Category: Vatican

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 19, 2010
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Today is my last day at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting in Atlanta. I plan to make my purchases from the various book sellers this morning, having already reconnoitered the exhibits and mapped out my plan of attack.

One thing that has struck me is that there are a number of new books discussing ecumenism and Christian unity from host of different perspectives. On the one hand this shouldn’t be surprising. The unity of the church is a constant theme, one that is confessed in the Nicene Creed (“We believe…in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”).

But for a period of time it seemed that ecumenism was in decline. After all, it used to be its own area of theological specialization; there have been (and still are some) professors of ecumenics. On the broader level one thing that breathed life into the ecumenical movement in the last half-century was the founding of what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (I had the pleasure of meeting the pope’s representative, Fr. Gregory Fairbanks, at the WCRC Uniting General Council earlier this year in Grand Rapids).

An ENI story notes a recent address from Pope Benedict XVI regarding ecumenism: “Today, some people believe that this journey has lost its impetus, especially in the West,” the Vatican Information Service quoted Pope Benedict XVI as saying. “Thus do we see the urgent need to revive ecumenical interest and give a fresh incisiveness to dialogue.”

Now this story is in the context of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican dialogue. But “new energy” needs to be found in the mainline ecumenical movement as well. I outline some of the reasons for the decline of groups like the WCC, LWF, and WCRC in my book, Ecumenical Babel. And as the Vatican celebrates fifty years of institutional ecumenical efforts, we have seen a corresponding decline in vigor in the mainline Protestant groups. Some evidence of this is the consistent outreach and emphasis on engaging “evangelicals” from the WCC, whose new president expressed such sentiments at both the WCRC Uniting General Council and the recently concluded Cape Town 2010 meeting of the Lausanne Movement.

So says Mark Tooley of IRD. “Sadly, over the last 50 years, it (the ecumenical movement) has faded into the sidelines and is now largely ignored,” he said. In the 1980s Ernest Lefever, founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness has become obsolescent, marginal, irrelevant, or worse.”

I outline some of the things needed to reinvigorate the mainline ecumenical movement in my book. I outline correctives on three main levels: the ecclesiastical, the social ethical, and the economic. But I conclude too that

Without pursuing correctives along these general lines, the answer to Gustafson’s challenging question, “Who listens to the moral teachings of Protestant churches?” will continue to be indeterminate, and deservedly so. Without doing the hard work of serious ethical deliberation that engages a variety of conflicting perspectives, the ecumenical movement has little claim to possess authentic moral authority in the public square or among the churches.

After the break you can read the full ENI story on the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican secretariat (now council) for promoting Christian unity. (more…)

Dr. Paul Oslington, professor of economics at Australian Catholic University, has a piece up today that examines the scope of social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and focusing especially on the similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.

Comparing this tradition with that of ecclesiastical statements from other church traditions, Oslington judges (and I think quite rightly), “On the whole, statements of the Roman Catholic Church since the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, have been of higher theological quality than most church statements, and more reticent when dealing with specific economic questions.”

He points especially to the 2004 Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) as a negative example. I make a substantive criticism of the Accra Confession within the broader context of ecumenical social statements of the last decade in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

I also point in that book to some of the things that the mainline ecumenical movement can learn from the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought. As Oslington rightly notes, the quality of the encyclical tradition makes it the natural starting point for broader dialogues about the role of faith and theology in relation to economics, politics, and social life. He points to the way in which Benedict’s encyclical has occasioned important discussion from all kinds of quarters, both in the secular media as well as by other Christian traditions.

Oslington is especially hopeful about the work of Benedict XVI, and says, “With these theological resources, there is hope for a much-needed deep theological engagement with economics. It is hard to image a Pope better equipped theologically to undertake this task.”

One of the most important things that Protestant social thought can learn from the encyclical tradition is the importance of the principle of prudence. This is manifested in a bias against making strict policy prescriptions in favor of articulating the broad principles that must be applied in various concrete circumstances.

As Oslington concludes, this is a fundamental element of the social encyclicals, including Benedict’s:

I don’t know what Benedict XVI’s theological engagement with economics will end up looking like. He indicates in the unfinished state of his reflections a call for “further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals” in the light of the “explosion of worldwide interdependence.”

Could this turn out something like the Augustinian theodicy of markets that Anthony Waterman saw in Adam Smith? Waterman argued that just as for Augustine government restrains sin in a fallen world until the time of a final judgment and renewal, so markets restrain the effects of human sin.

Will it include elements of the vision of economic life of early modern Franciscan thinkers favoured by Benedict and some of his advisors such as Stefano Zamagni?

