Category: News and Events

Relativists beware. Whether you like it or not, truth matters – even in the economy. That’s the core message of Pope Benedict XVI’s new social encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

For 2000 years, the Catholic Church has hammered home a trio of presently-unpopular ideas into the humus of human civilization: that there is truth; that it is not simply of the scientific variety; that it is knowable through faith and reason; and that it is not whatever you want or “feel” it to be. Throughout his entire life, Benedict XVI has underscored these themes, precisely because much of the world, including many Christians, has lost sight of their importance.

Perhaps Caritas in Veritate’s most important truth-claim about economic life is that the market economy cannot be based on just any value-system. Against all relativists on the left and the right, Benedict maintains that market economies must be underpinned by commitments to particular basic moral goods and a certain vision of the human person if it is to serve rather than undermine humanity’s common good: “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred” (CV no.45)

“Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust,” the Pope writes, “the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function” (CV no. 35). This surely has been amply confirmed by the recent financial crisis. America’s subprime-mortgage market collapse was at least partly attributable to the fact that literally thousands of people lied on their mortgage application forms. Should we be surprised that mass violation of the moral prohibition against lying has devastating economic consequences? “The economic sphere”, the pope reminds us, “is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner” (CV no.36).

Contrary to the pre-encyclical hype of certain American commentators and the ever-unreliable British press, predictions of papal anathemas against “global capitalism” have – as usual – been found wanting. In economic terms, the pope describes as “erroneous” the tired notion that the developed countries’ wealth is predicated on poor nations’ poverty (CV no.35) that one hears customarily from the likes of Hugo Chavez and whatever’s left of the dwindling band of aging liberation theologians. That’s a pontifical body-blow to a central working assumption of many professional social justice “activists”.

Nor will they be happy with the pope’s concerns about the ways in which foreign aid can produce situations of dependency (CV no.58), not to mention Benedict’s strictures against protectionism (CV no.42) as well as his stress that no amount of structural change can possibly compensate for people freely choosing the good: “Integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples: no structure can guarantee this development over and above human responsibility” (CV no.17).

Nor does Benedict regard the market as morally problematic in itself. “In and of itself,” the Pope states, “the market is not . . . the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations” (CV no.36). What matters, Benedict claims, is the moral culture in which markets exists.

At the heart of the economy are human persons. People whose minds are dominated by crassly hedonistic cultures will make crassly hedonistic economic choices. “Therefore”, Benedict comments, “it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals” (CV no.36).

The implications of truth for economic life do not, however, stop here. For Benedict, it is a lens through which to assess ideas such as “business ethics”, “ethical investing” and “corporate social responsibility.” The notion that investment and business choices have a moral dimension is hardly new. What matters for Benedict is the understanding of morality underlying these schemes. Merely labeling an investment scheme as “ethical”, Benedict notes, hardly tells us whether it is moral (CV no.45).

A second major truth underscored by Benedict is the indispensability of a strong civil society for both undergirding and limiting the market and the state. By this, he does not mean a plethora of government-funded NGOs, many of whom Benedict identifies as intent upon imposing some of the very worst aspects of Western lifestyle-libertarianism upon developing nations (CV no.28). Certainly, Benedict believes, there is a need to re-evaluate (CV no.24) how the state regulates different parts of the economy. Ultimately, however, Benedict stresses that the virtue of solidarity, he argues, is about people concretely loving their neighbour; it “cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (CV no.38). This is reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville’s attention to the manner in which the habit of free association both limits the size of government while also discouraging people from retreating into their own little bubbles.

The economist John Maynard Keynes is famous for many things, including the saying that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” The horizon of Benedict XVI’s perspective on economic life is rather different. The pope asks people to live their economic lives in the short, medium, and long-term as if living in the truth is eternally important, not to mention eternally relevant to their soul’s salvation.

That’s change we can all believe in.

Speaking to the Grass Roots

Speaking to the Grass Roots

This weekend, I had the pleasure of joining dozens of Michiganders in Grandville to protest big government and big spending. The Hudsonville TEA (Taxed Enough Already!) Party, a grassroots group of Americans concerned for the sake of liberty, put on the event immediately following the Grandville 4th of July Parade.

Commemorating America’s independence, the people at the rally were treated to a recitation of the Declaration of Independence, a lesson in the history of American liberty, and the reading of a letter from an auto dealer shut down as part of the government’s bailout of the big three carmakers. I spoke on behalf of the Acton Institute about the balance between virtue and limited government.

