Category: News and Events

Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, takes note of an in-depth NYT profile of Prof. Robby George (HT: MoJ). In the NYT profile, George is presented as the central figure in the formation of the ecumenical coalition behind the Manhattan Declaration, and adds a number of important contexts for George’s academic, intellectual, and political endeavors.

Anderson characterizes the profile as “pretty evenhanded,” saying it “provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.” But Anderson levels a serious charge against the piece by David D. Kirkpatrick:

But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.

Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.

Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.

I can certainly understand Anderson’s concerns that George be properly presented as heir to a long-standing intellectual tradition. But I disagree that the profile does injustice to this aspect of George’s work.

For instance, the dominant paradigm that is presented throughout is that George is drawing deeply on the Thomistic tradition. Kirkpatrick writes early on in the piece, for example, that George “has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence.” Kirkpatrick also notes that George’s “admirers” say that “he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Of course at other points, including in the section below, specific natural-law arguments that George makes are referred to as “new,” so in this sense Anderson’s clarifications are valuable.

It seems to me that the most serious potential misunderstanding in the article is at least superficially based on George’s own declaration that in organizing the broad Christian support for the Manhattan Declaration from a variety of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, “I sold my view about reason!” This is of course a reference to the specifically (neo)Thomistic view of reason’s relation to natural law that serves as the intellectual framework for the entire article, and indeed, for George’s own intellectual career.

Somehow I doubt that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration understood themselves to be endorsing a specifically Thomistic view of natural law when they pledged their support for the document’s agenda.

Here are the concluding paragraphs the profile in full:

I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.

It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.

Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.

“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”

On the one hand the canard about the Reformation’s wholesale rejection of natural law is repeated here full stop. But at the same time it is true that in the time since the sixteenth century there have been varieties of natural-law thinking, both within and without Roman Catholicism, that more or less diverge from the standard neo-Thomistic line.

Acton’s own Stephen J. Grabill has definitively shown that Protestants who draw their inspiration from the magisterial Reformation don’t need to be “sold” a view of natural law; they have their own explicit natural-law traditions on which to draw.

As Grabill has summarized elsewhere, “the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
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William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)

The Mackinac Center notes that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of British parliamentarian and statesman William Gladstone, and links to a 2003 article from the center’s president, Lawrence W. Reed. Reed points to Gladstone’s long and distinguished political career, which included multiple tenures as prime minister.

What made this son of Scottish parents both great and memorable, however, was not simply a long career in government. Indeed, as a devoutly religious man he always put service to God ahead of service to country and felt that what he did as a politician should be unequivocally faithful to both. What made Gladstone great and memorable was what he actually accomplished while he served in government. Biographer Magnus says Gladstone “achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions.”

Today, when a citizen is elected with a mandate to cut the government down to size, but ends up moderating his positions while in power, conventional wisdom credits him with having “grown in office.” Gladstone “grew” but in precisely the opposite direction. When he entered Parliament at age 22 in 1832, Gladstone was a protectionist on trade, a defender of the state-subsidized Church of England, an opponent of reform and a protector of the status quo. By 1850, he had become an ardent advocate of free trade and by 1890 had reduced Britain’s tariffs from 1,200 to just 12.

Gladstone slashed government spending, taxes, and regulations. He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland. He pushed through reforms that allowed Jews and Catholics to serve in Parliament and that extended the vote to millions of taxpaying workers who had previously been denied the franchise. He extolled the virtues of self-help and private charity. And he lived what he preached. Even as prime minister, Gladstone was so moved by the degraded plight of London prostitutes that he would search the streets of London to talk them out of their destructive occupation.

This photo is of Acton spending time with the Gladstone family at Tegernsee in 1879. Tegernsee was a spa town in the Bavarian Alps. Acton died there in 1902. In the photo Acton is seated at the right with his hat in hand, William Gladstone is seated on the bench at the left. Mary Gladstone is standing just behind her father.

This photo is of Acton spending time with the Gladstone family at Tegernsee in 1879. Tegernsee was a spa town in the Bavarian Alps. Acton died there in 1902. In the photo Acton is seated at the right with his hat in hand, William Gladstone is seated on the bench at the left. Mary Gladstone is standing just behind her father.

A good deal of Lord Acton’s correspondence with Gladstone, which extended over a period of thirty years, is available via Google Books, as is Acton’s correspondence with Gladstone’s daughter Mary.

Update: More on Gladstone at Scriptorium Daily, “Gladstone: The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture.”

During this holiday travel season, which has you more concerned, conventional terror attacks of the kind attempted on Christmas Day or tech terrorism, which aims to take down access to or breach various computer networks?

