Last week, the Acton Institute held a conference in Rome examining the rise of Asian Economies. One of the keynote speakers was Thomas Hong-Soon Han, the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Holy See. Vatican Radio spoke with him about the topic of the conference; you can listen to the interview using the audio player below:
It’s been awhile since I’ve done a summary post of this kind, but there’s been a fair number of things of interest over the last week or so that are worthy of a quick highlight. So here’s an edition of the aptly named “Five Things” (HT):
- Carl Trueman reflects on his visit to the Acton Institute. Concerned about how his Republocrat credentials might come across, Trueman says, “Despite my fears that I might be heavily outgunned at Acton, the seminar actually turned out to be great fun. I had, after all, never before lectured in the back room of a pub, with a pint of Pale Ale in one hand and a notebook in the other. And I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of arguing that Mrs Thatcher, and not the trendy Left, was the real radical of the eighties and had actually done much to shatter the class ossification that had gripped Britain for generations.” You can listen to Trueman’s Acton on Tap visit here.
- John H. Armstrong discusses his relationship with the Acton Institute. Fresh off a visit to Rome, where among other things he spoke at an event for Istituto Acton, our Rome office, John Armstrong writes of his first impressions of the institute: “I felt like I had wandered in from the cold. As I listened to Catholic and Protestant scholars explain the freedom of markets and governments, all rooted in virtue, I felt as if I was drinking from a fountain that I had been searching for over the course of my whole life. I was frankly tired of political partisanship as a way to change culture. I wanted to connect with people who saw a better way to make a real difference in society without overtly linking their vision and efforts to raw party politics. I also wanted a different paradigm for understanding principles of economic freedom that was not rooted in the modern ideas of socialism, captialism, etc.”
- Napp Nazworth chides me for putting principle above prudence. After starting a blog to stop feeling “the need to be somewhat secretive with what I say about my religious and political views, particularly, in my easily found online writings,” Napp Nazworth opens with a series of posts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” in which he writes, “The time for action on our federal budget crisis is now, and Congress can only accomplish this task by working in a bipartisan manner. Solutions to the crisis will be painful to many voters. Neither political party, therefore, will tackle the problem by itself because to do so would be disastrous for that party at the next election.”
- Greg Forster has some questions about “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” In his inaugural post at the First Things blog “First Thoughts,” Greg Forster wonders about “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” asking, “Will democratic debate be well served if people who admit that they don’t know the difficult details behind the policymaking get up on a high horse and proclaim what the reform agenda must include – with the (barely) implicit suggestion that anyone who disagrees is an enemy of the public good – or of God?”
- David Mills rebukes the “Evangelical Left” for coming late to the debt-denouncement party. Sticking with First Things for a “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” trifecta, in a piece “On the Square” today at First Things, David Mills notes the Acton Institute engagement of the Call, but contends in particular that the signers of the document, the “Evangelical Left” in his view, “are very late to the party, and they ought to apologize for being late before they start talking about it as if they’d helped plan it.”
We’ll have the Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty online later this week and you won’t want to miss it. Subscribe here. We’re previewing the issue on the PowerBlog with a book review that, because of space limitations, had to be shortened. This post publishes it in full.
Constantine and the Great Transformation
Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010)
Reviewed by Johannes L. Jacobse
The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.
Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.
But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”
This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”
Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith. (more…)
The Rome Reports news service has put together some video and text based on Acton’s Dec. 2 conference in Rome, Italy, “Ethics, Aging, and the Coming Healthcare Challenge” Acton has also created a special web page where you can download the speeches and presentations from the event. Report follows:
December 12, 2010. With people living longer than ever before, this has created certain challenges for society, the Church, and medicine in general. Many questions of ethics have also arisen in this area, that brought academics, clergy-members, and leaders from the around the world to meet at the forum: “Ethics, Aging, and the Coming Healthcare Challenge.”
Their aim was to address the ethical and economic issues concerning healthcare for the elderly.
Prof. Philip Booth, Institute for Economic Affairs (UK):
“We have a population that´s aging with, relatively speaking, a fewer number of young people and a larger number of older people. With health care costs rising and this could well be an enormous, well it will be an enormous burden on young people and young tax payers unless we revise our system of health care funding.”
The Acton Institute works to find a common ground between the interests of business and the interests of the individual. This seminar mainly focused on the topics of pharmaceutical research, healthcare infrastructure, and welfare reform.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, President Acton Institute:
“Today we have an expansive conference dealing with health care especially as it relates to the aging population, so we´re having discussions about demography, the decline of birth rate, and the increase in longevity and all the economic and moral concerns that are emerging from this.”
The challenge is how to guarantee a peaceful and secure retirement to all people, something the conference spoke about in length.
Bishop Jean Laffitte, Secretary, Pontifical Council for the Family:
“Today’s conference was to sensitize the public, politicians, and the people here on a situation that necessitates urgent measures. The demographic crisis is something that is very important and together is a human, moral and even spiritual problem.”
The attendees of the conference hope to promote discussion between political and business leaders regarding the ethics of providing effective healthcare. In an effort to fuse together good economics and smart policies toward healthcare.
Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.
A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.
Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.
I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”
I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.
Benedict’s Creative Minority
By Samuel Gregg
In the wake of Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Britain, we have witnessed—yet again—most journalists’ inability to read this pontificate accurately. Whether it was Queen Elizabeth’s gracious welcoming address, Prime Minister David Cameron’s sensible reflections, or the tens of thousands of happy faces of all ages and colors who came to see Benedict in Scotland and England (utterly dwarfing the rather strange collection of angry Kafkaesque protestors), all these facts quickly disproved the usual suspects’ predictions of low-turnouts and massive anti-pope demonstrations.
