Category: Christian Social Thought

thomas-aquinasaugustine-of-hippoAs I noted previously, I’ve been involved this month in a panel discussion over at Cato Unbound on the issue of “Conservative-Libertarian Fusionism.”

My two most recent contributions to the discussion phase focus on possible resources for the question that can be gleaned from Augustine and Aquinas.

Augustine inaugurated a tradition of Christian reflection on the saeculum, the age of this world in which the wheat and the tares grow up together, and the implications of this for common life together. On the relevance of Augustine for modern considerations of political order, I recommend a recent lecture from Eric Gregory of Princeton University.

Aquinas in many respects, and as Gregory points out, should be read as a constructive interlocutor with Augustine rather than in opposition with him. Indeed, Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion that “although every crime is a sin, not every sin is a crime.” Likewise in his treatise on free choice, he observed, “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence.”

In this vein, Aquinas treats in systematic fashion the question, “Whether it belongs to human law to repress all vices?” As I contend over at Cato Unbound, Aquinas follows Augustine in answering negatively, and his discussion has some serious implications for how both conservatives and libertarians ought to think about the limits of the law: “Conservatives and libertarians ought to recognize that positive law is not meant to repress all vices or to promote all virtues.”

catholic-university-bschoolEarlier this year, the Catholic University of America announced the creation of a School of Business and Economics that will be “distinctively Catholic.” The new school offers a model based on Catholic social doctrine and the natural law that is unlike theories prevalent at most leading business schools. “Business schools focus on teaching commercial skills and rules of ethics, but they neglect the importance of character,” says Andrew Abela, the school’s dean and Acton’s 2009 Novak Award Recipient. “Our distinctive idea is to bring the rich resources of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the natural law to bear upon business and economics.

I recently spoke with Dr. Abela about the new program, what makes a Catholic approach different, and what it means for business and economics to be “people-centered”:

Why is it so rare for Catholic colleges and universities to take a “distinctively Catholic” approach on subjects like business and economics?

I think there are several possible reasons for this. First, the business and economics education at many Catholic universities tends to mirror that of non-religious universities in that it focuses on knowledge, not on will. But this is not enough. We have to cultivate our students in virtue, which needs the formation of both the intellect and the will. It’s not enough for students to know the good, they have to do the good, and even to love the good. Second, as you know much of higher education suffers from political correctness, and faculty are thus reluctant to commit to any one approach to ethics. Students end up being taught several (frequently conflicting) theories of ethics, with the result that they graduate as sophisticated relativists. Finally, faculty are committed to existing business and economics theories, and it is hard to reconcile these theories, which claim to be morally neutral, with the Catholic intellectual tradition, which holds that all human action has a moral dimension.

Why are you creating a new School of Business & Economics now – does the world really need another business school? And why a School of Business and Economics?
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At Aletetia, John Zmirak gives an interesting treatment of “solidarity”, a word we don’t talk about too much, either in government, philosophy or theology. However, as Zmirak points out, without solidarity, “tyranny creeps in.”

The central principle of solidarity in practice is simple and timeless – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This ethical maxim, which Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, exists in some form in every culture on earth – as C. S. Lewis documented in The Abolition of Man, where he called it the Tao. It is so ubiquitous that it’s easy for us to assume that it’s universally accepted – at least in theory – while far too rarely practiced.

But in fact, things are darker than that. We have another maxim, which crept into Western souls via “worldly philosophers” such as Machiavelli and Hobbes – the principle of the “consenting adult.” Any time someone uses this phrase, he is saying (under his breath) that none of us is the least bit responsible for each other. If folks make stupid choices, that’s not our problem. Even if we are the ones who tempted them to make such a choice – if we have exploited them personally, economically, or sexually – we are still scot-free: “She was a consenting adult;” “That schmuck should have known better,” we tell ourselves, and smirk.

Instead of an ethic that rests on reciprocity, on admitting the unique value of every person because he’s a fellow human, we treasure a heartless, pragmatic ethos that shrugs at suffering and confusion, a Darwinian willingness to pounce on our neighbor’s mistakes. So “consenting adults” work in sweatshops overseas making our iPads, or sweat before cameras enacting our porn, or wake up alone in the bed where we’ve left them when we were finished with our desires. No individual rights were violated, no crime was committed or contract broken – so the modern secular conscience has nothing meaningful to say.

