Category: Acton Commentary

In today’s Acton Commentary, “Debt and the Birth Dearth,” I examine the interrelationship between demographics, economics, and morality, especially within the context of America’s current public debt crisis.

I conclude by pointing to the spiritual nature of our “debts”:

Jesus taught Christians to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” If we do not renew and reform our culture along the lines suggested here, a renewal that must be led by Christians acting as agents of transformative grace, the debts for which we must pray forgiveness will be far weightier than those incurred by the federal government.

In a primary sense, of course, all of our debts, sins, and transgressions are more than we can afford to make recompense for. This is why the atoning work of Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, is of fundamental importance.

But this reality doesn’t remove our responsibility to respond to God’s saving grace in thankfulness and in “fear and trembling.” Instead Christ’s work makes our even meager attempts at faithfulness possible and meaningful.

The Heidelberg Catechism describes this daily conversion of the Christian, the turning away from sin and toward Christ, in terms of death and life, mortification and vivification. This “mortification of the old man” is a dying-to-self, “a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.” Vivification, by contrast, is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.”

A critical part of this “joy of heart in God, through Christ,” must manifest itself in the celebration of God’s gift of life itself. This includes promoting faithful procreation and parenting, and as Russell Moore has argued so well, promoting a culture of adoption.

Luther famously described parenthood as a sacred calling.

Preaching on “The Estate of Marriage” in 1522, Luther said:

Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.”

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, “O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”

A wife too should regard her duties in the same light, as she suckles the child, rocks and bathes it, and cares for it in other ways; and as she busies herself with other duties and renders help and obedience to her husband. These are truly golden and noble works. This is also how to comfort and encourage a woman in the pangs of childbirth, not by repeating St. Margaret legends and other silly old wives’ tales but by speaking thus, “Dear Grete, remember that you are a woman, and that this work of God in you is pleasing to him. Trust joyfully in his will, and let him have his way with you. Work with all your might to bring forth the child. Should it mean your death, then depart happily, for you will die in a noble deed and in subservience to God. If you were not a woman you should now wish to be one for the sake of this very work alone, that you might thus gloriously suffer and even die in the performance of God’s work and will. For here you have the word of God, who so created you and implanted within you this extremity.” Tell me, is not this indeed (as Solomon says [Prov. 18:22]) “to obtain favor from the Lord,” even in the midst of such extremity?

Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith—my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.

[Martin Luther, vol. 45, Luther's Works, Vol. 45: The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works, 39-41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).]

Thus Christians, in celebrating life, marriage, family, and children, must risk being worldly derision and ridicule, relying on heavenly wisdom rather than the devil’s foolishness.

New books from Pope Benedict XVI and Fr. Hans Kung, two theologians who worked as contemporaries and whose careers were nurtured on the same German soil, show them to be worlds apart in their understanding of the Catholic Church. Unlike Kung, Benedict’s vision of the Church, writes Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg,  is “focused upon deepening its knowledge of, faithfulness to, and love for Christ. It’s also a Church that engages the world, but is not subservient to passing intellectual-fashion. Finally, it’s a Church which is evangelical in the best sense of the word: proposing – rather than hedging or imposing – the Truth revealed by Christ.” Special thanks to RealClearReligion, Fr. Z’s Blog, CatholicCulture.org and The Pulp.it for posting this commentary. Get Acton News & Commentary in your email inbox every Wednesday. Sign up here.

Benedict XVI, Hans Kung and Catholicism’s Future

By Samuel Gregg

Western Europe is considered a religiously-barren place these days. The reality, however, is more complex. Books written by two Catholic theologians recently rocketed up Germany’s best-seller list. That testifies to Europe’s on-going interest in religious matters. But the books’ real importance lies in their authors’ rather different visions of Catholicism’s purposes and future – and not just in Europe, but beyond.

One of the theologians is Benedict XVI. The other is the well-known scholar Fr. Hans Kung. His text, Can the Church Still Be Saved?, was published the same week as volume two of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Though usually viewed as polar-opposites, Benedict and Kung have led curiously parallel lives. Both are native German-speakers. They are almost the same age. For a time, both taught at the same university. During the Second Vatican Council, they served as theological advisors with reputations as reformers.

More-attuned participants at Vatican II, however, immediately noticed differences between Kung and the-then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. One such person was the Jesuit Henri de Lubac – a French theologian who no-one could dismiss as a reactionary.

