Continuing the tradition from 2010, Acton University 2011 lectures will be available for purchase online from our secure order page.  New lectures will be posted as they conclude throughout the week, so check back often.

The downloads are in MP3 format and can be transferred to any device that plays audio files such as an iPod or smartphone.

Here are some useful Acton University links:

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
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My Acton Commentary for this week tries to explain the differences between Christian proponents and opponents of Republican budget proposals:

A Circle of Exchange is Better Than a Circle of Protection

Strife over the budget in Washington continues, with religious leaders and organizations weighing in on both sides. The positions of Christian participants in this battle are as intractable as the secular combatants and for the same reason: A fundamental difference of outlook concerning the role of government and the effect of government programs.

This clash has been reflected in recent debates among Christian leaders and organizations. A group of Catholic professors charged that John Boehner (and by implication every Catholic who agrees with his budgetary priorities) dissents from Church doctrine by favoring cuts to welfare programs. Fr. Robert Sirico, George Weigel, and others responded by challenging the view that Democratic domestic policy aligns neatly with the Catholic social teaching. Boehner’s Catholic critics were among those who issued an ecumenical statement calling for a “Circle of Protection” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”

Advocates of sustained or increased government poverty programs insist that such programs genuinely do help the poor. The Circle of Protection signatories insist, “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.” To its credit, this statement implicitly recognizes that there may be inefficiencies and abuses in such programs. Yet, the idea that decreased spending could actually be a path to making poverty programs more effective does not, apparently, enter the realm of possibility.

In the midst of the Boehner controversy, a writer at the Catholic blog Vox Nova asked, “Can anybody possibly argue that the Boehner budget protects the poor?” The writer avows that the pairing of tax cuts for higher income earners with spending cuts to “programs that help the poor and people of limited means” is incontrovertibly inimical to Catholic social teaching.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Defenders of government welfare programs not only cannot conceive of the possibility that government programs actually harm rather than help the people they target; they cannot conceive of the possibility that anyone else could conceive of the possibility. Those of us who sincerely believe that such programs are harmful are baffled at what we perceive to be stubborn resistance to the facts of the matter: Spending for programs related to the War on Poverty has increased 13-fold since Lyndon Johnson inaugurated them, without appreciable positive effect. Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est (2005) that we need “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.” It is hard to see how Medicaid and the food stamp program fit this model.

Opponents of Republican budget proposals fail to recognize the tension within their own view. The Vox Nova blogger recognizes that the deficit crisis was caused in part by a “collapse in revenue.” The Circle of Protection statement deserves praise, too, for its insistence that “A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth. Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.” Unfortunately, the statement signers do not see that the vibrant economy they rightly desire as an antidote to poverty might be stifled by other pieces of the program they advocate.

What unemployed and impoverished people really need is not government handouts, but access to, and the capacity and inducement to engage, the market economy—as Pope John Paul II put it, to “enter the circle of exchange.” Government policy should be encouraging companies to hire and potential employees to be hired. Yet, to take but one example of recent counter productivity, economists have shown that extending unemployment benefits beyond a certain length of time correlates with higher unemployment rates. If a safety net becomes too comfortable, people are inclined to remain in it. Welfare program advocates deny this vehemently—everyone wants to work, they say; they just need the chance—but statistical evidence and a realistic understanding of human nature contradict them. It could be that the perfect job is not available; maybe finding work means picking up and moving, or taking a cut in pay, or training to acquire a new skill. People faced with these situations deserve our compassion and assistance. But if we minimize the incentive to do what is necessary to find employment, we do neither the out-of-work individual nor the overall economy any favors.

On point number seven of the Circle of Protection statement, we can all agree: “As believers, we turn to God with prayer and fasting, to ask for guidance as our nation makes decisions about our priorities as a people.” Budget decisions are indeed moral acts. Whether morality points us toward expansion of poverty reduction programs or toward thorough revision—even reduction—of them, is another question. It is a good thing that Christians are engaged in this debate, for its outcome will have far-reaching repercussions for the poor, and for all of us.

We now have a live stream of the #ActonU hashtag on Twitter running on the right side of our blog. This tab will keep you updated on the folks who are using this tag in their Twitter posts. Feel free to join in and be featured on the blog! You might even find someone to meet up with between sessions. For those of you who aren’t at Acton University you can use the feed to find out what you’re missing. If you do not see the feed on the right side of the blog you may need to refresh your browser.

