Category: News and Events

Perhaps the most striking theme of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s autobiography My Grandfather’s Son is just how many obstacles Thomas had to overcome to reach the high judicial position he currently holds. Thomas was born into poverty, abandoned by his father, and was raised in the segregated South all before achieving the American Dream. At the same time, it was Thomas’s poverty-stricken circumstances that would help propel him to a world of greater opportunity. Because of his mother’s poverty, when Thomas was seven, he and his brother were sent to live with his grandfather Myers Anderson, a no nonsense and self-disciplined man who announced upon their arrival, “The damn vacation is over.”

While I have never been a big fan of autobiographies, Thomas’s story is one that absolutely needs to be told, if for no other reason than to fully respond to the damaging allegations made by his former colleague Anita Hill. But there is so much here to think about, especially for somebody like myself who attended school at Ole Miss, an institution wrapped in the consciousness of race. In a Southern Studies class in college while discussing the history of lynchings, the professor asked if we could cite examples of any modern day lynchings. I immediately remembered Thomas’s quote about his confirmation hearings being a “high tech lynching” and offered Thomas’s name. Of course I knew this was perhaps the last name the professor wanted to hear, which is why I offered it, thereby getting out in front of and spoiling her liberal moralism of the day. She casually made a snide comment about Thomas and said “that doesn’t count.” I only smiled as I knew I had successfully pointed out that Thomas was in fact one of the few black men allowed to be aggressively attacked by white liberals in academia.

Growing up, his grandfather made sacrifices so Thomas and his brother could attend Catholic schools, this allowed him opportunities he might never have had coming out of the public school system. Thomas later turned his attention to studying for the priesthood. As a seminarian Thomas declared:

It seemed self-evident to both of us that the treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution that proclaimed the inherent equality of all men. Yet the Church remained silent, and its silence haunted me. I have often thought that my life might well have followed a different route had the Church been as adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now.

After leaving seminary, Thomas transferred to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and experimented in left wing politics. Also Thomas found New England to be far less honest about race than in the American South, declaring, “I bristled at the self-righteous sanctimony with which so many of the northerners at Yale glibly discussed the South’s racial problems.” He also pointed out that it was in Boston, not Georgia, that he was first called a deeply offensive racial slur. Thomas left Yale Law School with a negative view of his alma mater. His intention at the time was to return to South Georgia to practice law.

Thomas however ended up on the staff of Missouri Attorney General and former U.S. Senator John Danforth in Jefferson City in 1974. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal Priest, who went on to become a U.S. Senator, would become a life-long mentor and a valuable ally during Thomas’s Supreme Court hearings. The stories Thomas tells of his own drinking problem and financial indebtedness are all fascinating. His first marriage turns out to not be successful, but he goes into little detail, which may be commendable just in keeping a private matter, just that.

Thomas also delves into the Anita Hill fiasco, describing her by his own account as a less than average employee, and somebody who virtually nobody liked. The chaotic nature of the hearings pushed Thomas back even closer to his faith and he noted:

The more hopeless things appeared and the more vulnerable I felt, the more I turned to God’s comforting embrace, and over time my focus became primarily God centered. The words of the Apostle Paul were not far from my mind: ‘Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.’

He decides to end his autobiographical account during the day he is sworn at the U.S. Supreme Court, which might be disappointing to some of the more policy wonkish readers. After reading his unique account I was left with a couple profound thoughts. I had another professor in college who said to the class while we were reading Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy , that the stories were not really believable, but rather bad capitalist propaganda. The novel immediately came back to me after reading Thomas’s account, here is a man who overcame even so much more to rise to the very top of his field. Few stories can better personify the American dream, and very few stories provide better imagery of defying the odds.

Thomas’s book is at times inspiring, sad, yet ultimately triumphant. He had a very fractured relationship with the grandfather who raised him. Not until his grandfather’s death, did he ultimately appreciate the lessons, love, and discipline Myers Anderson taught him. It’s by only reading this book will you understand how somebody with a third grade education taught a Yale Law School graduate and Supreme Court Justice so much about life, and yes even conservatism.

Nicholas Kristof’s Dec. 21 New York Times column was, he says, “a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable.” He quotes Arthur Brooks’ “Who Really Cares” book which shows that conservatives give more to charity than liberals.

The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans — the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.

“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

Kristof echoes Rev. Robert Sirico’s Dec. 17 Acton commentary “Why We Give” (published on Dec. 23 in the Detroit News) which also looks at Brooks’ work on giving and the deeper theological dimensions of charity.

