Category: General

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, November 21, 2011

You have the fruit already in the seed. — Tertullian

Image-maker Alexander Tsiaras shares a powerful medical visualization, showing human development from conception to birth and beyond. (Some graphic illustrations.) From TEDTalks (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Well, that wasn’t a serious title: After an hour of reflection, I am forced to admit that pizza qua pizza is a morally neutral proposition. We might have thought it was politically neutral too, until Congress decided this week that pizza sauce still counts as a serving of vegetables in public school lunch lines.

The brouhaha over pizza’s nutritional status reminds one of the Reagan-era attempt to classify ketchup as a vegetable. The department of agriculture was tasked with cutting the federal school lunch budget but maintaining nutritional standards, which it proposed to do by reclassifying ketchup — acondiment up to that point — as a vegetable. The move would have saved schools the cost of an extra serving of vegies, but Democrats cried foul (hard to blame them), and ketchup was left alone.

At Acton we go in for the natural law, and tend to shun legal positivism, so Congress’s declaration on pizza doesn’t really change the way we look at it (which is, after an informal poll, as a mixture of a number of food groups, vegetables not among them since the tomato is a fruit).

Talking Points Memo takes a less metaphysical tack, and discovers to its outrage that (1) lobbyists for Big Pizza spent more than $5 million lobbying Congress to maintain the status quo, and (2) the reclassification of pizza as a non-vegetable might have helped lower the child obesity rate, which is alarmingly high.

When a democratic government begins making laws that harm particular business sectors, they hire lobbyists. If TPM thinks it has solved the problem of faction, it should reveal the solution before skipping right to complaining about its redundancy and assuming we’ve all made the same brilliant political discovery they have.

Otherwise, if they’re upset that the problems of faction have infected school lunch lines, they should remember that the only way to get the K Street money out would be to relinquish Congress’s micromanagement of what children eat for lunch.

And that brings us to the second point. TPM can’t believe that even though “the CDC estimates about 17 percent — or 12.5 million — of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese,” Congress is allowing public schools to continue passing off two tablespoons of salty pizza sauce as a vegetable.

But the 17 percent childhood obesity rate is not actually a result of Congressional action. Michelle Obama’s recent healthy eating campaigns admit as much — they’re aimed at parents.

Laws always have an effect on the character of citizenry — a fact which the left usually chooses to ignore — and much less frequently on its health. In the case of school lunches, it’s easy to trace the government take-over of lunchtime through parental disregard of nutrition to 17 percent childhood obesity.

If you teach parents that their children’s health is not their responsibility, they’ll stop worrying about it, but when your federal bureaucracy can’t keep their 74 million children healthy, you shouldn’t blame Domino’s and Papa John’s.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has boldly rebutted the arguments of our own Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton, concerning the Vatican’s note on a “central world bank.” It has done so by showing him to be lacking in “respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” … Yes, we are talking about that Center for American Progress.

In a feature on their website that purports to tie last month’s Vatican note to the Occupy Wall Street movement, CAP offers this smarmy response to the analysis Jayabalan gave.

Some conservative Catholic commentators are not as supportive, however….

Kishore Jayabalan of the conservative Catholic Acton Institute said that the note’s appeal to an international authority contradicts the church’s teaching that problems are best solved starting at local levels of authority, also known as the doctrine of subsidiarity.

What these conservatives are missing is that the note draws heavily from the tradition of Catholic social teachings on justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life. This is where the Occupy movement finds an ally.

CAP has one-upped us doctrinally: where Jayabalan is concerned with minor theological nuances like the doctrine of subsidiarity, their minds are fixed on higher principles like respect for human dignity, the most immediate threat to which is the great and terrible free market.

“At heart, it is a moral enterprise,” say CAP’s Jake Paysour about Occupy Wall Street. Yes, except at the hearts of its camps, where women dare not go because their human dignity is respected only as much as strong men find it convenient.