Virtue makes limited government possible. There is evil in the world and there is good that needs to be done. We have governments to make it possible for us to live together, and we do need the law to protect us from chaos, but we are able to live free of tyranny because virtue tells us to live up to our responsibilities.

Aristotle once said, “I have gained this by philosophy: to do without being commanded that which others do only from fear of the law.” Philosophia means the love of wisdom. When put into practice, this is virtue. Virtue lets us care for our families and neighbors, respect the wellbeing of other people, and live within our means without being forced to do so by the law.

Virtue is a potent force. The more that we are virtuous, the more we can be free. Limiting government from an institutional angle might be difficult for the time being due to politics. We can take actions now, though, that limit the need for government by doing good, avoiding evil, and encouraging others to do the same.

If we can do that, then America can see another 234 years of being known as the land of the free and the home of the brave, the just, the virtuous.

My commentary on the forthcoming social encyclical was published on National Review Online. Here’s the complete text:

On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI will release his first social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. The pre-release buzz from the Catholic Left on each of his two previous encyclicals has so far proven wrong each time, so the rule should be to wait and see what the pope will actually say.

Each time, with previous encyclicals, we have been told that the pope is preparing to lambaste capitalism and call for state measures to heavily regulate it with an eye to redistributing wealth, cleaning up the environment, controlling consumption, etc. Each time, the final text has demonstrated that the pope’s conversion to progressivist causes has been greatly exaggerated. Invariably, his arguments have been highly sophisticated and have defied easy political categorization.

In advance of Caritas in Veritate, Catholic “progressives” are working themselves into a frenzy of predictions, recommendations, and anathemas — and not one of them, to my knowledge, has seen even an early draft of the encyclical which has been two years in the making.

Will the document draw attention to the weaknesses of Western-style capitalist systems? One hopes so. We might expect the pope to call on market forces to be regulated by moral concerns, within a strong juridical framework, and an exogenous apparatus of standards to curb excesses.

But here is the operative question: In what sense would such a call be a blow against the idea of free economic institutions? The short answer is that it will not be.

There are few advocates of market economics who advocate a complete lack of regulation rightly understood. Every transaction in the marketplace is in fact regulated by contract law, reputation, industry standards, competition, certification and monitoring, and profit and loss systems that reward prudence and punish excess over the long term.

Do these need strengthening? Certainly, and it should be noted that a main force for weakening them is not the market as such, but partisan interventions in the market. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, July 3, 2009
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The Heartland Institute and Consumers for Health Care Choices are sponsoring Health Care Roundtables across the country. Earlier this week, Acton development associate Charles Roelofs attended a roundtable and offers this report:

The event was co-sponsored by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Americans for Prosperity – Michigan. According to event organizers, over 100 people registered for the event. Participants included, local and national health care experts, medical and insurance representatives, current and former elected officials, and concerned citizens.

Common themes in many of the presentations included the need for reform of the current third-party payer system, the potential for consumer driven health care to reduce costs, and how much of recently proposed legislation to reform our health care system is ineffective. However, the discussions were varied and ranged from practical advice for saving money on prescription drugs to tips on communicating with elected officials regarding health care.

These policy discussions often lend themselves to moral questions regarding reform. Which types of reform most respect the dignity of the human person? Which types provide the most effective, highest quality health care for those least able to afford it? The Acton Institute has many resources available to answer such questions. The Health Care Resource web page has lectures, commentary, articles, and other media on the subject. Recently, Acton also published a new monograph by Dr. Donald P. Condit, A Prescription for Health Care Reform, which is available through our bookshoppe.

Governor Capriless house being attacked by a mob

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says that “the world needs a new moral architecture.” He also has a clear idea of what that morality ought to look like. Speaking at a conference on socialism in May of this year, he said that “every factory must… produce not only briquettes, steel, and aluminum, but also, above all, the new man and woman, the new society, the socialist society.” If Chavez manages to convince enough people that socialists are a new breed of humanity, a breed that has evolved beyond the old ideas of liberal democracy and individualism, then there is no compelling reason to acknowledge the rights of anyone else. Rights in the “new society” are not based on humanity, because the socialists are part of a new humanity. Rights are based on conformity.

Henrique Capriles is not a conformer.

Capriles is the Governor of Miranda, a state in northern Venezuela. He won election on the ticket of the only party to field a presidential candidate against Chavez in 2006. He knows firsthand what happens when democracy falls to socialist ideals: he served jail time in 2004 on trumped up charges of conspiring to overthrow Chavez, and his parents arrived in Venezuela as Jewish refugees seeking to get out from the threat of Nazi tyranny.

