Category: Bible and Theology

The budget proposed by House Republicans has lead to a heated debate; one key facet being whether funding should be cut for programs that benefit the poor and vulnerable. Critics claim the House Republicans’ proposed budget violates Catholic social teaching (click here to read the critics’ open letter to Speaker Boehner). Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s first response to Boehner’s critics appeared in NRO. In this week’s commentary Rev. Sirico expands upon his first response and articulates how Catholics can disagree on how to assist the poor and vulnerable. The article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Not Whether to Help the Poor, But How

By Rev. Sirico

The debate over the application of the core teachings of the Christian faith began when Jesus was presented with a Roman coin containing Caesar’s image. In that moment, the Lord drew both a limitation to the legitimate power of the state and a distinction between it and the supreme authority of Almighty God. What would unfold over the years following was a highly balanced and well thought-out hierarchy of values rooted in a core understanding of the dignity of the human person. Yet it was not so abstract a set of principles as to be incapable of providing guidance for concrete policy recommendations that nonetheless do not collapse dogmatic and unchangeable doctrine into the dynamic stuff of politics and policies.

Along this circuitous route to a more balanced set of principles, there have been dead ends and extremes from which the Church has pulled her faithful: the medieval Spiritualist Franciscan (i fraticelli) who wanted to ban private property as intrinsically evil, or, more recently, the Liberation Theologians who attempted to “collapse the eschaton” of the Kingdom of God into socialist revolution.

Yet the incarnation of Christ does not let the Christian off the hook when it comes to our beliefs about human dignity and the practical protection of the vulnerable. Understanding how to translate the social implications of the gospel into workable and concrete solutions is at times as frustrating and ambiguous as understanding the homoousian clause of the Creed.

Let us take the recent occasions of public discourse by Catholics on these matters occasioned by an open letter issued by a group of Catholic professors, which argues that the budget proposed by House Republicans violates Catholic social teaching, and in which they come close to calling the Speaker of the House a heretic.

There is evidence in this letter, and in some of the commentary surrounding it, of a failure to grasp the necessary distinctions in Catholic moral theology (of which, as the popes have noted, the social teaching is a branch). I pointed out in my original critique of the open letter that the Catholic professors’ statement neglected the important distinction between “non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines” and the “prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching.” Then I cited the Compendium of the Social Doctrine: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions” (571).  The use of the phrase “contingent questions” in the Compendium is quite deliberate. It means that it is simply inaccurate to say that Catholics who debate how to address poverty dissent from the Church’s teaching in the same way as someone who does not support the Church’s insistence on legal protection for the unborn.

Some Catholic commentators reject this point, offering in defense a quotation from Caritas in Veritate: “Clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it…. There is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.”

Benedict’s point here is that the Church’s teaching in the moral realm is one consistent body of thought. It is not a hodgepodge of policy concerns, among which Catholics may pick and choose along the lines of the fashionable Cafeteria Catholicism. The Church’s solicitude for the poor, the marginalized, the unborn, and the elderly is all of a piece. In that sense, the critique is correct: A Catholic cannot subordinate “justice issues” to “life issues”; he must embrace the Church’s teaching as a whole, because life issues are justice issues.

Yet the distinction holds. This is not because “justice issues” are less important than “life issues,” but because they are fundamentally different — a difference rooted in two millennia of Catholic moral reflection. Abortion involves the direct and intentional destruction of an innocent human life. It is never permissible intentionally to choose evil. Laws that permit abortion are inherently unjust, and Catholics are obligated to work toward legal prohibition of abortion.

When it comes to doing good, however, which is what addressing poverty entails, the Church does not stipulate exactly how such good is to be done. Helping the poor requires a different sort of moral analysis — not because I (or the Church’s teaching) am “dualist,” as some critics suggest, nor because assisting the poor is “less important” than protecting the unborn, but because the two issues possess different characteristics and therefore require different sorts of moral analysis.