CAP’s record on human dignity speaks for itself. Its position on the lives of unborn children, for example, could not be any more out of line with Catholic teaching on “justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” It is shocking that CAP even uses those words: the suggestion that they give one hoot about Church teaching on human dignity is nonsense.

I will resist the temptation of a GetReligion-style dismantling of the feature, since it would sail right over their heads at CAP, but I must point out that the Church’s principles of social justice were not “set forth 80 years ago” in Quadrogesimo Anno, as the author claims, but rather 40 years before in Rerum Novarum (hence the second encyclical’s name — not that we should expect anyone there to have any Latin). I don’t mean to make an ad hominem argument, but if you can’t get that right, what are you doing trying to explain the relative weights of principles first explicated in Rerum Novarum?

In the future: If you’re going to use the words of an Acton Institute expert, it is expected that you will avoid the shameless contortion of facts and logic that CAP indulged in today.

If you’ve watched any football or baseball recently, you’ve probably seen this Audi commercial. It’s quite funny, and it’s right up Acton’s alley: it artfully distinguishes between proper and improper stewardship of one’s wealth. In this case, an awkward after dinner exchange shows what happens to the use of wealth when culture is diminished:

We have on the one hand a couple appreciative of the aesthetic triumphs of humanity (the Browns), and on the other, a couple of barbarians (the Joneses). In order to get to know each other, the Browns go over to the Joneses’ house for dinner, where they are struck by the Joneses’ art collection – the latter, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seem to be the world’s greatest collectors of the Dutch master Vermeer.

But it turns out that the Joneses are boors who have no idea of the value of their collection, and can appreciate only the Smiths’ expensive car. Their wealth may have been acquired by the virtues of industry and thrift, but it is wasted if it is not spent on things of value.

On MercatorNet, Sarah Phelps Smith writes what must have been intended as a companion piece to the Audi commercial: a review of the Florentine art exhibit Money and Beauty; Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities running right now in that city. The exhibit is a collection of banking artifacts, coins, and art from the Medicis and other Florentine banking families.

The exhibit is particularly relevant right now because, as Wall Street has done, the Medicis became wealthy by providing indispensible financial services, and along the way they made some rather imprudent decisions (Dr. Smith provides the example of business done with royalty, who could default at will). The Medicis also supported the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and others Renaissance geniuses, and for that, Western Civilization will always be in their debt.

It’s easy to point out that a months-long drum circle in the middle of New York City isn’t a cultural achievement, no matter how many sleepless nights are inflicted on the neighbors. But what should have instead of those drum circles? Besides making you depressed about federal funding of the arts (with apologies to cowboy poets in all states), Dr. Smith reminds us that you can’t take it with you:

Do we, as a culture, use “disposable income” to foster artists who have put the time and effort into learning their craft so that they can make beautiful objects with a beauty that will last five hundred years? Perhaps the exhibition can leave us with a desire to encourage people with means to commission, support and propagate works of art that will be timelessly beautiful and universal in appeal, so that when history looks at the products of our culture we (or rather those who come after us) will find our legacy worth looking at.

The Audi marketing team breaks the cringe making silence in their commercial with the text “True greatness should never go unrecognized.” They playfully acknowledge that their big sedans are toward the bottom of the important-things-in-life scale, and that someone for whom a Vermeer might as well be a Thomas Kinkade is not living a fully human life. It’s funny — you can’t be in the business of selling high end cars without rejecting cultural relativism.

Acton’s prolific director of research Samuel Gregg writes at Crisis Magazine about those who would modernize the Catholic Church (theologically): “Dissenting Catholics’ Modernity Problem.” His reflection centers on the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, whose recent visit toGermany brought the modernizers out of the woodwork, and whose speeches and writings have placed the faithful in their proper context.