Unfortunately, socialism did not die with Nazi Germany. Owing to their allegiance with Iran, President Chavez and his supporters, the chavistas, have made no secret of their intense hatred for Israel. In early 2009, Chavez supporter and political columnist Emilio Silva posted a piece on Aporrea, a pro-government website, calling on his comrades to “publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park, shouting slogans in favor of Palestine and against that abortion: Israel.” To the chavistas, Venezuelan Jews are targets because Venezuelan Jews do not conform to the new society’s ideas about Israel. The men and women who dissent in the new society do not enjoy old human rights.

Governor Capriles learned that the hard way last month when mobs of angry Chavez supporters attacked his house in an orchestrated political demonstration by the Mayor of Miranda’s capital city, Alirio Mendoza. The mobs sprayed swastikas and climbed the walls of the home, terrorizing Capriles and his family (pictured above). Speaking that day, Mendoza justified his actions: “We are showing Capriles that… people are opposed to his continuous attacks against the initiatives and socialist projects of president Chávez.”

By the Venezuelan state’s morality, Capriles is outdated. He does not conform to socialism. He refuses to embrace Iran. He opposes political tyranny. In short, he is not a new man.

The moment that rights and even humanity itself are granted only on the basis of conformity is the moment that real morality ends. Chavez’s “new moral architecture” for the world, if adopted, will only end with a socialist swastika for whoever stands in his way.

(Thanks to Tim Mak at New Majority for the article that inspired this one.)

Over at World Magazine, Lee Wishing cites a speech by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, on the subject of putting our faith in God and our own abilities instead of the government to manage economies. He quotes Rev. Sirico: “Many thinkers throughout the ages have noted that we face a choice between holding a robust faith in God or putting faith in man and institutions such as the state.”  In such tough economic times, we are reminded that we need to put our faith and trust in God first.

According to the Catholic News Agency, an Italian newspaper claims to have acquired some parts of the upcoming Caritas in Veritate encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI.  Some of the quotes published by Corriere della Sera are claimed to be from the encyclical and align with the predictions that the Pope will be advocating for morality to be the basis of solving our economic crisis. Here is a quote:

Without truth, without trust and love for what is truthful, there is no conscience or social responsibility, and the social action falls under the control of private interests or logics of power, with the destructive effect on society, even more on a society on the way to globalization, in difficult moments like the current ones.

Corriere della Sera also says that the encyclical will address a number of global issues, including world hunger.  The Italian paper pulls a few other claimed quotes from the Pope’s encyclical: Charity in truth requires an urgent reform to confront courageously and without hesitation the great problems of injustice in the development of the nations; Food and water are universal rights; [and] the development of all nations depends above all in recognizing that we are one single family.

Despite all of the rumors, predictions, and claims to know what the Pope’s encyclical actually says, we are going to have to wait until to release to finally hear the Pope’s words.  The PowerBlog will continue to cover the encyclical prior to and after its release.

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, June 29, 2009
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A reader makes a request:

My purpose for writing is simply to request the Acton Institute make a public statement on its website to repudiate Mr. Sanford’s actions, in large measure because he was prominently featured in Volume 18, Number 3 of Religion & Liberty journal. Of course your organization is not expected to guarantee moral behavior of its featured contributors simply because none of us knows what is really in the hearts and minds of our neighbor. Governor Sanford previously demonstrated he was a man of character and integrity, but even the most upright man is in danger of falling. My request is for the Institute to denounce Mr. Sanford’s actions in the same public manner it praised his approach to politics last summer, in order to assure its viewers that it is not complicit with his actions.

If not exactly a denunciation, here’s an explanation for why we interviewed Gov. Mark Sanford. We opened the pages of R&L to the governor because of his record as a fiscal conservative and his willingness to talk about the way faith guided his public life. Here’s a sample of the interview:

R&L The religious views of candidates and their support among various faith traditions played a big role in the 2008 presidential race. Is this a good thing?

Sanford It is. But I don’t know if it was more window dressing than not. Obama had Rick Warren speak at the inauguration, and then got some guy of another persuasion to give the benediction. I don’t think you want it as an accoutrement. I think that you want it to show up in policy. In other words, conversation is certainly an important starting point. It can’t be the ending point.

Somewhere, that “deeds, not words” philosophy fell by the wayside. Yes, Gov. Sanford fell and fell hard. But he was lying to many people about his public life and private conduct. And we got taken in, too.

