Archived Posts March 2006 » Page 2 of 6 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: mmiller
posted by on Thursday, March 23, 2006

If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend the film I Am David with Jim Caviezel and Ben Tibber. It is about a young boy, David, who escapes from a Bulgarian Prison Camp and undertakes a journey northward to Denmark. It is based on the children’s novel North to Freedom by Ann Holm.

The movie contrasts the horror of communist prison camp life with daily life of people in free societies. Normal everyday interactions of young David with a wealthy Italian family and a Swiss woman are powerful in the way they illustrate the differences between an easygoing and joyful life of a free society and the de-humanizing forces of camp life.

David’s soul, mind, and worldview were shaped by the violent, godless, and ugly life of the camp and the movie, among other things, shows how David becomes humanized as he meets normal individuals striving to live good lives in freedom. It is a moving and uplifting film and it also reminds us of the horrors of communism and the privilege of living in a free society—and the need to protect it.

There’s a perceptive article by Christopher Levenick on the Weekly Standard’s site. It’s titled “Monkish: What the increase of monastic vocations in Italy could mean for European secularism”.

First, the surpising data:

Italy [...] is often viewed as a case study in secularization. Yet across the peninsula, weekly attendance at Catholic Mass has been steadily climbing for two decades. In 1980, roughly 35 percent of Italians regularly attended the Mass; by 2000 that figure had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

But even more pregnant with possible significance is Italy’s sudden surge in new monastic vocations. A recent conference organized by the Vicariate of Rome and the Unione Superiore Maggiori D’Italia revealed that in the last year, no fewer than 550 women entered cloistered convents–up from 350 two years earlier. In contrast to recent trends, the new candidates were predominantly native-born and college-educated Italians. Similar gains are said to have occurred among male monastics.

It may seem strange that Europe’s woes can be cured by a retreat from the world. Some may be more likely to argue that many of its current problems are political and economic, and therefore must be corrected by policy reforms undertaken by political leaders. If secularization and demographics are the main problems, the answer would seem to involve more people going to church, marrying and raising families. Europeans must become more, not less, engaged with worldly matters, it would seem.

So how does a devotion to prayer and manual labor help this dire situation?

Here is Levenick’s answer:

IT IS REASONABLE [...] to see more hopeful signs in a possible monastic renaissance. This is certainly the view of Pope Benedict XVI, who views monasticism as one of three historic elements which forged Latin, Greek, Slavic, Nordic, and Germanic cultures into the amalgam known as Europe. Monasticism, Benedict recently noted, has long been “the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental and religious and moral values.” It acts as “a pre-political and supra-political force,” which brings “ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.” (Even Gibbon conceded that “posterity must be grateful to acknowledge, that the monuments of Greek and Roman literature have been preserved and multiplied by [the monks'] indefatigable pens.”) Benedict’s high sense of monastic purpose dovetails neatly with his belief that a small but vibrant church will be well positioned to invigorate Western civilization.

In its own way, monasticism may provide the spiritual energies needed for cultural renewal and reform – and as George Weigel has argued, there can be no “re-form” without a concern for the “form” of Christian life, i.e. religious life. It’s a fascinating argument about which much more can and should be said.

My commentary last week on the situation of the Silver Ring Thing has occasioned some conversation on the LewRockwell.com Blog (here, here, here, and here). The consensus on the faith-based initiative seems to be that, in the words of William L. Anderson, they “were pointing out at the beginning that this was a bad idea, and that taking the state’s money ultimately would mean that the state would be interfering with the larger mission of these religious groups.”

Contrariwise, Joseph Knippenberg, who blogs at No Left Turns and is a professor at Oglethorp University, writes in this week’s The American Enterprise online column that the faith-based initiative is being undermined by partisan Democrats and that it will have to continue under the diligent faithfulness of Republicans.

Citing the differences between the Republican and Democratic approaches, he writes of the former, “because the shekels come without unnecessary shackles, the effect of government funding isn’t necessarily homogenizing or secularizing. In a nutshell, this co-religionist hiring exemption enables government to cooperate with, but not dominate, a vigorous and diverse private philanthropic sector.”

