Last Thursday at Rome’s (but technically part of Vatican City) Pontifical Lateran University, Istituto Acton held a day-long conference on “Ethics, Aging and the Coming Healthcare Challenge.”

It was a successful event, if a bit unusual compared to some of our other Roman gatherings. It’s not often that an Acton conference is so focused on the finality of death, after all; we often stick to the other “inevitability” of life, i.e. taxes. Yet in both spiritual and economic terms, there’s no sense in denying it.

The conference covered many different aspects of the changing demographics affecting health care, ranging from declining fertility rates to pharmaceutical research to pensions to hospice care. One of the main objectives of the conference was to help participants understand how both ethics and economics can work together to help us confront the challenge of aging populations.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family, the Centro di Orientamento Politicio, Associazione Famiglia Domani, Human Life International, and Health Care Italia. As you can tell from the nature of these organizations, we sought to place health care issues in the context of the family, following Catholic social teaching’s emphases on this fundamental institution and the principle of subsidiarity.

Here are audio clips from three of our speakers who appeared on Vatican Radio’s English World News service:

Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, click here

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy of the University of Chicago, click here

Dr. Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, click here

For the first time, we live-streamed a conference on the Acton website, and we’ll soon post the conference papers and presentations as well as related media on the Istituto Acton webpage.

Last night a band of hearty travelers braved the first snow of the season here in Grand Rapids (and the attendant slick and dangerous roads) to hear Dr. John H. Armstrong speak at the November/December Acton on Tap, “Ecumenism and the Threat of Ideology.” Dr. Armstrong is founder of ACT 3 and adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College.

Armstrong spent some time discussing the thesis of his book, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. A recurring theme was the phrase coined by Timothy George, “ecumenism in the trenches,” which is sometimes how we describe what we do here at Acton. The basic point of Armstrong’s book is that Christians must be able to come together to work in concrete ways in order to be an effective and faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the culture and the world.

As Peter writes, we are to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV). Undoubtedly this call to live “good lives” means showing love to other people, “especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).

Armstrong also discussed the threat that ideology poses to unity in Christ. He defines ideology as “visionary theorizing, or to a systematic body of concepts, especially regarding human culture or life. I have in mind not only a body of systematic concepts but particularly the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program of some type.” This understanding of ideology coheres perfectly with the critique of liberationist ideology in the ecumenical movement in my book, Ecumenical Babel.

The night concluded with a salient quote from Russell Kirk about the dangers of ideology. Kirk writes,

We live in an era when the passions of ideology and the passions of religion become joined in certain zealots. Thus we hear intemperate talk, in many communions and denominations, of Christian revolution. Most of the men and women who use such language undoubtedly mean a bloodless, if abrupt, transformation of social institutions. Yet some of them nowadays, as in past times, would not scruple at a fair amount of bloodletting in their sacred cause. Whether bloodless or bloody, an upheaval justified by the immanentizing of Christian symbols of salvation defies the Beatitudes and devours its children. Soon the Christian ideologues (an insane conjunction) find themselves saddled and ridden by some “great bad man,” a Cromwell at best.

As Armstrong notes, Kirk’s comment about Cromwell displays his ardent Catholicism, but it also stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of ideology and utopian thinking.

Later on in his essay, “Promises and Perils of Christian Politics,” published in the 1980s, Kirk points explicitly to the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches for places (among many others) where this “insane conjunction” is displayed.

Dr. Armstrong blogs here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
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This week’s Acton commentary from Research Director Samuel Gregg. Sign up for the free, weekly newsletter from Acton for the latest news and analysis.

Benedict XVI: Christian Radical

By Samuel Gregg

As the condom-wars ignited by Benedict XVI’s Light of the World abate, some attention might finally be paid to the book’s broader themes and what they indicate about Benedict’s pontificate. In this regard, perhaps the interview’s most revealing aspect is the picture that emerges of Pope Benedict as nothing more and nothing less than a Christian radical.

