If you weren’t able to join us in person for the inaugural lecture of the 2011 Acton Lecture Series, fear not: today, we’re pleased to present Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity” for our loyal PowerBlog readers. The lecture was delivered on February 3rd at the Waters Building here in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
With health care moving back to center stage in Washington, we’re publishing Dr. Donald Condit’s Acton monograph A Prescription for Health Care Reform as a free eBook readable in a variety of formats. This excellent work continues to be available for $6 (paperback) in the Acton Bookshoppe.
For your free eBook, visit Acton’s Smashwords page. The Condit book will soon be available in the Kindle store (no charge for that, either) and in other eBook retail sites. We’ll keep you updated when they become available.
Via Smashwords, you can download digital versions of the 81-page health care monograph for eBook readers, smart phones and computer screens.
The monograph was released before the passage of the Patient Protection Act in March. Dr. Condit has recently authored an update in the November 2010 issue of the Linacre Quarterly, published by the Catholic Medical Association. The medical association has graciously offered readers of the Acton PowerBlog an open link to Dr. Condit’s new article, “Health-Care Counter-Reform.”
From the Jan. 5 Acton News & Commentary. This is an edited excerpt of “Health-Care Counter-Reform,” a longer piece Dr. Condit wrote for the November 2010 issue of the Linacre Quarterly, published by the Catholic Medical Association. For more on this important issue, see the Acton special report on Christians and Health Care. Dr. Condit is also the author of the 2009 Acton monograph, A Prescription for Health Care Reform, available in the Book Shoppe.
Obamacare and the Threat to Human Dignity
By Dr. Donald P. Condit
Since President Obama signed the Patient Protection Act into law in March 2010, the acrimonious debate on this far-reaching legislation has persisted. For many, the concerns over the Obama administration’s health care reform effort are based on both moral and fiscal grounds. Now, with House Republicans scheduling a vote to repeal “Obamacare” in the days ahead, the debate is once again ratcheting up.
Perceived threats to the sanctity of life have been at the heart of moral objections to the new law. Despite a March 2010 executive order elaborating the Patient Protection Act’s “Consistency with Longstanding Restrictions on the Use of Federal Funds for Abortion,” many pro-life advocates fear a judicial order could reverse long-standing Hyde amendment restrictions on the use of federal tax dollars for abortion. Impending Medicare insolvency and the Patient Protection Act’s establishment of an “independent payment advisory board” to address treatment effectiveness and cost suggest bureaucratic restrictions on the horizon for medical care of the elderly and disabled.
The objections made on fiscal grounds are serious. Prior to the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama voiced concern for 47 million Americans without health insurance. More recently, supporters of this legislation focused on 32 million Americans, with 15 million immigrants and others left out of the equation, yet still requiring care in United States emergency rooms. The Patient Protection Act increases eligibility for Medicaid recipients, yet state budgets are severely strained with their current underfunded medical obligations. Moreover, doctors struggle to provide health-care access to Medicaid patients when reimbursed below the overhead costs of delivering care.
Who Should Pay?
The perception among consumers of third-party responsibility for health, including payment for health-care resource consumption, is the major factor for unsustainable escalation of medical spending in the United States. Yet the Patient Protection Act augments third-party authority and threatens doctor-patient relationship autonomy, by increasing responsibility of government and employers for health care. Patients and physicians will face increasing involvement of third parties in decision making in exam rooms and at the bedside. (more…)
Last Thursday at Rome’s (but technically part of Vatican City) Pontifical Lateran University, Istituto Acton held a day-long conference on “Ethics, Aging and the Coming Healthcare Challenge.”
It was a successful event, if a bit unusual compared to some of our other Roman gatherings. It’s not often that an Acton conference is so focused on the finality of death, after all; we often stick to the other “inevitability” of life, i.e. taxes. Yet in both spiritual and economic terms, there’s no sense in denying it.
The conference covered many different aspects of the changing demographics affecting health care, ranging from declining fertility rates to pharmaceutical research to pensions to hospice care. One of the main objectives of the conference was to help participants understand how both ethics and economics can work together to help us confront the challenge of aging populations.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family, the Centro di Orientamento Politicio, Associazione Famiglia Domani, Human Life International, and Health Care Italia. As you can tell from the nature of these organizations, we sought to place health care issues in the context of the family, following Catholic social teaching’s emphases on this fundamental institution and the principle of subsidiarity.
Here are audio clips from three of our speakers who appeared on Vatican Radio’s English World News service:
Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, click here
Dr. Daniel Sulmasy of the University of Chicago, click here
Dr. Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, click here
For the first time, we live-streamed a conference on the Acton website, and we’ll soon post the conference papers and presentations as well as related media on the Istituto Acton webpage.
Kevin J. Jones of the Catholic News Agency interviewed Acton’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Dr. Steven Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, to find out how the Tea Party lines up with Catholic Social Teaching. Here’s a snip:
Fr. Sirico described the Tea Party as “an amorphous thing” with a lot of variety and as a “populist, spontaneous movement.” He thought its common themes include a desire for less government and a desire “to limit the power that politicians have over peoples’ lives.”