Solidarity is not a power relationship, but one based on justice and love, Zmirak says. It is certainly not socialism, either; it is, rather, a term borrowed from Catholic Social Teaching that allows a community of people to bond, to live together with concern for each other’s needs, regardless of what the government is up to.

Read “The Deadly Myth of the ‘Consenting Adult’ ” at Aleteia.org.

The Calvinist International recently interviewed Allan Carlson, author of Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies – And Why They Disappeared

Could you tell us a bit about your view of how the Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper influences your project?

I came across Abraham Kuyper fairly late, but was delighted to discover such a strong communitarianism within the modern Reformed/Calvinist tradition. Calvinism has too often been associated, of late, with individualism, modernism, and capitalism. Such “isms” certainly do not fit Calvin’s Geneva nor 17th Century Puritan Massachusetts. Kuyper’s warnings about “the power of capital” and the ways in which Commercialism undermines family bonds translate the authentic Calvinist socio-political heritage into modern circumstances. I also love the name of his political association: The Anti-Revolutionary Party. It drives home the point that all Christians—not just Roman Catholics—were threatened by the Jacobins of 1789.
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In the Federalist Papers James Madison claimed that, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But is that true? James R. Rogers, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, explains why some form of government would be necessary even if man were still in a prelapsarian state of nature:

[E]ven without the Fall, there would be a role for civil government for the duly recognized person who exercises civil authority. Even in an unfallen society, there is need for civil authority to minimize the cost of informational asymmetries and to minimize decision costs.

People in a prelapsarian society are not omniscient, which means that even without the Fall, there would be a role for civil authority to coordinate individual interactions to avoid suboptimal outcomes. For example, there is no morally correct answer to the question “What side of the road should people drive on?” Hence, even in a society populated by people with all the good will toward one another and all the moral virtue in the world, there would be a need to provide a consistent answer to these folks when they pulled out of the driveway.

And the question “Which side of the road should I drive on?” is a properly civil question. Answering this question belongs neither to familial nor ecclesiastical leadership. Nonetheless, the government need not use the sword in a prelapsarian society. The government would only need to be what in game theory is called a “focal arbitrator.” Civil authority would need only to announce “drive on the right side of the road,” and unfallen folk would follow the direction.

Read more . . .

The Emperor Theodosius does public penance for his own scandal before the bishop St. Ambrose.

Ray Pennings recently wrote a thoughtful reflection at The Cardus Daily on the recent surge in (exposed) political scandals, Canadian and American. He bemoans that “the current version of democracy isn’t looking all that attractive right now,” writing,

It is discouraging to read stories regarding blatant ethical questions involving the President of the United States, Prime Minister of Canada, the Canadian Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of Canada’s largest city on the same day. Although the natures of these purported scandals are quite different from each other, the bottom line reduces to the same — can we count on our leaders to carry out their office with the basics of integrity and transparency? Whatever the facts are regarding the specific cases, at a minimum it must be said that those involved in each of these cases have been less than forthcoming in explaining themselves. If the events themselves don’t merit the scandal label, the lack of explanation almost certainly does.

To summarize, even apart from the scandals themselves, the proclivity of politicians not to be forthright about the details is itself a scandal. (more…)

AllAfrica.com published a press release from the Guttmacher Institute, the research division of Planned Parenthood, summarizing a new study that “the poorest countries are lagging far behind higher-income developing countries in meeting the demand for modern contraception. Between 2003 and 2012, the total number of women wanting to avoid pregnancy and in need of contraception increased from 716 million to 867 million, with growth concentrated among women in the 69 poorest countries where modern method use was already very low.”

Around the developing world, “Roughly three-quarters (73%) of the 222 million women in developing countries who want to avoid a pregnancy but are not using a modern method now live in the poorest countries, compared with 67% in 2003,” according to the report. “Furthermore, women in the poorest countries who want to avoid pregnancy are one-third as likely to be using a modern method as those living in higher-income developing countries.” Thankfully, between 2003 and 2012, “there was a shift away from sterilization (declining from 47% to 38% of all modern method use in developing countries) toward methods with higher failure rates, namely barrier methods (increasing from 7% to 13%) and injectables (from 6% to 9%).”

