Pope Benedict XVI delivered inspiring remarks at the European Year of Volunteering (EYV) summit held in Rome this past Nov. 10-11. He explained why gratuitous giving of personal talent and resources is so important in restoring a healthy vocational perspective to everyday business.
As Benedict knows all too well, a culture of Christian charitable giving is not at its height in Ol’ Europe, where the modern Welfare State and Keynesian economics have played such a dominant role the past 70 years (see why in Michael Miller’s 2008 Acton lecture The Victory of Socialism and the strong opinion of other Roman pontiffs in my blog Popes Say No to Socialism). European government dominance of charitable enterprise has reduced much of the Continent’s generosity in terms of private giving and volunteer activities.
A pervasive “every man for himself” mentality is now infecting the hearts of European workers and households struggling to stay afloat. From their perspective, who can really blame them? Many wonder: Who has the money or the time to care for others when you and your family are just barely surviving?
During the EYV summit, the Holy Father commended leaders from European charitable non-profits and volunteer organizations for keeping a culture of generosity and self-giving alive. Benedict underscored the absolutely essential role their work plays in building up a society of free giving and virtue (altruism, generosity and selflessness) and restoring confidence in man’s innately good heart, now withered and tested by the intense pressures of today’s down market. These latter socially destructive tendencies are the ones the Acton Insitute attempts to thwart in its program for effective charity, The Samaritan Award and Guide.
European charitable enterprise leaders, so to speak, help create a “market of gratuitousness”, as mentioned in Benedict’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). This same abundance philosophy is argued so convincingly in Arthur C. Brooks’s Gross National Happiness (see book with Brooks’s research on wealth and charitable giving). The president of the American Enterprise Institute writes that charitable giving of time and resources makes us psychologically happier and more humanly fulfilled, which in turn increases our chances of being more happy and productive in the workplace, which consequently influence growth trends in corporations and entire commercial sectors.
This is the positive circle of growth and happiness that charity helps inspire. It is the exact reason why volunteer activity ends up paying real dividends in commercial enterprise, as business people flourish morally and spiritually. To understand further, watch Arthur Brooks’s Fox News interview regarding economic growth factors linked to generosity and happiness in the United States and with some heavy criticism of giant Welfare States like France, a country ranked a miserable 91 out of 153 nations surveyed for the latest Index (download 2010 PDF report and index). According to the Index, some of the most enterprising European countries (like Great Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany and Holland), while battling the same destructive welfare culture and economic crises, all made the top 20 with the traditionally high-ranking United States (no. 5). By contrast, the same welfare dependent, economically troubled but far less enterprising Greece was ranked dead last in the Eurozone and in the bottom five of all 153 countries represented.
The opposite destructive vicious circle goes something like this: stinginess of heart leads to a lack of deep vocational interest in work and therefore a miserly contribution of one’s talent and resources, which directly lowers overall production and profits for enterprise, as worker pessimism and selfishness help undermine commercial potential. This is one good reason why markets stagnate, retract and eventually die when such negativity and selfishness swirl violently into a cultural vortex, sucking down an entire nation’s true economic potential.
We are not surprised to hear Pope telling EYV participants that volunteer work and charity “is not merely an expression of good will.” As he articulated this great teaching:
At the present time, marked as it is by crisis and uncertainty, your commitment is a reason for confidence, since it shows that goodness exists and that it is growing in our midst. The faith of all Catholics is surely strengthened when they see the good that is being done in the name of Christ… His grace perfects, strengthens and elevates that vocation and enables us to serve others without reward, satisfaction or any recompense. Here we see something of the grandeur of our human calling: to serve others with the same freedom and generosity which characterizes God himself.
A day later, during his Nov. 13 Sunday Angelus, the Pope reflected on giving and investment of human talent and resources in the context of Sunday’s gospel (Parable of the Talents: Matthew 25:14-30). As Acton’s President Rev. Robert Sirico argues in his monograph The Entrepreneurial Vocation, Benedict XVI invited faithful to respond thankfully and generously to their individual gifts for the advancement of God’s abundance on Earth:
In today’s Gospel…Jesus invites us to reflect with gratitude on the gifts we have received and to use them wisely for the growth of God’s Kingdom. May his words summon us to an ever deeper conversion of mind and heart, and a more effective solidarity n the service of all our brothers and sisters.
Finally, the Holy Father’s press secretary, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ explained what Benedict XVI meant in a interview released after the Pope’s EYV remarks:
We are in the midst of an economic crisis afflicting the whole of Europe, and raising tensions, worries and anxieties throughout the world. It is a crisis that challenges the intellects and abilities of politicians and economists. In the midst of this crisis, the Pope’s speech to the young people gathered in Rome for the European Year of [Volunteering] may provide a modest contribution to help rediscover a common hope. The Pope asks us to keep in mind the idea of ‘gratuitousness’, of giving freely —that is, not living solely for one’s own interests, but living in such a way that we are a gift to others.