Update 6/20/2011: The live stream has been removed since Acton University has concluded.  You can still check out the stream on Twitter if you’re interested.

Recently, progressive Catholics met in Detroit and issued calls for a married clergy and the ordination of women priests. In a very timely article Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute, addresses the progressive Catholics who “sit rather loosely with Catholic teaching on questions like life and marriage” and how they are continuing “to press what is often a hyper-politicized understanding of the gospel.” Gregg’s article appearing in Crisis Magazine.

The roots of the progressive Catholic’s problems may lie in the view of hell:

Perhaps it has something to do with the eternal quest for “relevance” that’s often fuelled by living in hothouses like Washington, D.C. In some cases, it might be ambitions of a political appointment. While such factors shouldn’t be discounted, deeper theological influences may be at work. Though it’s impolitic to say so, one such pressure may be the effective denial of the reality of hell that has become part of much contemporary Christian life.

Hell is not a comfortable subject. The idea that we can, by virtue of one or more of our free choices, potentially separate ourselves eternally from God’s love is frightening.

But the reality of hell and that it will be populated by those who fail to choose to repent of such choices (we don’t know the identity or number of such people, and pray and hope we won’t  be among them) is firmly attested to by Scripture and Tradition. St. Augustine’s City of God devotes several chapters to affirming these truths. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers specifically to those who die in a state of mortal sin enduring “eternal separation from God.”

Moreover, from the standpoint of reason, hell is a logical side effect of God’s willingness to let us choose whether or not to live in His Truth.

God doesn’t will that anyone goes to hell. Hell is, as the philosopher John Finnis writes, “a self-made judgment, the inherent outcome of a sin by which one refuses to remain and grow in friendship with God.”

As a reality, however, hell has disappeared from some Christians’ horizons. This partly owes something to those biblical scholars who have reduced the gospels to “symbols” and “stories,” the “real” meaning of which — so they tell us — actually contradicts what the Church has always understood them to mean.

Gregg explains that we have a choice to live in God’s truth or not. We commits ourselves, actually, to an afterlife in heaven or hell. As a result, as Gregg articulates, we shouldn’t avoid the topic. Instead we should imagine and embrace what salvation really means:

More generally, most Catholics aren’t called to a life of activism (left or right). As part of God’s design, we all have different vocations, the faithful fulfilling of which mysteriously helps, as Vatican II taught, “to prepare the material [materiam] of the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, eternal life does in fact somehow begin now. Our good works today — what Vatican II called “all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise [industriae],” most notably “human dignity [humanae dignitatis], brotherhood [communionis fraternae] and freedom [libertatis]” — will be taken up, cleansed of sin, and perfected when Christ returns.

None of this makes sense, however, without accepting Catholic teaching about the hope of heaven and hence the alternative of effectively choosing hell. Herein lies the gospel’s ultimate relevance. Embracing it is the path to true freedom, not to mention eternal life.

Click here to read the full article.

There’s a saying that when goods cross borders, armies don’t (it’s the correlative to the observation attributed to Bastiat: “If goods cannot cross borders, armies will.”). The point is that trade tends to bring people together who might otherwise have cause to be hostile. One of the themes at Acton University, which begins in just a few hours, is globalization and various Christian responses. That’s sure to be the case again this year, as we have just about 70 countries represented among the various participants.

It’s within this context that I want to pass along a noteworthy story I heard yesterday on our statewide public radio station, Michigan Radio. It focuses on what automaker General Motors did when faced with parts shortages following the Fukushima earthquake.

GM added a local Japan-based “War Room” to its response, focusing on solving problems on the ground to get the supply-chain back up and running. As Tracy Samilton reports, “Once the suppliers became convinced GM wasn’t there to dump them, they were awfully happy for their customer’s help. Whatever GM could do, it did. One supplier ran out of a special form of hydrogen peroxide. GM found another source for it and shipped it in from Korea. The company hired trucks.”

So when you have companies with global reach across borders and global supply chains to match, you get a different kind of “War Room,” those focused on putting “the links of the Japanese supply chain back together, often just in time to keep an assembly line from shutting down.”

As Samilton summarizes the lessons of the parts crisis, “People involved in the effort say they grew as human beings, grew closer to each other, met people in the company they might never have known. It was tough. But War Room veterans are keen to point out that they’re not the heroes of this story.”

