Acton Institute President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico recently delivered a talk on social justice and socialism at St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, N.C. The school’s mission is “dedicated to continuing the vital tradition of Catholic education by integrating the very best academic curriculum with the deepest spiritual wisdom of Catholic Christianity.” Rev. Sirico’s talk was part of the school’s Robert L. Luddy Speaker’s Series.
The New York Times is not known to be the most reliable or informed commentator on matters religious, but a recent Times article (marred, unfortunately, by a couple of inaccuracies) highlighted that France’s claim to have separated religion from the state is only true in parts. French cities and the countryside are dotted with beautiful churches, but few realize that the state is responsible for the physical upkeep of many of them. This is a legacy of the famous (or, infamous, depending on your perspective) 1905 law – Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État – in which a militantly anti-Catholic French government unilaterally abrogated the Concordat of 1801 and ended state-funding of religious groups (which meant, in overwhelmingly Catholic France, the Catholic Church).
But it didn’t quite cut all the ties. As part of the 1905 law, the French government declared that all then-existing religious buildings were the property of the state (specifically, local government), thereby legalizing the greatest theft of private property owned by a religious organization since Henry VIII’s dissolution (or, more accurately, government-sanctioned sacking, pillaging, and destruction) of the monasteries. Unlike King Henry, however, the French state allowed Catholics to keep using these places of worship and even today maintains their upkeep – something that lends itself to all sorts of mischief-making on the part of politicians.
A good example of this was highlighted in the Times article which reports that a beautiful 19th century church in the town of Gesté in the province of Anjou is scheduled for demolition because the local council has decided that it is too costly to maintain and cheaper to build a new one. But many opposing the council’s decision say that it has nothing to do with government budgets and everything to do with trying to reduce local unemployment.
Given the state of much post-1960s church architecture, it’s likely that the new church will be just as hideously ugly as most other churches (of any confession) built since 1960. The wider point, however, is that it should surely be up to the local bishop and the parish itself as to whether to renovate the church or build a new one. Instead, the choice has been made by Gesté’s local council, of whom one can safely presume a good number (even in the still very Catholic province of Anjou) are not believers or haven’t darkened a church door in several decades. Christians presumably would not expect to have a say in the building or demolition of the local Communist party headquarters, feminist collective, or Masonic temple. Yet in France if the local village atheist gets elected to the local council, he is henceforth in a position to make decisions about the fate of many houses of worship.
Such are the perils of government funding for churches – or mosques or synagogues for that matter. Inevitably, one’s independence is unjustly circumscribed.
NRO’s Corner published my article on Pope Benedict’s recent remarks to Brazilian bishops on liberation theology:
It went almost unnoticed, but on December 5, Benedict XVI articulated one of the most stinging rebukes of a particular theological school ever made by a pope. Addressing a visiting group of Brazilian bishops, Benedict followed some mild comments about Catholic education with some very sharp and deeply critical remarks about liberation theology and its effects upon the Catholic Church.
After stressing how certain liberation theologians drew heavily upon Marxist concepts, the pope described these ideas as “deceitful.” This is very strong language for a pope. But Benedict then underscored the damage that liberation theology did to the Catholic Church. “The more or less visible consequences,” he told the bishops, “of that approach — characterised by rebellion, division, dissent, offence and anarchy — still linger today, producing great suffering and a serious loss of vital energies in your diocesan communities.”
Today, even some of liberation theology’s most outspoken advocates freely admit that it has collapsed, including in Latin America. Once considered avant-garde, it is now generally confined to clergy and laity of a certain age who wield ever-decreasing influence within the Church. Nonetheless, Benedict XVI clearly believes it’s worth underscoring just how much harm it inflicted upon the Catholic Church.
For a start, there’s little question that liberation theology was a disaster for Catholic evangelization. There’s a saying in Latin America that sums this up: “The Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.”
In short, while many Catholic clergy were preaching class war, many of those on whose behalf the war was supposedly being waged decided that they weren’t so interested in learning about Marx or listening to a language of hate. They simply wanted to learn about Jesus Christ and his love for all people (regardless of economic status). They found this in many evangelical communities.
A second major impact was upon the formation of Catholic clergy in parts of Latin America. Instead of being immersed in the fullness of the Catholic faith’s intellectual richness, many Catholic seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s read Marx’s Das Kapital and refused to look at such “bourgeois” literature such Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.