For those who value human dignity, this is actually good news. The “lagging behind” of birth control availability and success is the greatest hope for the developing world. In addition to the rule of law and sustained property rights, what Africa needs is more people, not less, in order for many countries to build the types of sustainable economies that allow real needs to be met in the long-run. In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II explains why:
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There is no doubt that higher education is costly. Textbooks alone can run $1000 a semester for some undergraduates. Waiting tables and flipping burgers won’t cover those costs. With many parents just as strapped for cash as their children, how does one pay for a college diploma?

For some young women, the answer is to sell themselves. There are websites that offer “matching” services for “mutually beneficial relationships”; that is, a young woman signs up for a “sugar daddy”. He pays for college and she has her money problems solved. One website does offer helpful information, such as “keep your emotions in check” and “sugaring is not welfare”. All just business, plain and simple. Although young men sign up for this type of arrangement, the vast majority are young women. (more…)

In a May 16 address to four new Vatican ambassadors, Pope Francis denounced the “cult of money” in today’s culture, stating that we are now living in a disposable society, where even human beings are cast aside.

Phil Lawler, at CatholicCulture.org asks if this means the pope is a socialist. Not so:

Socialists make their arguments in moral terms, because if the argument is stated purely in practical terms, the socialists will lose. By the same logic, capitalists prefer to state their arguments in practical economic terms. Unfortunately, in doing so, they cede the moral high ground to their opponents. With rare exceptions—one thinks immediately of Michael Novak and of the Acton Institute–defenders of capitalism have not taken the trouble to state their case primarily in moral terms. And that’s unfortunate, because a powerful argument can be made that capitalism, tempered by a Christian moral framework, is the best available solution to the problem of poverty.

Nothing that Pope Francis said—nothing that any Pope has said—would rule out that approach. (Pope John Paul II opened the door to a Christian defense of capitalism in Laborem Exercens, then pushed it wide open in Centisimus Annus.) To be sure, the teaching magisterium has been critical of the excesses of capitalism, and of capitalism raised to an all-encompassing ideology. Pope Francis today repeated that condemnation of “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.” Hard-core libertarians will be uncomfortable with that language, certainly. But then hard-core libertarians are often uncomfortable with the Ten Commandments.

Read “What capitalists should learn from the Pope’s critique” at CatholicCulture.org.

Michael J. Gerson’s encomium to Jim Wallis’ book on the common good includes this curious paragraph:

Nearly every Christian tradition of social ethics encompasses two sorts of justice. The first is procedural justice: giving people what they deserve under contracts and the law. The second is distributive justice: meeting some needs just because human beings are human beings. This is not the same thing as egalitarianism; confiscation is not compassion. But distributive justice requires a decent provision for the vulnerable and destitute. And this is not just a matter of personal charity. Social justice is more than crumbs from the table; it depends on the existence of social and economic conditions that allow people to live, work and thrive.

Gerson should be applauded for grappling with such substantive doctrines as the common good and social justice. It is certainly brave to do so within the confines of a short opinion piece.

But his treatment of these in the context of this short op-ed illustrate the difficulty of doing so in a responsible fashion. For one thing, the common good is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to get a handle on in the history of Christian moral reflection. In the end, Gerson summarizes it as “the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish.” We might quibble with this description as not quite getting at the common good as a telos rather than a process, but given that he quotes John Paul II in the previous line, this isn’t that large of a quibble.

We might also note that even though it is commonly associated with modern Roman Catholic social thought, as Gerson notes, the idea of the common good is much more of a catholic legacy of Christianity shared by a variety of Christian traditions. See, for instance, Gerson’s claim that Wallis’ invocation of the common good is “further evidence of the intellectual advance of Catholic social teaching across Christian confessions.” I think this is probably true in the case of Wallis and many evangelicals, and in this Roman Catholic social thought has done a great service in preserving this inheritance and serving as a reminder and inspiration for those who have forgotten the place of the common good in their own tradition’s moral reflection.
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