Whatever direction it goes, it will be some kind of theological reframing of economics that orients economic enquiry without detailed prescription on matters of economic theory and policy.

Incidentally, Dr. Oslington was kind enough to endorse my book, and I pass along his comments here in full.

Jordan Ballor has written a useful guide for those wishing to venture into the smelly swamps of ecumenical social and economic thought. Why should non-swamp dwellers care what goes on there? Ballor’s quite reasonable answer is that ecumenical bodies claim to speak on behalf of churches, churches which many of us are part. Whether anyone outside is listening is another question—one which Ballor doesn’t address but which others such as Anthony Waterman have considered—that being less and less so. Ballor’s book is distinguished by considering not just the content of ecumenical statements on economic matters (which have given grief to a long line of professional economists), but also the theological self-understanding of the various bodies when they speak. He asks the deeper question of whether the bodies are adequately constituted to be the (or even a) Christian voice on economic matters, as well as the not irrelevant questions of their actual theological and economic competence. Fundamental questions are raised about the relationship between theological and economic discourse, and the sorts of institutions that support helpful discourse. Christian faith certainly bears on economic matters—the briefest acquaintance with the Scriptures is enough to dispel any doubts. Ballor’s book is part of the movement towards a better discussion of the links in our churches, universities and political forums.

I should note too that some serious work has been done in bringing the various traditions of Protestant and Catholic social thinking into dialogue.

This includes the proceedings of the conference commemorating Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the Journal of Markets & Morality. I’m also pleased to announce that in the next issue of the journal we’ll be including an introduction to and translation of Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” prepared for the Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam, November 9-12, 1891 (you can subscribe to the journal here).

On May 21, 2010, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a media statement which sought to identify the way forward for Catholic engagement in the healthcare debate in light of the passage of healthcare legislation. The USCCB stresses that at the core of the bishops’ advocacy throughout the debate was a concern for three principles: (1) the protection of innocent life from the use of lethal force from conception to natural death; (2) the maintenance of conscience protections; and (3) the realization of universal access to healthcare for all, especially the poor and migrants. These, the USCCB stresses, will remain at the forefront of its contributions to the healthcare discussion. The USCCB consequently asks America’s “Catholic community to come together in defense of human life, rights of conscience and fairness to immigrants so we will have a health care system that truly respects the life, dignity, health and consciences of all.”

All this is well and good. Unfortunately, there is no mention in this text of a concern voiced by a good number of Catholic bishops throughout the debate: an assessment of whether the recent healthcare legislation can truly be said to reflect adherence to the principle of subsidiarity. For anyone who needs a reminder of what this principle means, here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (CCC 1883):

Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good’.

It’s important to note that subsidiarity is not an “anti-government” or “anti-state” principle. Indeed it affirms that there is a role for government because (1) there are some things that only governments can and should do and (2) sometimes the state does need to intervene when other communities are unable to cope temporarily with their particular responsibilities. Nor, it should be added, does subsidiarity always translate into the very same policy-positions, precisely because some elements of the common good are in a constant state of flux.

That said, it’s puzzling to say the least that the USCCB, both during and after the healthcare debate, is not in the habit of referencing subsidiarity as a vital principle for Catholics to reflect upon as they consider the implications of what few now question amounts to the massive expansion of Federal government control over healthcare in the United States. Contrary to what some Catholics imagine (especially the professional social justice activists who dissent from fundamental church dogmas and doctrines while casting anathemas against anyone who disagrees with their own prudential judgments on any number of economic issues), striving to widen access to healthcare need not automatically translate into the state assuming a dominant role.

In their important joint pastoral letter of August 22, 2009, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, and Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph listed subsidiarity as a vital principle upon which Catholics should reflect when thinking about health care reform. They even described subsidiarity as “the preamble to the Work of Reform”. Elsewhere in the document the bishops spelt out what this means for healthcare reform:

The right of every individual to access health care does not necessarily suppose an obligation on the part of the government to provide it. Yet in our American culture, Catholic teaching about the ‘right’ to healthcare is sometimes confused with the structures of ‘entitlement.’ The teaching of the Universal Church has never been to suggest a government socialization of medical services. Rather, the Church has asserted the rights of every individual to have access to those things most necessary for sustaining and caring for human life, while at the same time insisting on the personal responsibility of each individual to care properly for his or her own health.