In his Vatican II diaries, de Lubac entered pithy observations about those he encountered. Ratzinger is portrayed as one whose powerful intellect is matched by his “peacefulness” and “affability.” Kung, by contrast, is denoted as possessing a “juvenile audacity” and speaking in “incendiary, superficial, and polemical” terms.

Fr. de Lubac, incidentally, was a model of courtesy his entire life. Something about Kung clearly bothered him.

After Vatican II, Ratzinger and Kung took very divergent roads. Ratzinger emerged as a formidable defender of Catholic orthodoxy and was eventually elected pope. Kung became a theological celebrity and antagonist of the papacy.

Now both men are in the evening of their earthly days. What, many wonder, occupies their minds at this time of life? In this regard, Jesus of Nazareth and Can the Church still be saved? are quite revealing.

From Jesus of Nazareth’s first pages, it’s clear Benedict is focused upon knowing the truth about Christ as He is rather than who we might prefer Him to be.

Through a deep exposition of Scripture many Evangelicals will admire and a careful exploration of tradition the Eastern Orthodox will appreciate, Benedict shows Christ is who the ancient Church proclaims Him to be – not a political activist, but rather the Messiah who really lived, really died and who then proved his divinity by really rising from the dead.

So what is Kung’s book focused upon? In a word, power. For Kung, it’s all about power – especially papal power – and the need for lay Catholics to seize power if the Church is to be “saved” from sinister Roman reactionaries who have perverted Christianity for centuries.

Leaving aside its cartoon-like presentation of Church history, the Christ of Kung’s book is one who would apparently disavow his own teachings on subjects such as marriage because they don’t conform to twenty-first century secularist morality. Instead, Kung’s Christ faithfully follows the views of, well, progressive post-Vatican II German theologians.

For long-term Kung-watchers, this is nothing new. He’s been playing the same broken record since 1965. And the worn-out tune is that of accommodation: more precisely, accommodation to secularist-progressivism.

Unfortunately for Kung, he has two problems. One is theological. No matter how much scandal has been caused by Borgia popes, inept bishops, heretical theologians, sexually-predatory clergy or sinful laity, the Catholic Church teaches “the gates of hell will never prevail against it.”

In short, the cosmological battle has already been won. Hence the Church isn’t anyone’s to be “saved.” Yes, all Catholics and other Christians continue to sin, but the Church’s survival has been guaranteed by Christ. In that light, the notion the Church needs to be “saved” by late middle-aged dissenting baby-boomers is more than absurd: it’s also arrogant.

Kung’s agenda also has a practical problem. Put simply, it’s failed. Whether it is interpreting Vatican II as a rupture with the past or banalizing the liturgy with clown masses and 1970s music, no-one can plausibly claim the accommodationist project infused life into Catholicism.

Instead, it produced ashes. In much of the West, it facilitated moral relativism, a bureaucratization of church organizations, and the collapse of once-great religious orders into not-especially coherent apologists for name-your-latest-lefty-cause.

In what’s left of accommodationist circles, woe betide anyone who highlights the dark side of the Greens’ agenda, who suggests the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change doesn’t share in the charisma of infallibility, or who observes that the small number of non-negotiables for Catholics in political life actually are non-negotiable. To do so is anathema.

Benedict’s vision of the Church is utterly different. It does not indulge the fantasy that a “new church” somehow materialized in 1965. Nor does it hanker after an imaginary 1950s golden age.

Instead it’s a Church focused upon deepening its knowledge of, faithfulness to, and love for Christ. It’s also a Church that engages the world, but is not subservient to passing intellectual-fashion. Finally, it’s a Church which is evangelical in the best sense of the word: proposing – rather than hedging or imposing – the Truth revealed by Christ.

But perhaps the most revealing difference between Benedict and Fr. Kung’s books is the tone. Can the Church still be saved? is characterized by anger – the fury of an enfant terrible who’s not-so-enfant anymore and who knows the game is up: that his vision of Catholicism can’t be saved from the irredeemable irrelevance into which it has sunk.

Jesus of Nazareth, however, is pervaded by humility: the humility of one who approaches human history’s greatest mystery, applies to it his full intellect, and then presents his contribution for others’ assessment.

