium on the stem cell debate in the United States and Germany attracted two members of the German parliament, a U.S. senator, a U.S. congressman, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

“If you want something done and done the right way, Bill Wagner is the man to put in charge,” says Patrick Brennan, holder of the John F. Scarpa Chair in Catholic Legal Studies at the Villanova University School of Law. “His passion for learning is joined to a remarkable knack for bringing people together to learn from one another through dialogue and fellowship.”

Father O’Connell agrees, saying that “to put it simply, Professor Wagner consistently meets the gold standard for organizing academic symposia. He was the first person I thought of when I received the letter from Cardinal Ratzinger.”

Wagner says his modus operandi in inviting speakers is to approach them in an open-ended way about a topic of intrinsic interest to them and to listen to what they have to say in return — if necessary adjusting the symposium agenda to include a talk that a speaker is particularly interested in presenting. Based on his knowledge of the scholar’s current work, he seeks to begin each conversation on a theme that is characteristic of the prospective speaker’s own thought.

Wagner says that as many as 400 people may attend the conference, and he hopes they will include philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, government policy makers, think tank commentators/analysts, as well as religious believers of all kinds. (Since the symposium is interreligious, half of its speakers are Catholic and nearly half are Protestant, with individual speakers who are Muslim, Buddhist and Taoist.) The law professor says he hopes to have attendees who are interested in the renewal of a morally attuned and vibrant culture that is capable of adaptive responses in this time of global challenge.

The Dome of Creation in Venice, Italy, pictured in the symposium's brochure, expresses how the gift of nature sustains, inspires and calls us to account, says Wagner. (Photo courtesy of the Basilica of San Marco.)
“This is an initiative of the pope, who, with great respect for the independence and unique role of universities, has sought to encourage an academic exchange that would be good for humanity, not just for Roman Catholics,” says Wagner. “He sees a breakdown of what used to be universally held moral principles. Problems arise in legislation, in particular, with measures taken with a short-sighted technocratic perspective, not considering the implications for humankind.”

The professor attributes much of the success in putting together the symposium to the institutional support he has received. “Father O’Connell had the vision to creatively draw on university resources in order to rise to the challenge the pope has formulated, and Catholic University’s deans have been very generous in helping me organize the symposium,” he says.

Wagner hopes the symposium will contribute to the formation of a community among the symposium attendees and eventually among scholars and policy makers throughout the world — an attachment among religious believers who want to contribute to a culture in which people are able to approach concrete problems with a better grounding in basic values. He plans to publish the symposium’s principal addresses in the Journal of Law, Philosophy and Culture, a new periodical published by the Center for Law, Philosophy and Culture.

He speaks with enthusiasm about the potential of this symposium. “We hope that the talks give rise to concepts, arguments, explanations and insights that will facilitate the cultural renewal advanced through the formation of this community. The symposium will facilitate original work from independent minds — no one has told the speakers what to think here. They were invited because they are very brilliant people who have track records of contributions in just this area. We hope that the symposium will help them further refine their thinking, and then we can disseminate it.  In encountering other first-rate thinkers across disciplinary lines, they will be stimulated to think matters through in original and seminal ways.”

Some of the questions Wagner hopes will be addressed include the following:

  • How does culture in its practices, institutions and language kindle or reinforce what philosopher Jacques Maritain called the “connatural” inclination of all peoples to appreciate what is true, fulfilling and upright?
  • What breakdown in culture interferes with a culture’s ability to transmit that connatural inclination?
  • In religious traditions, what symbol systems and what liturgical practices and observances orient us to that inclination and how do they do so?
  • Within Christianity, how do the symbols related to God’s creation help people appreciate what is true, fulfilling and right?  How do the symbols and understanding of redemption do that same thing?
  • In the theological terms of creation and redemption, how does sin or alienation from God disrupt that appreciation and understanding?
  • How do other religions — Islam, Judaism and Taoism — transmit the connatural inclination?  How do their beliefs and practices serve to nurture and sustain their adherents in a fundamental responsiveness to what love and reason say about right conduct and the good of all?

According to Wagner, the pope is interested ultimately in contributing to a sounder cultural basis for laws and lawmaking. Wagner hopes that some questions related to that area will also be addressed, including the following:

  • How effective is the concept of “human rights” in renewing the cultural underpinnings of moral discourse?
  • How, under international law, could the world assign responsibility for environmental harms?
  • How should the world go about creating a legal structure grounded not in fear but in love and respect, and still be capable of protecting us all from terrorism and war?


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Last Revised 03-Mar-08 03:37 PM.