Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Pope Benedict’s Defense of Authentic Equality

By Michael Miller

Once again the mild-mannered but intellectually fierce Pope Benedict XVI has provoked criticism over remarks that challenge the secular establishment’s provincial understanding of the world. In his speech to the bishops of England and Wales in Rome last week, during their ad limina visit, the Pope encouraged them to fight against so-called equality legislation. He argued that such legislation limits “the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs” and in some cases “actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded” and guaranteed.

Critics immediately jumped, claiming that the pope’s critique undermined protection of women and homosexuals in the workplace and promoted discrimination. Yet as usual, the critics not only mischaracterize, they miss the larger point. Benedict’s vision goes beyond provincial English politics. His concern is to preserve real freedom by revitalizing reason and respect for truth—not to pander to current fashions of ideological equality.

One of the more contentious parts of the equality legislation requires that religious adoption organizations end so-called “discrimination” and allow homosexual couples to adopt children. In practice this means that Catholic adoption agencies will be forced either to shut down or to act against their conscience. This is clearly a loss of religious freedom, but Benedict realizes there is a lot more going on.

First, Benedict’s remarks reflect one of the consistent themes of his papacy: to revitalize reason and a respect for truth in the West. In his famous homily before his election to the papacy, when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and throughout his writings and speeches, he has challenged the limited and ultimately irrational notion of reason that dominates Western intellectual life.

Second is his defense of authentic equality. The current legislation transforms equality from a question of justice and fairness before the law to an ideological weapon to further secularist social policy and discriminates against religion. This pseudo equality manifests a vitiated concept of reason. The equality laws in Britain reflect less the British tradition than they do Rousseau’s notion of radical equality, which has been the source of much socialist and liberal thought. Radical equality now has become praiseworthy as something good in itself, separated from any question of truth, common sense, or even biological realities. This is what happens when we lose a rich concept of reason: Anything goes—whatever is currently politically fashionable among the elite, or is supported by consensus. Pope Benedict understands that justice based on consensus is capricious and unstable.

Third is Benedict’s awareness of the need to protect the natural right of free association and freedom of religion within a pluralist society. The current equality legislation prevents religious and other peaceful groups within society to live according to their conscience. It also smacks of totalitarianism. The right of association has been a hallmark of free and prosperous societies, a protection for the weak and a guardian of justice. When it is undermined for ideological reasons, society suffers. Not only does it prevent people from living out their beliefs, it also reduces the power of civil society to check the state. Benedict’s critique of the equality law is a defense of people’s right to join together for some project that benefits the common good.

Benedict has been harangued for claiming that certain parts of the legislation violate the natural law. What does this arcane Medieval concept have to do with modern legislation? Well, everything. The genius of English freedom has been to base its society on law, not on ideology. English legal culture is rooted in the natural law tradition. A Guardian editorial on February 3rd argued that churches have as much to gain from the legislation as they do to lose because it protects Catholics from being discriminated against when they look for jobs—and accuses Benedict of being protected by the laws he is criticizing. But Benedict realizes that if law is not grounded in reason and truth and becomes unhinged from reality, then justice gets reduced to power—Might makes right. As a young man in Nazi Germany, Joseph Ratzinger experienced a society where power was separated from reason and justice. He knows what violations of the natural law mean in practice. Critics miss that Benedict is the one promoting real equality and equal protection against a theory of justice guided by whatever happens to be the fashion at the time.

Andrew Brown—also at the Guardian—writes, “Just when it seemed that Roman Catholicism was a normal and natural part of the English religious scene, Pope Benedict has to come out with a statement that raises every residual Protestant hackle in the country.” Brown conjectures that the pope didn’t expect to be heard. But of course he did. And precisely because the last thing Benedict wants is Catholicism to be a normal part of the current English religious scene. This may be what Mr. Brown wants, but a church that does nothing more than sway with the prevailing winds neither inspires nor draws people—nor does it have the strength to stand up against injustice and abuse.

