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Acton Institute’s Assisi conference explores roots of poverty, engines of wealth

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On September 12-14 the Acton Institute’s Rome office hosted its third annual “Economics, Development and Human Flourishing” conference in Assisi for seminarians and formation staff of the Vatican’s Pontifical Urban College.

Intense discussion and open debate was stimulated by challenging lectures on economics, political philosophy, anthropology, and Catholic social doctrine. The lectures were reinforced by showings of the Institute’s  video curriculum “PovertyCure”, a six-episode DVD rich in graphic content, intellectual analysis and dramatic stories about poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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An African seminarian asks a tough question about economic injustice.

The second-year theology students — from different developing-world nations spanning 3 continents– listened attentively and asked provocative questions related to economic growth and poverty alleviation. Many questions regarded political corruption, crony capitalism, the causes of wealth, the meaning of vocation, material scarcity, as well as some very specific economic concerns in their home countries.

Acton’s president and co-founder, Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Poverty, Inc. producer Michael Matheson Miller traveled from Grand Rapids, while academic contributions from Rome scholars included Istituto Acton’s director, Kishore Jayabalan, and Salvatore Rebecchini, president of SIMEST, a company that promotes Italian investment in foreign markets.

During his talk on the role of the laity in the public square, the church and business world, Rev. Sirico emphasized the need for priests and other religious to delegate and foster leadership so that they can better serve the faithful as spiritual pastors; furthermore, he asked them to appreciate and encourage the laity in their real individual professional callings, especially faithful entrepreneurs and business persons who see themselves as “co-creators” with God’s plan in carrying out their various risky enterprises. This point was echoed by Michael Matheson Miller’s anthropological reflections on the human person’s potency, even if sinful and fallen, to pursue magnanimous ends for the common good of civilization. Miller invited the seminarians and formation team to ponder C.S. Lewis’s famous words about never having met a “mere mortal”, since human beings are capable of “everlasting splendors” when living out their true potential according God’s will for their individual gifts while receiving adequate spiritual direction in an increasingly antagonistic secular society.

Some of the most riveting discussion came during one of the plenary discussions following Salvatore’s Rebecchini’s talk on economic growth. One seminarian wondered just how much big business can be “free”, especially in terms of cartels and monopolies being established in closed-door deals with governments and their business cronies. Other students directed their questions to corporate takeovers crowding out SMEs, price controls and what, in effect, was the limit and purpose of international aid.

Kishore Jayabalan focused one of his lectures on the meaning of material and spiritual poverty, while stressing the need to cultivate a spirit detachment in prosperous individuals who can do much good with their wealth if maintaining a healthy spiritual and theological perspective.

At the end of the conference, the participants stressed their appreciation of the PovertyCure film’s realism, especially in the episode “Circles of Exchange“, when evaluating the film’s criticism of ways in which developing markets are too often cut off from viable networks of productivity and exchange, resources and stymied by various injustices which free societies take for granted, such as the rule of law, property rights, and a culture of meritocracy.

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Michael Severance

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