David Bahnsen reflects on last night’s annual dinner:
(Acton’s) co-founder, Father Sirico, is a friend and patriot. He is a scholar in Catholic social thought, and perhaps as good of an orator as I have ever heard. He and I shared the podium at an event I did in Newport Beach earlier in the year. Fortunately for me, I spoke before him that evening! The talk tonight was challenging and inspiring. He reminded us that the greatest victim in this present environment is entrepreneurial courage. We do not have the option to wallow in our pessimism. Defeatism will not protect us from the walls of socialism and redistributionism being built right around us. As Hayek said decades ago, moral courage is needed to tow the line for the cause of freedom and markets. I feel grateful this evening to have an ally in this battle in Father Sirico and the Acton Institute.
The keynote speaker tonight was Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute. His talk forms the basis for my catchy blog title. He carefully walked us through the overwhelming evidence that it is “earned success” that makes people happy. Society is over-loaded with people who have received money via inheritance or the lottery, and sociological and psychological studies have repeatedly affirmed this rather fascinating tenet: People with money who did not earn it are overwhelmingly more likely to say that they are unhappy than people who earned it. Obviously, regardless of the source of one’s prosperity, happiness can not be bought. As people of faith, we know that the human condition is such that mere material comfort can not bring about resolution in what tries men’s souls. But “earned success” – the stimulation of human dignity that achievement and accomplishment represent – does bring about happiness (at least in a statistically significant way).
In his commentary, Matt Cavedon, communications associate at the Acton Institute, addressed new taxes that are being proposed to combat the high obesity rates in the United States and to provide financial support for health care reform. The new taxes proposed to help fund health care reform will begin to tax what Congress deems junk food or unhealthy food. Cavedon exposes the hypocrisy fostered by taxes on such junk or unhealthy food:
In “The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations,” the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, has argued against the idea of taxing sins to pay for public services. If the government relies on taxes on unhealthy foods to pay for health care programs, how can it both fight obesity and maintain steady revenue? Sirico says it cannot: “Under a sin tax, the state finds itself professing to discourage certain behaviors while relying on their continuance as a source of revenue.” The government may say unhealthy eating is bad, but it would rely on it for tax money.
The problem of hypocrisy leaves aside the question of whether government is qualified to be the moral police officer of our pantries in the first place. Sirico points out that “the government’s sense of morality, especially when it is influenced by excessive power, is often at war with traditional standards and common sense.” With food taxes, eating apple pie would become more of a punishable sin in the eyes of the government than cheating on a spouse.
Cavedon further explains the hypocrisy of taxes on junk and unhealthy food while also articulating the moral disorientation of such taxes. “Obesity is a problem” Cavedon states, “but higher taxes are not the answer.”
In light of what is going on in the world’s economies, and in light of what will be increasing tension between secular governments and the Church, which has her body of teaching on social issues, it is a good idea to have a strong discussion about Acton and the Church’s social teachings.
Fr. Z, who joined us at Acton University as a blogger last year, started the Acton discussion to address comments that were being raised on another entry regarding Fr. Robert Sirico’s letter to Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins. Here’s Fr. Z’s summary:
Under that other entry, commenter Sarsfield opines:
Sirico is a dissenter from the social magisterium of the Church in favor of the decidedly un-Catholic philosophy of economic liberalism. The very purpose of his organization is to “correct” the “mistakes” of all the Popes who have spoken on the social question since Leo XIII. His choice of the organization’s name is telling if anyone bothers to read a little history. It was Acton, after all, who not only opposed Vatican I’s proposed definition of papal infallibility but tried to use his considerable influence with the British government to induce the anti-Catholic European powers to intervene militarily to prevent the Council from meeting.
Some responses were given to this:
* You may or may not agree with Fr. Sirico’s affinity for economic liberalism, but it is a gross overstatement to accuse him of dissenting from the Magisterium of the Church.
* You are incorrect to categorize Fr. Sirico as a dissenter from the Magisterium for his economics. Though, without more information, I’m not sure if it’s because you are wrong about the Acton Institute, or if it’s because you misunderstand Leo XIII.
* I think a better description of Fr. Sirico’s politics/economic theories rather than “economic liberalism,’ which is the term you use, would be “economic libertarianism.” Or “free market capitalism.” Excuse me for coining the first phrase, but certainly, as I read through the Acton maxim’s on their web site, they have much more to do philosophically with the right wing, or modern conservativism’s “less is more” view of the government’s involvement with all things that affect capitalistic economies. So it just as well could read, “economic conservatism,” for those listening with ears primed with the current left vs. right paradigm labeling conventions. So, while you may mean to convey exactly the same idea, the labeling must certainly give the opposite appearance to eyes and ears more conventionally tuned.
Join the discussion on WDTPRS. Come back here to link your remarks.
Nicholas Kristof’s Dec. 21 New York Times column was, he says, “a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable.” He quotes Arthur Brooks’ “Who Really Cares” book which shows that conservatives give more to charity than liberals.
The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans — the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.