During the healthcare debate, a considerable number of Catholic bishops expressed similar views. Bishops Walker Nickless of Sioux City, for example, was very specific:

… the Catholic Church does not teach that ‘health care’ as such, without distinction, is a natural right. The ‘natural right’ of health care is the divine bounty of food, water, and air without which all of us quickly die. This bounty comes from God directly. None of us own it, and none of us can morally withhold it from others. The remainder of health care is a political, not a natural, right, because it comes from our human efforts, creativity, and compassion. As a political right, health care should be apportioned according to need, not ability to pay or to benefit from the care. We reject the rationing of care. Those who are sickest should get the most care, regardless of age, status, or wealth. But how to do this is not self-evident. The decisions that we must collectively make about how to administer health care therefore fall under ‘prudential judgment.’ [I]n that category of prudential judgment, the Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care. Unlike a prudential concern like national defense, for which government monopolization is objectively good – it both limits violence overall and prevents the obvious abuses to which private armies are susceptible – health care should not be subject to federal monopolization.

Preserving patient choice (through a flourishing private sector) is the only way to prevent a health care monopoly from denying care arbitrarily, as we learned from HMOs in the recent past. While a government monopoly would not be motivated by profit, it would be motivated by such bureaucratic standards as quotas and defined ‘best procedures,’ which are equally beyond the influence of most citizens. The proper role of the government is to regulate the private sector, in order to foster healthy competition and to curtail abuses. Therefore any legislation that undermines the viability of the private sector is suspect. Private, religious hospitals and nursing homes, in particular, should be protected, because these are the ones most vigorously offering actual health care to the poorest of the poor.

These and similar views expressed by many bishops were dismissed as “libertarian” by whatever’s left these days of the Catholic left – as if only libertarians could possibly believe that limiting government power and encouraging private sector and civil society solutions to genuine social and economic problems are good things.

The truth, however, is that the USCCB’s professional social justice bureaucrats have a long history of playing down or even ignoring the implications of the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity isn’t, for example, even listed as one of the “Themes of Catholic Teaching” on the Justice, Peace and Development section of the USCCB’s website. It is long past the time for that to change.

A while back, Bevan Sabo and Ariel Goldring at Free Market Mojo interviewed me on a wide range of subjects. They’ve kindly granted us permission to post some excerpts:

FMM: Capitalism requires a large degree of selfishness. Though there is certainly room for charity in a free-market system, individuals and firms must pursue their own selfish interests in order for an economy to thrive (or even succeed). How does a Christian love his neighbor as himself and still function as a capitalist?

Father Sirico: I do not share the use of the word selfishness in the way that it is employed in this question. A proper self regard is based on the belief in my own inherent dignity and this requires “self love” but not an inordinate self-love or self-preoccupation which is willing to subordinate others to my own ends, either coercively or in a manipulative manner which disregards the same dignity of others. The word selfishness as it is used in common parlance does not reference rational self-interest but rather a self preoccupation and disordered priority.

From a Christian anthropological point of view the human person (who is much more than “the individual”) is a combination of his individuality and his sociality, his autonomy and relationships. From the first moment of our existence we are simultaneously autonomous (in that we are genetically distinct from our mothers), yet in relation to her while in the womb. The whole of our existence following is a working out of this interplay of our autonomy and our social nature. A Christian’s love for his neighbor is rooted in solidarity which is the recognition of a profound connection between human beings. It is, in a sense, a recognition of myself in the other. Because all human beings share an intrinsic dignity we ‘love our neighbors as we love ourselves’. Capitalism, which is only the economic extension of this anthropological truth, can be lived out from this perspective, but in order to be secure, just, and enduring, it needs to rooted in the historical development of such an anthropology.

FMM: In July of last year, the Guardian reported on Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, entitled Charity in Truth. For me, the following is a particularly disturbing paragraph from the article:

The pope today called for a “profoundly new way” of organising global finance and business, calling for a new social and ethical dimension to capitalism and arguing the case for a new world political authority to help champion “the common good”.

The idea of the “common good” goes against the spirit of individualism that is an essential part of capitalism and any proper government. Can you discuss Charity in Truth, particularly, its ramifications for those who consider themselves both Christians and capitalists?

Father Sirico:
If one is going to really understand papal encyclicals one must understand the tradition and theological milieu from which they emerge and attend to the precise definitions that are given to various specific phrases or concepts. In the case of the latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate many have asked questions about what the pope was addressing when he called for a “New World political authority”. I very much doubt your readers want from me a full exegesis of this section of the encyclical, but let me summarize by saying that this phrase is used in context with the references to subsidiarity elsewhere in the encyclical (e.g., no. 57) which is therein described as “the most effective antidote to any form of all-encompassing welfare state.”