This undermined the Church’s ability to witness to Christ in Latin America, not least because some clergy reduced Christ to the status of a heroic but less than divine urban guerrilla and weren’t especially interested in explaining Catholicism’s tenets to their flocks.
Then there has been the effect upon the Church’s ability to engage the new Latin American economic world that emerged as the region opened itself to markets in the 1990s. Certainly much of this liberalization was poorly executed and marred by corruption. Nonetheless, as The Economist recently reported, countries like Brazil — once liberation theology’s epicenter — are emerging as global economic players and helping millions of people out of poverty in the process. The smartest thing that Brazil’s left-wing President Lula da Silva ever did was to not dismantle most of his predecessor’s economic reforms.
Unfortunately, one legacy of liberation theology is the inability of some Catholic clergy to relate to people working in the business world. Ironically, business executives are far more likely to practice their Catholicism than many other Latin Americans. Yet liberation theology has left a residue of distrust of business leaders among some Catholic clergy — and vice versa. Distrust is no basis for engagement, let alone evangelization.
The good news is that the Church in Latin America is more than halfway along the road to recovery. Anyone who talks to younger priests and seminarians there today quickly learns that they have absorbed the devastating critiques of liberation theology produced by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s. If anything, they tend to regard liberation theologians, like the ex-priest Leonardo Boff, as heretical irrelevancies.
Indeed, figures such as Boff must be dismayed that the Catholic Church has emerged as the most outspoken opponent of populist-leftists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. As Michael Novak observed in Will It Liberate? (1986), liberation theologians were notoriously vague when it came to practical policy proposals. But if any group embodies the liberationists’ economic agenda, it is surely the populist Left, which is currently providing us with case studies of how to drive economies into the ground faster than you can say “Fidel Castro.”
As time passes, liberation theology is well on its way to being consigned to the long list of Christian heterodoxies, ranging from Arianism to Hans-Küngism. But as Benedict XVI understands, ideas matter — including incoherent and destructive ideas such as liberation theology. Until the Catholic Church addresses the legacy of this defunct ideology — to give liberation theology its proper designation — its ability to speak to the Latin America of the future will be impaired.
In advance of the Acton Institute’s conference, “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis,” which will be held Thursday, Dec. 3, in Rome, the Zenit news agency interviews Dr. Samuel Gregg, Director of Research.
Recipe for Ending Poverty: Think, Then Act
Scholar Laments Lack of Reflection in Tackling Issue
ROME, NOV. 30, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The recipe for alleviating poverty is not a secret, and yet much of the work being done to help the world’s poor is misdirected, according to one expert on the matter.
Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, said this to ZENIT when he was discussing a conference on “Free Enterprise, Poverty, and the Financial Crisis.” The conference will be hosted Thursday by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
Gregg observed there is plenty of talk about global poverty and yet, he said, it is “striking how much of the conversation is very unreflective.” (more…)
My new column on health care was published in the Detroit News today. Full text follows:
As the health care debate moves to the U.S. Senate, much of the focus has been on how the Catholic bishops’ support of the amendment by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, the Menominee Democrat, to prohibit the use of tax dollars to fund abortion was a major victory for the pro-life side. The bishops urged the House of Representatives, through local parishes and in a Nov. 6 letter, to ensure that “needed health care reform legislation truly protects the life, dignity, health and consciences of all.”
All people of good will, all those who value human life and dignity, should cheer this development.
But there’s more to this health care juggernaut that should give us reason to oppose it in its current form. We should first be concerned with the vast expansion of government reach into the private lives of millions of Americans.
This “reform” will create a system that will put bureaucrats in charge of personal health care decisions — not doctors. It will give the federal government an avenue to nationalize more than 15 percent of the U.S. economy, putting bureaucrats and elected officials in the role of manager and regulator — much as we’ve seen in banking and automobiles.
Amazingly, with the push for a $1 trillion-plus health care package and the attendant debt, we may soon see Canada with lower government spending (as a percent of gross domestic product) on heath care than the United States. All this, too, is a threat to human dignity.
What will this heavy burden of government spending and regulation have on U.S. health care innovation and competitiveness, which has to date pioneered so many advances? How many medical research and development firms would leave our shores under threat of higher taxes and regulation?
All the assurances from President Barack Obama that health care reform will not add “even one dime to our deficit over the next decade” seem more fantastic with every passing day.
A new report shows that projected Medicaid cuts, on which rests much of the financial funding for health care reform, would prove to be so onerous to hospitals and nursing homes that they would simply stop taking such patients. The report, by the chief actuary for Medicare and Medicaid, also questions how doctors and hospitals would cope with an additional 30 million people to the ranks of the insured, many of them into public health programs.