This distinction holds, for example, outside the realm of the Church’s social teaching and can be seen in her teaching on the moral manner in which life is conceived. A superficial criticism of the Church’s stance against artificial contraception says, “Why is it wrong to avoid conception by the use of chemicals or condoms, but not immoral when using natural family planning methods?” The error in this argument is the same one made by the critics to whom I am responding: In the former case, an evil means is being chosen (the action to chemically prevent conception, for example), rather than refraining from doing good at a given time (actions leading to conception). It is not a sin to refrain from choosing from all the many goods available; it is always a sin to intentionally choose to do evil.

It is possible to argue that cutting welfare programs is consistent with Catholic social teaching, because we may choose from the various options available to us to do good by evaluating them in the hierarchy of goods. It will not do to fling citations of social encyclicals at each other on this point. Certainly there are passages that could be found to support increased government activity in the economy and provision of social services — when necessary to serve the common good. But there are also passages that suggest decreased government activity and withdrawal from social services (i.e., critiques of bureaucracy and calls for more vigorous private charity). Whether a particular situation — in this case, the budget battle in the United States in the year 2011 — calls for one or the other is manifestly a prudential question about which Catholics may disagree.

At the root of the incredulity and exasperation of some Catholics who mix fair arguments with vitriol is an incapacity to recognize that we really believe that many government programs aggravate rather than ameliorate poverty and other social ills. Rather than debating the prudence of the policies at hand, detractors resort to ad hominem attacks and pronounce anathemas selectively. Yet there is by this time a vast literature on the damage wrought by the war on poverty and its failure to achieve its goals. Such critics can continue to believe that shoveling government money into welfare programs discharges Catholic social teaching’s obligation to assist the poor if they wish, but their inability to see other views as reasonable, at least, is distressingly myopic.

A Catholic may not disregard the Church’s teaching to assist the poor and vulnerable; to do so would be to neglect the words and example of Christ Himself. It would be, in effect, to deny the Faith. But on the question of how best to fulfill that obligation, Catholics will indeed disagree, and the Church does not teach that it must be otherwise. The same kind of latitude is not permitted when it comes to legal protection of the unborn. I do not believe that this is “my view” of the matter; it is the mind of the Church, to which I hope my own mind is conformed.

Abraham KuyperRecently, the Acton Institute announced a partnership with Kuyper College to translate Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace. Understanding the importance of reaching out to the evangelical community, Kuyper’s work is essential in developing evangelical principles and social thought. The Common Grace translation project is summarized by the Acton Institute:

There is a trend among evangelicals to engage in social reform without first developing a coherent social philosophy to guide the agenda. To bridge this gap, Acton Institute and Kuyper College are partnering together to translate Abraham Kuyper’s seminal three-volume work on common grace (De gemeene gratie). Common Grace was chosen because it holds great potential to build intellectual capacity within evangelicalism and because a sound grasp of this doctrine is what is missing in evangelical cultural engagement. Common Grace is the capstone of Kuyper’s constructive public theology and the best available platform to draw evangelicals back to first principles and to orient their social thought.

The Grand Rapids Press interviewed Stephen Grabill, director of programs at the Acton Institute who is also serving as the general editor of the translation project. Grabill explained the current relevancy of Kuyper’s work:

“In terms of the way Christians have brought their faith into the public sphere in the last 30 years, Kuyper represents a much more thoughtful and reflective way of building a constructive public theology,” Grabill said.

“He wasn’t a policy wonk but an idea guy who sought to synthesize a lot of movement and point to various economic political trends that integrated the Christian faith and did it in a way that didn’t politicize the faith, which is a breath of fresh air to people today.”

[…]

Grabill said he hopes the translation will provide evangelicals with a coherent social philosophy to guide their agendas in a way he believes is lacking today.

“I think Kuyper would say both the left and the right have polarized the gospel in ways that may have been unintentional in the beginning of the process,” Grabill said.