Those accustomed to cartoon-like depictions of Joseph Ratzinger as a “reactionary” might be surprised by this description. But by “radical,” I don’t mean the type of priest or minister who only wears clerical garb when attending left-wing rallies or publically disputing particular church doctrines.

The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” It’s in this sense Benedict is radical. His pontificate is about going back to Christianity’s roots to make, as Benedict says, “visible again the center of Christian life” and then shining that light upon the world so that we might see the truth about ourselves.

At Christianity’s center, Benedict states, is the person of Jesus Christ. But this person, the pope insists, is not whoever we want him to be. Christ is not the self-help guru proclaimed by the charlatans of the Prosperity Gospel. Nor is he the proto-Marxist beloved by devotees of the now-defunct liberation theologies. Still less is Christ a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man”, as once opined by that noted biblical scholar, Elton John.

According to Benedict, Christ is who Christ says he is: the Son of God. Hence, there is no contradiction between what some call “the Christ of faith” and “the Christ of history.” In Light of the World, Benedict confirms that underscoring this point was why he wrote his best-selling Jesus of Nazareth (2007). “The Jesus in whom we believe,” Benedict claims, “is really also the historical Jesus.” (more…)

Peter Cook (center) with fellowship recipients Bo Helmlich (right) and Adam Co at Acton’s 1999 Annual Dinner.

In the main hallway of the Acton Institute hangs a large plaque. The plaque carries the names of the most exceptional students to grace Acton’s Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conferences from 1994 forward. These students, named as Cook Fellows for their outstanding promise and engaged participation, share a connection to the great businessman and philanthropist, Peter Cook. Over the 20 years of the Acton Institute, Mr. Cook sponsored more than 200 students to attend Acton programs, equipping them to articulate and defend the value of a free and virtuous society.

Peter Cook passed away on Sunday evening at the age of 96. His contributions to Acton’s home region of West Michigan are well recognized, but his impact throughout the country and around the world is beyond measure.

This morning, I spent some time reading through files upon files of student testimonials and thank you letters in Acton’s office. The gratitude and admiration felt by complete strangers for Mr. Cook’s life and legacy are in overwhelming evidence. In honor of his passing, I’d like to take a moment to share just a handful of the sentiments expressed.

In 2001, Crossroads of Life pastor and Cook Fellow Lance Scherer wrote:

Even though we have never met, your legacy has been imprinted upon my heart through your generosity. We have such a faithful God, and some of the most thrilling moments in my life have been when I could tangibly see God’s smile upon my life through support like you have demonstrated to me.

2002 participant and professor at Criswell College, Joe Wooddell continued:

Thank you so much for allowing God to use you to help build His kingdom in this unique way. I am better for it, as are my present students and future ministry.

Catholic seminarian Francesco Giordano expressed his admiration differently:

Thoughts and ideas become words; words become actions; actions become habits; and habits become second nature. Thank you for caring about ideas, especially about ideas which our society cannot afford to abandon.

Anglican seminarian and Cook Fellow Christopher Brown most closely expressed our feelings at Acton, writing in 2007:

Thank you so very much… My prayers will be with you continually for the blessing of you and yours. And may you always be comforted by the knowledge that your patronage is raising up generations of energized Christians.

Today a group of Calvin Seminary students enjoyed a lunchtime talk by Dr. John H. Armstrong, founder of ACT 3 and adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College, “Missional-Ecumenism: The Protestant Challenge and Opportunity.” Dr. Armstrong spoke about his book, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church, where he lays out his vision for missional-ecumenism. Rather than emphasizing the institutional and international focus of the older mainline ecumenical movement, Dr. Armstrong’s vision is focused on local and practical work that Christians of all stripes can do together. It is what happens when ecumenism meets subsidiarity.

