Acton University 2015 got underway last night with an opening plenary address by Dr. Samuel Gregg on the topic of Truth, Reason and Equality. Gregg emphasized that the pursuit of authentic equality must be rooted in a deep respect for truth, not in “sentimental humanitarianism.” We’re pleased to share his address with you via the video player below.
Birthrates across the globe are going down even as life expectancy increases. The former trend is marked particularly in developed nations.
There are lots of reasons for people to have kids or not have kids. Some of these reasons are economic. As I’ve argued previously, “One of the common concerns that drives prospective parents to put off having children is economic, specifically that they won’t have the financial resources to support a growing family. This is a worry that’s been around as long as there have been families.”
Perhaps it really is more difficult in America today to make the economic sacrifice (or perhaps better understood as investment) required for having kids.
But often these kinds of economic reasons end up being used as rationalizations. More honest, at least, is this characterization of a ‘rational’ approach to procreation:
Not having children isn’t selfish. Not having children is a perfectly rational and reasonable response given that humans are essentially parasites on the face of a perfectly lovely and well-balanced planet, ploughing through its natural resources, eradicating its endangered species, and ruining its most wonderful landscapes. This might sound misanthropic, and it is, but it is also true.
If there’s one area of the faith-work conversation that’s lacking in exploration and introspection, it’s the role of spiritual discernment in the day-to-day decisions of economic life.
It’s one thing to orient one’s heart and mind around the big picture of vocation and stewardship — no small feat, to be sure — but if economics is about the intersection of knowledge and human action, what does it mean to serve a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts? Before and beyond our questions about ethics and meaning and vocation (“is my work moral?”; “does it have meaning?”; “what am I called to do?”) remains the basic question of obedience.
How does the Gospel transform our hearts and minds and how does that process transform our economic action? How do we make sure we’re putting obedience before sacrifice in all that we do? How do we hear the Holy Spirit minute-by-minute, day-by-day, and how does that impact the ideas we have, the products we conceive, the prices we set, the relationships we build, and the trades and investments we make?
I was reminded of this recently upon reading an essay on discernment by Peter Kreeft. Although he doesn’t speak directly to economic matters, Kreeft does a nice job of connecting the earthly with the transcendent, cautioning us against “emphasizing Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity or his humanity at the expense of his divinity,” or likewise, “his divine sovereignty at the expense of free will or free will at the expense of divine sovereignty.” Spiritual discernment ought not descend into some kind of peculiar escapism, but rather, it must engage with the natural world, leverage the gifts and the resources God has given us, and ultimately bear fruit for the good of the city and for the life of the world. (more…)
In Abraham Kuyper’s newly translated Scholarship, he explores the Christian’s role in the Economy of Wisdom. Addressing students of Free University in Amsterdam, he asks, “What should be the goal of university study and the goal of living and working in the sacred domain of scholarship?”
Though he observes certain similarities with other forms of labor — between teacher and farmer, professor and factory worker — and though each vocation is granted by God, Kuyper notes that the scholar is distinct in setting the scope of his stewardship on the mind itself. “Not merely to live,” he writes, “but to know that you live and how you live, and how things around you live, and how all that hangs together and lives out of the one efficient cause that proceeds from God’s power and wisdom.”
I was therefore delighted to stumble upon a different address/sermon (“Learning in War-Time”) given at a different university (Oxford) by a different intellectual heavyweight (C.S. Lewis), which touches on many of these same themes, but with a slightly different spin.
Included in Lewis’ book, The Weight of Glory, the sermon was given in 1939 (the beginning of World War II), and explores how, why, and whether Christians should pursue learning during times of extreme catastrophe. More broadly, how might we consider the life of the mind among the many competing priorities, demands, and obligations of life, and the Christian life at that? “Why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” (more…)
This story has so many things wrong with it, I hardly know where to start. Apple and Facebook have both announced that will now offer egg-freezing – for non-medical purposes – for their employees (which runs at least $10,000, plus a $500 to $800 annual storage fee.)
