Posts tagged with: society

Pope Benedict’s long-awaited first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, was published this morning in Rome. The English translation of it can be found on the Vatican website by clicking here.

There’s obviously much to reflect on in this fairly short letter on Christian love, but a few aspects may be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

The pope cites a number of political philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Descartes, Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine (several times), and Marx. Besides revealing what we already know about the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s formidable education, the encyclical reminds us that human and divine love is a theme the greatest minds have grappled with throughout the ages, and often through the lens of politics and religion.

The passage cited from Plato’s Symposium in n. 11 happens to be one of the most beautiful allegories of love ever penned; Pope Benedict compares it to the language of the Book of Genesis. Like any great teacher, he makes the reader return to the originals for their poetry and insights.

From the more prosaic perspective of social doctrine, the section on justice and charity (nos.26-29) contains an illuminating discussion of the distinct yet complementary functions of Church and State. The pope begins his treatment by taking on the Marxist critique of the Church’s charitable activity, i.e. what the poor need is justice, not charity, and even admits some truth to it:

It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods.

But then comes this:

Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished.

After tracing the history of Catholic social doctrine from Bishop Kettler of Mainz to Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II, Benedict distinguishes “the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity.”

The entire section deserves to be read with care and attention, but the general point is that the realms of justice and charity are interrelated yet distinct. Justice is the proper aim of the State, not the Church, but justice, and hence the State, is not enough.

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.

This is the Catholic case for limited government par excellence. Justice and politics are necessary and good objectives to pursue, but they are not what human life is ultimately about. Divine love transcends politics. This is the language of a political philosophy that points beyond itself to theology, and it’s perfectly fitting as Benedict’s first encyclical.

I don’t need to tell you to read the whole thing.

Proponents of social democracies claim that a large role for the state is important in tempering the profit motive of capitalism and creating a more humane and cultured state.

Free markets, they argue, result in an inhumane and disintegrated society, while the social democracy models of Europe protect the weak and create social cohesion. Yet these proponents rarely question whether the reality of Europe today bears this out. Even a cursory examination of European and American life reveals that the social democratic models have not achieved their goals. Europe is disintegrating more and more into a collection of individuals who rely on the state as their primary caregiver, and the effects on the family, society, and cultural output are insidious.

Acton Senior Fellow, Jennifer Roback Morse, addressed several of these issues in a lecture with titled “Catholic Social Teaching on the Economy and the Family: an alternative to the modern welfare-state.” The lecture was part of the Centesimus Annus Lecture Series, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the John Paul II’s encyclical. The second of the series, The Family in New Economy, was held on January 21st at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and Professor Manfred Spieker, one of Germany’s leading experts on Catholic social thought, also spoke. To listen to a Vatican Radio report on the conference go here.

She writes:

Today everyone understands that communism is not a viable strategy for achieving either economic growth or solidarity with the poor.

The more urgent task now is to see that Western European socialism has also failed. Although some aspects of the Western European model originally claimed Christian inspiration and objective, it is now clear that the modern Western European welfare-state is collapsing. And while many modern countries share some of the problems I shall loosely call the “European social model,” it is Europe that most desperately needs a genuinely Catholic alternative.

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Bill Robinson at The Huffington Post says that the real “enemies of marriage” consists of “those who treat it as a commodity, a temporary merger, a corporate buyout,” citing the impending fourth divorce of billionaire Ron Perelman.

In typically overblown fashion, Robinson asks, “Where are the Defense of Marriage Nazis when marriage is actually under assault? Why aren’t they boycotting Revlon? Is it possible billionaires and celebs are undermining this sacred institution more than ‘the gays’? David Hasselhoff, Babyface, and Christina Applegate, are just this week’s divorce stories. What kind of world are we living in when Eminem remarrying his ex-wife is considered the love story of the day?”

On the one hand, Robinson is right to point to divorce as the most pervasive threat to the institution of marriage. We shouldn’t forget that the biblical allowance for divorce is quite limited and was enacted only because of the reality of human sin, because our “hearts were hard,” and intended to function as a preservational check on further corruption.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t other threats to marriage, which may just have the potential to be just as dangerous and insidious. It really isn’t an either/or question, but rather a both/and. For example, Acton senior fellow Jennifer Roback Morse highlights the move from gay “marriage” and polygamy, from “creating legal institutions to accommodate same sex couples and creating legal institutions to accommodate multiple spouses.”

In today’s Townhall.com column, Morse writes of the situation in Canada, which “have proven that the advocates of marriage are not being hysterical when they warn of the cultural and legal slide into polygamy.”

It’s a bit ironic to note how the world’s argument against the traditional Christian position has changed over the last few decades. When marriage and divorce laws were being relaxed in the last century, the move was hailed by feminists and others as a liberation from patriarchy and monogomous tyranny. When Christians opposed the change of such laws, they were labeled Neanderthals. But now that gay “marriage” is the issue du jour, the world asks, “Where are the Defense of Marriage Nazis when marriage is actually under assault?”

