“When Christian institutions attempt to mitigate or compromise this understanding of their mission–often as the result of the political pressure–they morph into shadowy versions of their former selves,” writes Rev. Robert A. Sirico. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published October 24), Rev. Sirico explains that by losing the Christological dimension, Christian charitable work becomes essentially secular. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
Faced with the prospect of a professional athletic career, a nearly-half million dollar salary, and a perfect lady, what’s not to like? Apparently, for Grant Desme, it was the noise and unrest of the world.
Can a culture of life and the noise and tumult of the marketplace co-exist? Rev. Robert Sirico, reflecting on this, says they can, so long as it is not a place where:
[C]apitalism…places the human person at the mercy of blind economic forces…What we propose, rather, is a free economy that puts the human person at the center of economic actions because the human person is the source of all economic initiative.
Grant Desme is a young man who seems to understand this type of freedom: the freedom to choose the life that God is calling one to, even if that means living a life that appears to be outside the marketplace. Desme had signed a professional baseball contract with the Oakland Athletics, but felt something was amiss.
All the success he craved left him numb. Desme would sit on the bench and talk with his teammates about God. He and Steve Kleen, a non-denominational Christian, engaged in deep philosophical debates long into the night. Desme wouldn’t proselytize, either; he was just there to talk, a father as much as a Father. And the more he thought about it, the more something occurred to him: “I’m getting more enjoyment out of this than hitting the home run I did the other inning.”
He left baseball behind for the quiet, regimented life of a monk at St. Michael’s Abbey in California. Now, instead of hitting homers and rounding bases, Desme’s life is taken up by scheduled prayer 10 times a day and manual labor around the Abbey grounds. He even gave up his name, and is now Frater Matthew (“frater” is Latin for “brother”, “Matthew” being the name the community bestowed on him.) Someone who understands Desme’s choice is Father Ambrose, of St. Michael’s, who chose the monastery over a Rhodes Scholarship:
“It’s sort of like the terrible curse of success…I thought, ‘Well, OK, I’ve got what I’m dreaming about. I’m still miserable. My heart is restless. So what does that mean?’ That restless heart – I had to tend to it in a way that before was about attaining something like the Rhodes Scholarship. When there’s still a restless heart, that requires a much more supernatural explanation.
“That’s how God speaks to young men and women in our culture: when the world and what it has to offer will never be enough. Young people want to be heroic. They want to do great things. Not just what the world tells them will be great.”
Of course, one might note that even the abbey is not a place completely removed from the marketplace, as they host an annual summer camp for boys, and sell a few books and CDs. And that’s the point that Fr. Sirico makes: in a culture centered on the human person, imbued with dignity and free will, the marketplace will be a fruitful extension, no matter one’s career choice or path in life. It is the human who chooses the market and invests in it not just money but values, not the market creating the human. Grant Desme – Frater Matthew – seems to understand that, from both sides of the abbey walls.
Public health officials estimate that Americans consume an average of 40 gallons of sugary soda per person per year. But now thanks to the tireless efforts of Michael Bloomberg, NYC’s Mayor and Nanny-in-Chief, the average New Yorker will now only consume 39.2 gallons of sugary soda per person per year.*
On Thursday, New York City passed the first U.S. ban of oversized sugary drinks as a way of curbing the obesity epidemic. Violators of the ban face a $200 fine for selling a soda in a size that exceeds government standards.
While the legislation is absurd, it’s not the first time a big city mayor has tried to promote healthy food consumption through taxation. As Jordan Ballor pointed out in 2005 when Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick proposed a a 2 percent tax on fast food,
The fast food tax, or “fat tax,” is really the newest incarnation of the age-old “sin” tax. The reasoning is that fast foods, which tend to be higher in calories, fat and cholesterol than other types of food, are unhealthy, and therefore worthy of special government attention.
Of course Bloomberg and the other nanny-state proponents don’t really believe the ban will reduce obesity—at least not by itself. For them, this is but one of the first skirmishes in the Fat Wars. As the liberal economics blogger Matthew Yglesias admits, “Giant sodas in one city and calorie menu labeling on chains nationwide are both very modest gestures, but the same forces that pushed for those will keep coming up with new ways to ratchet-up the stigma and inconvenience associated with ‘empty’ calories.”