“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”
Kristof echoes Rev. Robert Sirico’s Dec. 17 Acton commentary “Why We Give” (published on Dec. 23 in the Detroit News) which also looks at Brooks’ work on giving and the deeper theological dimensions of charity.
… the tradition of gift-giving is rooted in the gift that God offers to the world in his Son who comes in the appearance of a frail babe. Likewise, the Magi, the Wise Men, who came from the East, brought the Christ-child exotic gifts to celebrate his Advent.
There is another, perhaps more practical aspect of the giving of gifts that is worth pondering which was brought to the fore by Arthur Brooks, author of the 2006 book “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why it Matters.” Brooks investigated the American habit of giving and what he found surprised some, irritated others and confirmed some suspicions that I have had for some time. Among his findings was that the general profile of the gift-giver is one who has a strong family life and who attends church regularly.
I knew the reputation of Avery Dulles, SJ, long before I entered that classroom at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., back in the early 1980s when I was in seminary. I knew he was considered, even then, the dean of Catholic theologians in the United States, author of scholarly essays and books too numerous to name, peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council and the son of a prominent New York Presbyterian family whose father was John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower and whose uncle was Allen Dulles, director of the CIA. I knew he had been a convert to Catholicism during his years at Harvard University after having declared himself an agnostic in his first year there.
The intellectual stature of the man was intimidating, but once someone encountered him personally, one found the gentle, humble soul of a sincere Christian. He had a mischievous sense of humor which was evident to anyone who noticed him driving a beat up old car around campus with a small bumper sticker promoting the local airport, “Fly Dulles” (named after his father). Once, while a passenger in that car, we were speaking about liberation theology and he said:
“Sitting in that very seat you are in right now was (mentioning the name of a prominent liberation theologian). When he asked why I drove such an old clunker, he became rather uncomfortable when I told him it was a gift from my uncle Allen. He looked for wiretaps the rest of the trip.”
Even though some referred to him as “Dull Dulles,” I found that being in class with him was an exhilarating experience. It was akin to witnessing a train slowly leaving the station. Initially the student (this student!) would feel satisfied that the material was clear and comprehensible. Point would begin to build upon point, stretching the mind. And just at that precise moment when it all became too complex and difficult to follow, Fr. Dulles would take it up just one more notch, and then … the class bell would ring.
In 2001, I was honored to attend the consistory in Rome at which Fr. Dulles was elevated by Pope John Paul II to being a Prince of the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles. He was the first American theologian to be given that title without being made a bishop first. I could not help but think, on that brilliant day, that the mischievous aspect of his personality came out as the pope went to place the red hat on his head. Always an awkward man, tall and lanky, the hat immediately fell off the new cardinal’s head back into the lap of the pope. I am sure I could hear a knowing laugh go up from the crowd gathered in the Piazza from his students who know him well.
Avery Dulles was a mentor who first introduced me to the work of philosopher Michael Polyani and deepened my appreciation for John Henry Cardinal Newman, that great 19th figure who struck me as very much like Dulles himself. Fr. Dulles was tall, a theologian, a convert to Catholicism, was not a bishop before he became a Cardinal, and he even resembled Newman in a way.
Fr. Dulles was was a model of authentic ecumenical encounter, and was an enthusiastic participant in the Kuyper Leo XIII conference that Acton co-sponsored in Grand Rapids with Calvin Theological Seminary College in 1998. He also spoke at a number of Acton Institute conferences and seminars over the years. On a more personal note, I shall never forget how Fr. Dulles honored me by concelebrating my First Mass in Brooklyn.
I shall miss his wise council and sense of humor. Although the Church on earth has lost a loyal and humble son, it is my hope that the Church in heaven has gained a true prince indeed.
Some links to Fr. Dulles’ work at Acton:
Truth as the Ground of Freedom: A Theme from John Paul II. Acton monograph available from the Acton Bookshoppe
Acton Audio: Truth as the Ground of Freedom
Centesimus Annus and the Renewal of Culture. Journal of Markets & Morality
Religious Freedom and Pluralism. Journal of Markets & Morality
The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II. Review by Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D. Journal of Markets & Morality
Enjoying and Making Use of a Responsible Freedom. Religion & Liberty
God’s Gift of Freedom Must be Used to Choose the Good. Religion & Liberty
The Catholic News Service has published a report on “Philanthropy and Human Rights: Creating Space for Caritas in Civil Society,” a conference held Dec. 3 in Rome by the Acton Institute.
ROME (CNS) — Even at a time of global financial crisis, human beings need to give charity in order to be happy, said several speakers at a Rome conference on philanthropy and human rights.
Expecting a government to provide all social services and assistance robs those who are economically stable of the opportunity to help others and risks being inefficient, cold and even immoral, said the speakers at the Dec. 3 conference sponsored by the Michigan-based Acton Institute and the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
Father Robert A. Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute, said, “The market economy is not only the most efficient system to produce and distribute goods and services; it is also the system most respectful of our God-given creative freedom and which allows us to meet the basic needs of our brothers and sisters.”
