Archived Posts January 2006 - Page 2 of 8 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Check out this challenging essay on Spiked by Frank Furedi, “The curious rise of anti-religious hysteria.” His main point is that while religious belief is misplaced, it shouldn’t be replaced with another sort of secular fundamentalism.

It turns out Furedi himself is just a believer in rationalism: “Superstition and prejudice should continually be countered by rational argument. But the vitriolic invective hurled at Christian believers today is symptomatic of the passions normally associated with a fanatical Inquisitor.” Of course “superstition” happens to be anything that is believed not on the basis of some sort of rational foundationalism.

On secular reactions to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Passion of the Christ: “As a secular humanist who is instinctively uncomfortable with zealot-like moralism, I am suspicious of the motives behind these doctrinaire denunciations of films with a religious message.”

On expressions of faith: “Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn has turned into bigotry and hatred.”

On Intelligent Design: “Many see only the danger of superstition in Intelligent Design, describing it as a new form of Creationism on the march. They overlook the remarkable concession that Intelligent Design makes to the authority of science.”

On Jim Wallis: “When it comes to banality, Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It beats his competitors to the post.”

Perhaps the right reaction toward religious belief, according to Furedi, is not hatred but rather self-assured patronizing.

Blog author: dphelps
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Well said, Benedict.

If I may, I’d like to highlight one more section from the Holy Father’s new encyclical that has particular relevence to the work here at Acton (although, I agree wholeheartedly with Kishore below: one really must read the whole thing–it’s fantastic):

Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.

If there is a more poetic call for what we here at Acton call “effective compassion,” I do not know what it is.

Pope Benedict’s long-awaited first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, was published this morning in Rome. The English translation of it can be found on the Vatican website by clicking here.

There’s obviously much to reflect on in this fairly short letter on Christian love, but a few aspects may be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

The pope cites a number of political philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Descartes, Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine (several times), and Marx. Besides revealing what we already know about the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s formidable education, the encyclical reminds us that human and divine love is a theme the greatest minds have grappled with throughout the ages, and often through the lens of politics and religion.

The passage cited from Plato’s Symposium in n. 11 happens to be one of the most beautiful allegories of love ever penned; Pope Benedict compares it to the language of the Book of Genesis. Like any great teacher, he makes the reader return to the originals for their poetry and insights.

From the more prosaic perspective of social doctrine, the section on justice and charity (nos.26-29) contains an illuminating discussion of the distinct yet complementary functions of Church and State. The pope begins his treatment by taking on the Marxist critique of the Church’s charitable activity, i.e. what the poor need is justice, not charity, and even admits some truth to it:

It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods.

But then comes this:

Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished.

After tracing the history of Catholic social doctrine from Bishop Kettler of Mainz to Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II, Benedict distinguishes “the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity.”

The entire section deserves to be read with care and attention, but the general point is that the realms of justice and charity are interrelated yet distinct. Justice is the proper aim of the State, not the Church, but justice, and hence the State, is not enough.

Love—caritas—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 neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.

This is the Catholic case for limited government par excellence. Justice and politics are necessary and good objectives to pursue, but they are not what human life is ultimately about. Divine love transcends politics. This is the language of a political philosophy that points beyond itself to theology, and it’s perfectly fitting as Benedict’s first encyclical.

I don’t need to tell you to read the whole thing.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Robert Brueggman of the University of Illinois-Chicago offers a contrarian take on suburban sprawl in US News and World Report.

I’m not as relativistic as Brueggman is with respect to the aesthetic question: A lot of suburban shopping centers, highways, and neighborhoods are ugly—or at least boring—and don’t deserve to be preserved in the longterm. (Yes, a lot of urban buildings, highly respected by the architectural elite, are also ugly, in my opinion.) But Brueggman makes good points about the way most people view the benefits of suburbia and places the whole question in historical perspective.

For more on urban planning, Christianity, and markets, see the Spring 2003 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

“The political left in America is emerging victorious,” writes Patrick Chisholm, and its true because “the era of big government is far from over. Trends are decidedly in favor of that quintessential leftist goal: massive redistribution of wealth.”

Over the past two decades, “Republicans’ capture of both Congress and the White House was, understandably, a demoralizing blow to the left. But the latter can take solace that “Republican” is no longer synonymous with spending restraint, free markets, and other ideals of the political right.”

Chisholm cites the fact that since 2000, “During the first five years of President Bush’s presidency, nondefense discretionary spending (i.e., spending decided on an annual basis) rose 27.9 percent, far more than the 1.9 percent growth during President Clinton’s first five years, according to the libertarian Reason Foundation. And according to Citizens Against Government Waste, the number of congressional ‘pork barrel’ projects under Republican leadership during fiscal 2005 was 13,997, more than 10 times that of 1994.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, since “discretionary spending is dwarfed by mandatory spending – spending that cannot be changed without changing the laws.”

Read the whole thing: “Triumph of the redistributionist left.”

Proponents of social democracies claim that a large role for the state is important in tempering the profit motive of capitalism and creating a more humane and cultured state.

Free markets, they argue, result in an inhumane and disintegrated society, while the social democracy models of Europe protect the weak and create social cohesion. Yet these proponents rarely question whether the reality of Europe today bears this out. Even a cursory examination of European and American life reveals that the social democratic models have not achieved their goals. Europe is disintegrating more and more into a collection of individuals who rely on the state as their primary caregiver, and the effects on the family, society, and cultural output are insidious.

Acton Senior Fellow, Jennifer Roback Morse, addressed several of these issues in a lecture with titled “Catholic Social Teaching on the Economy and the Family: an alternative to the modern welfare-state.” The lecture was part of the Centesimus Annus Lecture Series, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the John Paul II’s encyclical. The second of the series, The Family in New Economy, was held on January 21st at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and Professor Manfred Spieker, one of Germany’s leading experts on Catholic social thought, also spoke. To listen to a Vatican Radio report on the conference go here.

She writes:

Today everyone understands that communism is not a viable strategy for achieving either economic growth or solidarity with the poor.

The more urgent task now is to see that Western European socialism has also failed. Although some aspects of the Western European model originally claimed Christian inspiration and objective, it is now clear that the modern Western European welfare-state is collapsing. And while many modern countries share some of the problems I shall loosely call the “European social model,” it is Europe that most desperately needs a genuinely Catholic alternative.


Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 23, 2006

An excellent post by Bryan Caplan at EconLog examines the intentions of eugenics against the actual effects of the implementation of such policies. His point? “Even if genetics explained ALL differences in success, many policies that raise average genetic quality would backfire.”

The reason is the Law of Comparative Advantage, or the reality that “trade between two people or groups increases total production even if one person or group is worse at everything.” Read the whole post for his proof, using a hypothetical case of Brains vs. Brawn. He concludes: “The Law of Comparative Advantage shows that even if some people really are more productive than others in every respect, they have something to offer each other.”

Christians could recognize this reality as just one small piece of a vibrant biblical doctrine of the imago Dei, that every person is created in the image of God, and is of inestimable worth and dignity.

In this regard, read the quote from C. S. Lewis’ sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of the kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.