Archived Posts June 2011 - Page 4 of 7 | Acton PowerBlog

Current events in India have left the country wrestling with an important question: What is civil society and what does it consist of? These are not easy questions to answer as definitions of civil society can greatly vary.

According to a story on the Wall Street Journal’s  India Real Time section, “…political demonstrators have demanded greater civil society involvement in the governing country…” While many throughout India are trying to define a civil society and who represents it, the Journal cited a definition by Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute:

Samuel Gregg, … notes that up to around the 18th century, the term “civil society” was used to distinguish the realm of the secular from the realm of the church, but then underwent a shift. India Real Time made a stab at defining the term “civil society” from his work as comprising those “intermediate associations” of society – academic, cultural, religious or charitable – that are separate from the family, and from the institutions of the state and the market. Mr. Gregg calls such associations “little platoons” that draw “people out of their immediate family without subsuming them into the state” and that have “the capacity to assist people to look towards those higher ends of truth, beauty, and the good.”

This definition effectively covers charities, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, civic associations like local Residents’ Welfare Associations, social movements, traders’ associations, social service initiatives, faith-based groups and so on.

Click here to read to full article.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, June 17, 2011

Today at Capital Commentary I discuss the size and scope of the tax code in the US relative to its basic purposes.

In “Back Door Social Engineering,” I argue, “When governments run huge deficits in part because of the complexity of its tax system and the ability of people and institutions to engage in large-scale (and legal) tax avoidance, there is something deeply wrong with the system.”

The basic purpose of taxes is to raise money for the government, not to determine social behavior. We have laws for that.

Read the whole thing here.

Acton University has been full of thought provoking lectures and stimulating discussion. It is easy to see why the attendees wish the conference was much longer. There are many interesting lectures, one just wishes he or she could attend all of them.

Yesterday Dr. John Bolt, of Calvin Theological Seminary, taught a course titled “Centralization and Civil Society.” Bolt’s course paid special attention to Alexis de Tocqueville and his contributions to defining a civil society. As one can imagine, by bringing Tocqueville into his lecture, Bolt discussed the role of religion and the sense of community in the United States.

Bolt explained that America is self-reliant; however, this self-reliance didn’t come through reflection. The American people didn’t wake up one day and decide they wanted to be more self-reliant. Instead, Bolt explains that America’s self-reliance is habitual. Furthermore, Bolt discussed how Tocqueville demonstrated that America can afford to be self-reliant and individualistic because it was founded on Christian principles and that liberty exists in the United States because of religion and Christian principles.

The dinner lecture was a real treat last night. The Acton Institute has always promoted entrepreneurship and what it means to intertwine faith with entrepreneurship. A panel of successful entrepreneurs shared their insight on how business can promote the common good. Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children and Alliance for School Choice and chairman of the Windquest group, articulated how she finds joy in enterprises that make a difference in other people’s lives. She believes that enterprise is a vehicle we use and invest our God given talents in.

According to Mark Murray, president of Meijer, Inc., entrepreneurs need to be servant leaders. In order to succeed they must remain rooted in integrity. Murray explained how the values found in Christianity, such as humility, are not only applicable but needed in business. Furthermore, we are all created in the mage and likeness of God. We are called to use our God given gifts and express our creativity. Murray believes we put our talents and creativity to use through work, and the development of the human capacity is promoted through business.

Stewardship was highlighted by John Kennedy, president and CEO of Autocam. We are all temporary custodians of everything and have to do the best with the assets we are given. Furthermore, Kennedy said that we must remember people and employees are all assets and leaders must discover the gifts of their employees and how those gifts can most help the enterprise. Not only are employees assets, but so is capital. Entrepreneurs are called to be stewards of both their employees and capital and use all they are given to the fullest extent, and by doing this entrepreneurs demonstrate their appreciation for all God has given and blessed them with.

While there are flawed business leaders who are not examples of how businesses contribute to the common good, Acton University attendees witnessed what it really means to be called to entrepreneurship. When the calling of entrepreneurship is accepted and founded in Christian principles, the entrepreneur is a tool to create and promote the common good.

Continuing the tradition from 2010, Acton University 2011 lectures will be available for purchase online from our secure order page.  New lectures will be posted as they conclude throughout the week, so check back often.

The downloads are in MP3 format and can be transferred to any device that plays audio files such as an iPod or smartphone.

Here are some useful Acton University links:

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Acton Commentary for this week tries to explain the differences between Christian proponents and opponents of Republican budget proposals:

A Circle of Exchange is Better Than a Circle of Protection

Strife over the budget in Washington continues, with religious leaders and organizations weighing in on both sides. The positions of Christian participants in this battle are as intractable as the secular combatants and for the same reason: A fundamental difference of outlook concerning the role of government and the effect of government programs.

This clash has been reflected in recent debates among Christian leaders and organizations. A group of Catholic professors charged that John Boehner (and by implication every Catholic who agrees with his budgetary priorities) dissents from Church doctrine by favoring cuts to welfare programs. Fr. Robert Sirico, George Weigel, and others responded by challenging the view that Democratic domestic policy aligns neatly with the Catholic social teaching. Boehner’s Catholic critics were among those who issued an ecumenical statement calling for a “Circle of Protection” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”

Advocates of sustained or increased government poverty programs insist that such programs genuinely do help the poor. The Circle of Protection signatories insist, “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.” To its credit, this statement implicitly recognizes that there may be inefficiencies and abuses in such programs. Yet, the idea that decreased spending could actually be a path to making poverty programs more effective does not, apparently, enter the realm of possibility.