Politics, Liberty, Beer

Politics, Liberty, Beer

Those of you within striking distance of West Michigan won’t want to miss the inaugural Acton on Tap, a casual and fun night out on Feb. 25 to discuss important and timely ideas with friends. And then there’s the beer!

The topic for the evening will be “The End of Liberty” and will draw on Lord Acton’s claims about the relationship between politics and liberty. Discussion leader Jordan Ballor, associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, will start it off by briefly discussing how politics and liberty relate to human beings’ greatest ends.

Here’s some Food for Thought from Lord Acton: Liberty and good government do not exclude each other, and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.

Where: Derby Station (formerly Graydon’s Crossing). 2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506. (Thursday special: $2.50 pints). No admission fee or registration required.

When: Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6:00 p.m. (casual start). 6:30 p.m.: Jordan speaks!

About Jordan Ballor:

Jordan J. Ballor is a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and a Doktorand in Reformation history at the University of Zurich.

He graduated in 2004 with a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in systematic theology from Calvin, with a thesis entitled, “Barth, Brunner, and Natural Theology in Bonhoeffer’s Middle Period (1931-1939).” His previous degrees include a Master of Theological Studies (2004-Calvin Theological Seminary) and a Bachelor of Arts in English (2000-Michigan State University/Honors College).

Jordan serves as associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. His scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC).

Topic: Does Capitalism Destroy Culture? A talk by Michael Miller.

When: Thursday, February 18, 2010. 11:45 a.m. Registration; 12:00 p.m. — 1:30 p.m. Lunch & Lecture

Cost: $15 Admission $5 Students (including lunch)

Where: Water’s Building — 161 Ottawa Ave, Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Map it.

Register online today!

Discover God’s design for life, the environment, finances, and eternity.

This NIV Stewardship Study Bible trailer provides a 30,000 foot view of the rich resources found within this study Bible. Whether you are pastor, deacon, elder, financial planner, development director, ministry leader, fundraising consultant … or simply someone interested in becoming a better steward of the resources entrusted to you by God, you might want to check out this video!

NIV Stewardship Study Bible Guided Tour from Brett Elder on Vimeo.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 5, 2010
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Ideas have consequences. Says Paul Tillich in 1967:

The anti-religious attitude of almost half of present-day mankind is rooted in this seemingly professiorial struggle between Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx, with both of the latter coming from Hegel. Feuerbach turned Hegel upside down, and then Marx introduced the sociological element. The projection of the transcendent world is the projection of the disinherited in this world. This was such a powerful argument that it convinced the masses of people. It took more than one hundred years before the labor movements in Europe were able to overcome this Feuerbachian-Marxian argument against Hegel’s attempt to unite Christianity and the modern mind.

–Paul Tillich, Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 141.

Thus Tillich traces the line of the “left-wing” Hegelians, who turned Hegel’s Absolute Spirit into absolute materialistic class struggle.

That’s the refreshing and surprisingly accurate headline attributed by The Guardian to Pope Benedict’s address to the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in Rome for their ad limina visit, which all bishops are required to make every five years. As my colleague Sam Gregg pointed out several years ago, this is yet another example of Benedict’s affinity with Alexis de Tocqueville.

Benedict’s address is such a clear reminder of what Catholic bishops need to do to defend truth and freedom that no commentary from me is necessary. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has voiced his approval, also in The Guardian.) I’ll just highlight this one statement by Benedict on the work and example of Cardinal Newman:

Much attention has rightly been given to Newman’s scholarship and to his extensive writings, but it is important to remember that he saw himself first and foremost as a priest. In this Annus Sacerdotalis, I urge you to hold up to your priests his example of dedication to prayer, pastoral sensitivity towards the needs of his flock, and passion for preaching the Gospel. You yourselves should set a similar example. Be close to your priests, and rekindle their sense of the enormous privilege and joy of standing among the people of God as alter Christus. In Newman’s words, “Christ’s priests have no priesthood but his … what they do, he does; when they baptize, He is baptizing; when they bless, he is blessing” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, VI 242).