Ron Mills, head of engineering at GM’s Tech Center, puts it this way,

“We all worked really hard here, but at the end of the day, I did go home, right? And I ate well, and people in Japan could not do that. They had to work hard and also go back and try to find food and clothing and shelter for them and their families and which – I was just in awe of how hard and how they were able to endure.”

The GM workers were driven both by a sense of self-preservation and need as well as genuine concern for their Japanese partners, a concern that became more concrete and palpable as the invisible hands up the supply chain became increasingly visible.

The green movement has had a dramatic, long lasting impact on public policy, individuals, and even religion. But many people of faith have criticized supporters of the green movement, equating  its strong followers with those who practice a pagan religion in support of Mother Nature.

As Christians we are called to be environmental stewards and to care for God’s creation. However, putting aside the perceptual paganism of a too dedicated support of the green movement, one must ask, is the green movement really accomplishing its mission and gaining support or is it actually turning people away from protecting the environment?

Reflecting upon my time spent at college I remember many of my Christian and conservative friends would throw a plastic water bottle in the trash when a recycling bin was right next to it, smirking and saying that’ll show all the environmental hippies. They admitted they were turned off by the aggressiveness and rhetoric of the green movement while also saying it fails to take into account that human beings also reside on the planet. Instead, they felt the green movement communicated that plants and animals were more important than people.

Many green movement policies seem counterintuitive to protecting the environment. From wind mills killing birds, which according to the Wall Street Journal, it is estimated  75,000 to 275,000 birds are killed by wind mills in the U.S. per year including the golden eagle in California which taxpayers spent a large sum of money on to protect. Now there are plans in the works for killing feral camels in Australia. Why? They damage vegetation and produce a methane equivalent to one ton of carbon dioxide a year.

Green movement policies have many unintended consequences. However we must decide whether the consequences are worth enacting the policy. Are killing feral camels going to save the planet, and is that even responsible? Are we to decide what part of God’s creation is a “productive” contributor to the earth, and if it isn’t do we really have the right to decide what part of God’s creation is to live and die?

Many Christians are now seeking a more positive expression of being an environmental steward and also a follower of the green movement. Marvin Olasky states in an article published by World Magazine that in the call to environmental stewardship, “The Bible teaches that human beings have an obligation to be stewards and gardeners in a way that benefits other men and women and also other creatures.”

While they are full of good intentions, green policies may alienate the centerpiece of  God’s creation: the human person. Failing to take into account the person, green policies put a burden on people in order to protect the environment and the creatures of this planet; the green movement needs to recognize that people are just as much a part of this planet as the trees, flowers, bugs, polar beers, and every other creature and planet we are blessed with. Environmentalist Peter Harris explains in Christianity Today that the green movement often fails to take into account the human relationship with creation:

There is a radical environmentalism that wishes people were not on the planet. That’s not the biblical view at all. A Rocha in the United Kingdom actually works in the most polluted, urban borough of the country, because creation isn’t absent just because people are there. The Challenge is how to restore a right way of life, rather than escaping to some wilderness paradise. Fifty percent of the planet now lives in cities. That is where we live out our relationship with creation.

Yes we need to care for creation. The environment is a gift and we are responsible to care for and preserve God’s creation. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we ourselves are a part of God’s creation and we are called to more than just environmental stewardship. We are called to be financial stewards and many forms of alternative energy are not cost efficient or financially responsible. We are also called to care of the poor, understanding that stringent environmental standards may make it harder for the poor to rise out of poverty. And finally, we are called to live as images in the likeness of God.

Marvin Olasky states that, “The Bible teaches that human beings have an obligation to be stewards and gardeners in a way that benefits other men and women and also other creatures.” Such an obligation to environmental stewardship can be as simple as being responsible, from not littering to recycling old cell phone batteries. We know the negative consequences that littering and cell phone batteries have on the environment, even though they may strike some as small things. When we are knowledgeable of such negative consequences we are responsible to act in the correct manner to preserve the environment. Not only are we taking care of God’s creation, but we are also showing our love for our neighbors by taking care of the same planet that they too call home.

On the Patheos website, Rev. Robert A. Sirico examines the current debate over the legacy of Ayn Rand in conservative circles, and the attempt by liberal/progressives to tarnish prominent figures like Rep. Paul Ryan with “hyperbolic and personal critiques of the woman and her thought.” But what if there is much to Rand that defies the caricature?