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, in an article for AEI’s The American comes to the same conclusion:
In his latest column at Forbes, Fr. Robert Sirico discusses his memories of 9/11 and the end of freedom:
One might also be tempted to imagine that the answer to bin Laden’s religious mania is a morally neutral public square. But all the great and successful battles against tyranny, all the efforts to build flourishing free societies in the first place, teach a different lesson. Freedom, as indispensable as it is, is insufficient for constructing a society and culture appropriate to man, much less for defending it. If it is to flourish and endure it must be a freedom oriented to something beyond itself, oriented to Truth — the truth of man’s origin, the truth of man’s nature, and the truth of man’s destiny. It must meet envy and the will to negation with an opposite and more than equal force — with the kind of virtue that drove Smagala and his fellow firefighters toward danger that fiery September morning, a virtue that also works in quieter circumstances to knit together the countless ties of a free society.
In his debut column at Forbes, Fr. Robert Sirico discusses how the collapse of European economies has exposed the false hope of the welfare state:
[T]he great lie at the heart of the all-encompassing welfare state, with its empty promises of eternal security and freedom from want. The welfare state and its advocates would have us believe that they have a political solution for a world where scarcity and human brokenness still hold sway.
This false hope is what Pope John Paul II was getting at in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. He took the “social assistance state” to task for contributing to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” He had it exactly right 20 years before the inevitable fiscal crisis swept through Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid and Bonn and paralyzed the once smug architects of the EU as “lifestyle superpower.” They never missed a chance to deride the heartless values of “Anglo-Saxon capitalism” (a phrase always wielded as a pejorative). But their “lifestyle” turned out to be a trap.
As I leafed through this week’s Wall Street Journal Europe political commentary, I finally felt a little redemption. Hats off to WSJ writers Peter Nicholas and Mark Peter whose brief, but poignant August 20 article “Ryan’s Catholic Roots Reach Deep” shed light on vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s value system. This was done by elucidating how Paul Ryan views the relationship of the individual with the state and how the local, small-town forces in America can produce great change for a nation gravely concerned about its weak and vulnerable.
The article references a standard Catholic but still-very-unknown-teaching on “subsidiarity.” Go figure, not even my word processing program recognizes the term in its standard U.S. English lexicon. Alas, subsidiarity is not a word you read about in the secular Wall Street Journal, either, whose op-eds debate many critical intuitions of the free market and democratic society yet seldom examine the intersection of theology and economics, like the Acton Institute does so well.
Indeed the WSJ Europe article was not that erudite (for other more elaborated pieces on subsidiarity go here and here and be sure to watch Fr. Robert Sirico’s enlightening video (below). Neither do the WSJ writers spell out the details of Ryan’s various economic and welfare reform proposals inspired by the principle of subsidiarity, which include a repeal of nationalized medicine and drastically reducing spending on various excessive national welfare and other expansive public agencies. Nonetheless, last Monday this secular media outlet gave its readers a very Catholic glimpse into Ryan’s political world view which is a product of a hardworking, Irish Catholic family from “small-town” America (Janesville, Wis.) trying to solve its own problems by the teachings of the Catholic Church. (more…)
Brett M. Decker, editorial page editor of The Washington Times, recently interviewed Rev. Robert Sirico, president and co-founder of The Acton Institute, in response to Rev. Sirico’s latest book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. In his answers, Rev. Sirico addresses the market’s moral potential as well as the present state of the nation. Excerpt:
Decker: Your new book is about the moral case for a free economy. What is the morality of the marketplace and how does it work? How does the market take care of the masses better than a government safety net?
Sirico: The morality of a market is rooted in the morality of the human person who is the center of that market. In precise terms, the market itself is neither moral nor immoral, but it becomes a vehicle for the moral and economic expression of the acting human person, who has the free will to choose good or bad.
When we speak of taking care of the masses, we usually mean taking care of their material needs (though there is much, much more to people than their material needs). The material needs of people are best met in societies that are prosperous, both in terms of the abundance of economic opportunities available to them and the amount of superfluous wealth that can be used generously to support the needs of those unable to provide for themselves. The one thing we know about markets from a wide array of economic studies is that the less taxed and regulated a society is, the more prosperous it is.
Entire interview here.