Participants find motivation in a variety of philosophies. Some have “well-developed Catholic sensibilities” while others’ sensibilities are “almost anarchistic.” He thought it was “remarkable” that the Tea Party could bring so many non-political people into the political process. The Church’s teaching on subsidiarity can meet these people and “augment what they’re doing,” he said, while also guarding against “the more fanatical edges of the tea party.”
Fr. Sirico explained subsidiarity as being the principle that higher levels of society should not intervene in lower levels without “manifest and real necessity,” and such intervention should only be temporary. “Needs are best met at the local level,” he said, calling government “the resource of last resort.”
Read the entire article at “Catholic thinkers examine Tea Party movement and Church teaching” on Catholic Online.
I’ve just returned to Rome following our Lisbon conference on Catholic Social Teaching, Free Enterprise and Poverty. Judging from the crowded auditorium and the lively comments from the audience, it was a very successful event. Here I’ll mention a few of my personal highlights from the event:
– Bishop Filippo Santoro gave an excellent presentation on the errors of using income transfers to achieve a more equal society, and especially the dependency the poor develop on the state.
– Professor Raúl Diniz reminded us that there is no particularly “Catholic” model of economics and that more Catholics should heed the advice of free-market or “liberal” economics in our time.
– Fr. João Seabra offered a spirited defense of Pope Pius XI’s anti-communism, which sadly still needs to be recalled twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
– Paul Atkins explained to our Portuguese audience how decades of well-intentioned policies carried out by the US government to promote home ownership lead to the recent financial crisis and the lessons concerning regulation that should be drawn by developing countries.
– Samuel Grottis spoke about how successful businesses are not just profit-making but transformational.
– Professor João César das Neves exploded the myths surrounding the Chinese economy, calling it a seductive form of Marxism. (Apparently his PowerPoint presentation was quite a hit as well, but I couldn’t see it from where I was seated as the moderator of his panel. Perhaps the good professor will kindly share it with us on the PowerBlog.
There were many other intriguing points raised by the speakers and during the Q&A session about the challenges of capitalism to Christianity and the conference could have easily lasted another day or two. The viewing of the Poverty Cure trailer was especially well received.
On a side note, the Saturday before the conference, there was a large protest of public-sector employees against the Portuguese government’s austerity plans. From what I could tell from my meanderings through the streets of Lisbon that day, even the slightest reduction in benefits will meet with stiff resistance from the public-sector unions, which should put paid to the idea that government workers are somehow more concerned with the common good than private-sector workers.
All in all, it was an auspicious beginning for what many hope will be a continuing fruitful relationship between the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal and the Acton Institute. Mui obrigrado to all who made this a great conference.
I’m currently in Lisbon ahead of Acton’s fourth conference in the seven-part series Poverty, Entrepreneurship, and Integral Development. Entitled “Catholic Social Teaching, Free Enterprise, and Poverty”, it will take place on Tuesday, November 9 at the Catholic University of Portugal. Click here for more information or if you happen to be in the Lisbon area and want to join us.
Tuesday’s conference was designed to focus on the Portuguese-speaking world, primarily because of its inter-continental scope and close connection to the Catholic faith, and to discuss the challenges posed by extreme poverty in developing countries and what can be done to address them. As often happens with our conferences, the reality of current events has a way of stressing the importance of principles that support a free and virtuous society.
I was still reeling from the news that the U.S. Federal Reserve will print $600 billion of new money upon my arrival yesterday when I read that the Portuguese prime minister criticized “speculative movements” for the country’s high bond yields.
Later in the day, I learned of the recent election of the left-wing Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and her desires to continue her predecessor Lula’s economic reforms towards an environment of inflation targeting and broad fiscal responsibility. Rather surprising coming from a former guerilla fighter whose tendencies should be to distrust markets and increase the size and scope of the state.
And finally, the United Nations published its 2010 Human Development Report, which shows that developing countries have become much wealthier and healthier in the last 40 years, which not coincidentally is more or less when many of these countries have opened themselves up to the benefits of free markets, both domestically and internationally. The UNDP report’s central thesis that “people are the real wealth of a nation” echoes, of course, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus and its proclamation that “man’s greatest resource is man himself” (n. 32).
What current events such as these are telling me is that while poorer countries have adopted free markets in order to improve the living conditions of their people, it is the developed world that has forgotten the lessons of wealth creation and free enterprise. The former colonials now have much to teach their former masters! Quite a remarkable shift that, in my mind, looks poised to stand for some time to come.
These and other delicious ironies of the day will certainly make for a stimulating event on Tuesday.
Dr. Paul Oslington, professor of economics at Australian Catholic University, has a piece up today that examines the scope of social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and focusing especially on the similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.
Comparing this tradition with that of ecclesiastical statements from other church traditions, Oslington judges (and I think quite rightly), “On the whole, statements of the Roman Catholic Church since the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, have been of higher theological quality than most church statements, and more reticent when dealing with specific economic questions.”
He points especially to the 2004 Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) as a negative example. I make a substantive criticism of the Accra Confession within the broader context of ecumenical social statements of the last decade in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.