The danger is, in Knippenberg’s view, that the faith-based initiative will become dominated by Democratic partisans, who “would force every government contractor into essentially the same bureaucratic mold. Every recipient of government funding would ultimately be simply an extension of the government, offering more or less the same services in more or less the same setting.”

But even if Knippenberg is right, and there is this vast difference between the approaches of the two parties, it merely serves to underscore my point about the unreliability of government funding. He is responding in part to this Washington Post story which notes the boon that Bush’s faith-based initiative has been to certain conservative-minded charities. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship,” I note that blessed with extraordinary material riches, Christians in North America are increasingly viewing their stewardship responsibilities in a global context. I look at one school in British Columbia and how their local building project also raised funds for a school in Sierra Leone.

Dennis DeGroot, principal of Fraser Valley Christian High School, writes and informs me, “The money keeps coming in for the school project. The students have far exceeded their goal. The total now at $36,000 and money still coming in.” He also says, “My long term vision for this is that all Christian schools would find partnerships like ours in the developing world; true partnerships where we learn from each other where real wealth lies.”

For some background, you can read my brief column in The Banner, “Building on the Tithe.”

While there is a general acceptance of the role of private property for social order and economic prosperity, the challenges to private property have not ended. The eminent domain issue is one threat; another comes from environmentalist groups such as the Foundation for Deep Ecology and others who see humans as a drain on the earth and nature. Some environmentalists advocate the consolidation of land to be put under federal control and promote stringent land usage restrictions that would prevent a landowner using his property fruitfully.

Their argument is nothing new: individuals left to themselves will not be as effective as central planners in decided the best way to allocate and protect resources, etc. etc—they are merely variants of the Marxian arguments used by economic central planners.

Despite the rhetoric, common ownership of land and resources has not been an effective means of addressing problems. It failed under applied socialism, and has not led to environmental protection and stewardship as environmentalists hope. Private property ownership creates incentives for people to use land wisely and in a sustainable manner. John Stossel gives an excellent illustrations of the importance of incentives and the private ownwership including privatizing elephant ownership in Africa.

St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of property and human incentives in the 13th century. He argued it is lawful to own property for three reasons:

First, because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants.

Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone has to look after one thing indeterminately.

Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to observed that quarrels arise more frequently where ther is no division of the things possessed.

Notice the humanist vision—the appreciation for the individual, an understanding of human nature, a respect for the capabilities of individuals to make decisions and control their own sphere. Also notice point number three. Compare this to the unspeakable violence perpetrated by socialist government leaders on their own citizens because they were not “content” with operating in their own sphere.

It is unfortunate Marx and the socialists were not steeped in the thought of St. Thomas early on. Who knows, it could have avoided some of the pain and suffering imposed by socialist governments on their own people. But the reality of Marxism has become clear. As Pope Benedict put it in his new encyclical Deus Caritas Est

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.

The leftwing environmentalists are part of a long line of central planners. They want to the control of property in the hand of government bureaucrats and planners, i.e., themselves. But planners are always less effective than those closer to the problem, because no matter how much they know, or think they know, they’ll never has as much knowledge as those individuals on the ground close to the situation. This is the principle of subsidiarity—rooted in Aquinas’ defense of private property. Wisdom of the past as applicable today as it was then.

I would like to highlight another passage from Pope Benedict’s homily (mentioned below by Kishore) from last Sunday’s homily that has particular relevance to our work at Acton:

We have listened together to a famous and beautiful passage from the Book of Exodus, in which the sacred author tells of God’s presentation of the Decalogue to Israel. One detail makes an immediate impression: the announcement of the Ten Commandments is introduced by a significant reference to the liberation of the People of Israel. The text says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20: 2).

Thus, the Decalogue is intended as a confirmation of the freedom gained. Indeed, at a closer look, the Commandments are the means that the Lord gives us to protect our freedom, both from the internal conditioning of passions and from the external abuse of those with evil intentions. The “nos” of the Commandments are as many “yeses” to the growth of true freedom.

Hunter Baker at The Reform Club passes along a column by Maggie Gallagher that has him “rethinking” his position concerning illegal immigration. Gallagher notes, “Economic studies suggest that overall, immigration is a net wash, or a slight plus, for the American economy. But the pluses and minuses are not evenly distributed over the whole population: Lesser-skilled Americans who compete for jobs that don’t require Ivy League credentials take the hit, while people like me enjoy a lot of the benefits.”