Indeed, off-stage voices from Britain’s increasingly not-so-cultured elites—such as the celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and others whom the English historian Michael Burleigh recently described as “sundry chasers of limelight” and products of a “self-satisfied provincialism”—were relegated to the sidelines. As David Cameron said, Benedict “challenged the whole country to sit up and think.”
Of course the success of Benedict’s visit doesn’t mean Britain is about to return to its Christian roots. In fact, it’s tempting to say present-day Britain represents one possible—and rather depressing—European future.
In an article welcoming Benedict’s visit to Britain, the UK’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs observed, “Whether or not you accept the phrase ‘broken society,’ not all is well in contemporary Britain.” The facts cited by Sach were sobering. In 2008, 45 percent of British children were born outside marriage; 3.9 million children are living in poverty; 20 percent of deaths among young people aged from 15 to 24 are suicides; in 2009, 29.4 million antidepressants were dispensed, up 334 percent from 1985.
Such is the fruit of a deeply-secularized, über-utilitarian culture that tolerates Christians until they start questioning the coherence of societies which can’t speak of truth and error, good and evil, save in the feeble jargon of whatever passes for political correctness at a given moment.
But what few commentators have grasped is that Benedict has long foreseen that, for at least another generation, this may well be the reality confronting those European Catholics and other Christians who won’t bend the knee to political correctness or militant secularism. Accordingly, he’s preparing Catholicism for its future in Europe as what Benedict calls a “creative minority.” (more…)
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…)
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.
Yesterday I enjoyed a stimulating presentation of Harvard Law Professor and current U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon’s new Italian-language collection of essays, Tradizioni in Subbuglio (Traditions in Turmoil). Glendon has previously spoken at Acton’s closing Centesimus Annus conference at the Pontifical Lateran University and her address has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets and Morality.
Situated near the Pantheon at the Istituto Luigi Sturzo, the event was attended by professors, lawyers, journalists and Vatican officials. Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton, and I attended the book release which turned into a mini-conference on human dignity and human rights.
Prof. Valerio Onida, an Italian judge, commented that Glendon’s writings “represent a positive outlook that is diverse and encompasses many aspects of humanity. Human dignity, as represented in this work,” Onida continues, “is urgent for the whole world. The problems that affect some aspects of humanity affect the whole global human community.” Veering away from the direct commentary on the book, Onida expressed his view that the real problem “is that there are so many people who do not enjoy basic human rights.” In closing, Prof. Onida expressed thanks for the discourse of Mary Ann Glendon because “it explores these issues and clarifies the limitations of legislation.”
Following Onida, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (where Glendon served as president from 1994 until her appointment as ambassador), gave an excellent discourse covering Traditions in Turmoil as well as other socio-economic issues. He cited Tocqueville at several points, saying, “the manners of the people are more important than the laws. This was one of the basic differences Tocqueville saw between France and the United States.” Sanchez accordingly addressed the need for a moral culture in the fields of economics and politics. Complementing Glendon’s research and understanding of the human person, he declared that “Many types of institutions have an agenda, both in Europe and the United States. An understanding of fundamental human development is crucial for understanding the development of society. Indifference to values creates many problems we face in today’s society.”
Closing the presentation of her book, Glendon made a few brief comments. She reminded those present that “Traditions, if they are alive and healthy, are systems in movement. As Alasdair Macntyre has put it, a living tradition is constituted by an ongoing argument about the goods that give it point and purpose. As for turmoil, this troubling state is not necessarily bad for a living tradition. In fact, a period of turmoil—an encounter with new and disturbing elements—can be the springboard for a great period of creativity, as well as a time of risk.”
Glendon’s book contains several fascinating chapters, including ones on the cultural supports of the American democratic experiment, Rousseau and the revolt against reason, the illusions of absolute rights, and the 1995 UN Beijing Women’s Conference, where she served as the head of the Holy See delegation.
While it appears that Glendon’s work is not very well-known in Italy, that should change with the publication of this book and, of course, her term as ambassador.
The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome held a conference last month dedicated to Elizabeth Anscombe’s work Intention and essay “Modern Moral Philosophy”, a groundbreaking paper for the field of ethics. Anscombe (1919-2001), an Irish convert to Catholicism, was a fellow of philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, wife to philosopher Peter Geach, and mother of seven. She wrote a number of different papers and articles following ethical questions of her day, for example just war theory in WWII, the advent of birth control, and more.
The questions raised by Anscombe are still trying to be resolved in philosophy, in particular, the relevance of the word “ought” to the modern position on morality. She argues that the western concept of moral “ought” is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine legislation. In other words, the concept of justice in western society is fundamentally linked to Christian morals. When modern secularism attempts to retain the idea of morality without the idea of God, the power of the word “ought” is merely psychological.
The idea of a moral “ought” is also linked to the concept of justice, and what we are owed. Without an objective moral framework, such as is found in natural law theory, justice becomes a subjective interpretation. An obvious consequence of this error is found in political lobbyists who make excessive demands of the concept of human rights.
Here is an excerpt from a paper I gave on human rights talk at the conference, “Fundamental human rights are being supplemented with entitlements, and sometimes the distinction between the two is lacking entirely. This moral equivalence fails to demonstrate what is unique and defining about human persons that man is an end in himself, and has the responsibility of making free moral choices ordered toward that end.”
It is wrong to make the means to an end, an end in itself. It is wrong to put material benefits, which provide for human flourishing, in the same category as human freedoms. For example, there is a difference in saying that “I have a right to freedom from oppression by my government” and saying “I have a right to be provided with a job by my government”. It is one thing for the government to guarantee it’s citizen’s liberty; it is another to guarantee their financial success.
The framework of the Christian moral tradition and natural law theory are able to qualify the concept of justice much better than a secular guilt trip. Something to think about the next time you hear someone demanding his or her rights.