Now, we watch the sad spectacle of a politician clinging to power after he has obliterated any moral claim to continuing in office. He is refusing to go, and absurdly compares himself to Biblical figures. (more…)

There has been much discussion, commentary, and debate on Pope Benedict’s much anticipated encyclical on the economy Caritas in Veritate (remarkable for a statement that has not yet been released).  At the PowerBlog, we will keep you informed on what is being said about the encyclical and, when it is released, we look forward to providing great coverage.

Two of the most recent commentaries came from John Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter and Michael Novak in First Things.  In Allen’s preview of the new encyclical he states:

In effect, what Benedict laid out last night likely amounts to the theological and spiritual substructure of the encyclical, minus the specific economic prescriptions.

The core of what Benedict said, during an ecumenical vespers service at the grand basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, is that building a better world requires forming better people.  Structural reform thus presuppose personal moral and spiritual renewal, including a life devoted to prayer and the sacraments.

Allen further hints at the theme of the encyclical with his statement:

The idea that a better world must be built on better people is likely to be a core theme in Caritas in Veritale, and the pope dealt with it at length yesterday.

“Paul tells us [that] the world cannot be renewed without new human beings,” Benedict said. “Only if there are new human beings will there be a new world, a renewed and better world.”

There is much speculation that the new encyclical will be in favor of free markets and Novak responds to the criticism from those on the left:

For moralists, it is essential to see how often (not always) government itself sins grievously against the common good, out of a lust for power and domination over others.  Furthermore, government often (not always) generates foolish and destructive regulations, and often dispenses justice that winks rather than justice that is blind.  Government is more frequently the agent of injuring the common good than the ordinary lawful actions of free citizens.  During the twentieth century, governments too often destroyed the common good of their citizens for years to come.

soraya

Tomorrow, June 26, theaters across the nation will begin screening for the general public “The Stoning of Soraya M.” This drama reenacts the true story of an Iranian woman falsely accused of adultery and punished according to sharia law. The film is produced by Stephen McEveety (“The Passion of the Christ”) and features an impressive international cast.

Since the movie’s title gives the climax away, rest assured that the film contains much that is suspenseful. Jim Caviezel portrays French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam. Much like Spencer Tracy’s character in the 1955 John Sturges film, “Bad Day at Black Rock,” Sahebjam chances upon a town with a dark secret – in this instance, the stoning of the title character through the manipulations of a husband who wishes to take a 14-year-old child as a wife and fears he cannot afford to maintain two households.

When Soraya refuses her husband a divorce, he puts in place the dramatic machinery leading to her death. The filmmakers ably display how a less-than-free society can be easily corrupted, but doesn’t adopt the too easy tropes that all men are bad, all women victims – or even that Islam is a bad religion.

I highly recommend this film, but must warn that the violent act of stoning is graphically depicted. The direction of the script is taut and suspenseful, and the acting and production values superb.

I interviewed McEveety on June 10. Below are several of my questions and his answers. For more of this interview, readers can access the Mackinac Center for Public Policy Web site beginning July 3.

Bruce Edward Walker What is it about Soraya’s plight that you and your collaborators found so compelling?

Stephen McEveety It was the characters that were for me so intriguing. I knew that the story could be new and fresh if done right. I think the story unfolds quite well and that viewers come to care very deeply about the characters. There are good guys and bad guys, but viewers can see parts of themselves in all of the film’s characters.

BEW When/how did you decide, “I have to make this movie”?

SM The story that was presented to me blew me away. I wasn’t looking for this, it came to me. I was able to finance it without too much difficulty. It just came together…. When I finished reading the script, my reaction was probably similar to when I finished watching the completed film. The story was so compelling, and it was incredible how quickly we were able to put it together. But I have to say that I think the movie is 10 times better than the script.

BEW I like how the filmmakers succeed in making nearly all the characters three-dimensional. Even the husband isn’t depicted as being 100 percent evil.

SM It would’ve been easy to show him as the embodiment of pure evil, Bruce, but that’s seldom true of any human in any society. It’s important to know that even if he’s a terrible man with horrible motives, he’s not beyond redemption. Maybe not by human standards, but certainly by God’s.

BEW Is the film intended to be an indictment of Islam or the hypocrisy of some of those who may practice it as in any other faith or religion?

SM I believe this is a very pro-Muslim movie. From the beginning we approached this as very respectful toward the true Islamic faith. This wonderful, beautiful Muslim woman keeps her faith to the end. She’s representative of the Muslim faith. The film is an illustration of how any religion can be abused in a repressive environment. It’s a true story made by persons familiar with the world Soraya M. lived in. We have shown it to Middle Eastern audiences and they have embraced it.