Archived Posts February 2009 - Page 5 of 5 | Acton PowerBlog

Here’s a brief report from The Environmental Report on mountain-top removal mining, and the increasing involvement of religious groups weighing in on the question. One of these groups is Christians for the Mountains. A quote by the group’s co-founder Allen Johnson was noteworthy, “We cannot destroy God’s creation in order to have a temporal economy.”

One other thing that struck me about the interview is that the AmeriCorp involvement smacks of “rebranding” secular environmentalism. Add the magic words “creation care” and all of a sudden you’ve gained the moral authority of all kinds of Christians and churches.

The report from Sandra Sleight-Brennan is quite short, and even though it doesn’t find anyone to speak up for the mining companies, the workers, or the mining methods, it does manage to get a quote from “creation care” advocate Richard Cizik (formerly of the NAE).

And what are the economic options beyond mountain-top removal mining for these communities? They include “wind energy, tourism, and not letting the mining companies decide the fate of the Appalachian mountains and the people who live there.”

As the report makes clear, though, the issue is a complicated one, and a simple juxtaposition of “economy” versus “environment” isn’t sufficient to tease out all the answers. There are legitimate concerns on the one side regarding negative externalities like pollution of habitat and waterways as well as what might be called a kind of aesthetic pollution. But on the other are legitimate concerns about property rights (which include responsibilities for negative externalities), energy needs, and economic freedom.

“Government budgets are moral documents,” is the often quoted line from Jim Wallis of Sojourners and other religious left leaders. Wallis also adds that “When politicians present their budgets, they are really presenting their priorities.” There is perhaps no better example of a spending bill lacking moral soundness than the current stimulus package being debated in the U.S. Senate.

In my commentary this week, “The Moral Bankruptcy Behind the Bailouts,” I offer clear reasons how spending more does not equate to morality, but quite the opposite in this case.

In fact, among many believers it seems that Christian thrift is lost as a value altogether. We forget how important financial responsibility and thrift was to the entire Christian tradition as important evidence of outward faith and devotion. Jordan Ballor offers some great words in his own commentary last year titled “The Fourth Pillar of the New Economy: Spend all you can:”

The eighteenth-century theologian and pastor John Wesley once preached that we should “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Productivity, frugality, and generosity are the core moral virtues that have animated prosperous and free economies in the West for centuries. But now the federal government seemingly wants to add a fourth and conflicting principle to these traditional values: “Spend all you can.”

As for Jim Wallis, not surprisingly he enthusiastically supports the stimulus package, and because of the enormous stakes involved for future generations, this shows a lack of moral judgment and courage on his part. It may also be that Wallis is hesitant to pull his support for this $1 trillion spending bill because he is afraid to go against a President that reminds him of the Prophet Nehemiah.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 5, 2009
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In response to the question, “What is wrong with socialism?”

In answering this question we could point to the historical instances of socialist regimes and their abhorrent record on treatment of human beings. But the supporters of socialism might just as well argue that these examples are not truly relevant because each historical instance of socialism has particular contextual corruptions. Thus, these regimes have never really manifested the ideal that socialism offers.

So on a more abstract or ideal level, what is wrong with socialism is that it promotes governmental tyranny. The state becomes the option of first resort rather than last (or no) resort in concerns related to economics, social institutions, the family, and the church. The state in its local, regional, federal, or global form coopts the roles of all kinds of mediating institutions.

On the basis of this critique we can then point to concrete examples where the socialist ideal has been manifest and we can observe what the effects are. In the Acton documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, George Gilder discusses the “cuckolding” of the man by the welfare state, which preempts the role of the family’s economic provider. But in general the nanny state infantilizes its own citizenry.

Theodore Dalrymple’s recent book discusses the decline of Western civilization, and of his homeland he writes that there are

many people in contemporary Britain with very little of importance to decide for themselves. … They are educated by the state (at least nominally) … the state provides for them in old age and has made savings unnecessary … they are treated and cured by the state when they are ill; they are housed by the state if they cannot otherwise afford decent housing. Their choices concern only sex and shopping.

Maybe “sex” and “shopping” are still relatively free, but rest assured socialism won’t stop until it has undone even these last instances of relative liberty. See, for instance, talks not only about socializing procreation (a max of two children per couple?) but also the encroaching regulations on what can be purchased or consumed (e.g. “sin” taxes in various forms).

So there’s a sense in which what is wrong with socialism is that it has a faulty anthropology. But its anthropology is flawed not only in the sense that it fails to recognize and respect the fundamental place of individual human liberty, but also that it substitutes an inauthentic, disingenuous, and ultimately corrupted form of social relations for those that form God’s orders of human sociality: marriage and the family, work and culture, the church, and divinely-ordained and -limited government.