As it’s been said, if you think health care is expensive, wait until it’s free.
I also worry about the crowding out effect that this vast expansion of the government into health care will have on voluntary charitable action. Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of the fact that charity and health care was not an invention of Washington bureaucrats.
How did the more than 600 Catholic hospitals and clinics, and many more hospitals bearing the names Jewish, Presbyterian, Methodist, Adventist and Baptist, get built in this country? It wasn’t through the sufferance of government.
Faith is the source of these works, not policy initiatives. Faith, because it involves the entire scope of the human person, body and soul, has not only a larger claim on our allegiance but a deeper commitment to our well-being. Our faith communities know us as persons, not as welfare case numbers or voting blocs.
The effect of the proposed massive expansion of government and vast increase in federal debt is unknown, but if the experience of other countries is any guide, it will lay a crushing burden on the lives of future generations.
The Senate health care reform package should be scrapped. The ill-conceived plan will break the budget, provide fewer opportunities for market-driven health care solutions and limit those who want to practice real charity.
Published today on National Review Online:
I only met Edward Kennedy once.
I had been invited to visit then-senator Phil Gramm, who was contemplating a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. Having read some of my musings on the topic, Senator Gramm wanted to brainstorm about some innovative welfare-reform policies that would simultaneously make economic sense and really help the poor.
After we had chatted for some time in his office, a bell rang and Senator Gramm rose. “I need to take a vote. Walk with me and let’s continue this conversation,” he said.
As we walked down the corridor, I could spy familiar names on the various Senate office doors. We came to an elevator that would take us down to an underground subway connecting the Senate offices to the Senate chamber. It was a small elevator, no more than a large closet. Senator Gramm, an aide, and I tucked ourselves in and the door began to slide shut.
Just before closing, an arm came through to stop the door’s close. As it reopened, I found myself standing face-to-face with the Lion of the Senate, arguably the most prominent Catholic layman in the country, scion of the most prominent Catholic family, perhaps, in U.S. history. Kennedy immediately looked me up and down, and then quizzically glanced over to Senator Gramm trying to figure out why his colleague was hanging out with a priest.
As Senator Kennedy stepped into the elevator, Senator Gramm welcomed him with his Southern tones, “Come on in, Teddy. We’ve called you here to pray for you.”
Without missing a beat, Senator Kennedy tossed a mischievous wink in my direction, nudging me with his elbow in Catholic camaraderie and replied in his Bostonian accent, “Uhh [there was that familiar pause of his], uhh, no Phil, Father and I have called you here to pray for you.”
There was laughter as the elevator door slid closed. It was my turn to speak so I decided to enter the spirit of the moment.
I stood erect, place my hand on Senator Kennedy’s broad shoulder and said, “Actually, senator, this is an exorcism.”
The laughter in that elevator, which spilled out onto the train platform, was electric, causing the by-standing senators to look in our direction and wonder what in the world would have Senators Kennedy and Gramm in such uproarious laughter with a Catholic priest.
And so, I had mixed feelings on the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing. A memory of a pleasant encounter, but knowledge that despite our common baptism, Senator Kennedy and I differed in some very radical ways on issues of public policy, economics, heath care, marriage, and, most fundamentally, on matters related to life. (more…)
Relativists beware. Whether you like it or not, truth matters – even in the economy. That’s the core message of Pope Benedict XVI’s new social encyclical Caritas in Veritate.
For 2000 years, the Catholic Church has hammered home a trio of presently-unpopular ideas into the humus of human civilization: that there is truth; that it is not simply of the scientific variety; that it is knowable through faith and reason; and that it is not whatever you want or “feel” it to be. Throughout his entire life, Benedict XVI has underscored these themes, precisely because much of the world, including many Christians, has lost sight of their importance.
Perhaps Caritas in Veritate’s most important truth-claim about economic life is that the market economy cannot be based on just any value-system. Against all relativists on the left and the right, Benedict maintains that market economies must be underpinned by commitments to particular basic moral goods and a certain vision of the human person if it is to serve rather than undermine humanity’s common good: “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred” (CV no.45)
“Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust,” the Pope writes, “the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function” (CV no. 35). This surely has been amply confirmed by the recent financial crisis. America’s subprime-mortgage market collapse was at least partly attributable to the fact that literally thousands of people lied on their mortgage application forms. Should we be surprised that mass violation of the moral prohibition against lying has devastating economic consequences? “The economic sphere”, the pope reminds us, “is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner” (CV no.36).
