Category: Bible and Theology

The Acton Institute and Kuyper College are partnering to produce a first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s seminal work Common Grace (De gemeene gratie). The three-volume project will be published through Acton’s recently acquired imprint, Christian’s Library Press, and the first volume is slated to appear in the fall of 2012.

More details are appear below and at the Kuyper translation project page. You can sign up at the page to be kept up-to-date as the project progresses. There you can also download and share a brochure about the project (PDF), the table of contents for the three volumes (PDF), as well as a translation of Kuyper’s introduction to the first volume (PDF). These brochures were distributed to attendees of last week’s conference hosted by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, “Calvinism and Culture.”


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 evangelics back to first principles and to orient their social thought.

Press Release

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (April 19, 2011)—The Acton Institute and Kuyper College are collaborating to bring for the first time to English-language audiences a foundational text from the pen of the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s three-volume work, Common Grace (De gemeene gratie) appeared from 1901-05, during his tenure as prime minister in the Netherlands.

These works are based on a series of newspaper editorials intended to equip common citizens and laypersons with the tools they needed to effectively enter public life. The doctrine of common grace is, as Kuyper puts it, “the root conviction for all Reformed people.”

“If the believer’s God is at work in this world,” says Kuyper, “then in this world the believer’s hand must take hold of the plow, and the name of the Lord must be glorified in that activity as well.”

Dr. Stephen Grabill, director of programs at the Acton Institute, serves as general editor of the project. He points to the contemporary need to understand Kuyper’s comprehensive and cohesive vision for Christian social engagement. “There are a host of current attempts to try to describe how evangelicals should be at work in the world,” Grabill said. “Kuyper’s articulation of the project of common grace shows how these efforts must be grounded in and flow naturally from sound doctrine.”

Placing social engagement, particularly within the context of business activity, in the broader context of sound theology is a large part of what led Kuyper College to partner in this translation project. “Abraham Kuyper’s project in Common Grace helps provide a reliable and engaging theological basis for our new business leadership program,” said Kuyper College president Nicholas Kroeze.

John Bolt, professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of A Free Church, a Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology, will serve as a theological advisor to the project. He describes the basic intention of Kuyper’s work as intended “to challenge the pious, orthodox, Reformed people of the Netherlands to take seriously their calling in Dutch culture and society. His basic argument was: God is not absent from the non-church areas of our common life but bestows his gifts and favor indiscriminately to all people.”

The translation and publication project will cover a two year period, and the three volumes total over 1,700 pages in the original. Dr. Nelson Kloosterman of Worldview Resources International and translator of numerous Dutch works will oversee the translation of the texts. The completed translation will be published by Christian’s Library Press, the recently acquired imprint of the Acton Institute. Volume one of Common Grace is scheduled to appear in the fall of 2012.

For more information please visit:

My commentary this week focuses on the how the rise in prices at the pump is impacting the poor. Currently, in many areas of the country a gallon of gas is now priced over $4. I also argue that we need a more coherent energy policy coming from leaders in Washington. Part of the argument against drilling in ANWR (Arctic Refuge) over a decade ago was that the oil wouldn’t hit the market for 10 years. That’s a very shortsighted way of thinking about meeting our energy needs. We need leaders in Washington to work for us not against us.

Perhaps now a forgotten event, former Senator Jesse Helms in 1982 waged a dramatic battle against a federal gasoline tax hike of five cents. The tax hike had bipartisan support, including the support of President Ronald Reagan. However, Helms fought virtually alone with only a small cadre of tax opponents. He eventually lost on the measure but as he was traveling back to North Carolina he stopped at a rural Hardees restaurant. Truckers recognized Helms and he was greeted with thunderous applause for his efforts. Helms stood up not just for business interests like the trucking industry, but the rural poor, who are hit hardest by increases in gas prices. The current federal tax on a gallon of unleaded gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and the mean state tax on a gallon is 26.6 cents. My commentary is printed below:

High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor

by Ray Nothstine

Religious leaders staging a fast over budget cuts on social spending have not offered to fast over higher gas prices, even though the impact on the poor is devastating. In fact, there is very little focus on the rise in energy costs, with political and religious leaders remaining largely silent. Yet, when they speak on the issue, they often do not have your best interests in mind.