Christians need to witness to the world with humility and recognition of the realities of hypocrisy. When “born-again” Christians are “just as likely to divorce as non-Christians,” there are some huge problems. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other threats, or that Christians shouldn’t speak up. It just means that we should be consistent and careful in our witness. Indeed, Christian silence might end up being the greatest threat to the institution of marriage.

As the nation prepares to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 15, it’s time to broaden the discussion of race relations in America to include not just blacks and whites, but Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans. The long fixation on black-white relations has obscured some important measures of racial progress — or lack of it — in American society, argues Anthony Bradley. “In fact, the greatest impediment to appropriating King’s dream is our unwillingness to move beyond a white social barometer,” he says.

Read the complete commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
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Check out this review of James Howard Kunstler’s new book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (Atlantic), which describes it as a “litany around the increasingly fashionable panic over oil depletion.” This paucity of oil will in large part contribute to a future in which “the best-case scenario is a mass die-off followed by a forced move back to the land, complete with associated feudal relations. As the title implies, this is to be an ongoing state rather than a crisis to be overcome – a sentiment that the US critic Susan Sontag described as ‘apocalypse from now on’.”

Kunstler in part attempts to rehabilitate the figure of Malthus, who he says was generally right, but who could not take into account the veneer of transitory economic advancement enabled through the use of fossil fuels. Kunstler’s book fits in with a newly ascendent genre of apocalyptic writing, which unanimously agrees that humanity faces extinction. “The core elements of the litany are predictable: climate change, disease, terrorism, and an-out-of-control world economy. Other elements such as killer asteroids, nanotechnology or chemical pollution can be added according to taste,” writes the reviewer Joe Kaplinsky. Indeed, the view is shared across ideological and religious lines. The Rapture Index, for example, is currently at its high point for 2006: 154.

He contends that in The Long Emergency Kunstler essentially views humans themselves as the problem: “He has long argued against suburbia and the car, in favour of a ‘New Urbanism’. In places it is perhaps possible to read The Long Emergency as a revenge fantasy. Embittered at his inability to convince others that they should change their ways, Kunstler takes refuge under the wing of Nature’s avenging angel. He can be ignored (he attributes this to a psychological flaw in his detractors); the inhuman laws of nature cannot.”

For an introduction to New Urbanism, check out the controversy in the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?” beginning with an essay by Charles C. Bohl, director of the Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami, and continuing with a response by Mark Pennington, lecturer in Public Policy at the University of London. As is typical of the controversies, there is then one more cycle of responses.

Kunstler continues, noting that “apparently, those who will suffer most terribly in the long emergency are the US Republican states whose culture is built on violence and fundamentalist Christianity. Neighbourhoods with spacious housing (‘McMansions’) and ‘poor street detailing’, a particular insult to Kunstler, are singled out for destruction. Europeans, by contrast, may pull through in better shape. There is an uncanny alignment between the supposedly objective, inevitable laws of nature and Kunstler’s prejudices. Perhaps the best summary of his views is found in the book’s epigraph: ‘I don’t know if the Gods exist, but they sure act as if they do.'”

The remainder of the review gives a lengthy examination of Kunstler’s underlying claims, evidence, and prejudice, including his view of the effects of “entropy,” and is well worth a read.

The long wait is finally over. Federal vouchers are coming!

Before you get too excited, however, I have to inform you that the vouchers are not for education. You can’t use these vouchers to send your child to the school of your choice.

Instead, because of the government-mandated switch for broadcast TV from analog to digital bandwidths, set for Feb. 17, 2009, upwards of 20 million television sets will be obsolete, only able to receive the then-defunct analog signals.

“To avoid a consumer revolt, Congress has set aside about $1.5 billion to smooth the transition. Owners of outmoded TV sets will be eligible for two vouchers, worth $40 each, to help buy converter boxes that will enable today’s analog TV sets to receive digital signals,” Fortune magazine reports.

The government argues that the move will open up huge new areas of bandwidth for greater technical innovation and delivery. Once broadcast TV is moved to the digital spectrum, the old analog bandwidths will be auctioned off, and the government stands to make a pretty penny on the deal. “The sale of this valuable, scarce real estate is expected to bring in about $10 billion, maybe more. That will help reduce the federal budget deficit,” writes Marc Gunther.

Of course, those companies buying up the newly-opened space will be better off too: “With the new auction, we will finally become a broadband nation,” says Blair Levin, a Washington analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. “Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Intel, Dell — these companies will all benefit. The more broadband pipes you have, the more applications will come along, the more often you will upgrade your device.”

The interesting thing about these digital tuner vouchers is that one argument for their issue is that the poor will be disproportionately affected by the switch. Gunther writes, “But for consumers with one of those 70 million sets — many of whom are likely to be poor, elderly or uneducated, being forcibly switched from one technology to another will be a nightmare.”

Gunther goes on to describe the “nightmare scenario,” in which “people who depend on free, over-the-air TV for news and entertainment will lose their access, or have to pay more for it, so that the rest of us can get faster service on our Blackberries and ESPN on our cell phones.”