Yes, there are many things going on in Benedict’s book, but in the end there’s only one agenda really in play and it has nothing to do with power. It’s about helping readers to encounter the fullness of Christ in the most important days of His earthly life – to know what God was willing to do to save us from ourselves.

Besides such things, Hans Kung’s agenda seems very trivial indeed.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy

The Catholic Church has long been one of the most insistent voices concerning the obligation of wealthy nations to assist less developed nations. Philip Booth, author of the new Acton monograph International Aid and Integral Human Development, looks at this tradition and finds that the Church’s endorsement of aid is highly qualified — a positive sign of increasing awareness that old methods of development assistance may not be as helpful as previously thought. Indeed, there is good evidence to believe that aid might even harm the citizens of the countries that receive it. Get Acton News & Commentary in your email inbox every Wednesday. Sign up here.

Solidarity, Charity and Government Aid

By Philip Booth

Of all Christ’s teachings as reflected in the gospel accounts, there is none as consistent as his defense of the poor and downtrodden. This teaching applies also to international relations and individual and societal responsibilities toward the poor and marginalized beyond one’s own borders. The Christian desire to assist the economic development of poorer peoples is founded on the principle at the heart of the Christian life: love. To be concerned about and act in favor of the poor around the world is to practice the virtue of charity.

However, in this context, it is a mistake to equate charity with government aid. When the Church talks about solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, it usually refers to these concepts in the context of charity: the service of love in providing for one’s neighbor without expecting anything in return. In his 2009 World Peace Day message, for example, Pope Benedict XVI said: “[I]t is timely to recall in particular the ‘preferential love for the poor’ in the light of the primacy of charity, which is attested throughout the Christian tradition, beginning with that of the early Church.”

Booth

This is not to say that there is no role for governments in providing aid for poor nations. However, such aid does not fulfill our duty of solidarity, and it is for individual Christians to make prudential judgments as to whether government aid is effective in aiding the poor. That government provision of any good, service, or assistance does not discharge our duties and cannot bring the world to perfection was made clear by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate: “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (no. 38).

Political authorities play their part in bringing about the common good. To do this, they set the framework of laws within which individuals, families, and communities operate. The state may also enact laws where sins of omission are of sufficient seriousness to prevent people from participating in the common good. Thus if charity is not sufficiently generous to allow people to have the basics of life (such as food, clean water, and healthcare) the state may step in. It may do this on an international basis if the capacity of individual national states is insufficient. The state may also provide certain infrastructure that is necessary to promote the common good.

These guidelines leave a wide area for judgment in four respects. First, if government aid actually does more harm than good, it would be imprudent to use aid to try to promote the common good. Second, we may wish to use government policy to encourage more voluntary support. Third, there is the question of how much aid should be provided and how it should be delivered. Finally, especially if it is shown that aid does not raise the living standards of a recipient country, we may wish to pursue other policies to try to bring about long-term and fruitful change in the political and economic character of a country.

In Caritas, aid is mentioned 19 times and development over 250 times. That Pope Benedict has not abandoned papal exhortations to governments to provide aid is clear. He states: “Economically developed nations should do all they can to allocate larger portions of their gross domestic product to development aid” (no. 60). This passage must be read in context, however. It is the only point in the encyclical where more aid of this type is explicitly recommended. On 15 of the 19 occasions on which the word aid is used, the Holy Father is critical of aid agencies, the way in which Western governments provide aid, or of the way in which recipient governments use aid.

Benedict writes: “International aid has often been diverted from its proper ends, through irresponsible actions” (no. 22). He reminds us of the “grave irresponsibility of the governments of former colonies.” Those responsible have a duty—a very serious duty given the historical record—to ensure that aid is provided in a bottom-up way that genuinely leads to development for the poor.

The pope also stresses the importance of “institution building” for development (e.g., no. 41). Caritas suggests that a main focus of development aid should be to ensure that institutions exist so that the rule of law, protection of property rights, and a properly functioning democracy thrive. “The focus of international aid, within a solidarity-based plan to resolve today’s economic problems,” Benedict writes, “should rather be on consolidating constitutional, juridical and administrative systems in countries that do not yet fully enjoy these goods” (no. 41).