“In short, man does not live on bread alone, but also on the relationships between men and women who are truly free, who respect one another and take care of one another and love one another, beyond selfish calculations. It is from these relationships that mutual trust is rebuilt between people and populations. It is the fulcrum that is needed to lift the world anew.
The generous and routine volunteering of one’s talent and resources instills everyday habits that market-based economies need and rely on for individual entrepreneurs and businesses to grow and succeed. It’s what makes or breaks businesses teetering on the edge of failure, when employees and professional collaborators give a little more of themselves to help enterprise lunge forward.
Apart from emboldening private initiatives to diminish the role of European Welfare States and increasing our Gross National Happiness, the real output of charity is measured in the increased hearts and souls of generous, selfless business people. It is these same business people who take the gratuitousness they learned in habitual acts of charity and apply this virtue to generous forms of service with “other-directed” collaboration, products and services.
Acton has been heavily involved in developing a new initiative called PovertyCure, an international network that promotes entrepreneurial solutions to poverty rooted in the dignity of the human person.
We are excited to announce the launch of PovertyCure this week. Acton has joined together with over 100 organizations to encourage people to rethink charity and development.
In the last three years I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over a hundred people from all over the world—religious and political leaders, small business owners, development experts, people working with orphans and the sick, and entrepreneurs creating jobs and prosperity in their communities. It’s been inspiring and eye-opening. You can watch clips from some of those interviews at the Voices page of the PovertyCure website.
And please encourage your church, business or non-profit to join the PovertyCure network.
I have written quite a bit on the church response to natural disasters here at Acton. “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” was the feature piece in the last issue of Religion & Liberty.
John Tozzi over at businessweek.com has written an excellent article highlighting Louisiana’s outreach to the business community during natural disasters. From the article:
As Hurricane Gustav bore down on Louisiana in 2008, state officials wanted to avoid the food shortages that had followed Katrina three years earlier. So they bought thousands of MREs—“meals ready to eat,” foil-bagged military rations available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—for about $8 each. They also called local caterers and restaurants to see whether those businesses might help feed evacuees. The food vendors, it turned out, were able to serve fresh, hot meals of jambalaya and red beans and rice at half the price of FEMA’s rations. “We probably saved close to half a million dollars during that one event by tapping into the private sector,” says Pat Santos, who oversees disaster relief in Louisiana.
Tozzi points out that FEMA has also stepped up their efforts to partner with businesses, realizing the private sector often provides greater resources and a better response time for disaster relief.
Writing in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute:
Jobs & deficits — the moral equation
By Rev. Robert A. Sirico
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The Genesis account of creation tells us that from the beginning, humanity was created to work. God puts Adam in the garden to “work and watch over it.” The Scripture provides an insight into our nature: We are all, man and woman, called into this life to find our vocation, the work that is uniquely ours and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community.
This explains why we are naturally so troubled about what appear to be merely economic problems: intractable unemployment and the various schemes put forth by policy makers to spur job creation. But behind the question is the reality that we naturally prefer people to be productive contributors to our economic life.
How we accomplish that is the subject of the debate over our unsustainable budget and debt trajectory. Do we choose those policies that make room for more freedom in the market, unleashing the creative potential of the American worker, business owner and entrepreneur? Or do we default, once more, to political and bureaucratic measures that require heavier burdens of taxation and regulation?
A government that actively sustains poverty by removing natural incentives to work is gravely in the wrong. Such government is without its essential anchor, which is that understanding of humanity as creative and productive.
The super committee created by Congress’ debt-ceiling compromise has begun its work to find $1.5 trillion in federal spending cuts ($2 trillion if the committee accepts the cuts corresponding to President Obama’s proposed stimulus). Even after this reduction, though, the nation’s debt will be unacceptably burdensome.
In 2011, for the first time since World War II, the amount of our total federal debt will surpass annual GDP. This is perilous, because economic capacity begins to be seriously affected when a country’s debt reaches 80 percent of GDP.
The super committee should begin by cutting social programs that perpetuate cycles of poverty. The only way to rise from poverty is to contribute to economic activity — a job is the best poverty program ever devised.
The federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the “War on Poverty” since Lyndon B. Johnson declared it, but we have next to nothing to show for the expense. And the agenda put forward by the religious left devalues the human person, treating the poor as objects of charity rather than as economic contributors.
The federal government does have real obligations to current generations that must be met. But without substantive reform of our largest entitlement programs, the country’s long-term fiscal health cannot be secured.
We cannot leave future generations with the full burden of our debt, which becomes a heavier weight the longer it is left unaddressed.
Congress must remember that economic growth is driven by innovations — by improvements in how the population produces goods and delivers them. The incentives caused by an expanding government run counter to economic growth because they run counter to human nature.
