Category: Christian Social Thought

C630x400_4ce9d1625fdf2092261a462fea2de0b9-1418824744Over the years, many of us here at Acton have been engaged in long-running (and mostly congenial) feud with distributists.

Family squabbles can often be the most heated, and that is true of this rivalry between the Christian champions of distributism and the Christian champions of free markets here at  the Acton Institute. We fight among ourselves because we have an awful lot in common.

For example, we share the a focus on encouraging subsidiarity, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship. We also share a respect for rule of law, private property, and the essential nature of the family. The key difference — at least as viewed from this side of the feud — can be summed up in one word: distributism is mostly unrealistic.
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conscience-angel-devilA new Pew Research survey finds that the majority of American Catholics  (73 percent) say they rely “a great deal” on their own conscience when facing difficult moral problems. Conscience was turned to more often than the three other sources — Catholic Church’s teachings (21 percent), the Bible (15 percent) or the pope (11 percent) — combined.

While it never really went away, conscience is making a comeback among Christians.

Over the past few years, the term conscience has been increasingly referenced in debates occurring both in our churches (e.g., appeals to conscience on moral issues) and the public square (e.g., defending the right of conscience). This is a welcome resurgence, since formation and promotion of Christian conscience is particular important to our primary mission at Acton of articulating a “vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing.

We hear a lot about conscience, but what exactly does it mean? The general concept of conscience can be found in almost every human culture, but it has a unique and distinctive meaning for Christians. The Greek term for conscience (suneidesis) occurs more than two dozen times in the Bible, and serves an important concept, particularly in the Pauline epistles. If we examine the way Scripture talks about conscience we uncover five general themes:
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sandersgrinAt The Stream, Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg does a crime scene investigation of Bernie Sanders’ take on Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus encyclical. You might never guess, by listening to the Democrat presidential candidate, that John Paul actually had some positive things to say about the market economy. Gregg says that Sanders’ recent appearance at a Vatican conference “will be seen for what it is: grandstanding by a left-wing populist candidate for the American presidency.” Aside from that, there are Sanders’ “contestable” economic assertions:

In the first place, Sanders didn’t acknowledge just how much the encyclical being discussed by the conference, Saint John Paul II’s 1991 Centesimus Annus, underscored the positive role of free markets as well as limits on what the government can and should do in the economy. To be sure, Centesimus Annus is not a Catholic version of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. But as I observed prior to the speech, Centesimus Annus contains some of the papacy’s strongest endorsements of the market economy and some of Catholicism’s most powerful critiques of not just socialism but also welfare states. None of these commendations or criticisms were referenced in Sanders’ address.

More generally, some of the claims made by Sanders about inequality are very contestable. His address referred, for instance, to “the widening gaps between the rich and poor.” This, however, doesn’t reflect the evidence of what’s happening to global economic inequality. In terms of global income, for instance, the most widely utilized assessment of income distribution, the Gini coefficient, went from 0.69 in 1988 to 0.63 in 2011. That matters, because a lower Gini coefficient indicates falling inequality.

Nor does Sanders seem aware of the sheer numbers of people who have escaped absolute poverty in Asia, especially India and China, over the past forty years. In 2010, for example, the Asian Development Bank stated that per capita GDP increased 6 percent each year in developing Asian nations between 1990 and 2009. According to the same report, about 850 million people escaped absolute poverty between 1990 and 2005.

Read “Bernie Visits the Vatican, and Misrepresents Pope John Paul II” by Samuel Gregg at The Stream.

The Acton Institute issued a video statement to the international press today from its Rome office, introducing the main topics that to be addressed at its April 20th Rome conference “Freedom with Justice: Rerum Novarum and the New Things of Our Time” at the Roma-Trevi Conference Center.

Among the “new things” to be discussed for the 125th anniversary of Leo’s landmark social encyclical will be the Church and poverty, Europe’s faltering welfare states, globalization’s winners and losers, youth unemployment, our malfunctioning financial systems, the rise of economic populism, new forms of socialism, and, of course, Pope Francis’s economic thinking.

Lively discussion will take place at the conference as well as on social media via the hash tag #125onFreedom. More information can be found at acton.org/Rome2016.

Online viewing will be available on livestream from which viewers may propose questions for the conference speakers.

Pope Francis’ words to journalists on board the charted flight yesterday to the Greek island of Lesbos struck an emotional chord: “It is a sad journey,” he said. “We are going to see the greatest humanitarian  tragedy after World War II.”

As Francis deplaned he was greeted by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The pope expressed his gratitude for Greece’s generosity to Middle Eastern refugees, many of whom come to Europe fleeing from desperate situations.

Francis spent only 5 hours on the small Greek island near the cost of Turkey, while meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Ieronymos II, the archbishop of Athens and Greece. He took time to speak to refugees from regions of economic depravity, religious persecution and military strife. He then held a service to bless those who have died trying to reach Europe.

According to RomeReports’ coverage of the one-day papal visit, Francis traveled to the Moria refugee camp, “a place where the migrants arrive and can not leave freely.” (more…)

New articles from the indefatigable Samuel Gregg, research director of the Acton Insitute:

Amoris Laetitia: Another Nail in the “Overpopulation” Coffin, The Catholic World Report

Here the pope signals his awareness of the efforts of various organizations—the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, particular US administrations—to push anti-natalist policies upon developing nations.

A Revolutionary Pope for Revolutionary Times, Crisis Magazine

Between 1878 and 1903, Leo issued an astonishing 85 encyclicals. Many dealt squarely with the political, social, and economic challenges associated with the “new things” that, having started in Western Europe and North America, were engulfing the globe. In this regard, Leo arguably showed himself to be a revolutionary pope made for revolutionary times

Constitutional Conservatism: Its Meaning and Its Future, Public Discourse

The project of constitutional conservatism must be about more than restoring limits on government. It must also invoke the ends of the American experiment in ordered liberty if the United States is to resist the siren-calls of egalitarianism and populism.

Lehner_CatholicActon Research Director Samuel Gregg reviews a new book at the Library of Law and Liberty that demolishes the canard that religious figure were “somehow opposed holus bolus to Enlightenment ideas is one that has been steadily discredited over the last 50 years.” In his review of The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement by by Ulrich L. Lehner, Gregg points out that the new book shows how “the Enlightenment argument for freedom was embraced by many Catholic Enlighteners.”

One of Lehner’s central themes is that the roots of Catholic Enlightenment thought are to be found in that most reforming of Church councils: the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Trent’s impact in terms of clarifying church dogmas and doctrines, curbing laxity among the clergy, implementing an extensive seminary and university reform program, and propelling the rise of dynamic religious orders (to name just a few changes) is hard to underestimate. Trent facilitated the development of a thoroughly orthodox, intellectually rigorous, and disciplined clergy; a renewed emphasis upon addressing social and economic problems; a repudiation of superstitious customs; and, perhaps most significantly, an emphasis that lay people were also called to holiness. This idea pervades, for instance, Saint Francis de Sales’ immensely influential Introduction to the Devout Life (1609).

Trent was therefore about improvement. And comprehensive efforts to better the human condition was a central leitmotif of the various Enlightenments and one to which, Lehner shows, many Catholics were naturally well-disposed. In some areas, such as enhancing women’s legal status and education, it turns out that Catholic reformers were well ahead of their Protestant and more secular-minded counterparts. (more…)