Judging from the hundreds of thousands of Germans who attended and watched Pope Benedict XVI’s September trip to his homeland (not to mention the tsunami of commentaries sparked by his Bundestag address), the pope’s visit was — once again — a success. And, once again, it was also an occasion for self-identified dissenting Catholics to inform the rest of us what the Church must do if it wants to remain “relevant.” To no-one’s surprise, their bottom-line remains the same. The Church is “out of touch.” Why? Because it’s insufficiently “modern.”

The “we-must-be-more-modern” argument reflects the workings of a logic that privileges whatever is considered “contemporary” (an ever-moving target) over the knowledge imparted by Christ to His Church from its very beginning.

Such reasoning often runs along the following lines. In modernity, X is considered not good; ergo, the Church must accept X is not good. Or, modern people regard X as good or licit; ergo, the Church should teach X is good or licit.


You don’t need to be a professional philosopher to recognize that these are what logicians call non sequiturs: arguments in which the conclusions don’t follow from the premises. The fact that something is considered modern tells us nothing about its goodness or evil, let alone whether it conforms to the truth found in Divine Revelation. It also produces very strange arguments such as the claim made in 1968 (of course) by the ex-Jesuit theologian John Giles Milhaven, that “modern people” (whoever they are) by virtue of their “modernity of spirit” (whatever that means) enjoyed a type of “standing dispensation” from God to pursue what they “feel” to be good.

Gregg sets this post-Enlightenment ethic of feelings against the Church’s foundation in reason, which makes it truly catholic. Those who would re-orient the Church,

marginalize the conviction that the fullness of Christian truth is to be found in the reasonable faith entrusted to and proclaimed by the Church. And the faith of that Church goes beyond the particular views held by us today to embrace the right belief (orthosdoxa) of the whole communio of believers, the living and the dead, from the apostles onward — the truth of which is confirmed by the consensus of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, the witness of the martyrs, and the teaching authority of the successors of Peter and the other apostles.

Of course, Catholicism doesn’t have an in-principle opposition to the post-Enlightenment world per se, any more than it allegedly locates everything that is good and true in the 13th century. Any effort to associate the fullness of Catholic faith with any one historical period risks relativizing those truths knowable by faith and reason that transcend time and bind Catholics across the ages.

Perhaps such a relativizing is what many dissenting Catholic activists want. If so, they should concede that this would mean making the Church in their own image rather than that of Christ the Logos. And there is no surer way of making the Church truly irrelevant in a modern world that desperately needs more reason and light than emotivism and darkness.

Full text here.

Andreas Widmer, co-founder of the SEVEN Fund and Acton’s research fellow in entrepreneurship, explains the lessons in entrepreneurship he learnt while serving Pope John Paul II as a Swiss Guard in this interview from the Wall Street Journal. He then describes the mission of the Seven Fund. He makes a number of thought-provoking points in the eight minute video:

Andreas Widmer is also a voice of the PovertyCure project.

This morning the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a bold statement advising how to bring order to the global financial crisis. I was in attendance at the much anticipated press conference that was organized to debrief reporters on the statement’s content.

The statement came in the form of a “Nota” (“Note” in Vatican terms): Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.

The President and Secretary of the Council, together with a University of Rome economics professor summarized the points and context of the Note. They were met with tough questions from 60 feisty Vatican-beat journalists representing international newspaper, television and radio outlets.

To say the least, the Council’s Note was controversial and not something you normally see released from a Vatican Council. Normally, concerning specific economic policy and governance, Vatican authorities speak much more boldly on moral and theological matters and much less so on practical prescriptions.

Before getting started with the debriefing, there were a few waivers and clarifications to make about the Note’s official extent of authority and relevance.

Both the council’s President, Cardinal Peter Turkson, and Vatican Press Secretary, Fr. Federico Lombardi, made it very clear that the statement was “not in any way the opinion of the pope”, but solely that of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and those that composed it.

One of the journalists present asked if the Holy Father himself had read the document, to which the Council’s Secretary, Bishop Mario Toso, said the document had only been reviewed by the Secretariat of State and was released to stimulate the practical and moral thinking of world economic leaders attending the G-20 summit this November 3-4 in Cannes, France and to “invite a process of discernment among all peoples of the world” as Cardinal Turkson later added.