At a recent visit to a wind turbine plant, President Obama responded to one questioner’s concern about rising prices by laughing and saying, “If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting 8 miles per gallon, you might want to think about a trade-in.” The president didn’t say which vehicle he was talking about. But a 2003 Hummer H2, rated among the worst for gas mileage, scores 10-14 miles per gallon.

But for most people a truck that is getting 8 miles per gallon is the one that delivers their food. This is true too for charitable food banks as delivery costs cut into the number of people they can feed. Food banks also depend on volunteer drivers to deliver meals to shut-ins.

Many individuals and families are already curtailing discretionary spending to save for gas. In turn, more money and jobs exit the U.S. economy for oil exporting countries.

The national average for a gallon of gas is currently $3.79. Some American cities are well over $4 per gallon. The price, up almost a $1 since last year at this time, has some experts forecasting $5 for Memorial Day.

While oil markets can be complex, free market alternatives offer better relief than heavily subsidized “green energies” propped up by government. A new study in the United Kingdom by Stuart Young Consulting and the John Muir Trust again pointed out what previous studies have found: Wind output is often less than anticipated and is an unreliable source of energy.

Likewise, electric cars are rejected by consumers shopping for fuel economy—even though they are subsidized with tax credits. Rachel Slobodien of the Heritage Foundation points out that people are instead buying more affordable super fuel economy cars with traditional engines that get upwards of 50 miles per gallon.

Some lawmakers from both parties in oil producing states are asking for more domestic drilling, more refineries, and uniform state standards on gasoline mixture requirements. All of these proposals will help lower prices and could add hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

President Obama has responded by saying an increase in domestic drilling “will help some.” He also signaled he may be willing to tap more of the Canadian oil sands, but at the same time, he wants to cut oil imports by one-third.

High prices at the pump can offer a moment to pause too and remember a spiritual truth. The price of gas not only draws attention to the Middle East, but it draws our attention back to the Garden of Eden that tradition places in that oil-rich region.

Oil itself is decayed vegetation and plankton that has seeped into the ground, forming over millions of years. At one time wildlife was abundant and forests were especially lush in the garden. In the creation story we are reminded that after the fall of man, we have to toil for resources (Genesis 3:19).

While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”

Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.

We know too well that leaders in Washington reflect the fall of man, but they are not working to lighten our burden right now. As the price of gas approaches $5 per gallon, perhaps its rise may help us to refocus on new ways to meet the needs of those who have the most to lose from rising fuel costs.

In today’s Grand Rapids Press I respond to a previous piece by religion columnist Charley Honey, “Religious voices have a place in the state’s budget cut discussions.”

I Hope I Die Before I Get OldI argue in “Christ’s kingdom is bigger than the federal government” that there is a basic confusion from many religious voices in the budget debate about the primary role of the federal government, and make the point that Abraham Kuyper’s “famous quotation attributes the claims of lordship over ‘every square inch’ of the world to Christ, not to the government. To miss this critical distinction is to undermine the very basis of Kuyper’s comprehensive and variegated social thought. For Kuyper, there are important differences among the responsibilities of the government, the church, the family, schools and a host of other social realities.”

I also refer to last month’s conversation with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” (audio here). Be sure to check out the event later this month where I’ll be a panelist to discuss these issues along with Strauss, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Jonathan Merritt, and Ryan Streeter, “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old,” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (the event will be streamed online for those fortunate enough not to live in or near the Beltway).

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.

It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.

James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”

In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.

Anderson writes,

As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.

Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.

Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.

VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.

The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”

Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”

Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.

As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.

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, and The 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.”


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.