John Armstrong / CTS 2

The Acton Institute co-sponsored the luncheon along with ACT 3, and it was a pleasure to hear Dr. Armstrong’s story and about his engagement with Christians from a variety of different denominational and confessional traditions. One of the important points he made was the formative influence that Roman Catholic Social Teaching has had on his ethical thinking as a Protestant. He pointed especially to Rerum Novarum and the subsequent social encyclicals as important sources for Protestant dialogue and engagement.

John Armstrong / CTS 3

Dr. Armstrong will be teaching the course on Introduction to Protestant Social Thought at Acton University 2011, and he will also be speaking at another local event here in Grand Rapids later this week. On Wednesday evening, Dr. Armstrong will discuss “Ecumenism and the Threat of Ideology.” Join us if you are able for a night of fun, fellowship, and discussion.

John Armstrong / CTS 1

Dr. Armstrong blogs here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Text of proclamation:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful providence of almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.


President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation, Oct. 3, 1863.

A blessed Thanksgiving to all from the Acton Institute!

On Nov. 18, at the General Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Gene Edward Veith of Patrick Henry College gave a lecture titled, “Vocation: The Doctrine of Christian Life.” In the lecture, he explains why theological educators can’t fulfill their own vocation until they recover the vocations of those around them. The lecture was sponsored by the Oikonomia Network, a project of the Kern Family Foundation, dedicated to integrating discipleship with everyday life by developing a biblical perspective on work and economics. The event was hosted by Greg Forster, the Foundation’s program director for American history, economics and religion.

Gene Edward Veith is the Provost and Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity and culture.

This week’s Acton Commentary. Sign up for our free, weekly email newsletter here.

Europe, Immigration, and Merkel’s Christian Values

By Samuel Gregg

It’s not often senior European political leaders make politically-incorrect statements, but Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently made a habit of it. The subject has been the touchy question of Muslim immigration and the challenges it poses for European identity. Not only has Merkel upset the European political class (especially the Left and the Greens) by saying what everyone knows—that multiculturalism has “utterly failed”—but she also argued that the issue was not “too much Islam” but “too little Christianity.”

“We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind,” Merkel claimed in a recent speech. She then stressed that Germany needs to reflect more upon “the values that guide us, about our Judeo-Christian tradition.” It was one way, Merkel maintained, of bringing “about cohesion in our society.”

Merkel: Multikulti not working for Germans

On one level, Merkel is surely stating the blindingly obvious. How can Europeans ask Muslim immigrants to integrate into European society and respect European values without Europeans themselves being clear in their own minds about what values are at the core of European identity and where these values come from?

And as much as significant portions of European society would like to deny it, it’s simply a historical fact that the idea of Europe and European values such as liberty, equality before the law, and solidarity did not suddenly appear ex nihilo in the late seventeenth-century with the various Enlightenments. Central to the formation of European identity and such values was the synthesis of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem achieved by Christianity following the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in 476 A.D.

Indeed there’s plenty of evidence that the antecedents of most of the various freedoms and genuine achievements of the various Enlightenments are to be found in Christianity. There is increasing recognition, for example, that the idea of human rights was first given concrete expression by medieval canon lawyers.

Yet it is hardly a secret that the Judeo-Christian heritage sits very loosely on many European societies. We find this in a type of secular-fundamentalism—exemplified by Spain’s current Socialist government—that has become fashionable among sections of the European Left. But the ambiguity also manifests itself in the persistence of historical legends that diminish, distort, and denigrate Christianity’s contributions to European civilization.

A good example is the mythology of the so-called “Dark Ages” that permeates popular and elite discussion of European history. Most of the moral, political, and legal foundations of modern market economies, for instance, were established in Europe well before the sixteenth century. Likewise the scientific method was born in the Middle Ages. Medieval thinkers such as Albertus Magnus made crucial contributions to the development of the natural sciences. Yet despite these facts, many persist in claiming that market economies are essentially a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, or that Christianity is essentially “anti-science.”