Most of the heated questions at the Vatican press conference concentrated on the potential utopian vision of a single world government authority a la United Nations and IMF to promote financial and monetary security as well as greater equality among the rich and poor in teetering markets and destitute nations. Professor Leonardo Becchetti told journalists from the panel that “the world has changed…a globalized economy now calls for a global government”.

Bishop Toso was quick to point out that the statement’s opinions on a global financial authority took inspiration from Pope Benedict’s 2009 encylcical letter, Caritas in Veritate, where he said the Holy Father underscored that some form of world authority was necessary to bring order to the global economic chaos in full force. Therefore, as the Council’s officials argued, some legitimacy to their argument for a world economic authority stemmed from the Church’s official social teachings.

The reference to Caritas in Veritate had today’s journalists on edge with further demanding questions about the natural tendencies and historical proofs that corruption, self-interests and sin almost always destroy the good intentions and original human ideals of large-scale governance and any political authority wielding massive power.

Here are some extended clips from the first and third parts of the Council’s statement, where the issues of economic development, inequality and global financial authority are addressed.

The English translation is still in a process of final revision and should be released soon along with expert articulation and commentary from the Acton staff. Stay tuned for more!

1. Economic Development and Inequalities

The grave economic and financial crisis which the world is going through today springs from multiple causes. Opinions on the number and significance of these causes vary widely. Some commentators emphasize first and foremost certain errors inherent in the economic and financial policies; others stress the structural weaknesses of political, economic and financial institutions; still others say that the causes are ethical breakdowns occurring at all levels of a world economy that is increasingly dominated by utilitarianism and materialism. At every stage of the crisis, one might discover particular technical errors intertwined with certain ethical orientations.

In material goods markets, natural factors and productive capacity as well as labour in all of its many forms set quantitative limits by determining relationships of costs and prices which, under certain conditions, permit an efficient allocation of available resources.

In monetary and financial markets, however, the dynamics are quite different. In recent decades, it was the banks that extended credit, which generated money, which in turn sought a further expansion of credit. In this way, the economic system was driven towards an inflationary spiral that inevitably encountered a limit in the risk that credit institutions could accept. They faced the ultimate danger of bankruptcy, with negative consequences for the entire economic and financial system

After World War II, national economies made progress, albeit with enormous sacrifices for millions, indeed billions of people who, as producers and entrepreneurs on the one hand and as savers and consumers on the other, had put their confidence in a regular and progressive expansion of money supply and investment in line with opportunities for real growth of the economy.

Since the 1990s, we have seen that money and credit instruments worldwide have grown more rapidly than revenue, even adjusting for current prices. From this came the formation of pockets of excessive liquidity and speculative bubbles which later turned into a series of solvency and confidence crises that have spread and followed one another over the years…

A liberalist approach, unsympathetic towards public intervention in the markets, chose to allow an important international financial institution to fall into bankruptcy, on the assumption that this would contain the crisis and its effects. Unfortunately, this spawned a widespread lack of confidence and a sudden change in attitudes. Various public interventions of enormous scope (more than 20% of gross national product) were urgently requested in order to stem the negative effects that could have overwhelmed the entire international financial system.

The consequences for the real economy, what with grave difficulties in some sectors – first of all, construction – and wide distribution of unfavourable forecasts, have generated a negative trend in production and international trade with very serious repercussions for employment as well as other effects that have probably not yet had their full impact. The costs are extremely onerous for millions in the developed countries, but also and above all for billions in the developing ones…

Global economic well-being, traditionally measured by national income and also by levels of capacities, grew during the second half of the twentieth century, to an extent and with a speed never experienced in the history of humankind…

First and foremost, an economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls. Economic liberalism is a theoretical system of thought, a form of “economic apriorism” that purports to derive laws for how markets function from theory, these being laws of capitalistic development, while exaggerating certain aspects of markets. An economic system of thought that sets down a priori the laws of market functioning and economic development, without measuring them against reality, runs the risk of becoming an instrument subordinated to the interests of the countries that effectively enjoy a position of economic and financial advantage.