For these companies, it means two things. One, there is a demand from their employees for such an offer. Second, the companies themselves see some benefit to this. What it sounds like is this: “It’s really not practical or productive for people to try to both work and parent during the ages when they’ll be most useful as a worker, so let’s just take care of that issue. Work, work, work…try and become a parent later.” (more…)
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I offer this wonderful bit from Jennifer Roback Morse’s transformational book, Love and Economics, in which she observes a particular vacancy in modern discourse and policymaking:
Economics has been a successful social science because it focuses on things that are true: human beings are self-interested and have the capacity for reason. But it is equally true that we have the capacity to love. This capacity is no less human, and no less defining of who we are. Too much of our public discourse has proceeded as if these two great realities of the human condition, reason and love, were in conflict with each other. The Right favors the cold, calculating, tough-minded approach of the intellect: man is essentially a Knower. The Left favors the warm, fuzzy, emotional approach of the heart: man is essentially a Lover. Yet the Left at its most extreme has given us the cold, impersonal state and its bureaucracy as the answer to social problems. At the same time, the Right at its most extreme has given us the irrationality of trying to reduce man to the sum of his bodily needs…
…It is time to cross this divide in the sphere of public discourse as well. The consequences of going off the deep end into either the direction of Love or Reason and ignoring the other can be grim indeed.
Noting the French Revolution’s bloody altar to the “Goddess of Reason,” and, somewhat inversely, the Russian Revolution’s chaotic attempt to unite humanity under “one giant family,” Morse argues that the American Revolution was distinct because it preserved the “underlying social and cultural order.” It unleashed the powerful forces of freedom and individualism, but did so in a way that kept love for the other in focus. (more…)
Yesterday in his personal column for the Diocese of Madison’s Catholic Herald, Bishop Robert C. Morlino issued a call to arms to Catholics battling for their religious freedom.
But such a battle, he says, is one that should emulate Christ’s loving nature, while being resolutely clear and firm in rejecting the obligation of Catholic institutions to provide healthcare that includes contraceptives and abortifacients under the Obama administration’s controversial HHS mandate (see recent reactions below on EWTN by U.S. bishops and Acton’s President, Rev. Robert Sirico).
While no doubt the Madison bishop is aware of Christianity’s bloody history of self-sacrifice in defense of religious liberty, any fight should not, in his opinion, automatically involve escalations of physical violence and warfare.
This non-violent perception is very unlike that of the Hollywood film of heroic Catholic martyrdom – Cristiada – which I reviewed last week at a Vatican screening. Perhaps many of us might daydream of Bishop Morlino trading in his miter for a sombrero and staff for a rifle to become the invincible Zorro-like Generale Gorostieta of the Cristiada film – gunning down one federale after another all the way to a Catholic coup d’état of ObamaCare. Surely mental fodder for another Hollywood epic drama!
For this Catholic bishop it is the simple power of Christian Truth and Charitable Love that will help Catholics prevail in their frustrating battles with the U.S. government. The laity need to arm themselves with these two great weapons of faith. Bishop Morlino believes in putting up a good fight, especially one that respects the Vatican II’s encouragement of building up an effective, reasoning Catholic culture of “lay mission”.
In witnessing the 500-strong that protested peacefully in front of a Madison federal building, Morlino was proud to see the laity shouldering the burden in defending Catholic religious liberty in a charitable, yet determined fashion:
I was privileged to be a witness to religious freedom and freedom of conscience with nearly 500 faithful people at the Federal building in downtown Madison. Such rallies had been quickly organized around our nation and I know that not all who might have come were able (or even aware of the events).
Those who were able to gather, however, were in large part Catholic (though not all), and in being there, they were really doing what the Second Vatican Council meant by “lay mission,” that is, applying the standards of God’s Kingdom to the real world.
That is the true role that the Church was trying to enliven in the laity through Vatican II — faithful people witnessing actively to today’s world, bringing the Church into the world of today (as opposed to the idea that the main way one can be an “active” Catholic is by performing different liturgical roles)…
Let’s make sure we are charitable, but let’s make sure we are clear and we are heard. Sometimes we can be tempted wrongly to think that charity and reasonableness are excuses for acting like wimps.
To read the rest of Bishop Morlino’s column and his pastoral advice to Catholics go here.
Greg Forster’s latest response to Sam Gregg, Acton’s director of research, on the utility of John Locke’s thought today is up over at Public Discourse. There’s a lot to learn from reading these exchanges, but right now I want to focus just briefly on one of the criticisms that Sam levels against Locke. Comparing Locke’s definition of Law to that of Aquinas, Sam finds Locke to be quite wanting. For Locke, “Law’s formal definition is the declaration of a superior will.”
“How different this is from Aquinas’s understanding of law,” writes Sam, “as ‘an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community.'”
In one sense Sam is quite right. These are quite different formal definitions of law, the former presumably more voluntaristic (defined in relation to the will, the volitional faculty) the latter intellectualistic (defined in relation to the intellect, the rational faculty). For Sam this is in microcosm the problem with Locke, as he embodies the voluntaristic and therefore nominalistic proclivities of Protestantism, abandoning the eminently reasonable teachings of the Angelic Doctor.
My point here is not to defend Locke. Greg goes on to do that ably enough and in great detail. But I do want to reiterate the point that even apparently quite different definitions of law can be reconciled depending on how the relationship between the will and the intellect is defined. Thomas certainly has his own view, but so did lots of other medievals, and the Reformers picked up on the diversity of medieval opinion.
And it simply isn’t the case that the big bad “nominalists” like Ockham, d’Ailly, or Biel, were in principle opposed to defining natural law in terms of right reason. They just had a different way of relating the question of the divine intellect and the divine will. Maybe they were wrong. But at least on the question of voluntarism/intellectualism (the former of which need not lead to nominalism: see John Duns Scotus), there is ample Augustinian precedent for not seeing a “rationalistic” and a “volitional” definition of law as necessarily incongruent.
Thus Lombard, following Augustine, writes, “God’s will is reasonable and most equitable” (Sentences, bk. 1, d. 42, cap. 1).
And as a concluding aside, for an example of a Protestant scholastic who directly appropriated Aquinas’ definition of Law, see the recently translated scholia of Franciscus Junius in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Selection from On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity.” His first thesis? “The Law is the ordering of reason to the common good, established by the one who has care of the community.”
Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:
Pope Benedict’s Defense of Authentic Equality
By Michael Miller
Once again the mild-mannered but intellectually fierce Pope Benedict XVI has provoked criticism over remarks that challenge the secular establishment’s provincial understanding of the world. In his speech to the bishops of England and Wales in Rome last week, during their ad limina visit, the Pope encouraged them to fight against so-called equality legislation. He argued that such legislation limits “the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs” and in some cases “actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded” and guaranteed.
Critics immediately jumped, claiming that the pope’s critique undermined protection of women and homosexuals in the workplace and promoted discrimination. Yet as usual, the critics not only mischaracterize, they miss the larger point. Benedict’s vision goes beyond provincial English politics. His concern is to preserve real freedom by revitalizing reason and respect for truth—not to pander to current fashions of ideological equality.
One of the more contentious parts of the equality legislation requires that religious adoption organizations end so-called “discrimination” and allow homosexual couples to adopt children. In practice this means that Catholic adoption agencies will be forced either to shut down or to act against their conscience. This is clearly a loss of religious freedom, but Benedict realizes there is a lot more going on.
First, Benedict’s remarks reflect one of the consistent themes of his papacy: to revitalize reason and a respect for truth in the West. In his famous homily before his election to the papacy, when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and throughout his writings and speeches, he has challenged the limited and ultimately irrational notion of reason that dominates Western intellectual life.
Second is his defense of authentic equality. The current legislation transforms equality from a question of justice and fairness before the law to an ideological weapon to further secularist social policy and discriminates against religion. This pseudo equality manifests a vitiated concept of reason. The equality laws in Britain reflect less the British tradition than they do Rousseau’s notion of radical equality, which has been the source of much socialist and liberal thought. Radical equality now has become praiseworthy as something good in itself, separated from any question of truth, common sense, or even biological realities. This is what happens when we lose a rich concept of reason: Anything goes—whatever is currently politically fashionable among the elite, or is supported by consensus. Pope Benedict understands that justice based on consensus is capricious and unstable.
Third is Benedict’s awareness of the need to protect the natural right of free association and freedom of religion within a pluralist society. The current equality legislation prevents religious and other peaceful groups within society to live according to their conscience. It also smacks of totalitarianism. The right of association has been a hallmark of free and prosperous societies, a protection for the weak and a guardian of justice. When it is undermined for ideological reasons, society suffers. Not only does it prevent people from living out their beliefs, it also reduces the power of civil society to check the state. Benedict’s critique of the equality law is a defense of people’s right to join together for some project that benefits the common good.
Benedict has been harangued for claiming that certain parts of the legislation violate the natural law. What does this arcane Medieval concept have to do with modern legislation? Well, everything. The genius of English freedom has been to base its society on law, not on ideology. English legal culture is rooted in the natural law tradition. A Guardian editorial on February 3rd argued that churches have as much to gain from the legislation as they do to lose because it protects Catholics from being discriminated against when they look for jobs—and accuses Benedict of being protected by the laws he is criticizing. But Benedict realizes that if law is not grounded in reason and truth and becomes unhinged from reality, then justice gets reduced to power—Might makes right. As a young man in Nazi Germany, Joseph Ratzinger experienced a society where power was separated from reason and justice. He knows what violations of the natural law mean in practice. Critics miss that Benedict is the one promoting real equality and equal protection against a theory of justice guided by whatever happens to be the fashion at the time.
Andrew Brown—also at the Guardian—writes, “Just when it seemed that Roman Catholicism was a normal and natural part of the English religious scene, Pope Benedict has to come out with a statement that raises every residual Protestant hackle in the country.” Brown conjectures that the pope didn’t expect to be heard. But of course he did. And precisely because the last thing Benedict wants is Catholicism to be a normal part of the current English religious scene. This may be what Mr. Brown wants, but a church that does nothing more than sway with the prevailing winds neither inspires nor draws people—nor does it have the strength to stand up against injustice and abuse.
Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, takes note of an in-depth NYT profile of Prof. Robby George (HT: MoJ). In the NYT profile, George is presented as the central figure in the formation of the ecumenical coalition behind the Manhattan Declaration, and adds a number of important contexts for George’s academic, intellectual, and political endeavors.
Anderson characterizes the profile as “pretty evenhanded,” saying it “provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.” But Anderson levels a serious charge against the piece by David D. Kirkpatrick:
But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.
Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.
Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.
I can certainly understand Anderson’s concerns that George be properly presented as heir to a long-standing intellectual tradition. But I disagree that the profile does injustice to this aspect of George’s work.
For instance, the dominant paradigm that is presented throughout is that George is drawing deeply on the Thomistic tradition. Kirkpatrick writes early on in the piece, for example, that George “has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence.” Kirkpatrick also notes that George’s “admirers” say that “he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Of course at other points, including in the section below, specific natural-law arguments that George makes are referred to as “new,” so in this sense Anderson’s clarifications are valuable.
It seems to me that the most serious potential misunderstanding in the article is at least superficially based on George’s own declaration that in organizing the broad Christian support for the Manhattan Declaration from a variety of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, “I sold my view about reason!” This is of course a reference to the specifically (neo)Thomistic view of reason’s relation to natural law that serves as the intellectual framework for the entire article, and indeed, for George’s own intellectual career.
Somehow I doubt that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration understood themselves to be endorsing a specifically Thomistic view of natural law when they pledged their support for the document’s agenda.
Here are the concluding paragraphs the profile in full:
I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.
It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.
Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.
“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”
On the one hand the canard about the Reformation’s wholesale rejection of natural law is repeated here full stop. But at the same time it is true that in the time since the sixteenth century there have been varieties of natural-law thinking, both within and without Roman Catholicism, that more or less diverge from the standard neo-Thomistic line.
Acton’s own Stephen J. Grabill has definitively shown that Protestants who draw their inspiration from the magisterial Reformation don’t need to be “sold” a view of natural law; they have their own explicit natural-law traditions on which to draw.
As Grabill has summarized elsewhere, “the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured.”