Category: Acton Commentary

The following is my latest article for Acton Commentary:

Stewardship and the Human Vocation to Work

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Paying the bills and contributing to the collection basket are laudable. But Christian stewardship is significantly more than these; like prayer, fasting, and the sacraments, it is an essential part of our Christian life. More than what we say, the way we use our time, talent and treasure, reveals what we value, how we understand ourselves as men and women of faith, and what we believe it means to be human.

It is this last point that I want to focus on here. What does it mean to be human? Maybe this is a strange place to begin, but before we are Christians, we are human. Before any of us are baptized or make a commitment to Jesus Christ, we are human. We can only be Christian because we are human and the importance of our shared humanity should not be minimized; we are saved and made one in Christ precisely because God took on our humanity. He becomes as we are, in the frequently repeated phrase of the fathers, so that we might become as He is.

Salvation, justification, sanctification, deification—whatever terms we use for the mystery of our New Life in Christ—all presuppose not only divine grace poured out by the Holy Spirit but also a common humanity that we share not only with each other, but most importantly with Jesus Christ the God-Man. Too often in the early years of my own spiritual life and like many young Christians I saw the Gospel as an escape from the shared human nature and struggle. I was wrong.

As I’ve grown older, if not wiser, I’ve come to appreciate the argument made by St. Irenaeus. He said that the whole of human life is recapitulated in Jesus Christ who is Himself the first born of the new creation (see Colossians 1:15). Irenaeus also says that whatever in our humanity is not assumed by Christ is not healed by Him. Extending this argument we see that is our shared humanity that keeps us from living as strangers to each other and to God.

Scripture tells us that the human vocation is written not simply in its sacred pages but in creation as well.   When the Church fathers read Genesis they saw our First Parents as both an icon of the Most Holy Trinity and as the goal of creation. It is for us, for the whole human family, that God creates; even as later it will be for us that He becomes Man in Jesus Christ.

Viewing humanity in light of the Incarnation, the fathers see humanity as the point at which the Uncreated and created meet. To be human is to be the place of communion between God and the cosmos. We are both a microcosm and a macrocosm; we are the creation in miniature even as we also contain the whole creation in ourselves. Is it any wonder then that after turning his mind and heart to God, King David says of us all: “What is man that you care for Him?” (Ps 8:4)

We also hear in Genesis the divine command to our First Parents to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28). This refers not simply to procreation, to the begetting and raising of children in marriage, it also has a more general application. To be human is to be productive and profitable and to make of the creation a fit home for the human family. In a word, the primordial vocation of the human person is to work.

Work in Genesis means much more than what we tend to think, living as we do on the other side of Adam’s transgression. In first verses of Genesis, we see God as an artisan. As the potter forms clay into vessels both beautiful and useful, so too God takes the unformed matter of the universe and shapes it into creatures beautiful and good, animate and inanimate (see Isaiah 29:16 and Rom 9:20-23). The goodness and beauty are not an abstraction, but the characteristics of a cosmos that is a fitting home for man. God creates something beautiful and good for us. He then charges us to continue that work of shaping creation as a beautiful, good and fitting home for the whole human family.

So the anthropological foundation upon which stewardship rests is this: After God and in God, we are to be as God for the creation and one another. We are called by God to exercise our gifts and abilities to shape the material world as well as the social and cultural world according to the Gospel and for the needs of the human family. Yes this requires technical skill but it is not simply a functional task. Rather it is one which, from beginning to end, is to be characterized by beauty and goodness.

Before all else, to be a steward is to commit oneself personally and generously to using the gifts of time, talents and treasure God has given each of us the capacity to help to create a good and beautiful home fit for the human family. But how we use our gifts is not only an expression of our original vocation. Because of Adam’s transgression our work is often frustrating and marred by want and conflict. Though sin has sullied our vocation, it has not been undone. If anything, one of the great sorrows of human life is the myriad ways in which our original vocation is so often left unfulfilled—stillborn and even aborted by human selfishness and material want.

To be what it is, work must itself be redeemed; it must be work in Christ since it is only in Christ that we can transcend the consequences of sin. And in Christ, our stewardship becomes not only an expression of our shared human vocation, but our personal assent to Christ and His desire to redeem human work, creativity and ingenuity.

The Detroit News today published a new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute:

Civility, not just after tragedy

The Rev. Robert Sirico

The tragic shootings in Tucson that left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gravely wounded and a score of others dead or wounded have sparked a national discussion about how we conduct our public discourse.

This is something we should all welcome, in an age of instantaneous media and its often vitriolic political and social debate.