Regulations and controls, imperfect though they may be, already often exist at the national and regional levels; whereas on the international level, it is hard to apply and consolidate such controls and rules.

The inequalities and distortions of capitalist development are often an expression not only of economic liberalism but also of utilitarian thinking: that is, theoretical and practical approaches according to which what is useful for the individual leads to the good of the community. This saying has a core of truth, but it cannot be ignored that individual utility – even where it is legitimate – does not always favour the common good. In many cases a spirit of solidarity is called for that transcends personal utility for the good of the community….

One devastating effect of these ideologies, especially in the last decades of the past century and the first years of the current one, has been the outbreak of the crisis in which the world is still immersed.

In his social encyclical, Benedict XVI precisely identified the roots of a crisis that is not only economic and financial but above all moral in nature. In fact, as the Pontiff notes, to function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind but one that is people-centred. He goes on to denounce the role played by utilitarianism and individualism and the responsibilities of those who have adopted and promoted them as the parameters for the optimal behaviour of all economic and political agents who operate and interact in the social context. But Benedict XVI also identifies and denounces a new ideology, that of “technocracy”.

3. An Authority over Globalization

On the way to building a more fraternal and just human family and, even before that, a new humanism open to transcendence, Blessed John XXIII’s teaching seems especially timely. In the prophetic Encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963, he observed that the world was heading towards ever greater unification. He then acknowledged the fact that a correspondence was lacking in the human community between the political organization “on a world level and the objective needs of the universal common good”. He also expressed the hope that one day “a true world political authority” would be created.

In view of the unification of the world engendered by the complex phenomenon of globalization, and of the importance of guaranteeing, in addition to other collective goods, the good of a free, stable world economic and financial system at the service of the real economy, today the teaching of Pacem in Terris appears to be even more vital and worthy of urgent implementation.

In the same spirit of Pacem in Terris, Benedict XVI himself expressed the need to create a world political authority. This seems obvious if we consider the fact that the agenda of questions to be dealt with globally is becoming ever longer. Think, for example, of peace and security; disarmament and arms control; promotion and protection of fundamental human rights; management of the economy and development policies; management of the migratory flows and food security, and protection of the environment. In all these areas, the growing interdependence between States and regions of the world becomes more and more obvious as well as the need for answers that are not just sectorial and isolated, but systematic and integrated, rich in solidarity and subsidiarity and geared to the universal common good.

As the Pope reminds us, if this road is not followed, “despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations.”

The purpose of the public authority, as John XXIII recalled in Pacem in Terris, is first and foremost to serve the common good. Therefore, it should be endowed with structures and adequate, effective mechanisms equal to its mission and the expectations placed in it. This is especially true in a globalized world which makes individuals and peoples increasingly interconnected and interdependent, but which also reveals the existence of monetary and financial markets of a predominantly speculative sort that are harmful for the real economy, especially of the weaker countries.

This is a complex and delicate process. A supranational Authority of this kind should have a realistic structure and be set up gradually. It should be favourable to the existence of efficient and effective monetary and financial systems; that is, free and stable markets overseen by a suitable legal framework, well-functioning in support of sustainable development and social progress of all, and inspired by the values of charity and truth. It is a matter of an Authority with a global reach that cannot be imposed by force, coercion or violence, but should be the outcome of a free and shared agreement and a reflection of the permanent and historic needs of the world common good. It ought to arise from a process of progressive maturation of consciences and freedoms as well as the awareness of growing responsibilities. Consequently, reciprocal trust, autonomy and participation cannot be overlooked as if they were superfluous elements. The consent should involve an ever greater number of countries that adhere with conviction, through a sincere dialogue that values the minority opinions rather than marginalizing them. So the world Authority should consistently involve all peoples in a collaboration in which they are called to contribute, bringing to it the heritage of their virtues and their civilizations.