I also point in that book to some of the things that the mainline ecumenical movement can learn from the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought. As Oslington rightly notes, the quality of the encyclical tradition makes it the natural starting point for broader dialogues about the role of faith and theology in relation to economics, politics, and social life. He points to the way in which Benedict’s encyclical has occasioned important discussion from all kinds of quarters, both in the secular media as well as by other Christian traditions.
Oslington is especially hopeful about the work of Benedict XVI, and says, “With these theological resources, there is hope for a much-needed deep theological engagement with economics. It is hard to image a Pope better equipped theologically to undertake this task.”
One of the most important things that Protestant social thought can learn from the encyclical tradition is the importance of the principle of prudence. This is manifested in a bias against making strict policy prescriptions in favor of articulating the broad principles that must be applied in various concrete circumstances.
As Oslington concludes, this is a fundamental element of the social encyclicals, including Benedict’s:
I don’t know what Benedict XVI’s theological engagement with economics will end up looking like. He indicates in the unfinished state of his reflections a call for “further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals” in the light of the “explosion of worldwide interdependence.”
Could this turn out something like the Augustinian theodicy of markets that Anthony Waterman saw in Adam Smith? Waterman argued that just as for Augustine government restrains sin in a fallen world until the time of a final judgment and renewal, so markets restrain the effects of human sin.
Will it include elements of the vision of economic life of early modern Franciscan thinkers favoured by Benedict and some of his advisors such as Stefano Zamagni?
Whatever direction it goes, it will be some kind of theological reframing of economics that orients economic enquiry without detailed prescription on matters of economic theory and policy.
Incidentally, Dr. Oslington was kind enough to endorse my book, and I pass along his comments here in full.
Jordan Ballor has written a useful guide for those wishing to venture into the smelly swamps of ecumenical social and economic thought. Why should non-swamp dwellers care what goes on there? Ballor’s quite reasonable answer is that ecumenical bodies claim to speak on behalf of churches, churches which many of us are part. Whether anyone outside is listening is another question—one which Ballor doesn’t address but which others such as Anthony Waterman have considered—that being less and less so. Ballor’s book is distinguished by considering not just the content of ecumenical statements on economic matters (which have given grief to a long line of professional economists), but also the theological self-understanding of the various bodies when they speak. He asks the deeper question of whether the bodies are adequately constituted to be the (or even a) Christian voice on economic matters, as well as the not irrelevant questions of their actual theological and economic competence. Fundamental questions are raised about the relationship between theological and economic discourse, and the sorts of institutions that support helpful discourse. Christian faith certainly bears on economic matters—the briefest acquaintance with the Scriptures is enough to dispel any doubts. Ballor’s book is part of the movement towards a better discussion of the links in our churches, universities and political forums.
I should note too that some serious work has been done in bringing the various traditions of Protestant and Catholic social thinking into dialogue.
This includes the proceedings of the conference commemorating Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the Journal of Markets & Morality. I’m also pleased to announce that in the next issue of the journal we’ll be including an introduction to and translation of Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” prepared for the Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam, November 9-12, 1891 (you can subscribe to the journal here).
A good give-and-take on the tea party movement on Our Sunday Visitor. Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, weighs in:
Many of the stances tea party activists have taken on political issues also would resonate with Catholic voters, Father Sirico said. For example, many practicing Catholics would likely agree with the tea party’s concern about the overreaching involvement of government in schools and health care, he said, and though the movement has hesitated to identify itself as pro-life, the majority of tea party activists appear to be in agreement with the Church’s stance on abortion.
But while he doesn’t feel that there is a conflict for Catholics to join the tea party, Father Sirico said, he does think tea party advocates could benefit from a greater understanding of Catholic teaching.
“The thing Catholics could teach the tea party is that not every social obligation needs to be viewed with suspicion,” he said. “We recognize that human nature is social as well as individual, and we balance these things out. To say I have an obligation to the poor is [to say] society has an obligation to the poor.”
Read “Is the tea party movement in sync with Catholic teaching?” on the website of Our Sunday Visitor.
Throughout the piece, Mr. Tucker employs a distinction between scarce, economic goods, and non-scarce, infinitely distributable, spiritual goods:
I have what I think is a new theory about why this situation persists. People who live and work primarily within the Catholic milieu are dealing mainly with goods of an infinite nature. These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.
None of these goods take up physical space. One can make infinite numbers of copies of them. They can be used without displacing other instances of the good. They do not depreciate with time. Their integrity remains intact no matter how many times they are used. Thus they require no economization. For that reason, there need to be no property norms concerning their use. They need not be priced. There is no problem associated with their rational allocation. They are what economists call “free goods.”
[...] This is completely different from the way things work in the realm of scarce goods. Let’s say that you like my shoes and want them. If you take them from me, I do not have them anymore. If I want them again, I have to take them back from you. There is a zero-sum rivalry between the goods. That means there must be some kind of system for deciding who can own them. It means absolutely nothing to declare that there should be something called socialism for my shoes so that the whole of society can somehow own them. It is factually impossible for this to happen, because shoes are a scarce good. This is why socialism is sheer fantasy, a meaningless dreamland as regards scarce goods