“They need a better understanding of culture, and what Kuyper does is he provides the foundational theological and philosophical thought to understand culture in a way that’s constructive and not ideological, and merely an attempt to change it to a different end.”

Volume one of Common Grace is scheduled to appear in the fall of 2012.

Readers can sign up for project updates by clicking here and can become fans of Common Grace on Facebook by clicking here.

Click here to read the full article appearing in the Grand Rapids Press.

In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.

Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.

In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.

There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”

The community garden at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.


One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”

Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.

New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”

These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full:

Thanks to P. Koshy @pkoshyin and Saurabh Srivastava @SKS_Mumbai for linking this 1996 Religion & Liberty gem on Twitter. Author Mario Gómez-Zimmerman argues that Hinduism “pre-figures capitalism much closer than socialism.” More:

As it is true for all the great religions, Hinduism warns human beings about the dangers of accumulating wealth, and at times demands them to renounce it. But in all cases, wealth is attacked because it is likely to subject man to dependency, fostering egoism, greed, and avarice, and not for being an evil in itself. In fact, wealth is considered a good to be pursued within the spheres of worldly affairs, trying at the same time to remain detached from it, which is the way to spiritual evolution. In Hinduism, this aspect is commonly referred to as renouncing the fruit of labor. It is made with the provision that renunciation must be a voluntary act, because it is acknowledged that only a few are prepared to follow the path to perfection in a strict manner. Literature on this is vast, so I will limit myself to sample what Sai Baba and Prabhupada (the first considered by many as the Avatar of our time, the second the founder of the International Society for the Conscience of Krishna) have to say about this. To quote Sai Baba: “When a man has a right to engage in Karma, he has a right also for the fruit; no one can deny this or refuse his right. On his part, Prabhupada states that, according to the Law of Karma, wealth is the result of a good previous labor, and that the Lord leaves man independent to engage in the activities proper to the material world.

Read “The Capitalist Structures of Hinduism” in Religion & Liberty.

David Bahnsen and Douglas Wilson have engaged in a fascinating conversation about Ron Paul. To follow the threads of critique and concern on either side, first read Bahnsen’s “The Undiscerning and Dangerous Appreciation of Ron Paul.” Then read Wilson’s “Bright Lights and Big Bugs.”

Much of the conversation focuses on the role of government (or lack thereof), from a biblical perspective (or lack thereof), specifically with regard to foreign policy. As Bahnsen puts it, “As I got older and wiser, I began to realize that the heir of Friedrich Hayek was Milton Friedman, not Murray Rothbard, and that this ‘Austrian economics movement’ was a front for an extremist form of anti-war zealotry. Every single conference break was filled with the most radical of conspiracy theorists you have ever heard, and the political intentions of the major brains behind their operation were not hidden: Utter anarchy.”

A critical component of Bahnsen’s argument is the connection he draws between Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell: “Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell are joined at the hip.” Read the whole thing to see the implications that Bahnsen draws.

Wilson’s response is worth looking at closely as well. In discussing the implications of a “guilt by association” approach, Wilson writes, that “all these concerns come to a practical head when you think about the reconstructionist movement.”

Thus, concludes Wilson,

a lot of the associational difficulties that attend Ron Paul’s crowd are exactly the same as those which attended the recons. We are talking in many cases about the very same people. I believe that if we were to cross check the subscription lists for the various newsletters concerned, the results would be informative and edifying. Gary North writes for Lew Rockwell, and Gary North also worked with Jim Jordan, who has worked with Gary Demar, who worked with Peter Leithart, who works alongside me, who is friends with David Bahnsen, who works with Andrew Sandlin, who was a successor to Rushdoony, who was North’s father-in-law, who worked on Ron Paul’s staff, and on it goes.

One of the few scholarly treatments of the engagement between Christian Reconstruction and libertarian political and economic thought appears in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Read “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Glenn Moots and Timothy Terrell for some worthwhile background to the conversation between Bahnsen and Wilson on Ron Paul.