The establishment of a world political Authority should be preceded by a preliminary phase of consultation from which a legitimated institution will emerge that is in a position to be an effective guide and, at the same time, can allow each country to express and pursue its own particular good. The exercise of this Authority at the service of the good of each and every one will necessarily be super partes (impartial): that is, above any partial vision or particular good, in view of achieving the common good. Its decisions should not be the result of the more developed countries’ excessive power over the weaker countries. Instead, they should be made in the interest of all, not only to the advantage of some groups, whether they are formed by private lobbies or national governments.

A supranational Institution, the expression of a “community of nations”, will not last long, however, if the countries’ diversities from the standpoint of cultures, material and immaterial resources and historic and geographic conditions, are not recognized and fully respected. The lack of a convinced consensus, nourished by an unceasing moral communion on the part of the world community, would also reduce the effectiveness of such an Authority.

What is valid on the national level is also valid on the global level. A person is not made to serve authority unconditionally. Rather, it is the task of authority to be at the service of the person, consistent with the pre-eminent value of human dignity. Likewise, governments should not serve the world Authority unconditionally. Instead, it is the world Authority that should put itself at the service of the various member countries, according to the principle of subsidiarity. Among the ways it should do this is by creating the socio-economic, political and legal conditions essential for the existence of markets that are efficient and efficacious because they are not over-protected by paternalistic national policies and not weakened by systematic deficits in public finances and of the gross national products – indeed, such policies and deficits actually hamper the markets themselves in operating in a world context as open and competitive institutions.

In the tradition of the Church’s Magisterium which Benedict XVI has vigorously embraced, the principle of subsidiarity should regulate relations between the State and local communities and between public and private institutions, not excluding the monetary and financial institutions. So, on a higher level, it ought to govern the relations between a possible future global public Authority and regional and national institutions. This principle guarantees both democratic legitimacy and the efficacy of the decisions of those called to make them. It allows respect for the freedom of people, individually and in communities, and at the same time, allows them to take responsibility for the objectives and duties that pertain to them.
According to the logic of subsidiarity, the higher Authority offers its subsidium, that is, its aid, only when individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them. Thanks to the principle of solidarity, a lasting and fruitful relation is built up between global civil society and a world public Authority as States, intermediate bodies, various institutions – including economic and financial ones – and citizens make their decisions with a view to the global common good, which transcends national goods.
As we read in Caritas in Veritate, “The governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together.” Only in this way can the danger of a central Authority’s bureaucratic isolation be avoided, which would otherwise risk being delegitimized by an excessive distance from the realities on which it is based and easily fall prey to paternalistic, technocratic or hegemonic temptations.
However, a long road still needs to be travelled before arriving at the creation of a public Authority with universal jurisdiction. It would seem logical for the reform process to proceed with the United Nations as its reference because of the worldwide scope of its responsibilities, its ability to bring together the nations of the world, and the diversity of its tasks and those of its specialized Agencies. The fruit of such reforms ought to be a greater ability to adopt policies and choices that are binding because they are aimed at achieving the common good on the local, regional and world levels. Among the policies, those regarding global social justice seem most urgent: financial and monetary policies that will not damage the weakest countries; and policies aimed at achieving free and stable markets and a fair distribution of world wealth, which may also derive from unprecedented forms of global fiscal solidarity, which will be dealt with later.
On the way to creating a world political Authority, questions of governance (that is, a system of merely horizontal coordination without an authority super partes cannot be separated from those of a shared government (that is, a system which in addition to horizontal coordination establishes an authority super partes) which is functional and proportionate to the gradual development of a global political society. The establishment of a global political Authority cannot be achieved without an already functioning multilateralism, not only on a diplomatic level, but also and above all in relation to programs for sustainable development and peace. It is not possible to arrive at global Government without giving political expression to pre-existing forms of interdependence and cooperation.