Rev. Sirico writes:

There is in Rand an undeniable and passionate quest, a hunger for truth, for the ideal, for morality, for a just ordering of the world. She is indeed frequently adolescent in this quest, yet this may be just what appeals to so many idealistic young people who read her before reading the Tradition in depth.

One of the most famous opening lines in literature is the question she poses and uses as a device throughout Atlas, a question now on display at Tea Party rallies: “Who is John Galt?” The answer is not immediately given in the book; it (he) remains mysterious throughout much of the novel. Yet it inexorably emerges: Galt is for Rand the ideal man—the Man of the Mind (the logos); the One upon whom the world and its creative capacity depend. He is, in a real sense for Rand, the God-Man.

As the plot unfolds, it might be said that Galt “comes unto his own and his own receives him not.” In fact, the world despises him, not because he is evil, but because he is good, and the leaders of the people set out to kill him because of his goodness and because those in darkness hate the light, their deeds being evil and contradictory. When the final confrontation with evil comes, Galt falls “into the hands of evil men” who seek to destroy him—these were the high priests of their day—and who have a certain fear of him because the people resonate with his message (all encapsulated in a speech anything but the length of the Beatitudes).

Read “Who Really Was John Galt, Anyway?” on Patheos.

My contribution for this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Inner-city education fails without the church

By Anthony Bradley

As Congress moves toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the problem is not that the Department of Education is not doing enough but that it suffers from an acute case of what psychologists call “organizational narcissism.” If they really wish to address America’s inner-city public school crisis, federal education officials must look beyond the boundaries of their own agencies and recognize the crucial role of churches.

Steven Churchill, of the Center for Organizational Design, explains that organizations can have a grandiose sense of self-importance and an inflated judgment of their own accomplishments, leading to “an unreal, self-defeating preoccupation with the company’s own image.” For example, even with overwhelming evidence that, other than family support, church involvement is the most consistent predictor of academic success for inner-city children, the organizational narcissism of the education industry prevents it from tapping into the resources of black and Latino churches.

In 2008, President Obama rightly acknowledged that, “There is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child’s education from day one.” This is an indisputable truth. What should baffle every American citizen is that the role of inner-city ethnic churches is oddly missing from the Obama administration’s education reform vision.

A series of 2010 studies in Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education (JNE), one of America’s oldest continuous academic journals focusing on black people, reported how church involvement increases education success in inner-cities. In “Faith in the Inner City: The Urban Black Church and Students’ Educational Outcomes,” Dr. Brian Barrett, an education professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland, describes the unique contributions black churches play in cultivating successful students in the inner-cities. He observed that “religious socialization reinforces attitudes, outlooks, behaviors, and practices … particularly through individuals’ commitment to and adoption of the goals and expectations of the group” that are conducive to “positive educational outcomes.”  In fact, back in 2009 Barrett reported that for black inner-city youth who reported attending religious services often, the black/white achievement gap “was eliminated.”

Barrett reports that one of the most important advantages of inner-city churches is that they provide “a community where Black students are valued, both for their academic success and, more broadly, as human beings and members of society with promise, with talents to contribute, and from whom success is to be expected.” Churches also affirm inner-city youth as trusted members of a community that celebrates academic success, and the practices that produce it, which overrides the low expectations communicated at school. Additionally, Barrett highlights the ways in which black churches, because they are equipped to deal with families, are effective at sustaining and encouraging parental educational involvement from the heart as well as providing contexts where youth can have regular contact with other adults for role-modeling and mentoring.

Barrett is not alone. In another JNE study of 4,273 black students titled, “How Religious, Social, and Cultural Capital Factors Influence Educational Aspirations of African American Adolescents,” Hussain Al-Fadhli and Thomas Kersen, sociology professors at Jackson State University, report that “family and religious social capital are the most potent predictors for positive student college aspirations.” These scholars explain that “students who attend church and believe religion is important may be more likely to interact with more adults who can help them with their school work and even provide guidance about their futures goals and plans.” The authors conclude that students with an “active religious life, involved parents, and active social life have greater opportunities and choices in the future.”