… the tradition of gift-giving is rooted in the gift that God offers to the world in his Son who comes in the appearance of a frail babe. Likewise, the Magi, the Wise Men, who came from the East, brought the Christ-child exotic gifts to celebrate his Advent.

There is another, perhaps more practical aspect of the giving of gifts that is worth pondering which was brought to the fore by Arthur Brooks, author of the 2006 book “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why it Matters.” Brooks investigated the American habit of giving and what he found surprised some, irritated others and confirmed some suspicions that I have had for some time. Among his findings was that the general profile of the gift-giver is one who has a strong family life and who attends church regularly.

Read more of Rev. Sirico’s column >>>

Catching up on “Revisiting the 1986 economic pastoral”, an article from October in the National Catholic Reporter:

The bishops’ point “that Catholics’ moral life cannot be separated entirely from their economic life has relevance for what we’re going through now,” said Kevin Schmiesing, research fellow for the Acton Institute, a proponent of free markets. “Unless you believe there is no moral component to this, that there’s no failure of responsibility, that there’s no greed at work, that those kinds of moral issues have no impact. … If you’re willing to concede that they do, then I think you can also concede that the bishops have a point.”

Read more >>>

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
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In “Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva U. Adds a Lesson,” the New York Times interviews students and teachers at the New York University which was closely linked to Bernard Madoff, the financier who has been charged by federal prosecutors with orchestrating a $50 billion Ponzi scheme fraud.

In Intermediate Accounting I, undergraduates analyzed how he seemingly tap-danced around the Securities and Exchange Commission. In Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s philosophy of Jewish law course, students pondered whether Jewish values had been distorted to reward material success.

“This overrides everything else,” said Rabbi Blech, who has taught at Yeshiva for 42 years. “It is an opportunity to convey to students that ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings.”

The rabbi and some students are also torn by “pressures to achieve material success as well as religious devotion” at a school that combines secular and Jewish studies.

Rabbi Blech, who teaches the philosophy of law course, said he, too, worried that community expectations had steered students away from public-service professions like teaching and toward more lucrative jobs.

“In elevating to a level of demiworship people with big bucks, we have been destroying the values of our future generation,” he said. “We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring.”

Read more …

Today saw the launch of a sharp new look for the Acton Institute website. This new iteration of the website puts content first, with a very uncluttered, fresh look. It also sports some of the latest and greatest in web technology, but I’ll spare you the geekspeak and let you discover all of the bells and whistles for yourself. In case you can’t recall, here’s what the old site looked like:


And for comparison, here’s an “after” screenshot:



We hope that you’ll continue to enjoy the Acton website and the rich collection of articles and resources that it provides.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 18, 2008
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The blogosphere is atwitter over the news that Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, will give the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration. The decision on Warren’s part to accept is getting criticism from the right, while Obama’s offer of the opportunity is getting criticized from the left.

At Redstate Erick Erickson views Warren’s participation as evidence of his desire to be the next “Protestant Pope” after the decline of Billy Graham. Erickson writes that Warren “wants to be the moral voice of the moral majority the way Graham used to be and he has a bigger ego to boot. So he’s happy to lay his hands on the new President and have the media give him the legitimacy the media once gave Billy Graham.”

And from the other side of the spectrum, Peter Daou’s entry at the Huffington Post does a good job summarizing the massive criticism Obama has gotten from the more radical strands of his party. In Daou’s words “the progressive community is outraged.”

Of course, they were also outraged when Obama participated in Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. And so too were many religious conservatives doubtful about Warren’s commitment to the two rails of the Religious Right, marriage and abortion. Many conservatives were pleasantly surprised when Warren (politely) pressed Obama on his views about abortion, which spawned the now-infamous “above my paygrade” response from the now President-elect. Quite frankly, Warren doesn’t need the media to “give” him legitimacy…his popularity, his pulpit, and his ability to bring together politicians in a public forum do that well enough.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren again surprises his conservative critics, even though an inauguration invocation is hardly the place for political grandstanding or pontificating. My opinion about Warren remains unchanged. At the time he organized the Saddleback forum, I thought it was a mark in his favor that he could act as a fair dealing arbiter and get the two major presidential candidates to appear. Only someone who had garnered a level of trust from both sides could achieve that kind of thing, and that’s where the comparisons to Billy Graham are most accurate and complimentary to Warren: “Perhaps Warren has had to upset the margins on both sides of the political aisle to get himself into a position that could command the kind of respect from both candidates that would get them to this platform.” He seems to be doing the same thing here.

Gina Dalfonzo over at the Point says that “a Christian leader given the opportunity to stand up and pray for the nation in public on an important occasion should generally take it, I think, no matter who’s doing the asking.” I do think pastors should avoid partisanship, as best they can, and I think Warren has done so rather admirably.