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, February 4, 2010
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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a talk on theology and economics at New York’s Trinity Church last week. The historic Wall Street church was the site of the Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace conference which promised to “bring together leading theologians and economists to talk about the relationship between economics and Christian belief and action.”

Williams had this to say:

“Inevitably at some point, you have to talk about what level of wealth generation is compatible with the finite setting in which we live.” The global economic crisis, he said, brought to light “unreal forms of wealth generation which simply produce naughts on the end of a balance sheet that correspond to nothing.”

“Theology,” he said, “while it can’t solve specific economic problems, will be at the very least nagging at the vocabulary, nudging at the assumptions.”

And that’s how his talk went — long on literary and theological metaphor (“money is a metaphor like other things”) but precious little on economics. What’s more, there seemed to be no words in his vocabulary that would help him distinguish between competing economic systems or, in fact, help him describe how the economic systems in the United Kingdom or the United States actually work. At some point, economics transcends mere metaphor and goes to work in a concrete way in the world in which people live.

Is the archbishop aware that there has been a jaw-dropping, incredible reduction in global poverty?

World poverty is falling. … new estimates of the world’s income distribution and suggests that world poverty is disappearing faster than previously thought. From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa. Barring a catastrophe, there will never be more than a billion people in poverty in the future history of the world.

How did this happen? What type of economic system brought this about? Doesn’t it seem as though more than “naughts” are being produced in some of the poorest regions of the world? Is this poverty reduction not an occasion for rejoicing, or at the least singing a few hymns right there on Wall Street?

You can read the 3,600 word transcript of Williams’ talk here, but you won’t learn much about poverty reduction. Or economics.

And how many times do we have to be informed, by people who apparently believe they have discovered the connection for the first time, that the root meaning of economics is from the Greek word οικονομία for household management? Can you see the metaphor coming?

Williams announces that the “isolated homo economicus of the old textbooks, making rational calculations of self-interest, has been exposed as a straw man: the search for profit at all costs in terms of risk and unrealism has shown that there can be a form of economic ‘rationality’ that is in fact wildly irrational.”

Rowan Williams’ visit to Wall Street would have been more educational for him, and more edifying for those who heard his talk, if he had actually spent some time with the people who work in that district. He would have found out that, by and large, they’re not so “irrational” after all. They might help him understand how the world works, and that not everyone who labors on Wall Street, or on Main Street, believes that all human relations “are actually to do with exchange and the search for profit,” as he describes it. He might even find the imago Dei in one or two people who work on Wall Street. But he will only find that Image in real human persons, not metaphors.

Protection and justice for the Egyptian Coptic community is an issue that is very close to my heart. That is a major reason that this week’s Acton commentary highlights the grave difficulty of their situation. The inspiring news is that the international Coptic community has united to peacefully magnify their outrage of the violent shooting that took place on January 6; the date Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas Eve. I’d like to point out to our Powerblog readers one especially moving video by John Abiskaron called Coptic Justice. The short film chronicles the peaceful protests in Los Angeles on January 10.

I lived in Egypt for over two years and one thing that is especially telling about the people is how so many are very poor but filled with joy. Many of the poorest Egyptians are Christians too because of persecution by the Islamic majority and government. Living in Egypt was really the first time my eyes were opened to the heartbreaking poverty that plagues much of the globe. It was a very humbling experience and one that truly physically connects you to the deep thankfulness of your own opportunities and circumstances.

My first visit to the Zabaleen community in Cairo could only be described as almost utter disbelief. I didn’t want to believe people actually lived like that. And in a deeper spiritual sense you feel connected to them because the crosses many of them wear is a physical reminder that they are brothers and sisters in Christ. The Zebaleen are also a very proud and independent people and they have worked on many entrepreneurial endeavors with their task at trash collecting to better their own community and lives.