Andrew Yuengert, a professor of economics at Pepperdine University, in his Acton monograph on immigration, makes the same observation. In his shorter white paper based on the monograph, Yuengert writes regarding the impact of immigrants on the cost of social programs, “the real problem is not the fiscal burden of immigrants but the concentration of the fiscal burden in a few localities.”

Baker identifies with the problems posed for low-wage natives in the US who are faced with increasing competition from immigrant workers (both legal and illegal). It is true that certain areas of the country are going to be negatively impacted in terms of the costs of government programs, as well as that certain sectors of the population in these areas will face increased competition for low-wage jobs.

Neither of these two facts can obscure the reality that liberal and legal immigration results in a net economic gain for the US. What these realities can do, however, is temper and specialize government policy.

Perhaps even more importantly, they can give incentive and direction for private social endeavors to help alleviate the job displacement and negative economic effects. Charities could target immigrant communities and take the burden off the state to provide education and health care. Other programs could focus on training and education for immigrants and natives to move on from low-wage jobs.

Immigration should be seen as an opportunity and incentive for natives in low-wage earning jobs to get better training, experience, and education and improve to higher paying positions. A benefit of increased competition for jobs is that workers are given the incentive not to remain indefinitely in positions that don’t give them the standard of living they desire.

For Yuengert’s views especially as regards illegal immigration, listen to this radio interview (mp3) from The Jerry Bowyer Show.

Actonites know about all the benefits of globalization.

Most of these benefits are economic but also have much greater and often unseen social impact as well. Increased international trade in goods and services promotes division of labor and an efficient use of scarce resources, resulting in lower-priced, higher-quality products. The poor are often the greatest beneficiaries as both producers and consumers. People all over the world come to recognize their increased interdependence, not only with their local grocer or tailor, but with others in faraway lands.

Only the most xenophobic and nationalistic foes of economic and social progress would be against globalization, right?

Wrong.

In nearly every country of the world, including those who have thrived in the last 10-20 years of increased trade, globalization is under attack and in danger of being reversed.

See here for the troubles being reported in Europe, here in the United States, and here in India. And there’s plenty more out there.

This most recent backlash against globalization shows how fears of insecurity prey on mass perceptions and how arguments in favor of economic efficiency are rarely strong enough to resist these fears.

Readers of the Acton PowerBlog know how important religious leaders can be in shaping moral arguments and more of these leaders need to understand just what is at stake here. A collapse of the global economic system resulting from increased protectionism would be an unmitigated disaster for everyone.

There are reports that Pope Benedict is planning a social encyclical on work. It would be a perfect opportunity to re-examine John Paul II’s groundbreaking “Centesimus Annus” and the more recent trends the world has seen.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Last spring I participated in a symposium at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on “pro-life progressivism.” The proceedings have now been published in the school’s law review, which is available here.

To simplify, the conference was designed to explore the possibility of extending the political and intellectual appeal of a position that is against abortion and the death penalty, and left-leaning on economic policy. To the organizers’ credit, they invited the airing of opinions critical of pro-life progressivism from various perspectives. My role was to question the “progressive” part of the equation, which I did, somewhat indirectly, with a brief history of “conservative” Catholic social thinkers.

Not part of the conference, but included in the published journal, is an extremely interesting piece by Patrick Shrake. Shrake argues that the privacy jurisprudence of the last 40 years should be overturned and that the kind of state anti-contraception laws that started the mess could be upheld. Catholics and others who both accept the moral case against artificial birth control and are wary of an activist state will view the article ambivalently, but it is at the least a serious and thought-provoking argument.

I will be speaking at the Scholarly Communications Symposium next month at Drexel University in Philadelphia. On Friday, April 28, I will be the second of three presenters, and will give a talk titled, “The Digital Ad Fontes!: Scholarly Research Trends in the Humanities.”

The other speakers are Dr. Blaise Cronin, Rudy Professor of Information Science and Dean of the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University, and Rosalind Reid, editor of American Scientist, the magazine of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society.

You can visit the conference webpage for abstracts of the lectures. The event is free and open to the public (registration required).