But the problem is not only with secular opinion. Since the 1950s, many European Christians have gradually reduced their Christian faith to a vacuous humanitarianism worthy of the best EU-funded NGO. One difficulty with “liberal Christianity” (or whatever’s left of it) is that it isn’t especially interested in affirming any Christian values that go beyond sentimental platitudes about tolerance and equality which are routinely emptied of any specific Christian content. It’s goodbye Thomas Aquinas, hello John Rawls.

This makes it even more ironic that increasing numbers of secular European thinkers believe Europe can only reinvigorate its distinct identity and values through reengaging its Judeo-Christian heritage. This is certainly the conclusion of one of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas.

A self-described “methodological atheist,” Habermas has been insisting for some time that Europe no longer has the luxury of wallowing in historical denial. As Habermas wrote in his 2006 book, A Time of Transitions: “Christianity, and nothing else [is] the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

It follows that any serious discussion of Europe’s Christian values in the context of contemporary immigration and identity debates will require many Europeans to go beyond their often-truncated understandings of European history and Christianity. There’s something paradoxical about this being facilitated by the increasing numbers of Muslims living in Europe. But such an engagement is arguably being made even more urgent by the economic reality that Europe will need even more immigrants if its present demographic winter persists for any significant period of time.

What Chancellor Merkel herself understands by “the Christian view of mankind” was not clear from her remarks. Nor is it evident that particular Christian ideas are always compatible with some Muslim positions. Despite the interfaith babble to the contrary, there are some fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Islam, many of which have implications for subjects ranging from religious liberty to the nature of the state. Merkel, however, is undoubtedly correct to insist that any discussion of immigration in Europe should involve Europeans worrying a little less about Islam and paying far more attention to knowing the truth about their own heritage and Christianity’s place in it.

The truth doesn’t just set us free. There’s no future without it.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Kevin J. Jones of the Catholic News Agency interviewed Acton’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Dr. Steven Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, to find out how the Tea Party lines up with Catholic Social Teaching. Here’s a snip:

Fr. Sirico described the Tea Party as “an amorphous thing” with a lot of variety and as a “populist, spontaneous movement.” He thought its common themes include a desire for less government and a desire “to limit the power that politicians have over peoples’ lives.”

Participants find motivation in a variety of philosophies. Some have “well-developed Catholic sensibilities” while others’ sensibilities are “almost anarchistic.” He thought it was “remarkable” that the Tea Party could bring so many non-political people into the political process. The Church’s teaching on subsidiarity can meet these people and “augment what they’re doing,” he said, while also guarding against “the more fanatical edges of the tea party.”

Fr. Sirico explained subsidiarity as being the principle that higher levels of society should not intervene in lower levels without “manifest and real necessity,” and such intervention should only be temporary. “Needs are best met at the local level,” he said, calling government “the resource of last resort.”

Read the entire article at “Catholic thinkers examine Tea Party movement and Church teaching” on Catholic Online.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
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A number of Acton staffers, including myself, had the pleasure of attending the 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society held in Atlanta, Georgia. There will be more on some of the goings-on at this event to come, but to get a sense of what our presence was like in the exhibition space, check out the pictures below. Kudos especially to Kara Eagle who did a great job with design (assisted by Melissa Burkholder) and execution of our exhibit space.

Acton at ETS 2010 4

We had a great time meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends. This is an audience that Acton is committed to engaging in the long-term.

Acton at ETS 2010 1

Last week we also launched the schedule for Acton University 2011, and we had a station (in use the above picture) for ETS attendees to register on-site.

Acton at ETS 2010 2

We enjoyed a lot of foot traffic during the conference, and had the opportunity to introduce ourselves and our work to many people who either hadn’t heard of Acton or were not really very familiar with us.

Acton at ETS 2010 3

We also had time, however, to deepen relationships with friends and discuss weighty matters related to stewardship, natural law, virtue, ethics, economics, and the Christian faith. We look forward to seeing you next year if you attend the ETS meeting in San Francisco.