Thus it is explicitly NOT the pope’s intention to be calling for some kind if ‘super state’, but rather for a global solidarity and authority “which cannot be imposed by force” (cf., Mater et Magistra, no. 130). The encyclical also cites a number of other references it is drawing upon, all of which are noted in the critical apparatus of the encyclical itself and all of which repudiate any kind of ‘super global state’. (more…)

In another Acton Commentary this week, Research Director Samuel Gregg looked at Catholic dissenter Fr. Hans Küng, who recently published an “open letter” broadside directed at the Vatican. Küng’s letter includes the now discredited Malthusian warning about global overpopulation (see video above). The letter, writes Samuel Gregg, “shows just how much he remains an unreconstructed creature of the 1960s.”

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Hans Küng’s Malthusian Moment

By Samuel Gregg

In April, the world received yet another global missive from the 82-year-old Swiss theologian, Fr. Hans Küng. Perhaps the world’s most famous Catholic dissenter from Catholic teaching, Fr. Küng’s “open letter” to the world’s Catholic bishops contained his usual critique of the papacy and his now-tediously familiar prescriptions for changing the Catholic Church.

Almost 31 years ago, Rome and Germany’s Catholic bishops stripped Küng of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian because, by Küng’s own admission, he does not believe in some central tenets of the Catholic faith. Some would say Rome’s action was merely an exercise in ensuring truth in advertizing. This has not stopped Küng, however, from continuing to exhort Catholicism to adopt the path followed by many mainline Protestant confessions in the West since the 1960s.

(more…)

actononairActon President Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Kishore Jayabalan, the Director of Acton’s Rome office, joined host Al Kresta on Kresta in the Afternoon on Friday along with another guest to discuss the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI as the world marks the fifth anniversary of his elevation to the papacy; audio of the segment is available via the audio player below.

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Catholic World Report published a roundup of commentary on the fifth anniversary of Benedict’s pontificate. I contributed a piece titled Retrieval and Reintegration and was joined by a number of outstanding writers whose work is indexed here.

Benedict’s efforts to let the past inform and guide the Church’s future

By Father Robert Sirico

On March 18, 2005, having been at the Vatican to speak at a conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, I found myself concelebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with about 100 other priests. The principal celebrant was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I was at the far end of the line of concelebrating priests and was surprised when, at the Offertory, the Master of Ceremonies approached me (I was conveniently at the end of the row) to assist at the ablution rites at the altar.

I had not realized until I sat down to write this reflection in honor of Pope Benedict’s election that the cardinal for whom I effectively served as an altar boy would be pope within a month. Providence is sometime a sobering thing.

The priest with whom I concelebrated Mass that day in such close proximity is indeed the same priest I see celebrate the Sacred Mysteries as successor to St. Peter. His focus and intense devotion are the same. It is almost as though depth and continuity are written into the man’s DNA.

By now the idea of a “hermeneutic of continuity” is beginning to permeate the Church universal. Gone, or at least soon gone, are the days when Catholics sing of “calling a new church into being” with straight faces. Likewise, talk of a “pre-conciliar” versus a post-Vatican II Church seems dated. Benedict has shown us how to retrieve what is authentically ours by Tradition, how not to fear that past, and how to permit the ancient liturgy to inform, guide, and deepen our worship today.

Yet, it is not only in the realm of ecclesiology or liturgy that this Benedictine effort toward reintegration is felt. One sees at as well in his effective and tireless effort in reaching out to the Eastern Churches (admittedly a dimension of ecclesiology) and in his development of the Church’s social teaching, evident in each of his encyclicals, but most especially in Caritas et Veritate. All of this effort at retrieval and reintegration comprises what might be called the leitmotif of his papacy.

In each of these areas and others as well, one sees a very careful mind at work to rediscover and welcome disparate truths, skillfully bringing the parts together to demonstrate a deeper, richer whole.

And yet, Providence can also sometimes be cruel, as it might appear now, when Benedict presides as pope in a moment of great difficulty and pain for the Church, owing largely to past negligence in the protection of the innocent and in the clarity of Catholic moral teaching.

Here, too, we affirm that the Church does not need to reinvent herself to address these grave matters; she does not need a new discipline for her priests or new standard of morality to propose to the faithful. The Church simply needs to embrace that same faith that Christ taught to the Apostles and to represent it anew to a society—and at this time a Church—that seems in some places to have forgotten it.

LifeSiteNews.com recently asked me to comment on statements made by Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, president of the Vatican bank, about the economic effects of demographic decline in Western industrialized countries. Tedeschi told the Zenit news service that the “true cause” of the financial crisis is the low birth rate in these countries.