Because socialism attacks all of these institutions, one or another of them becomes the focus of resistance in the midst of actual socialist regimes. So the church might be the truest bastion of freedom in one socialistic situation, while the family might be the outpost of liberty in another, and free enterprise the haven of flourishing in yet another.

The pope has certainly earned his salary this week. In his attempt to heal a schism, he inadvertently set off a fire storm.

As most everyone knows by now, the pontiff lifted the excommunication of four bishops illicitly ordained by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre in 1988, whose dissent from the Second Vatican Council drew a small but fervent following. One of these bishops, Richard Williamson, is a holocaust denier.

To understand the saga, it is necessary to peel back its various layers.

Many who followed Lefevbre did so because of a devotion to the traditional form of what is known as the Latin (Tridentine) Mass. A smaller number rejected the whole of the efforts of Vatican II to take account of the modern world by engaging in ecumenical relations, and a deepened appreciation for religious tolerance and human liberty. Part of their complaint, rightly in my estimation, was that an excessively optimistic outlook whereby everything that was simply new was seen as automatically good was simply wrong and weakened Catholic identity. This would result in a spiritual malaise and moral mediocrity that would ultimately become unattractive and deadening. History bears out their insight, but as Chesterton once observed, “Heresy is truth gone mad.”

There are toxic vapors at the far end of the Lefevbre swamp and Bishop Williamson seemed to have breathed deeply of the fumes. The man, for sometime evidently, has been a marginal character, a fact that the Vatican and the pope admittedly should have known but did not. Some preliminary effort should have gone into uncovering Bishop Williamson’s conspiratorialist propensities. What’s more, an assessment of the communications failure on the part of the Vatican is appropriate.

The bishop now has a choice to make: paddle further out into the swamp (the Lefevbrites having already silenced him), or he can pull back and recant. The Vatican has demanded that he “distance himself in an absolutely unmistakable and public way from his position.” Unless he comes to see the historical absurdity and moral obtuseness of his assertions, he will have no ministry in the Church.

We need to be clear that the lifting of the excommunication of the bishops did not re-establish full communion between these men and the Roman Catholic Church. They remain suspended priests, forbidden by canon law from practicing their ministry. They will remain so until some resolution is achieved as to their full adherence to the authority the pope, which would include the authority of Vatican II. The lifting of the excommunication begins the discussion, it does not settle it.

Among the documents that Vatican II published is Nostra Aetate (The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions) which emphatically decries all forms of anti-Semitism, anywhere and by anyone. Whether or not these bishops follow the teaching of this document will be followed carefully.

It seems at least worth pondering the possibility that when people are offered the opportunity to come in from the cold they sometimes may come to learn the lesson of reciprocal responsibility which is what civilized life is mostly about. But sometimes they don’t.

Some of the reaction to all this is clearly justified. Certainly Joseph Ratzinger knows full well the evil of denying the very evil he witnessed at close range. This was the man who grew up in a family known for its resistance to the fascists, who as a child in his native Germany refused to attend the mandatory Hitler Youth meetings, and who had a cousin with Down’s Syndrome euthanized by the Nazis as part of their war against the disabled. He has spoken out repeatedly and consistently against anti-Semitism, as a priest, bishop, cardinal and now pope.

But some of the reaction smacks distinctly of opportunism by politicians, theologians and even some bishops who have other axes to grind with Pope Benedict. These opportunists have sought to exploit whatever confusion, ignorance and possibility this controversy affords.

For those of us inspired by Pope Benedict’s efforts at the renewal of the Church’s liturgy and life, it is sad that what might have been an occasion for a spiritual deepening — both for Catholics and with those outside the Church — has instead turned into a political imbroglio.

Was the real Che Guevara a lover of “humanity, justice and truth”? In his commentary today, Bruce Edward Walker reviews Steven Soderbergh’s new four-hour “Che” film epic and discovers “a cinematic paean to one of the twentieth-century’s most infamous butchers.”

Read the entire commentary at the Acton Institute website.

Amid the Washington clamor for more and bigger bailouts, a few brave voices among elected officials and government veterans are being raised about the moral disaster looming behind massive government spending programs. If we ignore these warnings, writes Ray Nothstine in today’s Acton Commentary, we may be “continuing down a path that may usher in an ever greater financial crisis.”

Read the full commentary here and share your comments below.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
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In response to the question, “What is wrong with socialism?”