For those of us who are Christians, our guide should always be to speak the truth in love. That is, we witness to the truths that are revealed to us by the Lord, without shying away from critical issues or glossing over important differences we have with others. This is especially important in an era of globalization and the need for greater interfaith relations, where words or phrases can so easily be misunderstood. And it’s possible to have this dialogue in a reasonable and respectful fashion.

Yet, I find it not a little strange that many of the voices calling now for civility and temperance in our political discourse were, not long ago, either silent in the face of hateful language or participants.

I speak, of course, of the religious left, which was so much a part of the “Bush derangement syndrome” in recent years and, with the rise of the tea party movement, seems to have shifted its fire in that direction.

Take, for example, the Rev. Jim Wallis, the self-appointed chaplain to the Democratic National Committee, who in recent weeks has become an apostle of civility. This is the same man who said this in response to the “shellacking” that the Democrats got in November: “There was very little values-narrative in this election. And there was almost no attention to the faith community and its concerns.”

Really? This was true of those millions of Americans who were pushing back against out-of-control government spending, ruinous debt, an intrusive and badly flawed health care bill, and a general sense that our nation was losing its moral bearings?

Remember, if you will, the invective and hate hurled at former President George W. Bush over the Hurricane Katrina response. Entertainer Kanye West famously said at the time that Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”

Where was the hue and cry from the liberal pastors and priests over West’s outrage? In fact, former Sen. Bill Frist, a physician, said the Bush administration funding for AIDS relief and malaria eradication programs for Africa probably saved 10 million lives worldwide.

Following the election of Bush in 2000, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for a “civil rights explosion.” He stood in front of the Supreme Court and vowed to “take to the streets right now, we will delegitimize Bush, discredit him, do whatever it takes, but never accept him.” I had my differences with Bush on a number of important issues. But he endured eight years of attacks, some of them vile, like this and the “social justice” ministers said nothing about it.

We all need to raise the level of public discourse, and not just as it applies to our political favorites. The Christian’s calling is to purify the heart, because it is the seat of the passions. And all actions begin there.

St. John Chrysostom, in a famous homily on fasting, warned us not to be too legalistic in its observance. More important than the foods we are abstaining from are our actions and the “disgraceful and abusive words” which we sometime use to “chew up and consume one another.” In this he echoes the words of Jesus Christ, who taught us that “what goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean” (Matthew 15:11).

The point here is to remind us that our words have weight and effect. Yes, let’s proclaim the truth, and do it in a civil and even a loving fashion. That’s the civility that both the left and the right deserve.

My commentary this week is about the deeper truths of Ronald Reagan’s witness, words, and deeds. Reagan has been in the news a lot, and will continue to be as we approach his centennial birthday. A great place to visit for all things concerning the Reagan centennial is the Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library Centennial homepage. President Obama even weighed in on Reagan, heaping praise on the popular president in USA Today.

It’s essential to look at what makes his words and ideas so important today. In my piece, I wrote that “It’s not the policies that point to Reagan’s greatness but his principles. His ideas are timeless because they evoke deeper truths about man, his relationship to the state, and most importantly, his Creator.”

Admiration of Reagan by people of faith has always been a paradox to some. He was the only divorced president. Reagan hardly ever attended Sunday services during his presidency and Nancy Reagan was known to consult an astrologer. Despite the mocking, in all the years I’ve studied Reagan, it’s clear his faith was the bedrock of his life.

One of his deeper interests was the book of Revelation and biblical prophecy, a topic he also liked to discuss with Billy Graham. This points to his optimism and the very fact that his believed that God has a descriptive plan for mankind after this world. Reagan biographers tell stories of embarrassed aides looking on as evangelical pastors laid hands on him and prayed for Reagan as he was moved to tears.

The attempt on his life can’t be underestimated in terms of impacting his life and faith. After he was shot, he declared, “Whatever time I have left is for God.” The meetings with New York’s Terence Cardinal Cooke and Mother Theresa after the assassination attempt were very emotional events in his life. He has been described as a “man of incessant prayer” and his daughter Patti said if she wanted to draw her father out “she would talk about God.” There are just too many fascinating anecdotes for this post. A good book on the topic of his faith is Paul Kengor’s, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life.

I think it is true too that Reagan has almost been mythologized by many conservatives and proponents of limited government. Certainly, imperfections in his policies and character were evident and part of his history. I think the principles and the deeper truths of what he was communicating will always make his legacy enduring, especially as moral relativism becomes more pervasive.

When we think of rule of law failure, countries like Zimbabwe and Somalia come to mind. But as Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points out in his latest piece over at Public Discourse, rule of law can also be subtly eroded in wealthy countries. The negative consequences for risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and long term investment, he says, can be far-reaching.