John P. Avlon of the Manhattan Institute makes the case that the latter perhaps represents a greater threat to national and economic security. Avlon concludes, “Whether it is perpetrated by al-Qaida, a hostile nation, or a lone hacker, we cannot afford to wait for a digital Pearl Harbor to take this threat seriously. Delay is denial. Cyber-attacks are coming—it’s not a question of if, but when and to what extent.”

Judging from the reaction to recent BlackBerry network outages, the consuming public (if not the policy makers and politicians) appreciate the disruption that cyber terrorism might cause.


From the Holy Land, sung in Arabic. Merry Christmas to all PowerBlog readers and our blogging crew!

St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 4:4-7

Brethren, when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir of God through Christ.

By Cassia the nun, from the Great Vespers for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ

When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to end: and when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.

In a new column in The Detroit News, I set authentic environmental stewardship against the goings-on at the recently concluded UN Copenhagen conference. A slightly longer version of this commentary will be published tomorrow in the weekly Acton News & Commentary. Merry Christmas to all!

The not-so-subtle politicizing of science revealed by the Climategate affair, along with the alarmist and at times downright silly antics of some proponents of environmentalism (a word that has acquired numerous shades of creedal commitment), ought not drive reasonable people to abandon a sense of moral and civil obligation for the care and well-being of the planet.

The world that surrounds us and all the creatures upon it have human beings as their protectors. The human family has a primordial calling to “care and tend the garden.”

The point of conjecture now, however, is often over whether this world is indeed a garden — to be cultivated and tended, with care, reason and even love — or whether, as some of those gathered at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen demonstrated last week, the world is best seen as a jungle, to be left wild, untouched by human hands and thereby preserved unsullied and uncontaminated.

In the vocabulary of too many environmentalists, humans appear as the greatest threat to creation, at times leaving the impression that the human family is the most unnatural thing in nature.

The world and the people who inhabit it are at the center of the concern and love celebrated at Christmas. The controlling anthropology of the Nativity says that the human person, created in the image of the Creator, and the environment humans live in, is of such importance to their Creator that He chose to insinuate Himself into this world so as to rectify the effects of the disorder of creation brought about by human rebellion against the natural order and their origin.

This anthropology and cosmology presupposes that the creation has a purpose and was designed by a rational mind that imbued it with meaning. Ask yourself, which provides more protection for the environment: this view of the natural world that contends the order of the universe reflects the intentionality of a Creator who, in turn entrusts beings created in His image to care for and bring forth from creation its flourishing through a kind of environmental stewardship; or, the belief that the world is a chance collision of inanimate material forces that somehow produced being with no intrinsic dignity much less an august vocation to tend and perfect creation?

If you can grasp the disparate approaches to life of these two ideas, then you can understand why the rejection of a secularism hostile to the transcendent is so critical, not merely for some kind of abstract “spiritual” reason, but for the concrete care of our world and for the construction of a civilization based not on some assemblage of facts, but on the meaning behind and underneath the facts.

Christmas is precisely that. In the narratives we will hear and read in our homes and in our churches, we will be reminded of a world of infinite value to God, created with love and care, and entrusted to the human family to be tended and brought to its proper fruition. This is the message of God’s entrance into human history in the form of a vulnerable baby, born at a particular time and in a particular place, through the agency of a particular woman. It is the story of the Word who created the world, and who was rejected by that world.

The incarnation of Christ in human form offers hope to all “who dwell in darkness and the power of death.” It is this belief that protects, sustains and gives meaning — to our environment, and to much, much more.

How sad that message did not seem to be heard in Copenhagen.

NRO’s Corner published my article on Pope Benedict’s recent remarks to Brazilian bishops on liberation theology:

It went almost unnoticed, but on December 5, Benedict XVI articulated one of the most stinging rebukes of a particular theological school ever made by a pope. Addressing a visiting group of Brazilian bishops, Benedict followed some mild comments about Catholic education with some very sharp and deeply critical remarks about liberation theology and its effects upon the Catholic Church.

After stressing how certain liberation theologians drew heavily upon Marxist concepts, the pope described these ideas as “deceitful.” This is very strong language for a pope. But Benedict then underscored the damage that liberation theology did to the Catholic Church. “The more or less visible consequences,” he told the bishops, “of that approach — characterised by rebellion, division, dissent, offence and anarchy — still linger today, producing great suffering and a serious loss of vital energies in your diocesan communities.”