Since W.E.B. DuBois wrote in the 1890s about the black church, dozens of studies confirm this truth: Low-income black kids will not achieve academic success without strong families and the church. Strengthening these institutions, however, is beyond the expertise of any government agency or education program or policy. Using President Obama’s phrasing, if parents need to be involved in a child’s education from day one, in the inner-city the church must be involved beginning on day two. Without thriving and healthy inner-city churches, low-performing schools are simply cultivating the next generation of crime and welfare statistics. We owe it to children to place them in contexts that are sustainable and effective.

A dispute has arisen in Illinois between Catholic Charities and the state government. As the National Catholic Register explains it, “Catholic Charities branches of three Illinois dioceses have filed a lawsuit against the state of Illinois in order to continue operating according to Catholic principles — by providing foster care and adoption services only to married couples or non-cohabitating singles.” In an interview, with the newspaper, Rev. Robert A. Sirico defends Catholic Charities in light of the principle of subsidiarity while arguing for the right of the Catholic Charities to exist and conduct its own business without the influence of the state:

“What is it about foster care that necessitates a state-run system? Why can’t it be done on local levels?” he said. “Why can’t a city, municipality or affiliation of organizations do it and merely abide by standards set by the state? But when you have it monopolized, in effect, by the state [which uses organizations such as Catholic Charities as contractors to provide services], then you have the political-interest groups in control.”

Rev. Sirico also offers a solution for guaranteeing the independence of Catholic Charities:

“I think we need to separate the giving from the mechanism of the state,” Father Sirico continued. “I think there are ways to incentivize people to give that aren’t channeled through political and bureaucratic agencies. For instance, what if we had a tax credit to corporations or individuals that allowed their money to be used in a way that isn’t run through the state, but for services that they’re already obligated to pay the state to perform? For example, you have a tax obligation; but let’s say you’re allowed to take the portion going to social services and designate it to a specific charity you wanted to support. You don’t pay the state. The state reduces its involvement in that sphere. What you do is present the state with a documented receipt that you paid money to that charity.”

Click here to read the full article

Detroit has has been plagued by the economic downturn more than most cities, and has struggled to recover. However, sometimes gloomy economic conditions breed innovation. That is the focus of Jordan Ballor’s “Let Detroit’s farms flourish” which appeared in the Detroit News.

Ballor explains that residents are putting vacant lots to use by urban farming:

These areas of growth, in the form of cooperatives, community programs and individual plots, represent a significant avenue for the revitalization of the city. The benefits of urban farming are manifold. Otherwise unproductive vacant lots, which have been estimated to number close to 100,000, are put to an economically and socially positive use. Urban farmers learn skills and discipline necessary to have long-term economic success.

For some, urban farming is a necessity, for others, such as the youth, it may be a new opportunity to keep them off the streets; however for everyone partaking, it is form of creativity and responsibility rooted in the Bible:

In these kinds of efforts we see the spark of human creativity and responsibility shine through in the face of adversity. This creativity reflects in a human way the creativity of the divine. The biblical account of creation includes the blessing to humankind, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the Earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). This blessing has been understood to refer to human cultural work in all kinds of areas, including the cultivation of the land and the raising of crops. We find God’s specific injunction to Adam to reflect this aspect of cultivation quite clearly: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:16). And as the Bible begins with human beings caring for a garden, it ends with restored humanity living in a city, the New Jerusalem (Revelations 21).

Unfortunately some Detroit residents are discovering that everyone isn’t encouraging their innovation and desire to farm. City regulations are preventing some from succeeding:

There are perils, of course, and perhaps there are none greater than the political culture of regulation, entitlement and corruption that has marred the city for decades. The city government must not crush this nascent urban gardening movement through superfluous regulation and the instinctive reflex to government control.

This has already happened in the case of Neighbors Building Brightmoor, which maintains gardens on city-owned lots. Reit Schumack, who heads up the group, says that new city regulations will, among other things, prevent him from organizing a youth group as he has done in the past to grow food and sell it at a farmers market. “It’s a beautiful self-sustaining program where 15 kids are busy the entire growing season, make money, learn all kinds of skills, and really, I can’t do this. This is forbidden, what I’m doing,” Schumack recently told Michigan Public Radio.

Let’s hope that Detroit sends a message of hope and encouragement to its residents. In these struggling times, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit should be encouraged. Detroit’s past has been plagued by a corrupt overregulated political culture. Instead of stifling growth, Detroit should seize upon this opportunity to demonstrate that it is going to take a new path towards creating a political environment that allows it to flourish once again.

Click here the read the full article.