Online today on the American Spectator is an article by Acton’s president, the Rev. Robert Sirico. In it, Rev. Sirico discusses the phenomenon of “creative destruction,” peculiar to free market systems, wherein newer and better industries and technology gradually replace older, less efficient ones. Rev. Sirico explains that while on the surface creative destruction appears to be harmful, in the long run it is crucial to a healthy, flourishing economy:
“Sometimes what appears to be beaten back and damaged is really healthy and preparing for new growth. This is the case with what economists call creative destruction — the phenomenon whereby old skills, companies, and sometimes entire industries are eclipsed as new methods and businesses take their place. Creative destruction is seen in layoffs, downsizing, the obsolescence of firms, and, sometimes, serious injury to the communities that depend on them. It looks horrible, and, especially when seen through the lives of the people who experience such economic upheaval, it can be heartrending.
But think of the alternative. What if the American Founders had constructed a society where no industry was ever allowed to go under because it would mean a lot of innocent people losing their jobs? I mean, have you ever met a livery yard owner or a stable boy? How about a blacksmith or a farrier? Do you have among your acquaintances any makers of bridles, saddles, chaises, coaches, or buggy whips?
Read the entire article here.
We have just wrapped up Acton University, our annual conference that focuses on integrating Christian theology and sound economic thinking. In light of that, it was interesting to read this post at Patheos.com, “America’s Premier Heresy,” where Scot McKnight takes a look at the Prosperity Gospel, especially as presented by Pastor Joel Osteen.
If you’re not familiar with the Prosperity Gospel, it preaches that God wants all of us to be wealthy and healthy in this life, and that riches and health are ours, simply for the asking, in faith and obedience to Him. The problems of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, underemployment and general malaise are that we don’t implore God to shower us with blessings. Once we recognize that God has only positive things in store for us, and we ask for them, it’s all ours.
It was interesting – to say the least – to have been reading this blog post while surrounded by some of the most intelligent people on the planet who had gathered at Acton University to discuss things like alleviating poverty in the developing world, business as mission and vocation, and the role of envy and fairness in economic thought. McKnight poses these interesting questions:
If you could offer a better theology to proponents of prosperity theology, what would it look like? How does an economic theory work into your critique or your offer?
Last week’s activities at Acton University offered a plethora of answers to these two questions, but I’m going to focus on just a few. First, the Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book Defending the Free Market recognizes the need for economic answers to questions of poverty. The recognition isn’t one of glamorous outpourings of wealth from a sugar daddy in the sky. It is, as Fr. Sirico puts it, “humdrum business”. That’s right: It’s just hard, creative work of human beings that lifts people out of poverty and helps them forge opportunities for themselves, their employees, families and communities. It’s not the same as asking God to simply make these things appear in one’s life; it’s being willing to partner with God, if you will, to bring about change.
Second, those who attended Acton University had the privilege of hearing Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute speak. (You can download a recording of his speech here.) Much of Mr. Brooks’ speech is typified in this quote from his book The Road to Freedom:
Under free enterprise, people can pursue their own ends, and they can reap the rewards and consequences, positive and negative, of their own actions.
Again, notice that the emphasis is placed on the work we must do, as free human beings, in order to create good things in our lives.
Finally, Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Faith in Communities at Sagamore Institute talked to us about our stewardship responsibilities in our work lives.
The big Gospel reminds us of God’s big story. He created a paradise and invited us to steward it, legitimating all kinds of work. We blew it, but God did not retract the cultural mandate from us even after the Fall. But the Fall meant that our work would be much more difficult and sometimes feel futile. Jesus’ redemption means that the restoration project is underway. Jesus’ great salvation work pushes back every aspect of the curse: redeeming the broken relationship between humans and God, humans and themselves, humans with one another, and humans with the creation itself. All of that is Jesus’ work, not just “saving souls.”
The 800+ attendees at Acton University can answer the questions posited by Mr. McKnight in his critique of the Prosperity Gospel. What economic theory and theological insights can we offer as an answer to the theology of Joel Osteen? It’s just plain, hum-drum business, free enterprise and the freedom for people to create – in cooperation with God – a better life and abundant economic opportunities.
(For more on the Prosperity Gospel, listen to Glenn Sunshine’s Acton Lecture Series presentation “Wealth, Work and the Church“.)