Contrary to the pre-encyclical hype of certain American commentators and the ever-unreliable British press, predictions of papal anathemas against “global capitalism” have – as usual – been found wanting. In economic terms, the pope describes as “erroneous” the tired notion that the developed countries’ wealth is predicated on poor nations’ poverty (CV no.35) that one hears customarily from the likes of Hugo Chavez and whatever’s left of the dwindling band of aging liberation theologians. That’s a pontifical body-blow to a central working assumption of many professional social justice “activists”.
Nor will they be happy with the pope’s concerns about the ways in which foreign aid can produce situations of dependency (CV no.58), not to mention Benedict’s strictures against protectionism (CV no.42) as well as his stress that no amount of structural change can possibly compensate for people freely choosing the good: “Integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples: no structure can guarantee this development over and above human responsibility” (CV no.17).
Nor does Benedict regard the market as morally problematic in itself. “In and of itself,” the Pope states, “the market is not . . . the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations” (CV no.36). What matters, Benedict claims, is the moral culture in which markets exists.
At the heart of the economy are human persons. People whose minds are dominated by crassly hedonistic cultures will make crassly hedonistic economic choices. “Therefore”, Benedict comments, “it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals” (CV no.36).
The implications of truth for economic life do not, however, stop here. For Benedict, it is a lens through which to assess ideas such as “business ethics”, “ethical investing” and “corporate social responsibility.” The notion that investment and business choices have a moral dimension is hardly new. What matters for Benedict is the understanding of morality underlying these schemes. Merely labeling an investment scheme as “ethical”, Benedict notes, hardly tells us whether it is moral (CV no.45).
A second major truth underscored by Benedict is the indispensability of a strong civil society for both undergirding and limiting the market and the state. By this, he does not mean a plethora of government-funded NGOs, many of whom Benedict identifies as intent upon imposing some of the very worst aspects of Western lifestyle-libertarianism upon developing nations (CV no.28). Certainly, Benedict believes, there is a need to re-evaluate (CV no.24) how the state regulates different parts of the economy. Ultimately, however, Benedict stresses that the virtue of solidarity, he argues, is about people concretely loving their neighbour; it “cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” (CV no.38). This is reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville’s attention to the manner in which the habit of free association both limits the size of government while also discouraging people from retreating into their own little bubbles.
The economist John Maynard Keynes is famous for many things, including the saying that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” The horizon of Benedict XVI’s perspective on economic life is rather different. The pope asks people to live their economic lives in the short, medium, and long-term as if living in the truth is eternally important, not to mention eternally relevant to their soul’s salvation.
That’s change we can all believe in.
Is moral enhancement of the entrepreneur possible? That’s the question Michael Severance, operations manager for Istituto Acton (the Acton Institute’s Rome office) recently posed to Dr. Adriana Gini, a neuroradiologist at San Camillo-Forlanini Medical Centre in Rome and an expert bioethicist at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. Dr. Gini recently led Istituto Acton’s monthly Campus Martius seminar “Moral Enhancement: Back to the Future” and offers some further insight on her topic. An audio recording of her seminar is available on the Istituto Acton home page.
Michael Severance: Dr. Gini, thank you for taking time to explain your views on the fascinating subject of moral enhancement. Most of us have heard of various forms of “physical” enhancement, as with genetic splicing for disease prevention, pre-selection of human embryos to produce “savior siblings” and mixing chemical cocktails to improve the physical endurance of our organs…In what way are the two types of enhancement – physical and moral – related, if at all? Or is this just a play on words?
Adriana Gini: The association between the word “moral” to the type of life we live, the decisions we make, our efforts and struggles to improve society and ourselves is perfectly natural. In fact, morality depends on our acts and our acts are the expression of what we are as human beings. Our behavior, as moral agents, is quite complex and, no doubt, involves our physicality. Nonetheless, a pure physical/neuronal explanation of morality -with no reference to a more comprehensive knowledge of the human person- is rather hazardous. As such, the term “moral enhancement” does not have an immediate, direct connection to some forms of genetic, pharmacological or biotechnological enhancement, unlike the ones targeted at cognitive enhancement.
MS: From an Acton perspective, it is interesting to know if there is some type of “competition” or “economic” factor driving neurological science in the direction of improving the human moral condition. What is at the bottom of all this? For example, is the real inspiration to improve human action found in creating a competitive edge in intelligence within the marketplace? Some might find it hard to believe that secular science is really interested in fostering moral excellence for its own sake in its laboratories. Much less so in its lab rats and guinea pigs!
