Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg joins guest host Paul G. Kengor on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon. In this June 28 segment, Kengor asks, “When we talk as Catholics about elevation of the poor and service to those who are less fortunate, we often talk about subsidiarity and social justice. What do those terms mean in the context of Catholic social teaching?”
Listen to “Subsidiarity and Social Justice. What do those terms really mean?” by clicking on the audio player icon below.
Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Grove City College, a four-year, private Christian liberal arts college in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, a Grove City College think-tank/policy center, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.
On his blog Koinonia, Rev. Gregory Jensen thoughtfully reviews a 2008 lecture given at Acton University by Kishore Jayabalan. (One of the neat things about downloading AU lectures is that you can then listen to them just about anywhere, including the car.) Rev. Jensen, who also blogs and writes for Acton, notes how Jayabalan’s talk contrasts “the sectarian approach with a catholic one.”
Another long drive last week gave me a chance to listen to an excellent lecture on the tradition of Catholic social encyclicals. The lecturer, Kishore Jayabalan (director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office) made a distinction between a Catholic and a sectarian approach to the surrounding culture.
While it is important for us as Christian to distinguish truth from error, Jayabalan argues that a sectarian approach limits itself to what is wrong with others. Whether from the right or the left, sectarianism is an ideology masquerading as Christian theology. Again this is not to say that Christians ought should refrain from pointing out where we disagree with the culture–we should but a purely negative approach is not only insufficient it contradicts the very tradition that we would defend. Let me explain.
Life as a disciple of Christ necessarily places us in a tension with not only the fallen world, but also with ourselves. As the late Fr Alexander Schmemmann never tired of repeating, it is this fallen world that God loves and for which His Son suffered and died on the Cross. And it is this fallen world that rises with Christ and will at the end of time not be obliterated but transfigured into the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful” (Rev 21:1-5)
To be sure, Jesus condemns “the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” to “the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” and so to “the second death” (v.8 j) but this does not undo the eschatological fulfillment of creation that is described at length in subsequent verses (vv. 9-27; 22:1-5). Indeed it is those who, because of their works (see, Rev 22:12) are unwilling to say Maranatha! “Come Lord Jesus!” and so will not “take the water of life freely” that are condemned (see, Rev 22:17). To borrow from one of the more obscure writers of the early Church the sixth century Latin father, Apringius of Beja, “The Holy Spirit and the Church call all to come to salvation” (Tractate on the Apocalypse, 22:17 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 406).
The pastoral–and spiritual–failure of sectarianism is that, unlike Christ, it fails to balance “harsh sayings…with the easy and appealing words so that watchfulness is encouraged” (Venerable Bede, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 21.8 quoted on ACCS, NT vol XII: Revelation, p. 361). Underneath this, indeed underneath all my willingness to judge, to condemn, to withhold forgiveness, is a watchfulness that is not encouraging but suspicious and distrustful. If in the immediate this is directed toward my neighbor it ultimately finds its roots in my own lack of faith in God and trust in the providential working of His grace in your life and mine.
We can, as Jayabalan did, contrast the sectarian approach with a catholic one. While sectarianism often takes a negative tone, what is central is not negativity as such. The sectarian Christian seeks to limit God’s grace to an elite group. That this elite group is eventually a group of one person–the sectarian himself–is ignored or overlooked.
A catholic approach, on the other hand, does not simply criticize what is wrong, it affirms what is good, and true, and just, and beautiful. If sectarianism seeks to tear down, a catholic approach seeks to build up. Sectarianism seeks an ever narrow “purity,” the catholic an ever more expansive wholeness. Again, this doesn’t mean that a catholic approach refrains from pointing out error, but it does so in a way that is both charitable and fearless.
For the sectarian mind, life presents no real dilemmas–only an unending series of enemies, of dragons who can never, quite, be slain. Put another way, sectarianism is a mode of despair.
There’s a lot of good, challenging, and insightful stuff here. As always, read it in full. But here’s a bit that’s especially incisive:
Especially for those working in government policy making bodies, there is a role for advocating change where policies are seen as creating results which are intolerable from the Christian standpoint, or where the economic system fails to address problems which a Christian cannot ignore. Large groups of such advocates already exist, quite often centered around specific issues. Though these groups may include economists, they are quite often made up of non-economists who care deeply about a particular problem (e.g. R. Sider, J. Wallis, and T. Campolo, who all have written about poverty issues). Some of these groups zealously advocate particular solutions to what they view as egregious injustices in the economy. Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.
Here the Christian economist’s expertise may be called upon to inform these “advocate groups” about the nature of the problem and the implications of different solutions. Many Christians want to be better informed in order to become better advocates. Yet they do no know where to go to get information. Sound economic reasoning which is made accessible to a non-professional audience is sorely needed. It is odd indeed that most contemporary Christian writing on economic issues for the general public is done by theologians or sociologists.
Note here the vigorous sense of Christian advocacy in the public square, and how it is to be informed by solid economic, social, and historical research. Note too that the advocacy described is generally not that which ought to be pursued by the institutional church, but by Christians organizing themselves organically in civil society.
As a theologian often writing on economic and public policy matters, I heartily endorse Dean’s call for more sustained, careful, and intentional engagement of Christian economists on these matters.
Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico took to the airwaves on the Great Voice of the Great Lakes this morning, joining host Frank Beckmann on News/Talk 760 WJR in Detroit to talk about an event he will be speaking at in the Motor City next week, and also shedding some light on the current state of affairs in China, where he is currently traveling; audio of the segment is available via the audio player below.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, Kevin Schmiesing looks at the exchange between Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and Sen. Tom Coburn over the interpretation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.
Elena Kagan’s Revealing Commerce Clause Evasion
by Kevin E. Schmiesing Ph.D.
Many Americans have a vague sense that the United States has drifted far from its constitutional origins. Every once in a while, something happens that prods us to recognize just how far we’ve gone.
Such was the case last week, during the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. One of the most widely circulated C-Span video clips was Senator Tom Coburn’s insistent question as to whether the Constitution’s commerce clause permitted Congress to pass a hypothetical law dictating that all Americans must eat a prescribed number of fruits and vegetables every day.
Kagan was clever enough to understand that what Coburn was really asking was, “Is it possible to justify the continued expansion of congressional powers—in particular recent health care reform legislation—on the basis of the authority granted by the commerce clause?” Kagan replied that the fruits and vegetables measure would be “dumb” law. She didn’t dare suggest that it would be unconstitutional, however, for she rightly recognized that she would be backing herself into a judicial corner. How many laws might she have to strike down as Supreme Court justice if she followed a “strict” interpretation of the Constitution?
Thus we’ve come to a point at which a Supreme Court nominee cannot bring herself to condemn a manifestly totalitarian law, because doing so would be utterly inconsistent with federal jurisprudence over the last 80 years. Kagan’s response shines a spotlight on the fact that the Constitution exercises little restraint upon the activities of our national government. This is dangerous territory.
There are rearguard actions from time to time. The Court invalidated campaign finance reform early this year, judging it to be a violation of first amendment rights—for which the justices were upbraided by President Obama on national television during a State of the Union Address. Yet, by and large, Congress acts with impunity to intervene in our economic affairs, usually justifying itself (in those rare cases when it feels the need to do so) by recourse to the commerce clause.
Perhaps it’s worth revisiting that passage from our founding document, on which millions of pages of federal regulation have been piled. Can it support such weight?
Congress shall have power, it says, “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” That’s it. The original purpose of this directive with respect to commerce “among the several States” was to ensure that there would be no interstate trade barriers. The formation of a vibrant national economy, the framers correctly understood, could not very well proceed when Ohio and Michigan erected tariffs against each other. So, the intent of the commerce clause was to protect the principle of free trade within the United States, leaving other financial and mercantile regulatory authority to each state.
Taking the Constitution seriously is important because the document forms the basis for the rule of law in this country. By ratifying it, the states and the citizens thereof affirmed the truth of a great paradox: Enacting limitations on ourselves is the only way to guarantee lasting and genuine freedom. It was a profoundly moral endeavor. The Christian notion of sin lay at the heart of many Americans’ belief that the tendency toward corruption and aggrandizement in government officials—and the potentially destructive whims of democratic majorities themselves—must be guarded against not only by promotion of personal virtue but also by legal instruments such as constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances.
For the most part, the Supreme Court honored the intent of the commerce clause until the 1930s, when the force of public sentiment and political pressure stemming from the Great Depression began to pry the lid off, loosing its potential as a Pandora’s box of federal government programs reaching into every corner of American life. In 1942, the Court defended a production quota on wheat set by the Department of Agriculture, upholding the prosecution of an Ohio farmer for growing too much. When he used his excess, the decision explained, he wouldn’t be buying that amount on the market. His flouting of the law thus affected interstate commerce.
Quod erat demonstrandum: The government can tell you what and how much to grow. Why can it not also tell you that you must purchase health insurance (and therefore what kind, and from which approved vendors)? And why can’t it tell you what and how much you may eat?
Our hope lies in our belief that, when a law is “dumb” enough, nine fellow Americans on the Supreme Court will have the good sense to strike it down. But we will be dependent on their sense alone. Although they will invoke the Constitution as a fig leaf for whatever judgment they render, we know the truth: Its value as a curb on government action—and therefore as a safeguard of freedom—was all-but-destroyed long ago.
Mario Rizzo and Gerald O’Driscoll point to dueling letters to the editor from 1932 in The London Times by John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek on whether government spending can help cure contemporary economic woes. The letters, unearthed by Richard Ebeling, show that today’s debates over economic policy are, in many respects, a rerun of the debates of the 1930s.
Acton’s The Birth of Freedom comes to six PBS stations this Independence Day weekend, and AEI’s Enterprise blog has a good post about the Christian foundations of American freedom and The Birth of Freedom: “It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in recalling, learning, or helping others to learn about the deep roots of the freedom we celebrate every Fourth of July. Those roots define, in part, what it means to be an American citizen.”
PBS Airings This Weekend
Tampa Bay, WEDU–July 4th, 9:00 p.m.
Carbondale, Illinois, WSIU/WUSI–July 4th, 1:00 p.m.
San Diego, KPBS–July 5th, 12:00 am (also July 7th, 4:00 am and July 11th 3:00 a.m.)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana Public Broadcasting–July 4th, 8:00 a.m. on LPB2
Grand Rapids, Michigan, WGVU–July 5th, 12:30 a.m.
Syracuse, New York, WCNY–July 4, 3:00 p.m.