Risk is an inherent part of the workings of market economies. But Gregg notes that’s not the same thing as uncertainty:

Measurable risks are . . . no deterrent to the making of economic choices. If we take them seriously, they help us to calibrate our economic choices to be consistent with our responsibilities, resources, and opportunities. The same measurements also allow us to distinguish between prudent risk takers and the reckless, and reward them appropriately. Uncertainty, by contrast, involves those risks that cannot be quantified. It can occur either because of the sheer complexity of a given situation or because the subject matter cannot be reasonably measured. As long as a situation of uncertainty persists, it will deter many people from even considering whether to take economic risks.

Uncertainty in America, according to Gregg, is being magnified by the sheer complexity of laws such as the United States Internal Revenue Code:

A tax code of this size and complexity which is subject to so many sources of potentially conflicting official and semi-official explanations is bound to embody significant contradictions, and offers considerable scope for arbitrary decision-making. Uncertainty is the result. It’s also valid to claim that the same tax code may well be impossible for large numbers of honest law-abiding citizens to understand and comply with—not to mention difficult for conscientious civil servants to administer justly. As a result, many people may unintentionally violate the law or simply choose to forgo making any number of potentially wealth-creating opportunities for fear of violating the law.

Another example is the thousands upon thousands of pages of legislation being passed by Congress every year. As Gregg writes:

Then there are the rule-of-law problems associated with the sheer volume of law that directly shapes American economic life. The 2010 healthcare reform legislation, for instance, amounted to 2,700 pages. Not far behind it in length was the 2010 financial overhaul act: a mere 2,300 pages. More than a few legislators have confessed to never having read either piece of legislation in its entirety. Nor should we assume any great familiarity on their part with the thousands of pages of legislation which these acts superseded, integrated, or reinterpreted. The possibility that many laws governing healthcare and financial services have subsequently been rendered unclear, inconsistent, and impossible to comprehend is high.

These erosions of rule of law, Gregg says, result in large incentives not to take risks and not to make long-term investments. It also encourages entrepreneurs to look elsewhere for a more friendly, stable and comprehensible legal environment.

Read the piece in its entirety at Public Discourse.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Sheep and the Goats: Work and Service to Others,” I visit Lester DeKoster’s interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. Although not many have discussed this as an “economic” parable, DeKoster’s point is that anyone who truly serves another through legitimate work, whether paid or unpaid, can be understood to be a “sheep.”

Work, for DeKoster, is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”

I don’t discuss another point DeKoster makes in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective, that relates to what results from the aggregation of individuals’ work. The answer is civilization: “Work shares in weaving civilization, which is the form in which others make themselves useful to us, by providing us with the tools for doing our work well.”

DeKoster points to the chair in which you sit while you read, or any of the other myriad objects that surround you, that could only have been produced by the contributions of countless workers through the assembly line and supply chain. Joseph Sunde over at Remnant Culture has a post up today that echoes this, focusing on the example of the toaster. His poignantly asks whether this illustrates “that free trade is primarily about collaborating and sharing? Hasn’t free trade shown that it holds great power for expanding, connecting, and shaping a global community?”

Or as Kevin Schmiesing has put it, “No Man is an Economic Island.

With health care moving back to center stage in Washington, we’re publishing Dr. Donald Condit’s Acton monograph A Prescription for Health Care Reform as a free eBook readable in a variety of formats. This excellent work continues to be available for $6 (paperback) in the Acton Bookshoppe.

For your free eBook, visit Acton’s Smashwords page. The Condit book will soon be available in the Kindle store (no charge for that, either) and in other eBook retail sites. We’ll keep you updated when they become available.

Via Smashwords, you can download digital versions of the 81-page health care monograph for eBook readers, smart phones and computer screens.

The monograph was released before the passage of the Patient Protection Act in March. Dr. Condit has recently authored an update in the November 2010 issue of the Linacre Quarterly, published by the Catholic Medical Association. The medical association has graciously offered readers of the Acton PowerBlog an open link to Dr. Condit’s new article, “Health-Care Counter-Reform.”

The Jan. 5 Acton commentary was based on the Linacre article. Read “Obamacare and the Threat to Human Dignity” by Dr. Donald Condit.

This is the Acton Commentary for January 12.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” wrote French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s. “If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.” Could this organizing spirit hold the potential to transform the nation’s health care?

With the House in Republican hands, it appears that the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be at least in part modified. Undoing the most ill-considered pieces of the bill would be good, but the need for reform remains. Americans’ dissatisfaction with the existing system gave impetus to change in the first place; going back to the status quo ante is not advisable.

As is often the case, a crucial aspect of health policy reform is recognition that government policy, no matter how brilliant, cannot solve all of our problems. For example, one vital step on the path toward a healthier America is reigniting a sense of personal responsibility for health-affecting decisions. Policymakers can promote but not ensure progress toward this goal. The recent successes of some small town initiatives demonstrate how voluntary associations can play an important role.

Nevada City, Calif., resident Carole Carson created the Nevada County Meltdown to encourage and assist people in her community who wished to lose weight. Working from her own experience of the necessity of support from family and friends, Carson and fellow organizer Mike Carville set up a contest where teams competed to shed pounds.

The whole community backed the effort. Health professionals offered services such as blood pressure checks. Restaurants implemented low-calorie menus. Groups organized walks and other fitness activities. Healthy living became a common goal, its benefits extending beyond physical wellbeing. “The most important thing about it,” observed one participant, “was that it was such a fabulous community thing.”

Other towns that imitated Nevada City’s program achieved similarly edifying results. In Fossil, Ore., some weight loss contestants’ health improved so dramatically that they were able to avoid pending orthopedic surgery and discontinue insulin shots for diabetes.

The medical costs of obesity amounted to $147 billion in 2008, according to one study. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes consume 75 percent of the more than $2 trillion that Americans spend on health care. Many of these diseases, writes Dr. Donald Condit in A Prescription for Health Care Reform, are “influenced by modifiable risk factors.” Lifestyle changes that prevent or reverse such conditions are critical to reining in health care spending, not to mention improving the quality of life for those who are affected. The trick is motivating people to change.

Some government programs might help, but the more effective approach is the one taken by these communities, because it is based on a realistic understanding of human nature. “We’re social animals,” Carson says. “We have a profound impact on each other—for good or ill.”

This impact is most profound when it does not occur through compulsion of one sort or another (as government programs usually do) but when it employs a subtler array of social influences. When family members, friends, co-workers, and community leaders promote a cause or, better yet, demonstrate in their own lives the benefits of living a certain way, we are encouraged and potentially persuaded to emulate their actions. When we are compelled to do something, our natural reaction is to seek ways to circumvent requirements. When we are persuaded, we view the decision, the effort—and the accomplishment—as our own.

The experience of one man in the town of Albert Lea, Minn., confirms the range of benefits possible when a community unifies around the mission of health. After he joined a neighborhood walking team, he pulled out of depression, lost weight, and went off his diabetes medication. “It wasn’t just the walking,” a town official says. “It was the caring.”

This kind of health care reform can’t be orchestrated by policy experts in Washington. Yet it would go a long way toward solving the systemic problems that have proved so nettlesome to lawmakers, whose search for solutions usually overlooks the potential inherent in every village and neighborhood in America.

From the Jan. 5 Acton News & Commentary. This is an edited excerpt of “Health-Care Counter-Reform,” a longer piece Dr. Condit wrote for the November 2010 issue of the Linacre Quarterly, published by the Catholic Medical Association. For more on this important issue, see the Acton special report on Christians and Health Care. Dr. Condit is also the author of the 2009 Acton monograph, A Prescription for Health Care Reform, available in the Book Shoppe.

Obamacare and the Threat to Human Dignity

By Dr. Donald P. Condit

Since President Obama signed the Patient Protection Act into law in March 2010, the acrimonious debate on this far-reaching legislation has persisted. For many, the concerns over the Obama administration’s health care reform effort are based on both moral and fiscal grounds. Now, with House Republicans scheduling a vote to repeal “Obamacare” in the days ahead, the debate is once again ratcheting up.

Perceived threats to the sanctity of life have been at the heart of moral objections to the new law. Despite a March 2010 executive order elaborating the Patient Protection Act’s “Consistency with Longstanding Restrictions on the Use of Federal Funds for Abortion,” many pro-life advocates fear a judicial order could reverse long-standing Hyde amendment restrictions on the use of federal tax dollars for abortion. Impending Medicare insolvency and the Patient Protection Act’s establishment of an “independent payment advisory board” to address treatment effectiveness and cost suggest bureaucratic restrictions on the horizon for medical care of the elderly and disabled.

The objections made on fiscal grounds are serious. Prior to the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama voiced concern for 47 million Americans without health insurance. More recently, supporters of this legislation focused on 32 million Americans, with 15 million immigrants and others left out of the equation, yet still requiring care in United States emergency rooms. The Patient Protection Act increases eligibility for Medicaid recipients, yet state budgets are severely strained with their current underfunded medical obligations. Moreover, doctors struggle to provide health-care access to Medicaid patients when reimbursed below the overhead costs of delivering care.

Who Should Pay?

The perception among consumers of third-party responsibility for health, including payment for health-care resource consumption, is the major factor for unsustainable escalation of medical spending in the United States. Yet the Patient Protection Act augments third-party authority and threatens doctor-patient relationship autonomy, by increasing responsibility of government and employers for health care. Patients and physicians will face increasing involvement of third parties in decision making in exam rooms and at the bedside. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, January 10, 2011
By

Catching up on some recent Acton commentaries. We welcome a new writer, John Addison Teevan, who is director of the Prison Extension Program at Grace College. He also teaches economics and Bible courses at the Winona Lake, Ind., school. This column was published Dec. 29. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary here.

A Tithe for Uncle Sam

By John Addision Teevan

Political leaders talk as if the money Americans keep (not paid in taxes) belongs to the government and that our keeping money they could tax is an actual cost to them. This kind of distorted thinking has led us into the fiscal irresponsibility that threatens to destroy our country.

It is, of course, fair to say that there are many exemptions that, if eliminated, could bring in more tax revenue. But Congress prefers a tax code of convoluted exemptions and tax breaks that they create and sustain to keep various interest groups coming to their offices. Taxpayers love breaks such as the homeowners’ exemption that allows taxpayers who itemize to deduct their mortgage interest. Although paying less in taxes is in general a good thing, all such exemptions confuse the process, contribute to an impossibly intricate tax code and keep lawyers, accountants and tax prep software companies prospering. The amount we spend on tax preparation in terms of actual cost and time wasted compared to a simplified tax code is worth billions.

The most extreme example of the fallacious notion that government has a right to its citizens’ money is the idea is that the cost to the government of not taxing the disposable income of all Americans at 100 percent is $11.5 trillion (as if we’d bother working if we faced a 100 percent tax rate). Economist Arthur Laffer noted that the government might collect little in taxes if the tax rates were either very low or very high, because in the latter case Americans would adjust their income according to tax incentives. Government officials unfortunately tend not to think in terms of incentives but of rules and therefore assume, contrary to Laffer’s findings, that higher tax rates always bring in more revenue.

Taken to its conclusion, this thinking leads tragically to socialism. If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people. One small faction that I read about in an Ohio paper wants Uncle Sam to hire all unemployed people and then print the money to pay them. This childish scheme is really a variation of the more respectable idea that tax cuts “cost” the government in the same way that spending on defense or health care does.

The foolishness of the concept can be illustrated by analogy with a church. Imagine a congregation of 100 families with a budget that reflected an estimated tithe on $65,000 average family income. Using government thinking, the church budget could be $650,000 (10 percent of 100 x $65,000), even if the actual offerings to the church were only $300,000. This is based on the fairly reasonable idea that the people owe their church 10 percent of their income.

Here’s how government budget thinking might work in that church.

Budget: $650,000. Expenses: charitable relief for church members: $350,000 (54 percent), staff: $150,000 (22 percent), building expenses: $50,000 (8 percent), ministry expenses: $50,000 (8 percent); debt retirement: $50,000 (8 percent).

What is that $350,000 for ‘charitable’ relief for church members? That is the part of the tithe that the members should have given to the church, but did not. Rather than ignore it, the church would reckon it as both income and expense even though not a single dollar changed hands. Government thinking sees any foregone revenue as an expense so that the largest item in this budget is the (fictional) $350,000 expense as if the church spent that money on its own parishioners.

As it stands, the federal government appears to be incapable of balancing income and spending. Right now it is collecting about 16 percent of GDP in taxes and spending well above 20 percent, creating an immense government borrowing gap. Many politicians’ proposed solution is to demand that the existing tax regime be repealed in favor of higher rates; we can’t “afford” the lower rates, they argue. In an economic downturn, however, raising taxes is a surefire way to suppress recovery.

Addressing the spending side of the budget equation is politically painful, no doubt, but it is unavoidable. America faces difficult challenges as we try to grow out of the recession. Having the government think soberly about its tax income and budget expenses would be a good start.

Acton On The AirDr. Donald Condit joined host Drew Mariani on the Relevant Radio Network to discuss the positives aspects of end-of-life planning as well as the troubling issues surrounding end-of-life care under government health care systems. Dr. Condit is an orthopedic surgeon and the author of Acton’s monograph on health care reform, entitled A Prescription for Health Care Reform and available in the Acton Bookshoppe; he has also authored a number of commentaries on health care for Acton and other organizations; his most recent commentary can be read right here. And don’t forget to check out Acton.org’s special section on Christians and Health Care for a wealth of related information.

To listen to Dr. Condit’s 20 minute interview with Drew Mariani, use the audio player below.

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