I can hardly do better than Pope John Paul II, who wrote in Centesimus Annus, “the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature,” because socialism maintains, “that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice.”

The socialist experiment is attractive because its model is the family, a situation in which each gives according to his ability and receives according to his need—and it works. Unfortunately, the dynamics of family life cannot be replicated at the level of society.

The contention that socialism is unsustainable because of its inherent misapprehension of human nature is supported by the historical record. To my recollection, socialism has only been successful to any significant degree and for any significant amount of time in one institution other than the family: consecrated religious life (e.g., monasteries). Needless to say, there are some rather peculiar dynamics involved there as well, which cannot be replicated across a society.

This lack of success is not for lack of trying. We’re all familiar with the grand national attempts in, for example, the Soviet Union. But socialism has failed on smaller scales as well: in the communes of Brook Farm, Massachusetts; Oneida, New York; and New Harmony, Indiana, to name just a few American instances.

Can a socialist experiment ever succeed? History casts doubt.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 2, 2009
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This guy fails the ‘anthropological Rorshach’ test:

Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, says curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming. He says political leaders and green campaigners should stop dodging the issue of environmental harm caused by an expanding population.

The 2 child limit that Porritt encourages is not just an attempt to limit population growth, but is instead a policy that would put the UK well below replacement levels. Even assuming everyone maxed out their 2 child ‘limit,’ that wouldn’t meet the replacement level of 2.2 children per couple.

The misanthropy of much of the radical environmental movement is becoming increasingly blatant. No longer must the “P” word be spoken in hushed tones in darkened alleys. Folks like Porritt are making sure of that.

“I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate,” Porritt said.

Couching such rhetoric in terms of “responsibility” and even “stewardship” is a powerful tool of deception. After all, who wants advocate being irresponsible?

Read more about environmental misanthropy on this side of the pond in the joint Acton Institute-IRD paper, “From Climate Control to Population Control: Troubling Background on the ‘Evangelical Climate Initiative’.”

Oh, and the “P” word? Porritt means “population,” but a better “P” word is “person.” Population is an abstraction. Personhood is a reality that can’t be so easily dispensed with. To quote a wise creature, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

In response to the question, “What is wrong with socialism?”

Writing well over 2000 years ago, Aristotle answered Plato, whose Republic advocated socialism, thusly:

What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. People pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common; or, at any rate, they care for it only to the extent to which each is individually concerned. Even when there is no other cause for inattention, people are more prone to neglect their duty when they think that another attending to it . . .

The Republic advocated that women and children also be common property. What Aristotle wrote about sons applies to other things, as well:

[Under the plan of The Republic] each citizen will have a thousand sons; they will not be the sons of each citizen individually; any son whatever will be equally the son of any father whatever. The result will be that all will neglect all.

In other words, the word “son” loses its meaning when abused in this fashion. The same is true of the concept of property.

Aristotle is right. We love the particular, not the general. Good philosophies of government will recognize that and will thus operate on a human scale as much as possible. Socialism fails in that regard and thus loses all the non-coercive power of simple affection and care.

This week we introduce a new regular feature we’re calling “PowerBlog Ramblings” (PBR). The concept is simple: we’ll post a question along with some background for why that question has been selected, and various PowerBlog contributors and guests will respond to that question.

We’ve named this feature “PowerBlog Ramblings” in part as an allusion to the publication with which the institute’s namesake Lord Acton was closely associated for a time, The Rambler, which was in part aimed “to provide a medium for the expression of independent opinion on subjects of the day” on topics including “home and foreign literature, politics, science and art.”

But “ramblings” are also more informal and occasional than other sorts of discursive expression, and in that spirit we’re looking to start conversations and dialogue on questions of the day with the mix of moral, theological, and economic insight you’re used to getting from the PowerBlog. That’s why these questions and answers will sometimes be more polished and sometimes not.

We’ll have a sidebar on the blog main page where we’ll post the main PBR along with all of the posted responses. Old questions and ramblings will be accessible via an archive. As always, we welcome and value your responses. If you’ve got suggestions for questions you’d like to see us tackle, email the PowerBlog staff.

The inspiration for this week’s question is a brief exchange on Fox News Channel, which includes Bob Beckel asking, “What is wrong with some form of socialism in certain areas?” The context of the quote is a discussion about the desirability of lowering domestic economic production out of concern for environmental impact.


Others are making the argument that we ought to “shrink our economy” not out of environmental but rather cultural concerns.

So the PBR question for this week is, “What is wrong with socialism?”

Ramble on…

Ramblings: