Acton Institute president and co-founder Rev. Robert Sirico’s Research on Religion podcast went live today. In it, Rev. Sirico sits down with host Tony Gill to discuss his new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for Capitalism, and a range of other topics, including the morality of capitalism, faith-based initiatives, and Austrian economics. The podcast is available to listen to or download online and regularly offers fresh perspective on relevant topics. Today’s is no exception. Check it out.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Contagious Community,” I look at the positive as well as the negative aspects of coordination and cooperation between human beings on a global scale. The film Contagion provided the occasion for these reflections, and I argue that
while the film is clear about the dangers of globalized human relationships, it also teaches a more subtle lesson. Even as disease represents a danger that can have worldwide impact, such dangers remain the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the film portrays quite well how global networks of information and exchange are absolutely foundational for our contemporary world.
I was reminded of this uniquely human social characteristic again while reading through Abraham Kuyper’s Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art this week. Kuyper makes the point that human pursuit of scientific knowledge is a communal endeavor. In fact, he writes,
Science is thus constructed not on the basis of what one person observes, discovers, imagines, and organizes into one system in his or her thinking. Rather, science arises from the fruit of the thinking, imagining, and reflecting of successive generations in the course of centuries, and by means of the cooperation of everyone.
What we have in the case of the development of human knowledge, then, is a communal endeavor defined not just in spatial terms (i.e. globally) but also temporally, including the successive ages of human beings from the past and their discoveries as they have been built upon and communicated to us today.
When discussing the idea of the invisible church, theologians include both the living and dead (who now enjoy the revelation of the blessed in the intermediate state) as making up “the communion of saints.” But similarly with respect to science as a common grace enterprise, we have a communion of common grace that likewise includes the living as well as the dead.
No single person can comprehend science in an “exalted sense,” which for Kuyper “originates only through the cooperation of many people,” the living as well as the dead. In the same way, no single person knows how to manufacture a pencil or build a chair, in part because none of us who are alive today got where we are on our own. We (and our civilization) are the products of those who have come before.
Recognition of this should instill in us a pretty healthy sense of humility and gratefulness for the graces of human community.
As I noted yesterday, I’m in Montreal for the next couple of weeks, and today I had the chance to see some of the student protests firsthand. These protests have been going on now for over three months, and have to do with the raising of tuition for college in Quebec.
I’m teaching at Farel Reformed Theological Seminary, which is located in the heart of downtown Montreal, and is adjacent to Concordia University. As I walked around earlier this week, I noticed the following on one of Concordia’s buildings:
The text is article 26 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads in part, “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.”
I think that the kinds of protests we are seeing in Quebec might be the inevitable end of the logic of the welfare state. The logic goes something like this:
Education is a right, and should be free, or the next best thing to it. In order for it to be “free,” it must be administered, or at least underwritten, by the state, because we know that the only way to make something appear to be free is to requisition the necessary funds via taxation. This is, in fact, precisely the rationale for the existence of the modern welfare state, in which in the context of the Netherlands, for instance, it is understood to be “the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.”
Education is a right (per the UN Declaration), is constitutive of the general welfare, and a basic need. Thus it must be “fully guaranteed by the government” (to quote Noordegraaf from the Dutch context regarding social security, mutatis mutandis).
This means that the flawed logic of the welfare state will have to be critically reexamined, no small task for a developed world that has steadily built infrastructure according to logic for much of the past seventy years.
For Quebec this does not bode well, as Cardus’ Peter Stockland puts it, “This is a province in the grip of reactionary progressives afflicted with severe intellectual and institutional sclerosis. Their malaise prevents any proposals for change from being given fair hearing, much less a chance of being put into play. Real change, not merely revolutionary play-acting, is anathema in this province.”
Is it “game-over” for so-called cafeteria or dissenting Catholics? In a Crisis Magazine article, Acton’s Samuel Gregg, Director of Research, says it is.
The demographic evidence for impending extinction is striking. The average age of members of female religious orders that are moving “beyond Jesus” into an alternative spiritual universe is over 70. This contrasts with those orders who joyfully embrace Catholic faith in all its fullness. They’re positively flourishing. Similarly, it’s very hard to find dissenters among seminarians – also growing in numbers – and priests below 50.
Gregg points to the internal crisis within “liberal” Catholicism: they’ve raised children who care little or nothing about the Church and therefore have no one to carry forth their banner, and their reliance on “feelings” to guide their efforts to change immutable truths. They never learned reason, only skepticism.
To evangelize modernity, however, means Catholics not only need to understand but also critique it and convert it to the fullness of the truth of which the modern world is but a pale shadow. Fortunately, in the teachings of Vatican II, Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, we have a road-map for precisely such an engagement: a path obscured for decades by the dissenting generation’s equivocations and hang-ups. Embracing this way of proceeding is crucial, especially if the Church is to reach those nominal Catholics who are in many ways the victims of three generations of non-catechesis in the faith.
In the meantime, watch for escalating incoherence from dissenting Catholics as they fade from the scene. Judging from the “beyond Jesus” nuns’ reaction to some simple home-truths about just how far they have wandered from the Catholic faith, it won’t be pretty. But that’s all the more reason to pray for them. For no matter how great our intellectual and moral errors, the Truth can set anyone free.
Read more here.
On his Koinonia blog, Rev. Gregory Jensen reviews Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.
“Daring though the argument is, especially for a Catholic priest, it is also essential that it be made since for too many people (including business people), free market economic theory and policies are little more than a justification for greed. While not denying the excesses of capitalism and real sins of capitalists, Fr Sirico wisely doesn’t allow sin to have the last word. Rather, and like St Augustine who inspired his own spiritual journey, the helps us see the goodness hidden beneath the distorting effects of moral failure.
Though irenic in tone, Sirico is unwilling to cede ground to those who imagine—wrongly in his view—that “socialism, liberalism, collectivism, and central planning” (p. 185) are morally superior and more effective in generating wealth. They aren’t and however noble the intention they are come up morally and practically short because they neither anthropological sound nor effective in caring for the material needs of the human person. The latter is especially the case when we turn to the needs of the most vulnerable among us. It is the free market that best fits the truth of the human person. And it is only the free market that has demonstrated the ability not only to lift the human person out of the poverty that was the almost universal lot of humanity even as late as 200 years ago.”
Read “More than Mere Economics” here.
Beginning today, the conference “Religion and Liberty — A Match Made in Heaven?” gets underway in Jerusalem. Sponsored by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS), the Acton Institute and others, the event asks questions such as, “Is capitalism not only efficient but also moral?” In conjunction with this May 20-24 conference, Acton is offering its two Jewish monographs through Amazon Kindle at no charge.
The two titles:
- Judaism, Law & The Free Market: An Analysis by Joseph Lifshitz. [Kindle link]
- Judaism, Markets, and Capitalism: Separating Myth from Reality by Corinne Sauer and Robert M. Sauer [Kindle link]
Also see the Sauers’ 2007 Acton commentary, “Jewish Theology and Economic Theory.”
In the conference description, JIMS notes that “several speakers will discuss why Israel — in fact no country — should grant special privileges to religious institutions, nor subsidize religious activities. While few would advocate this approach for our Jewish state, there will be compelling arguments made about why religious communities in Israel would flourish with less government support. On Tuesday we will discuss how free markets enable religious communities to conveniently observe their traditions. There also will several panels which will provide the philosophical foundation for freer markets in Israel. More importantly our speakers will explain why free market policies will break down Israel’s oligarchical institutions that impose high product prices on Israelis and limit economic opportunity.”
Acton now has a dozen or so eBook offerings on social thought understood through a religious lens. For a listing of titles, please visit this page.
As part of his final address to the participants in the law and religion symposium last week, Rik Torfs, a Belgian senator and head of the faculty of canon law at KU Leuven, observed that some of the great things in public discourse occur in the context of vociferous initial backlash. After all, he said, if you posit something and everyone just accepts it as a matter of course, then it is merely a truism and of no benefit to anyone. You haven’t really said anything at all.
Forgive me for the personal detour, but Torfs’ observation reminded me of one of the responses to my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. In a lengthy “reply to Jordan J. Ballor,” Christopher Dorn essentially argues that “Ballor excludes himself from a discussion which can properly evaluate the claim that the use of ‘empire’ does in fact rest on a theological basis.” Dorn’s appeals to Karl Barth on this point for a “theological basis” may resonate with some, but do little to allay my fears about the particularly Reformed rationale for doing so, glosses to John Calvin notwithstanding.
Dorn does charitably contend that “there is always room for honest disagreement and divergence.” In a similar way Rev. Peter Borgdorff of the Christian Reformed Church has said that he prefers to call the Accra document a “conversation” rather than a “confession.” But I think that a plain reading of the Accra Confession, on its own terms qua confession, does little to validate the claim that there is “always room” in the ecumenical tent for “honest disagreement and divergence.” In fact, the concern that unity not be reduced to unanimity on these points was one of the major motivations behind my critical engagement.
It’s nice to be part of the conversation, I suppose, but I’d feel better if such “critical voices” were not, as Dorn puts it, “in the minority.”
One of the issues that arose during last week’s law and religion symposium (in the questions following Wim Decock’s thorough and engaging paper on Leonardus Lessius’ engagement of commercial affairs from the perspective of moral theology and philosophy) had to do with the understanding of the relationship between material pursuits and eternal salvation. In some way you might say that Lessius held to a view of commercial activity as a worthy expression of the stewardship responsibilities of human beings.
At the time I noted that one of the origins of this biblical idea is in a formulation found in Augustine, that temporal goods are given by God “under a most fair condition: that every mortal who makes right use of these goods suited to the peace of mortal men shall receive ampler and better goods, namely, the peace of immortality and the glory and honour appropriate to it, in an eternal life made fit for the enjoyment of God and of one’s neighbor in God.”
There is clearly a sense in which this could be taken in what the Reformed would consider a semi-Pelagian manner associated with Jesuits like Lessius. But I also note this passage from Augustine in my new book on Wolfgang Musculus, observing the continuities with it as understood by a variety of the early Reformers.
The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” feature highlights religious freedom this week by asking the question: “Should Churches Get Tax Breaks?”
The contributors, who span the continuum of opinions on the issue, include Susan Jacoby, Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence Sager, Winnie Varghese, Dan Barker, and Mark Rienzi.
Jacoby, who recently debated the merits of Christianity in American politics and Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church, is an advocate for secularism and author of The Age of American Unreason. Jacoby argues that if a church wants federal help, it must play by the government’s rules:
In cases involving freedom of conscience, government policy—like the Bill of Rights—should always be on the side of the individual. If churches don’t like the strings attached to public money, they are free to refuse taxpayer subsidies. The First Amendment was not written for an America in which religion claimed the right to have it both ways.
Why the disconnect between work and worship? To reckon with this question, the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE) blog recently launched a series on “Work and the Church Today.”
In part one, Hugh Welchel, Executive Director of the IFWE, addresses the widening distance between the pew and the cubicle and, in response, prods the Church to invest itself in the lives of its businesspeople. Without any integration of faith and work, he says, professionals will continue to feel discord between their religious and working lives.
Welchel concludes with a widened definition of vocation. He cites Tim McConnell, formerly of the Center for Christian Study, to advocate a view of vocation that groups Sunday and Monday morning under the same umbrella of Christian service. According to McConnell, vocation should be “an element of Christian discipleship; a habit of the mind and heart of listening for and responding to the voice of the Lord.”
IFWE’s introduction to the topic is a helpful one. It is also worthwhile to check out parts two and three. And while on the topic, be sure to check out the work of Abraham Kuyper, who has written extensively on Christian engagement across spheres. His work is featured in Wisdom and Wonder, part of a Kuyper translation project with which the Acton Institute is affiliated.