“Instead of stimulating families and society to again believe in the future and have children […] we have stopped having children and have created a situation, a negative economic context decrease,” Gotti Tedeschi observed. “And decrease means greater austerity.”

“With the decline in births,” he explained, “there are fewer young people that productively enter the working world. And there are many more elderly people that leave the system of production and become a cost for the collective.

“In practice the fixed costs of this economic and social structure increase. How dramatically they increase depends on how evidently unbalanced the structure of the population is and how much wealth it has. The fixed costs however increase: The costs of health increase and the social costs increase.”

This is from reporter Peter J. Smith’s article on LifeSiteNews.com:

Sirico explained that the Vatican economist’s view opposes that of population control groups, who subscribe to a different vision of economic activity: what he called a Marxist or “redistributivist” paradigm: “If there is a pie and there are more people added to the pie then there is more poverty.” But the reality, Sirico says is that “the pie is dynamic.”

“Mr. Tedeschi is saying is that: no, the human person is himself creative. Human beings are not mouths that consume, but minds that produce,” he said. Sirico added that John Paul II hit on this very point in his social encyclical Centesimus Annus, when he wrote that “Man is man’s greatest resource.”

Because human beings are also creative producers, the excess of what they produce becomes the basis for trade in the economy, and the creation of wealth, said Sirico. Contrary to population controllers obsessed with overpopulation, he noted, it is incredibly population dense cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong that are incredibly rich, while sparsely populated areas of the globe such as Angola are comparatively very poor.

Read “President of the Vatican Bank: Zero Population Growth Responsible for World-wide Recession” on LifeSiteNews.com

Choosing the Common Good from Catholic Westminster on Vimeo.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I review a new statement titled Choosing the Common Good (download it here) from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. In the introductory video linked above, The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, introduces Choosing the Common Good and discusses the key themes in Catholic Social Teaching “as a contribution to the wide-ranging debate about the values and vision that underpin our society.”

Here is the text of my commentary:

Two Cheers for the Bishops of England and Wales

What a difference 15 years can make.

Back in 1996, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issued a document, The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching, to address political issues facing Britain at the time. Leaving aside the incoherence that characterized much of that text, a distinctly skeptical tone about market economies pervaded the document – almost to the point of being an anti-Thatcherite screed.

The 1996 document was written with a view to informing Catholics’ consciences before Britain’s 1997 General Election. Shaping Catholic consciences is, after all, part of a Catholic bishop’s job. But it was very difficult to read the 1996 text as anything other than a less-than-subtle appeal to vote for the then-opposition Labour Party.

Fast-forward to 2010. With a General Election imminent in Britain, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have issued a new document, titled Choosing the Common Good. To the joy of many, it is a remarkably sound text. Characterized by a focus on principles, sobriety of expression, and avoidance of tedious policy-wonkery, the English and Welsh bishops have authored a document that repays careful reading. (more…)

Last Saturday Pope Benedict XVI addressed a group called Italian National Civil Protection, made up largely of volunteers. This is the organization that provided much of the crowd control at two of Rome’s largest public events, the World Youth Day in 2000, and the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. (I was in Rome for both events and can personally attest to the surprising order these volunteers brought. If only the same order could be seen in everyday Roman life … )

Benedict took the opportunity to remind the volunteers of their particular vocation to protect persons and their dignity and also compared their service to that of the Good Samaritan. These volunteers choose to serve when others decline out of indifference or hardness of heart.

The Holy Father then reiterated one of the central themes of his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that while the State is responsible for the provision of justice, justice is not enough to make a society fully Christian. A Christian society must not rely on the State to provide what is most essential, i.e. charity, and must go beyond the strict provision of rights and duties. Here’s the key paragraph from Saturday’s talk, translated from the Italian:

As the Gospel reminds us, love of neighbor cannot be delegated: The State and politics, even with the necessary concern for welfare, cannot substitute it. As I wrote in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Love will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable.” (n. 28). This recalls and will always recall personal and voluntary commitment. Because of this, volunteers are not “stopgaps” in the social net, but persons who truly contribute to outlining the human and Christian face of society. Without volunteers, the common good and society cannot last for long, because their progress and dignity depend in large measure on those persons who do more than their strict duty.

Of course, most people assume that the State is and should be responsible, at a minimum, for public order and safety. But with his praise and gratitude for the volunteers, the Pope is not suggesting that they should supplant the state’s legitimate functions. However, these legitimate functions rarely, if ever, incorporate a ministry of love, which is essential to a humane social order. When the volunteers successfully provide order and safety for millions of visitors to Rome, they are doing so much more than their “strict duty.” Indeed, they are showing us what a true “service of love” looks like.