On this point there’s an interesting comparison to be made between Warren’s appearance at a presidential inauguration and the offer to Joel Hunter and Cameron Strang to pray at the Democratic National Convention. Strang, who is the founder and CEO of Relevant magazine, initially accepted the invitation, and then declined under criticism that his appearance would lend partisan credibility to Obama. Strang explained his choice to withdraw, saying, “If my praying at the DNC was perceived as showing favoritism and incorrectly labeling me as endorsing one candidate over the other, then I needed to have pause.”

So here’s the question: is praying at an inauguration more or less partisan than praying at a party’s convention? Or are the two equally partisan? I’m inclined to think that praying at the inauguration isn’t nearly so easily identifiable with “endorsing one candidate over the other” or “showing favoritism.” Once the election is over, the President is everybody’s President. Before the election, that’s a different story.

Avery Cardinal Dulles lecturing at the Acton Institute.

I knew the reputation of Avery Dulles, SJ, long before I entered that classroom at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., back in the early 1980s when I was in seminary. I knew he was considered, even then, the dean of Catholic theologians in the United States, author of scholarly essays and books too numerous to name, peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council and the son of a prominent New York Presbyterian family whose father was John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower and whose uncle was Allen Dulles, director of the CIA. I knew he had been a convert to Catholicism during his years at Harvard University after having declared himself an agnostic in his first year there.

The intellectual stature of the man was intimidating, but once someone encountered him personally, one found the gentle, humble soul of a sincere Christian. He had a mischievous sense of humor which was evident to anyone who noticed him driving a beat up old car around campus with a small bumper sticker promoting the local airport, “Fly Dulles” (named after his father). Once, while a passenger in that car, we were speaking about liberation theology and he said:

“Sitting in that very seat you are in right now was (mentioning the name of a prominent liberation theologian). When he asked why I drove such an old clunker, he became rather uncomfortable when I told him it was a gift from my uncle Allen. He looked for wiretaps the rest of the trip.”

Even though some referred to him as “Dull Dulles,” I found that being in class with him was an exhilarating experience. It was akin to witnessing a train slowly leaving the station. Initially the student (this student!) would feel satisfied that the material was clear and comprehensible. Point would begin to build upon point, stretching the mind. And just at that precise moment when it all became too complex and difficult to follow, Fr. Dulles would take it up just one more notch, and then … the class bell would ring.

Avery Cardinal Dulles (center) and Rev. Robert A. Sirico (right) at the 1998 Kuyper Leo XIII conference in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In 2001, I was honored to attend the consistory in Rome at which Fr. Dulles was elevated by Pope John Paul II to being a Prince of the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles. He was the first American theologian to be given that title without being made a bishop first. I could not help but think, on that brilliant day, that the mischievous aspect of his personality came out as the pope went to place the red hat on his head. Always an awkward man, tall and lanky, the hat immediately fell off the new cardinal’s head back into the lap of the pope. I am sure I could hear a knowing laugh go up from the crowd gathered in the Piazza from his students who know him well.

Avery Dulles was a mentor who first introduced me to the work of philosopher Michael Polyani and deepened my appreciation for John Henry Cardinal Newman, that great 19th figure who struck me as very much like Dulles himself. Fr. Dulles was tall, a theologian, a convert to Catholicism, was not a bishop before he became a Cardinal, and he even resembled Newman in a way.

Fr. Dulles was was a model of authentic ecumenical encounter, and was an enthusiastic participant in the Kuyper Leo XIII conference that Acton co-sponsored in Grand Rapids with Calvin Theological Seminary College in 1998. He also spoke at a number of Acton Institute conferences and seminars over the years. On a more personal note, I shall never forget how Fr. Dulles honored me by concelebrating my First Mass in Brooklyn.

I shall miss his wise council and sense of humor. Although the Church on earth has lost a loyal and humble son, it is my hope that the Church in heaven has gained a true prince indeed.

===========================

Some links to Fr. Dulles’ work at Acton:

Truth as the Ground of Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II. Acton monograph available from the Acton Bookshoppe

Acton Audio: Truth as the Ground of Freedom

Centesimus Annus and the Renewal of Culture. Journal of Markets & Morality

Religious Freedom and Pluralism. Journal of Markets & Morality

The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II. Review by Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D. Journal of Markets & Morality

Enjoying and Making Use of a Responsible Freedom. Religion & Liberty

God’s Gift of Freedom Must be Used to Choose the Good. Religion & Liberty

Zenit news service provides extensive coverage of two recent Acton-sponsored conferences in Rome. The first of half of Edward Pentin’s report focuses on Arthur Brooks‘ address at the “Philanthropy and Human Rights” gathering. A sample:

His friend had found that when people gave, they became happier, and when they were happier they became richer. Brooks was subsequently converted, and the discovery changed his life. Moreover, now he realizes that people have as much need to give as they have to receive, he believes those institutions that act as a conduit between the giver and the receiver, such as the Church, must be helped and encouraged.