Benedict criticizes tied aid (assistance that must be spent in the nation providing it) and warns about aid dependency; he also demands a removal of developed-country trade barriers, which stop underdeveloped countries from selling their goods and produce. Indeed, he links the two points and suggests, in keeping with the tradition of Catholic social teaching, that aid should be temporary and that trade is the “principal form of assistance” to be provided to underdeveloped countries. In other words, countries should not be dependent on aid but move away from aid toward self-supporting economies.

Caritas also has advice for those involved in distributing aid, including agencies and charities. As the pope says: “International organizations might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly” (no. 47). He calls for complete financial transparency for all aid organizations. He blames both providers of aid and recipients for diverting money from the purposes for which it was intended. He expresses concern that aid can lead to dependence and also, if badly administered, can give rise to exploitation and oppression. This can happen where aid budgets are large in relation to developing countries’ domestic budgets and the money gets into the hands of the rich and powerful rather than the poor and needy.

This analysis leaves open, however, the issue of how we should respond if the political, legal, and economic environment is not only hostile to economic development but also such that aid will be wasted and may be used to centralize power within corrupt political systems. Aid, in the wrong political environment, might do significant harm. Indeed, there is no substantial economic evidence that aid does significant good and a lot of evidence to suggest that it might harm the citizens of the countries that receive it.

Philip Booth is editorial and program director at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. This article was excerpted from Booth’s new Acton monograph International Aid and Integral Human Development.

In a new essay for Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg explains why we shouldn’t only focus on public sector unions as examples of organizations that seek government power and taxpayer dollars to advance their ends. “A considerable portion of the business community is equally culpable,” Gregg writes. Excerpt:

The attractions of business-government collusion are enhanced when the state’s involvement in the economy grows. This is partly a question of incentives. The larger the scope of government economic intervention, the more businesses are incentivized to cultivate politicians in much the same way that public sector unions have.

As a result, consumers become displaced as the focus of business activity. Nor do the incentives for people of an entrepreneurial bent lie with creating something that the entrepreneur thinks consumers will value.

Instead the incentives become increasingly aligned with successful political entrepreneurship. Competition becomes less about a company’s ability to offer new and better products for consumers at lower prices. Instead, it become a struggle among businesses to secure state subsidies, to lobby legislators to establish tariffs that stack the deck against foreign competition, or to persuade governments to provide one company with exemptions from regulations that apply to every other company in the same industry.

It’s a form of soft corruption that produces higher prices for consumers, undermines value creation in the marketplace, and facilitates unwholesome relationships between politicians and businesses. It also represents the gradual subversion of the market economy by mercantilist arrangements. Smith identified the core of the problem in his Wealth of Nations (1776): “in the mercantile system, the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and consumption.”

In the end, however, everyone loses.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Business vs. the Market” on the Public Discourse website.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Thursday, March 10, 2011

A new commentary from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Sign up here to get the latest opinion pieces delivered to your email inbox on Wednesday with the free weekly Acton News & Commentary.

Deficit Denial, American-Style

By Samuel Gregg

Until recently it was thought the primary message of the 2010 Congressional election was that Americans were fed up with successive governments’ willingness to run up deficit-after-deficit and their associated refusal to seriously restrain public spending.

If, however, the results of a much-discussed Wall St Journal-NBC News poll released on March 2 indicate what Americans really think about fiscal issues, then much of the country is clearly in denial – i.e., refusing to acknowledge truth – about what America needs to do if it doesn’t want to go the way of many Western European nations.

While the poll reveals considerable concern about government debt, it also underscores how unwilling many Americans are to reduce those welfare programs that, in the long-term, are central to the deficit-problem.

Here are the raw facts. America’s federal social security program has become the largest government pension scheme in the world in terms of sheer dollars. It is also by far the federal budget’s single greatest expenditure item.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, “human services” ― Social Security; Medicare; Health-expenditures; Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services; Veterans benefits; and the euphemistically-named “Income Security” (i.e., unemployment-benefits) ― were consuming 4 percent of America’s GDP in 1949. By 1976, this figure had increased to 11.7 percent. In 2009, it was consuming 15.3 percent of GDP.

During the same period, human services began consuming a steadily-increasing size of federal government expenditures. In 1967, human services spending was 32.6 percent of the federal budget. By 2009, this figure had increased to 61.3 percent. It is predicted to rise to 67 percent by 2016. In 2010, 75 percent of human services spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Income Security ― in short, the core welfare state.