Today, even some of liberation theology’s most outspoken advocates freely admit that it has collapsed, including in Latin America. Once considered avant-garde, it is now generally confined to clergy and laity of a certain age who wield ever-decreasing influence within the Church. Nonetheless, Benedict XVI clearly believes it’s worth underscoring just how much harm it inflicted upon the Catholic Church.

For a start, there’s little question that liberation theology was a disaster for Catholic evangelization. There’s a saying in Latin America that sums this up: “The Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.”

In short, while many Catholic clergy were preaching class war, many of those on whose behalf the war was supposedly being waged decided that they weren’t so interested in learning about Marx or listening to a language of hate. They simply wanted to learn about Jesus Christ and his love for all people (regardless of economic status). They found this in many evangelical communities.

A second major impact was upon the formation of Catholic clergy in parts of Latin America. Instead of being immersed in the fullness of the Catholic faith’s intellectual richness, many Catholic seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s read Marx’s Das Kapital and refused to look at such “bourgeois” literature such Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.

This undermined the Church’s ability to witness to Christ in Latin America, not least because some clergy reduced Christ to the status of a heroic but less than divine urban guerrilla and weren’t especially interested in explaining Catholicism’s tenets to their flocks.

Then there has been the effect upon the Church’s ability to engage the new Latin American economic world that emerged as the region opened itself to markets in the 1990s. Certainly much of this liberalization was poorly executed and marred by corruption. Nonetheless, as The Economist recently reported, countries like Brazil — once liberation theology’s epicenter — are emerging as global economic players and helping millions of people out of poverty in the process. The smartest thing that Brazil’s left-wing President Lula da Silva ever did was to not dismantle most of his predecessor’s economic reforms.

Unfortunately, one legacy of liberation theology is the inability of some Catholic clergy to relate to people working in the business world. Ironically, business executives are far more likely to practice their Catholicism than many other Latin Americans. Yet liberation theology has left a residue of distrust of business leaders among some Catholic clergy — and vice versa. Distrust is no basis for engagement, let alone evangelization.

The good news is that the Church in Latin America is more than halfway along the road to recovery. Anyone who talks to younger priests and seminarians there today quickly learns that they have absorbed the devastating critiques of liberation theology produced by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s. If anything, they tend to regard liberation theologians, like the ex-priest Leonardo Boff, as heretical irrelevancies.

Indeed, figures such as Boff must be dismayed that the Catholic Church has emerged as the most outspoken opponent of populist-leftists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. As Michael Novak observed in Will It Liberate? (1986), liberation theologians were notoriously vague when it came to practical policy proposals. But if any group embodies the liberationists’ economic agenda, it is surely the populist Left, which is currently providing us with case studies of how to drive economies into the ground faster than you can say “Fidel Castro.”

As time passes, liberation theology is well on its way to being consigned to the long list of Christian heterodoxies, ranging from Arianism to Hans-Küngism. But as Benedict XVI understands, ideas matter — including incoherent and destructive ideas such as liberation theology. Until the Catholic Church addresses the legacy of this defunct ideology — to give liberation theology its proper designation — its ability to speak to the Latin America of the future will be impaired.

Blog author: mmiller
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
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With all of the blizzards, cold temperatures and the circus-like atmosphere in Copenhagen last week, it looks like people are becoming more and more skeptical of global warming—or I should say climate change.

But in times like these we have to remember that blizzards, or even historical low temperatures, are irrelevant–because it is not LOCAL warming, it is GLOBAL warming.

The only time LOCAL temperatures have any significance is when they are hotter than normal–then it becomes empirical evidence. I know it is hard to figure this out. I don’t really understand it either, but that is why we have all those people in Copenhagen to help us.

For an enjoyable reflection on the Copenhagen Meeting and the concurrent blizzards take a look at Copen-Babel written by former Acton colleague Jay Richards.

Enjoy the Snow.

As a follow-up note to my previous post, “Wealth and Fidelity, Golf and Marriage,” it’s worth exploring in some more detail the multi-billion dollar phenomenon that has been called “Tiger, Inc.” and the relationship between power in sports, wealth, and politics.

Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” has found relevance in a number of contexts beyond those of its initial utterance. It is most frequently used nowadays to refer to the kind of fullness of power enjoyed by politicians, celebrities, and pop royalty, those who are or consider themselves above the law, morally and sometimes legally.

COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL ELINS

COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL ELINS

In its January 2010 issue, which went to print before Tiger Woods’ alleged affairs became public, Golf Digest featured a section on what Tiger Woods could teach Barack Obama (and vice versa). It makes for some painful, awkward reading at times in light of what’s happened since.