AG: According to some authors, as with Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Centre for Practical Ethics and head of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, contemporary research aimed at enhancing human cognition will result in an economic improvement (cf. Chap. 1.4 of Enhancing Human Capacities edited by Dr. Savulescu). In other words, better people make for better jobs, and in the end, better, more productive societies – in an economic sense. However, Savulescu’s claim is that such enhancement might also lead to a greater world of evil action. For example, we can use drugs or other biotechnological means to improve our mental abilities, but sometimes also to our detriment: smarter terrorists mean fiercer terrorist attacks with the mental enhancement to fabricate more powerful, more intelligent weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, in Savulescu’s opinion, any means to morally enhance the human species in terms of cognitive enhancement should only progress alongside research on moral enhancement. No one really knows, however, how to improve the human species morally by biotechnological means alone, since morality is not purely “biological”…, although there are certainly biological correlations to human moral behavior. (more…)
Dear Fr. Jenkins:
You are, no doubt, being inundated with letters, phone calls and emails objecting to the decision of Notre Dame to invite President Obama to give the commencement address this year and to receive an honorary doctorate from your university.
I feel compelled to write to you as a brother priest to express my own dismay at this decision which I see as dangerous for Notre Dame, for the Church, for this country, and frankly Father, for your own soul.
I have had the honor to speak at Notre Dame over the years in my capacity as the president of the Acton Institute. I recall the sparkling discussion and questions from the student body, notably from a number of the Holy Cross Seminarians. I have, in fact, been invited to your campus on a number of occasions and on my last visit I was given a statue of the Lladro Blessed Mother in appreciation of my speech. I was told the statue was blessed by Fr. Hesburgh. It has occupied a special place in our religious community since then.
Father, I have no degree or awards from Notre Dame to return to you to indicate how strongly I feel about this scandalous decision. So here is what I have decided to do:
I am returning this statue to your office because what once evoked a pleasant memory of a venerable Catholic institution now evokes shame and sorrow. The statue is simply too painful a reminder of the damage and scandal Notre Dame has brought to the Church and the cause of human life in this decision.
Moreover, I will encourage the young people from my parish and within our diocese to consider universities other than Notre Dame for their college career and I will further encourage other priests in my diocese to do the same. I will also discourage Notre Dame alumni to make donations to the University.
And you may rest assured that I will make this sentiment known from my pulpit and in other public outlets as the occasions present themselves.
This is not a matter of abortion (I presume we agree on how evil it is); nor is it about free speech (you could have invited the president to a discussion for that). This is about coherence. You no longer know who you are as a Catholic institution.
It pains me to write this letter to you. I ask that you go before the Blessed Sacrament and look into your soul – the soul of priest – and reverse this decision before more scandal is brought to the Church.
You and the students under your pastoral charge will be in my prayers and Lenten sacrifices.
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Robert Sirico
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has touched off a row over remarks he made recently concerning the demise of capitalism.
Here’s the context from the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper:
[the Cardinal] made the astonishing claim at a lavish fund-raising dinner at Claridges which secured pledges of hundreds of thousands of pounds for the catholic church. The Cardinal, dressed in his full clerical regalia, said in a speech at the black tie dinner that he had worried whether the dinner should go ahead because of the troubled economic times. But he went on to say that in 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin wall, that “communism had died.” In 2008, he said, “capitalism had died.”
The response from the business community was swift.
Catholic business people surveyed by The Daily Telegraph insisted that there were plenty of good capitalists, who used the process of making money to benefit all of society. The problems came when capitalism was used by a few to enrich themselves to the detriment of everyone else. Sir Tom Farmer, the Scottish billionaire former owner of car parts firm Kwik-Fit, said: “I seriously hope that capitalism is not dead, but I hope that the abuse of capitalism is dead. I hope that is what the Cardinal meant. At the end of the day it is a system that creates wealth – but it has its failings.”
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, was interviewed on Ave Maria Radio today by host Al Kresta and asked about the Cardinal’s remarks.
“There is some great irony here of His Excellency speaking at a lavish fundraising event at which one presumes he is about to ask for money for the renovation of the Cathedral, etcetera,” he told Kresta. “Either the Cardinal is possessed of a great insight that no one in that room and few other people are possessd of, or he is speaking economic lunacy.”
Listen to the interview here.