These disturbing numbers make it clear any serious federal deficit reduction must involve spending-cuts to federal welfare programs. That doesn’t mean other areas of government-spending should be immune from cuts. But the deficit simply can’t be properly addressed without a serious willingness to reduce welfare-expenditures.

And yet despite all the passionate rhetoric from Americans about the need to diminish government-spending, the Wall St Journal-NBC News poll suggests that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare as deficit-reduction measures. As the Wall St Journal’s own commentators noted: “Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’

Unacceptable? Think about that word. Do large numbers of Americans really believe there is something morally evil about significant reductions to welfare-spending under any circumstances? Since when – apart from Greece and other models of fiscal rectitude – have welfare payments assumed the status of an absolute right subject to no qualification? Have we really gone so far down the path of economic-Europeanization?

Granted, the same poll suggests much larger numbers of Americans are willing to raise the retirement age to 69 and means-test social security. But is that the best Americans are willing to do?

Spain’s unreconstructed-1960s-lefty Socialist government has just lifted Spain’s retirement-age to 67. Unsurprisingly, that won’t fully kick-in until 2027, long after Spain’s political class and their tame voting constituencies have met their Maker and no longer need to live off their children’s futures. But can Americans who proclaim their attachment to free enterprise and personal responsibility really do no better than left-wing Western Europeans?

Back in 2007, the journalist Robert J. Samuelson summarized the situation perfectly. “Most Americans,” he wrote, “don’t want to admit that they are current or prospective welfare recipients. They prefer to think that they automatically deserve whatever they’ve been promised simply because the promises were made. Americans do not want to pose the basic questions, and their political leaders mirror that reluctance. This makes the welfare state immovable and the budget situation intractable.”

Presidential campaigns are invariably accompanied by a great deal of posturing. It would be helpful, however, if some serious candidates for the nation’s highest office in 2012 – Republican or Democrat – would use their moment in the spotlight to educate Americans about what’s at stake.

One former American vice-president once reportedly insisted, “Deficits don’t matter.” Unfortunately, there is mounting proof he was wrong. After examining data on 44 countries over approximately 200 years, two economists recently found evidence suggesting that developed nations with gross public debt levels exceeding 90 percent of GDP (i.e., America) find that their medium-growth rates fall by one percent, while average growth declines by an even greater proportion.

That’s worrying because while deficit-cutting matters, wealth-creation matters even more if we are to dig ourselves out of our fiscal hole. America now seriously risks seeing its burgeoning welfare costs suffocating the productive sector of the economy that makes social welfare possible in the first place.

Incidentally, it won’t be the rich who suffer. It will be the poor. In their laudable concern for the weakest among us, Americans ought to remember that and start matching political rhetoric with consistent fiscal action.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Back to Budget Basics,” I argue that the public debt crisis facing the federal government is such that “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.” This piece summarizes much of my analysis of various Christian budget campaigns over the last week (here, here, and here).

There are things that are more or less central to the primary task of government, and our spending priorities should reflect that relative proximity. Things like defense spending, whether or not these funds could be spent better and more efficiently, are central to the role of the federal government. Various kinds of social spending, whether or not they are good and effective, are not clearly so central.

I cite the example of Abraham Kuyper as a model to follow in attempting to outline the various responsibilities of social institutions, especially the church and the government, with respect to poverty. Kuyper first says that any resort to government aid for the poor is “a blot on the honor” of Jesus Christ. This relief is first and foremost a task for Christians, not the government. But he also adds that if and when Christians fail in their charitable callings, the State must intervene, “quickly and sufficiently” (snel en voldoende). The “sufficiency” of this response lies at least in part in its ability to address the need and move on, stepping in quickly, addressing the problem sufficiently, and stepping back out.

We have gotten to where we are in this country in part, at least, because private and Christian charity did not fulfill its mandate, at least not completely. But the whole point of “sufficient” government intervention is to be a stop-gap, a last and temporary resort, that provides space for other institutions to step back in and resume their basic responsibilities. It is thus not a permanent and primary purpose of government, particularly at the federal level, to provide direct material assistance to the poor.

My fear is that the social spending at the federal level has moved far beyond intervening “quickly and sufficiently,” and has increasingly crowded out other subsidiary institutions from meeting needs more locally and less centrally. What we need now is not to privilege such government intervention as a fixture of our society, but to reinvigorate and empower other institutions to relieve these burdens from the government. Otherwise government intervention often becomes an obstacle to, rather than a servant of, true justice.