For instance, author Joe Queenan says that “Tiger never does anything that would make him look ridiculous.” Jackie Burke Jr., who shares Tiger’s permanent locker at Augusta National, similarly notes that “Tiger never answers questions recklessly, and he often pauses to consider his answers before he speaks.” Sometimes those pauses can stretch into days and weeks, apparently.

The critiques of Tiger and what he might learn from Obama sometimes read prophetically. Veteran player and commentator Judy Rankin notes that Tiger “has the ability to be even more memorable than he already is, simply by giving people the occasional personal moment.” Author Bruce McCall says Tiger needs “to be more than grudgingly civil to the vast human throngs awed to be in your presents. That adoration is what supports your empire and unimaginable wealth, so give something back.”

Religion & LibertyThe Acton Institute knows a thing or two about poor fortune in the timing of a publication. An issue of our own Religion & Liberty went to press featuring a cover interview with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford right before his international affair became the stuff of tabloids and gossip pages. This interview was in fact the last one in which he gave an in-depth look at his view of faith and public life before his adultery became public, and so even as painful as it might be to have this kind of thing happen as a publisher, it often does in fact serve some journalistic purpose, as a baseline for critique if nothing else.

In the case of the Tiger Woods feature in Golf Digest, it gives us a permanent snapshot of how Tiger Woods was viewed right before all of this came out, such that the nominal leader of the free world was considered in need of learning a thing (or ten) from him.

One of the comments on the previous post noted a connection between infidelity in so-called personal life and public life, citing Bill Clinton in particular. A recent SNL sketch makes this kind of connection even more apparent:

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
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A new NBER working paper promises to blow up the myth that it is primarily the wealthy that will bear the cost of taxes on carbon emissions. In “Who Pays a Price on Carbon?” Corbett A. Grainger and Charles D. Kolstad explore the possibility that “under either a cap-and-trade program that limits carbon emissions or a carbon tax that imposes an outright tax on these emissions, the poor may be among the hardest hit. Because they spend a greater share of their income on energy than higher-income families, households in the lowest fifth of the income distribution could shoulder a relative burden that is 1.4 to 4 times higher than that of households in the top fifth of the income distribution.”

One of the assumptions of the study is that “all costs are passed on to the consumer,” which seems to be appropriate given the state of things in the oil refining business, for instance. As Christopher Helman writes in Forbes, “Even though rising fuel costs and taxes can mostly be passed along, they depress demand for refining. That causes refining margins to implode.” This brings up another set assumptions in the NBER study, however, that doesn’t account for modifications in demand, worker wages, or investor returns.

The authors are also improbably sanguine about the possibility of using the government to redistribute tax revenues to the poor to offset the regressiveness of the tax: “A price on carbon could yield substantial government revenues, and careful recycling of these revenues could offset the regressive nature of a national GHG [greenhouse-gas] emissions policy.” These revenues could also form the basis for a whole new government bureaucracy, which is much more likely than “careful recycling.”

But even with all those caveats, the point that the poor are almost always disproportionately impacted by policy decisions like this is an important one, which raises moral considerations beyond the dominant paradigm surrounding the question of carbon emissions, which simply pits the the impoverished two-thirds world against the developed world.

If ever G.K. Chesterton’s old quip about heresy being “truth gone mad” was in full view, here comes a report from England whereby Fr. Tim Jones, an Anglican minister, had actually encouraged the poor to shoplift from large chains this holiday season.

… the minister’s controversial sermon at St. Lawrence Church in York has been slammed by police, the British Retail Consortium and a local MP, who all say that no matter what the circumstances, shoplifting is an offence.

Delivering his festive lesson, Father Jones told the congregation: ‘My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift. I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither.

‘I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices.

It is true, according to St. Thomas Aquinas and a long tradition of Christian social teaching that private property, while sacred, is not absolute, so that in certain, rare and exceptional circumstances those whose lives are endangered may avail themselves of the property of another. (See this section of the Summa Theologica, for example.)

What is it about Fr. Jones’ language that raises the suspicion that he is less motivated by the well being of his poor parishioners than he is by a disdain for private property, especially when it is employed successfully (i.e., becomes “big chains”)? Follow the consequences of such a disregard for the 8th Commandment: levels of shoplifting rise in chain stores, which disproportionately attract lower income shoppers; the chain stores respond by either passing on their losses to their customers (thereby making life even more difficult for them) or the retailers reduce their overhead and fire their marginal employees (made up of lower income workers).

Need I continue? Anyone who wants to support a scholarship for Rev. Jones or other clergy like him to come to Acton University in June, please contact Kara Eagle here.