Father Sirico was the only speaker at the conference — which included Catholic thinkers who have long praised the potential of the free-market economy — to speak directly about the current crisis.
Read the full story on the CNS site.
Wall Street has been skewered and denounced in almost every attempt to examine the moral dimension of this crisis. Yet, Wall Street is too often denounced for all the wrong reasons — as a surrogate for the free economy, for seeking and making a profit, as though the alternative was somehow a preferable moral result.
No, if we are going to offer a moral critique of Wall Street, this should not be done because free markets allocate and produce capital, without which people’s homes and savings evaporate. Rather, it should be done because all these previously private businesses are now waddling up to the governmental trough begging to be nationalized and asking for their share of the dole.
Rev. Sirico was also a featured speaker on the recently concluded National Review 2008 Post-Election Caribbean Cruise, which drew more than 700 attendees. Jim Geraghty, on NRO’s Campaign Spot, offered a review of the event and this about Rev. Sirico’s panel of speakers:
If that panel had a surprise star, though, it was Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, who cut through a lot of numerical haze by pointing out the moral dimensions of all economic choices – and that it is morally wrong to accept a loan that you know you are unlikely to be able to repay, and that it is equally wrong to loan money that is not yours to someone you know is unlikely to pay it back. At the heart of the housing/banking/market chaos is a lot of people who faced a choice that they had to know was wrong on some level, and did it anyway.
One does not broadcast his opinions in various forums over the years as I have done without receiving my fair share of disagreement from all sides, friends and foes alike. One participant who came to a recent conference remarked, “All my life I have been looking to build a fair and egalitarian society, but I have now learned why it is better to advance a free and virtuous society.”
Yet, something new came my way when I received an envelope with the return address of Commonweal, a publication known for – how shall we put this gently? – a progressive stance on matters of faith and public policy. Inside was the September 26 issue of the magazine, with a helpful note from the editors pointing me to page 8 where I came upon the “Libertarian Heresy — The Fundamentalism of Free Market Heresy” by Daniel Finn, who is a professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. In his essay my colleague Sam Gregg and I are his primary targets. In a single, canard-laden article, we are attacked for heresy, fundamentalism, neo-conservatism and on questions of law and morality, for voicing “libertarian” and generally un-Catholic, not to mention anti-Thomistic views.
Professor Finn’s not-so-subtle polemical technique is to raise and make patently absurd questions and assertions and then leave it to the reader — and me — to conjecture an answer. Like so: “So has Fr. Sirico mixed libertarian heresy about human freedom into his Christian view of morality and law? I’ll leave that for him to reflect on.” As well as putting in my mouth the rather un-nuanced argument that “raising taxes to help others is unchristian.”
Facing an accusation of heresy from Commonweal was too delicious an irony to pass over without comment. So, on Oct. 13, I faxed the magazine this letter: (more…)
We’ve posted Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s Oct. 30 speech delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich. The dinner also featured a keynote address from Rev. John Nunes, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran World Relief, and remarks from Kate O’Beirne, National Review’s Washington Editor, who accepted the Acton Institute Faith & Freedom Award in honor of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
Excerpt from Rev. Sirico’s speech:
Today we find institution after institution “in the tank” for unrestrained government intervention. One is reminded of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s call for the left to begin a long march through the institutions of Western Civilization. The left, it seems, got the memo. How will we respond to this disheartening situation? Now is no time to retreat in disarray. Now is no time to stumble. There remains a remnant … a potent remnant who has not bowed the knee to big government. My call to you tonight is a transparent one: strengthen the soldiers of that remnant. In particular—strengthen that band of brothers gathered with you tonight, the Acton Institute.
Never in Acton’s nearly 20 year history has our message been more essential than right now. As an institution that cherishes the free and virtuous society, we are living through this thing with all of you, and we need your help to continue. Our history of integrity; the quality of our products and programs; the responsible tone with which we approach the questions at hand, all speak to the fact that this work is worthy of your investment. I humbly ask for it with the promise that we will use it well and prudently.
The fact of the matter is that too many of us have become much too comfortable and yielded to a perennial temptation, the temptation to take our liberty for granted. Those of you who have invested in the work of the Acton Institute over the years know—and especially those of you who have had a chance to see our latest media effort “The Birth of Freedom” know—we believe the time has come for a renewal of those principles that form the very foundation of civilization, the same principles that make prosperity possible and accessible to those on the margins.
Liberty is indeed, as Lord Acton said, “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” As such it is in need of a nutritious soil in which to flourish. In this sense you and I are tillers of the soil, if you will.
Liberty is a delicate fruit. It is also an uncommon one. When one surveys human history it becomes evident how unusual, how precious is authentic liberty, as is the economic progress that is its result. These past few weeks are a vivid and sad testimony to this fact. As a delicate fruit, human liberty as well as economic stability must be tended to, lest it disintegrate. It requires constant attention, new appreciation and understanding, renewal, moral defense and integration into the whole fabric of society.
Read the entire speech here.