The second half treats Carlos Hoevel‘s presentation on Antonio Rosmini, part of a symposium on “Finance, Globalization, and Morality.” Pentin writes,

So what would be Rosimini’s solution to the current crisis? Hoevel said that, according to the philosopher’s vision, what we most need now is not so much “the endless injection of billions of dollars and euros” into the economy and heavy government interference, but “the urgent recovery of moral balance and moral content.”

Vladimir Berezansky, Jr., a U.S. lawyer with experience in Russia and former Soviet republics, recalls an interview with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II in 1991. Like many Russians at the time, the Patriarch was coping with a “disorienting change” following the fall of the Soviet Emprie, Berezansky writes.

At the time, he seemed overcome by the changes taking place around him, and he did not know where to begin.

“For our entire lives, we [clerics] were pariahs, and now we are being called on to do everything: chaplains for the military, ministries to hospitals, orphanages, prisons,” he said.

He even voiced regret about taking the time to travel to the United States. But he had gambled — correctly, as it turned out — that he could do more for his flock by seeking foreign assistance than by staying home to manage the Russian Orthodox Church’s destitution. His plate was full and overflowing, and he seemed keenly aware of the ironies of his situation. The Russian state was returning desecrated, gutted, largely useless ecclesiastical structures to the Orthodox church — a gesture at once desperate, empty and to some degree remorseful.

Berezansky then points to the Patriarch’s rapid rise through the Church hierarchy:

During and after the chaos of World War II, he probably could have emigrated and been numbered among the millions of so-called “Second Wave” exiles from Soviet Russia. But he chose to remain and to serve his church and people in circumstances that could not fail to compromise his own reputation.

“Our choices were cooperation or annihilation,” he told me in 1991.

And like so many other religious and cultural leaders of his generation, he repeatedly expressed regret and remorse for having accepted that Faustian bargain. Even today we continue to learn of the choices of conscience made by the famous names of that generation, including Nobel-winning German writer Günter Grass and Czech novelist Milan Kundera.

Patriarch Alexy’s legacy will undoubtedly include two elements that have been assessed negatively, and one major — indeed, overarching — achievement. In inter-church relations, his refusal to meet Pope John Paul II or his successor, Benedict XVI, was seen as churlish. Whether welcome or not, the patriarch’s position was that specific issues of contention between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches needed to be ameliorated before any “photo op” could take place. But he consistently referred to Roman Catholicism as a “sister” church.

Read “A Transitional Patriarch” on the Moscow Times site.

Cross-posted from The Observer.

It is with a sense of great pride and joy that I join with thousands around the nation in congratulating Chuck Colson on his reception of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal presented to Chuck at the Oval Office today by President Bush.

It is important to remember that the ministry that Chuck founded some 35 years ago is noteworthy not only because it has assisted in countless men and women to transform their lives through the power of a right relationship with Christ, or that this ministry is staff by a veritable army of volunteers who visit prisons and in other ways help to mend broken families with God’s love.

What is most noteworthy is that all of this came from one man’s surrender to the call of Christ to turn from his sins and accept the Gospel of redemption. Through that encounter with grace, Chuck Colson’s life has been on ongoing testimony to grace which has inspired all of us to reflect more deeply on the invitation to forgiveness and restoration offered by the One who will shortly come to us as a babe in Bethlehem.

I salute my friend Chuck Colson on this and thank him for placing his life at the disposal of heaven.

Here’s some of what Chuck had to say on the Prison Fellowship site:

“Whatever good I may have done is because God saw fit to reach into the depths of Watergate and convert a broken sinner,” said Colson. “Everything that has been accomplished these past 35 years has been by God’s grace and sovereign design.”

In responding to the award, Colson directed the praise and accolades back toward the ministry of Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded in 1976.

“I do not treat this medal as mine,” he said. “It is, like in the military, a unit citation. The staff of Prison Fellowship, the thousands of volunteers and the hundreds of thousands of donors have made this possible. So while I am overwhelmed in gratitude to God, I am grateful to all those associated in this movement called Prison Fellowship.”

Read the White House statement on Chuck and the other honorees.