Last I checked, news and weather information on which people depend is still freely available over the radio. And maybe some of us would be better off with less access to TV. AC Nielsen reports (PDF) that “During the 2004-05 TV season (which started September 20, 2004 and just ended September 18, 2005), the average household in the U.S. tuned into television an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day.”

We’ve all heard the stories about families on federal assistance in the inner city with big screen TVs, or living in trailer parks with satellite dishes. Nowadays, Marx might say that TV is the opiate of the people rather than religion, or better yet, that TV has become the religion of the people.
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There’s a lot of buzz in the blogosphere on Mark Steyn’s “It’s the Demography, Stupid”, which appears in today’s OpinionJournal.com and is originally published in the January 2006 issue of The New Criterion.

As usual, Steyn has many excellent observations about our present crises, but this article is a more extended look than his op-eds. Some highlights:

The design flaw of the secular social-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birthrate to sustain it. Post-Christian hyperrationalism is, in the objective sense, a lot less rational than Catholicism or Mormonism.

That’s what the war’s about: our lack of civilizational confidence. As a famous Arnold Toynbee quote puts it: “Civilizations die from suicide, not murder”–as can be seen throughout much of “the Western world” right now. The progressive agenda–lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism–is collectively the real suicide bomb.

We’re pretty much awash in resources, but we’re running out of people–the one truly indispensable resource, without which none of the others matter. Russia’s the most obvious example: it’s the largest country on earth, it’s full of natural resources, and yet it’s dying–its population is falling calamitously.

Yet, even by the minimal standards of these wretched precedents, so-called post-Christian civilizations–as a prominent EU official described his continent to me–are more prone than traditional societies to mistake the present tense for a permanent feature. Religious cultures have a much greater sense of both past and future, as we did a century ago, when we spoke of death as joining “the great majority” in “the unseen world.” But if secularism’s starting point is that this is all there is, it’s no surprise that, consciously or not, they invest the here and now with far greater powers of endurance than it’s ever had. The idea that progressive Euro-welfarism is the permanent resting place of human development was always foolish; we now know that it’s suicidally so.

And that’s just a sampling.

I think Steyn’s right on just about all his points, but I also know that demographics is a very hard field to predict much beyond the space of one generation. Is there anything that rules out a baby boom among young European Christians 30 years from now? Have there not been popular revivials or awakenings throughout the 2,000-year history of Christianity, often taking place in the midst of much civilizational decay? Or are Pope Benedict and others simply wasting their time?

Steyn addresses many issues central to the Acton Institute’s mission; it’d be a real shame if we couldn’t have a lively discussion over his piece. Let’s get one started, and maybe Hugh Hewitt will take notice.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 3, 2006
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First item in this month’s Christianity Today Bookmarks.

Conclusion: “Disconcertingly, Stark argues without qualification, nuance, and the balancing of perspectives that academics love so much. Nonetheless, he may be right.”

I’ve written about the narrower problem of generational conflict as it relates to social security policy, here and here.

From a perspective that encompasses the broader, related cultural, economic, and moral issues, Eric Cohen and Leon Kass write in Commentary the most thoughtful and thought-provoking piece I’ve read on the matter of intergenerational responsibility and end-of-life care.

Credit to Stanley Kurtz at The Corner.

My little home town of Seminole, Oklahoma, has been scorched by the wildfires sweeping through parts of Oklahoma and Texas. My mother’s beloved horse riding trails in the rural area around Seminole are either smoldering or threatened. I talked to an old high school friend about our response to the disaster. He said, “Karen, we paid attention after those hurricanes. We’re not looking to the government for help. The churches and people all around here have been helping since the fires started. People who had little to begin with, including insurance, have lost everything, even their kids’ Christmas.”

Why does it take such tragedies – fires, floods, hurricanes – to generate a wake up call for people to reach out to needy neighbors? The cultural shift toward “government professionals” taking primary care of society’s problems began 75 years ago, but surely this past year has made at least a figurative believer of the most adamant agnostic: Faith-based organizations meet even catastrophic needs more efficiently and effectively than government agencies or their bureaucratic charity look-alikes.

Subsidiarity – local people meeting individual and community needs in a manner that is direct, personal, and accountable – is more than just a “high falutin’ word” (as my mother often reminds me). Common sense by any other name is still common sense.

How many of us wait for a natural disaster before we’ll actively respond to need? If civil society truly is rooted in the belief that each person is created in God’s image and therefore has worth and dignity, then why is such a natural outreach to neighbors (across the fence and across town) not part of our daily lives?

In Oklahoma, churches that don’t normally house food banks and clothing stores have been collecting these things to help people who have been burned out. But local assistance, as with the Gulf hurricanes, needs to be broader. One group of churchgoers in Texas sat in folding chairs next to their burned out church for Sunday services, a reminder that that people are the church, not the building. The broader faith community is the most effective model of subsidiarity. And that’s a good high falutin’ word for a principle that is simple and true.