As reform of federal spending is undertaken, all cuts must be made with an eye to freeing citizens of every class to pursue their economic potential — to engage in the kind of dignified work that is essential to our nature, properly understood.
Unlike some of our political leaders and media pundits, the gospel does not make false distinctions between the “makers” and the “takers,” the deserving and the undeserving or the hard-working and the hardly-working. Instead, we are told that the first Christians had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. In other words, no person had too little and no person had too much, whether or not their means were greater or lesser. Applied to our capitalist society, this is a dubious economic philosophy. Applied as a compassionate ethic, it supplies a model of shared sacrifice that Buffett calls for in our taxation system.
A much more reliable guide to understanding why and how the earliest Christians shared their possessions is Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts. Pelikan, author of the five-volume work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, actually does see a distinction between the “makers” and the “takers.” Perhaps a better description of these first Christians would be “givers.” Pelikan points to the very different historical situation that developed for the Church as it grew, including a role for the state in providing “mutual support.” But the Book of Acts was never intended as a template for tax policy, even less so in the 21st Century. (emphasis mine in the following Pelikan quote):
Paul’s words to the Corinthians provide another key to the accounts in Acts of the mutual support of the members of Christ’s family, with their stipulation that in giving “according to their means … and beyond their means” the Macedonians acted “of their own free will.”
On the narrow basis solely of the descriptions earlier in Acts, “all who believed … had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all” (2:44-45), and again, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to eash as any had need” (4:34-35), it would be difficult to tell whether these were instances of contribution or of confiscation. But a careful review of the longest sustained account of the process, the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphhira (5:1-11) makes it clear that the property and its proceeds remained “at your disposal” (5:4), so that here, too, the support was an act of their own free will. The report in the immediately following chapter, that “the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1) provides at least a glimpse into the practical difficulties attendant on such mutual support.
Significantly, the author of Acts prefaces that glimpse with the explanation that “in these days … the disciples were increasing in number” (6:1). This can be seen as an anticipation of the vast complications that were to follow in the subsequent centuries, when the sheer size and the geographical spread of the Christian movement made such a direct and simple response to famine as is described here difficult to administer, and then when the Christianization of the Roman Empire brought about the reallocation of responsibility for “mutual support among the members of Christ’s family” between the state and the church and the monastic communities.
The film Lt. Dan Band for the Common Good kicks off with the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Honor to him, who braves for the common good.” The words are appropriate. In 2003, wanting to do even more for America’s service men and women, Gary Sinise formed the Lt. Dan Jam Band. The band name was easily decided because many soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen did not know Sinise by name and just called him “Lt. Dan.” The moniker is based on his well known portrayal of an Army lieutenant who lost his legs in Vietnam in the Hollywood film Forrest Gump.
Sinise likes to joke that expectations are low because the band leader is an actor, but in truth the band is made up of professional musicians. Director Jonathan Flora followed the band all over the world for two years as it performed for America’s military and charitable organizations that support the military.
The filmmakers focused a lot of the attention on all the band members and their commitment to those sacrificing for the nation. One touching scene comes on a bus when somebody off camera mentions that Sinise is a hero to the military and the moment leaves him visibly emotional. The film also includes interviews from Sinise’s wife and children and they share how much they miss having Sinise at home but are fully supportive and proud of his service.
Sinise, who was awarded a Presidential Citizen Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008, said in the film that after he started hearing casualty reports in the War on Terror, now almost ten years old, he had to do something. A 2008 Washington Times piece traces much of Sinise’s work with the military and the love and affection they have for him. Also quoted in the article is Deb Rickert of Operation Support our Troops. Rickert declared of Sinise:
In an age when the public often lavishes epitaphs of greatness on celebrities merely because they are famous, the military community bestows the simple title of friend on Gary Sinise truly because that is what he is to us.
While Sinise and the band members are visibly central in the film, many of the stories, tributes, and attention are reserved for the men and women in uniform and the first responders at Ground Zero on 9/11. Gripping testimonials are woven throughout the documentary, especially from family members of those who are deployed overseas in a war zone. An example of notable figures who offer words during the film include film actor Robert Duvall and American hero Colonel Bud Day, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Most importantly, Lt. Dan Ban for the Common Good is simply a powerful reminder of what one can do when gifts and talents are put in service of others. Sinise is a natural because his heart and his authenticity shines. The director does a fine job of pointing out what is already widely known among the military and their families, that Sinise is known as somebody who genuinely cares about their service and circumstances and is not hanging around for a photo-op.
St. Ephraem declared, “Blessed is the soul that is adorned with charity.” For those who wear the military uniform Gary Sinise is affectionately known simply as “Lt. Dan.” But many others have rightly noted that he is the Bob Hope of this generation. Hope was the face of USO tours and he entertained service members for half a century. It is a serious comparison and if America’s military has anything to say about it, a deserving one.