In the midst of the Boehner controversy, a writer at the Catholic blog Vox Nova asked, “Can anybody possibly argue that the Boehner budget protects the poor?” The writer avows that the pairing of tax cuts for higher income earners with spending cuts to “programs that help the poor and people of limited means” is incontrovertibly inimical to Catholic social teaching.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Defenders of government welfare programs not only cannot conceive of the possibility that government programs actually harm rather than help the people they target; they cannot conceive of the possibility that anyone else could conceive of the possibility. Those of us who sincerely believe that such programs are harmful are baffled at what we perceive to be stubborn resistance to the facts of the matter: Spending for programs related to the War on Poverty has increased 13-fold since Lyndon Johnson inaugurated them, without appreciable positive effect. Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est (2005) that we need “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.” It is hard to see how Medicaid and the food stamp program fit this model.

Opponents of Republican budget proposals fail to recognize the tension within their own view. The Vox Nova blogger recognizes that the deficit crisis was caused in part by a “collapse in revenue.” The Circle of Protection statement deserves praise, too, for its insistence that “A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth. Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.” Unfortunately, the statement signers do not see that the vibrant economy they rightly desire as an antidote to poverty might be stifled by other pieces of the program they advocate.

What unemployed and impoverished people really need is not government handouts, but access to, and the capacity and inducement to engage, the market economy—as Pope John Paul II put it, to “enter the circle of exchange.” Government policy should be encouraging companies to hire and potential employees to be hired. Yet, to take but one example of recent counter productivity, economists have shown that extending unemployment benefits beyond a certain length of time correlates with higher unemployment rates. If a safety net becomes too comfortable, people are inclined to remain in it. Welfare program advocates deny this vehemently—everyone wants to work, they say; they just need the chance—but statistical evidence and a realistic understanding of human nature contradict them. It could be that the perfect job is not available; maybe finding work means picking up and moving, or taking a cut in pay, or training to acquire a new skill. People faced with these situations deserve our compassion and assistance. But if we minimize the incentive to do what is necessary to find employment, we do neither the out-of-work individual nor the overall economy any favors.

On point number seven of the Circle of Protection statement, we can all agree: “As believers, we turn to God with prayer and fasting, to ask for guidance as our nation makes decisions about our priorities as a people.” Budget decisions are indeed moral acts. Whether morality points us toward expansion of poverty reduction programs or toward thorough revision—even reduction—of them, is another question. It is a good thing that Christians are engaged in this debate, for its outcome will have far-reaching repercussions for the poor, and for all of us.

We now have a live stream of the #ActonU hashtag on Twitter running on the right side of our blog. This tab will keep you updated on the folks who are using this tag in their Twitter posts. Feel free to join in and be featured on the blog! You might even find someone to meet up with between sessions. For those of you who aren’t at Acton University you can use the feed to find out what you’re missing. If you do not see the feed on the right side of the blog you may need to refresh your browser.

Update 6/20/2011: The live stream has been removed since Acton University has concluded.  You can still check out the stream on Twitter if you’re interested.

Recently, progressive Catholics met in Detroit and issued calls for a married clergy and the ordination of women priests. In a very timely article Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute, addresses the progressive Catholics who “sit rather loosely with Catholic teaching on questions like life and marriage” and how they are continuing “to press what is often a hyper-politicized understanding of the gospel.” Gregg’s article appearing in Crisis Magazine.

The roots of the progressive Catholic’s problems may lie in the view of hell:

Perhaps it has something to do with the eternal quest for “relevance” that’s often fuelled by living in hothouses like Washington, D.C. In some cases, it might be ambitions of a political appointment. While such factors shouldn’t be discounted, deeper theological influences may be at work. Though it’s impolitic to say so, one such pressure may be the effective denial of the reality of hell that has become part of much contemporary Christian life.

Hell is not a comfortable subject. The idea that we can, by virtue of one or more of our free choices, potentially separate ourselves eternally from God’s love is frightening.

But the reality of hell and that it will be populated by those who fail to choose to repent of such choices (we don’t know the identity or number of such people, and pray and hope we won’t  be among them) is firmly attested to by Scripture and Tradition. St. Augustine’s City of God devotes several chapters to affirming these truths. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers specifically to those who die in a state of mortal sin enduring “eternal separation from God.”

Moreover, from the standpoint of reason, hell is a logical side effect of God’s willingness to let us choose whether or not to live in His Truth.

God doesn’t will that anyone goes to hell. Hell is, as the philosopher John Finnis writes, “a self-made judgment, the inherent outcome of a sin by which one refuses to remain and grow in friendship with God.”

As a reality, however, hell has disappeared from some Christians’ horizons. This partly owes something to those biblical scholars who have reduced the gospels to “symbols” and “stories,” the “real” meaning of which — so they tell us — actually contradicts what the Church has always understood them to mean.

Gregg explains that we have a choice to live in God’s truth or not. We commits ourselves, actually, to an afterlife in heaven or hell. As a result, as Gregg articulates, we shouldn’t avoid the topic. Instead we should imagine and embrace what salvation really means:

More generally, most Catholics aren’t called to a life of activism (left or right). As part of God’s design, we all have different vocations, the faithful fulfilling of which mysteriously helps, as Vatican II taught, “to prepare the material [materiam] of the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, eternal life does in fact somehow begin now. Our good works today — what Vatican II called “all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise [industriae],” most notably “human dignity [humanae dignitatis], brotherhood [communionis fraternae] and freedom [libertatis]” — will be taken up, cleansed of sin, and perfected when Christ returns.

None of this makes sense, however, without accepting Catholic teaching about the hope of heaven and hence the alternative of effectively choosing hell. Herein lies the gospel’s ultimate relevance. Embracing it is the path to true freedom, not to mention eternal life.

Click here to read the full article.