In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Acton President and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico publishes a new opinion piece that looks at “the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions” through the lens of Catholic social thought:

Catholic teaching’s pro-union bias

By the Rev. Robert A. Sirico

There is a long-standing bias in Catholic social teaching toward unions, and this dates from the long history of labor struggles for fair wages and safe working conditions. There is a romance associated with this history, and it is bound up with strong moral concerns. And it is not just historical. The Catholic Church played a heroic role in the fall of Communism in Poland through its influence on labor unions that were striking against oppression, which is to say state coercion.

Pope John Paul II, who knew something about the social role of labor unions, also warned about their drift into politics. In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, he wrote: “Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.”

The reality with all public affairs, however, is that conditions change. Just because something is called a union does not make it automatically good and moral. Essential considerations of justice and freedom must be in place. Generally speaking, the long history of unions has been bound up with the right of free association. So far as I can tell, the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.

This reality comes to mind because of the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions. But the driving force behind the budgetary move has nothing to do with human rights, unless one considers the rights of Wisconsin taxpayers.

The alarming reality of state and federal overspending and debt is something that cannot be denied. Prudent and necessary cuts must be made in the Wisconsin budget, and state employees must be part of that plan. How do public-sector unions fit into this? It is nearly impossible for anyone to work for the public sector without being a member, and unions collect dues, which operate like taxes for most everyone else.

This was not always the case. Public-sector unions emerged after World War II in the wake of the crack-up of many big-city political machines, and they were a convenient way for government employees to extract higher salaries and benefits at public expense.

What does this have to do with the freedom of association? Industrial unions have been on the decline for decades precisely because of the freedom of association. Organizing activity for years has shifted to the public sector, where union political contributions carry a lot of weight. Unions that remain strong are that way because they push against the freedom of association, denying alternatives to workers and taxpayers.

A one-time member of a Wisconsin union, Stephen J. Haessler, tells me: “My previous experience with agency shop as a former member of a WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) local affiliate is instructive. I opposed my dues monies going to endorse pro-choice political candidates, but my opinions and preferences did not matter because dues were automatically deducted from my pay whether I joined the union or not. This was a violation of the principle of the freedom of association.”

Here’s the question Catholics need to ask themselves: Are the unions I support of the same type that are idealized in Catholic social teaching? Or have they changed to the point where they are unions in name only but actually just political machines for coercing workers and extracting money through the political process?

The bias toward unions in Catholic social teaching is rooted in a perception that unions fulfill certain moral conditions. When they fail to do so, the application of moral teaching can change. There is no a priori reason to back every union demand and no reason for Catholics to feel under any doctrinal obligation to do so.

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

I’m blogging a recent piece I did for NRO on National Public Radio funding but first a quick note on the net neutrality debate. House Speaker John Boehner told a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters association, meeting in Nashville over the weekend, that “the last thing we need, in my view, is the FCC serving as Internet traffic controller, and potentially running roughshod over local broadcasters who have been serving their communities with free content for decades.” Amen. See my recent response to the Catholic bishops conference statement on net neutrality here.

Back to you, Corey.

‘Free’ Public Radio Is Anything But

By Bruce Edward Walker

National Public Radio listeners are being inundated with warnings that they soon may have to drive to work every morning without the sonorous intonations of Morning Edition’s Corey Flintoff, Steve Inskeep, and Renée Montagne, and may be forced to drive home without the narrative drone of All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel, Michele Norris, and Melissa Block.

Just this morning, I received a panicked e-mail from the director of broadcasting at an NPR affiliate in my home state, Michigan. You know, one of those state-based public-radio operations that just last October received a portion of George Soros’s $1.8 million Open Society Foundation gift to hire two government reporters in each of the 50 states; one of the same group of radio stations benefiting from the Joan Kroc Foundation’s $200 million endowment in 2003; one of the same stations that host interminable on-air fundraisers at least twice a year.

They are warning that Congress may eliminate taxpayer subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that heaps money on 900 NPR affiliates across the country.

The warnings reek of disingenuousness.

After all, crying poverty is public broadcasting’s modus operandi. If it didn’t do it extremely well, no one would donate during those radiothons, corporations wouldn’t spend huge sums of money to sponsor programming, and “people just like you” wouldn’t forgo paying the cable bill so they could help meet a challenge grant from their neighbors and co-workers.
As an example of how much begging public radio does, Wisconsin Public Radio — a network of 32 stations programmed by seven regional stations – reported that 13 percent of its total budget in 2009 was used for fundraising. Additionally, the network’s website reveals that 25 percent ($1.94 million) of the revenues garnered from listener and corporate donations ($6.25 million and $1.58 million, respectively) are directly allocated to fundraising.

So it came as no surprise when I received the director’s e-mail, which warns, “I believe this is one of the most serious challenges to public broadcasting that we have ever faced.”
Not mentioned in his emotional appeal are the substantial costs American taxpayers are stuck with.

Read more here.

Other Acton essays on funding public broadcasting can be found here and here.

In light of the recent events in Wisconsin and the statement published by the state’s Catholic bishops, we’re republishing this 2005 article from the Acton Commentary archives:

Voluntary Association and Union Politics

By Charles W. Baird

The 50th anniversary celebration of the AFL-CIO in Chicago has been marred by internecine strife. The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have broken away from the Federation, reducing its membership by 25 percent. At least three other unions – UNITE-HERE (textile and hotel workers), UFCW (grocery workers), and LIUNA (construction workers) – representing another 15 percent of AFL-CIO members, may join the exodus. The dissidents call themselves the Change to Win Coalition (CWC).

The issue behind the split is the survival of the American union movement in the private sector. In 2004 only 7.9 percent of private sector workers were union members. By comparison, in 1900–before any union-friendly legislation had been enacted–the figure was 7 percent. Private sector unionism is on the verge of irrelevance, and union leaders are trying to figure out what to do about it. There are two principal approaches – politics and organizing. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO since 1995, believes the solution to the problem lies in spending union money to buy the favor of politicians who will in return change the law to make it more difficult for private sector workers to remain union-free. Sweeney has been following that strategy since 1995 to no avail. Andy Stern, president of the SEIU and prime mover of the CWC, says that to survive and grow unions must pay attention to recruiting new members.

Stern has the more logical approach. To survive and grow, businesses must constantly recruit and maintain new customers and congregations must recruit and maintain new members. Why should unions be any different?

There is a deeper problem that unions must confront. Since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Catholic social teaching has supported labor unions as part of a general defense of freedom of association. This defense has not extended, however, to unions that are coercive or politically partisan. Freedom of association has two parts. First, each person is free to associate with any other willing person or persons for any purposes that do not trespass against the rights of any third parties. Second–and this is implied by the first–each person is free to decline to associate with any person or persons no matter how fervently those others may desire the association. American unions, formed and operated under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), are not voluntary.

The NLRA forbids workers individually to decide whether a union represents them, imposes union fees on workers to pay for representation they do not want, forces employers to bargain with unions, and permits workers who choose not to work at terms offered by an employer to prevent other workers, who are willing to do so, from working.

My approval of Stern’s desire to recruit new members applies only to recruiting activities that are themselves based on freedom of association. Peaceful persuasion is fine, coercion is not. Lately some unions have turned to blackmail of employers through so-called “corporate campaigns” to force employers to give them monopoly bargaining privileges over employees who want to remain union-free. For example, efforts to organize workers at Wal-Mart by peaceful persuasion have consistently failed as evidenced by the failure of unions to win majority votes in every Wal-Mart representation election that has been held. Now those same unions are trying to bring community pressure on Wal-Mart to force its workers into monopoly bargaining arrangements.

John Paul II took a firm stand against Sweeney’s strategy of relying on politics to save unions in his Laborem Exercens (1981, n. 20). “The role of unions is not to play politics…. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subject to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.” Sweeney’s goal of controlling the Democratic Party through the AFL-CIO has always been at odds with the popes’ emphasis on the common good.

Stern’s strategy has the better hope of arresting the private sector decline of unions. In order for unions to continue to be a relevant force in pursuing workers’ rights, organized labor must rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Workers’ interests need to be contextualized within the globalization of competition, which is a necessary condition for sustained real economic growth in both developed and developing economies. Labor unions should not be immune from the challenge to constantly respond to their constituencies and changes in the marketplace.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”

I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”

A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”

What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”

But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”

Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.

Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:

Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.

As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.