As Moots and Terrell write, “Christian Reconstruction is in no small sense the gateway for libertarianism and Austrian economics to make its way into the thinking of the religious right. While there are clearly points of disagreement, libertarianism’s link to Christian Reconstruction is much stronger than its link to other groups within the religious right.”

I wrote several blogs last week about the value and importance of the Church Fathers. One of the early Greek Fathers was Clement of Alexandria, born in Athens around A.D. 150. His parents were pagans. He was converted to faith in Christ and began to travel widely searching for faithful Christian teachers. He attended the famous School of Theology in Alexandria, founded by Pantaenus in A.D. 180. After he settled there he became the director of the school, thus Clement of Alexandria. A few years after he became the director he was forced to quickly flee during the persecution of Septimius Severus. He took refuge in Cappadocia, where he died in A.D. 215, thus he is called a Cappadocian Father.

StClementOfAlexandriaSt. Clement is considered one of the forerunners of what we now call systematic theology. He was the first Christian writer to recognize secular philosophy (Neoplatonism) and incorporate some of its major ideas in service of the Christian faith. Most of his literary output has been lost but one work, on riches and wealth, is still considered valuable to the church. Commenting on Mark 10:17-22 Clement addressed some of the common interpretations of this text by saying:

1. Our Lord was not telling Christians to get rid of their wealth. He was telling them to banish from their souls the primacy of riches. “Unfettered greed can suffocate the seed of true life.”

2. It is not something new to renounce riches and distribute them to the poor. This, said Clement, was done long before Jesus came. Some did this to devote themselves to the arts and in search of vain knowledge while others sought fame and glory by this means.

3. What our Lord does command here is something new, something proper to God who alone gives life. Clement writes:

He does not command what the letter says and what others have already done. He is asking for something greater, more divine, more perfect than that which is stated –that we denude the soul itself of its disordered passions, that we pull out the roots and fling away what is foreign to the spirit. Here, then, is the teaching proper to a believer, and the doctrine worthy of the Savior. Those, who before Christ’s coming despised material goods, certainly gave up their riches and lost them, but the passions of the soul increased even more. For having believed that they had done something superhuman, they came to indulge in pride, petulance, vainglory, despising others.

Clement wrote that a person could give everything away only to doubly regret his decision. To teach that Jesus intends for every disciple to give up everything contradicts statements like those of Luke 16:9, which urges us to make friends by the use of wealth. “Riches then should not be rejected if they can be of use to our neighbor. They are accurately called possessions because they are possessed by people, and goods or utilities because with them one can do good and because they have been ordained by God for the use of men.”

What Clement is saying is that goods and possessions can be instruments in the hands of skilled servants who use them to bless others and advance great good. “Riches, then, are also an instrument.” If rightly used they can bring about justice and service. He added, “In themselves riches are blameless.”

So what is the problem with riches? Riches present an opportunity to do great good or serious evil. “The one to be accused is the person who has the ability, through the choice he makes, to put it to good use or to misuse it. And this is up to the mind and judgment of man, who is free and able to manage what is given him for his use.” Simply put, we are required to be good stewards of all goods and possessions we have been given by whatever means.

So the problem riches present to us, concludes Clement, is in how they are used by our disordered passions. “The rich – who are going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom – will have to understand these words intelligently, and not in a dull and superficial way.”

My experience with people who possess great means is that this is an accurate understanding of the true problem. The real problem is not in riches themselves but in human passions and desires. Wealthy people can bring immense blessing to people and mission. Make no mistake about this, prosperity is always to be preferred to poverty. But those who prosper must understand that they bear greater responsibility to deal with their passions and desires and to use their possessions and goods for the kingdom of God.

My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.

Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity

by Ray Nothstine

Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.

As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:

In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.

In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”

Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.

One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.

Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.