It is vital that Egypt receive greater pressure from the United States to vastly improve the treatment of Copts. It is important because it is a task that can be accomplished largely due to the amount of foreign aid Egypt receives from the United States. Egypt is very dependent on that aid and as Nina Shea will also reiterate in her upcoming Religion & Liberty interview, it is aid that must be leveraged for Coptic justice and protection.

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
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Revive is a word commonly associated with the efforts that paramedics and other medical personnel make when someone has stopped breathing. Whether that’s due to slipping beneath the pond ice or being pulled under by a nasty California rip tide, the consequences of inaction will be fatal.

So it’s an appropriate word for Hillsdale College to use in titling their townhall last Saturday – “Reviving The Constitution” – that was broadcast online from the Michigan college’s Washington D.C. annex, The Kirby Center.

A hat tip for their extraordinary effort.

“Through teaching the principles and practices of American constitutionalism,” Hillsdale’s Kirby Center “seeks to inspire all Americans to act worthy of the blessings of liberty.” And that’s a needed ingredient these days if our body politic is to avoid what can seem like its last gasps amid the Obama presidency.

The online presentation coincided with so many parallel themes that The ACTON Institute supports that I will not recite them here. But as a student who lived during the years following WWII and graduated from the kind of schools most Americans attend I will tell you that some of the information presented on Saturday shocked me. Nothing more so than the history of The Progressive Movement in America and the extent to which their heresy has permeated our civic life since the early parts of the last century.

Whether it’s Woodrow Wilson’s claim that Thomas Jefferson’s words in The Declaration of Independence, “and of Nature’s God” was an afterthought; or Wilson’s plea that “All progressives ask or desire… is … to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; [and the] recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine,” and “accountable,” according to Wilson, “to Darwin, not to Newton” – there is no denying that the 28th President was a man other than what’s advertised in the tomes of Houghton-Mifflin that sit in the classrooms of almost all the public schools in this nation. The “reader” that Hillsdale supplies participants to the townhall made that most clear.

It’s not hard to see how Wilson’s contortion, blended with a rejection of Newton’s “laws” became for theologians what we have experienced as the “living” Bible; and the Relativism that has taken places like Wilson’s Princeton University, originally founded as a divinity training ground for the country, and mainline Christian churches; and planted the seeds for our nation’s institutional collapse. The result: we’re currently living with a country on life support.

But there’s a plan at work. And like anything involving individual freedom, it will take our individual efforts. It’s like the verse from Luke 4:23 “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.”

I strongly suggest you thoroughly review the five lectures and Q&A sessions. The message Hillsdale College is sending and our continued efforts at ACTON will save your civic soul.

“Intellectuals and Society,” by Thomas Sowell, (2009) Basic Books, New York, 398 pp.

Arguments about ideas are the bread and butter of the academic, journalism and think tank worlds. That is as it should be. Honest intellectual debate benefits any society where its practice is allowed. The key element is honesty.

Today, someone is always looking to take out the fastest gun, and in the battles over the hearts and minds of the public many weapons are brought to bear. Unfortunately, and too often, among the artillery deployed by both sides in an argument are rhetorical deception, misleading statistics and an air of authority, which can immediately bury facts in the Boot Hill of honest debate.

Seldom held accountable for the violence brought to bear on the verifiable when their ideas lead to long-lasting negative effects, many of these intellectual gunslingers head into battle confident that their wits will save the world from another perceived plight.

Fortunately, Thomas Sowell is one of the fastest intellectual guns in the proverbial corral. His latest, Intellectuals and Society, finds the erudite economist turning his guns on the so-called intellectuals who attempt and too often succeed in swaying public opinion and political policy where the arrogance of intellect too often is the smart bomb dropped squarely on empirical evidence.

Indeed, intellectual folly knows no ideological parameters. However, Sowell divides intellectuals into two classes, where ideological divides are readily identifiable. The first is comprised of those with a constrained, or tragic, view of the world. To a conservative sympathetic to writers such as Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot, there is an understanding that humankind is fallen and that there can be no heaven on Earth. Eliot and Kirk held that a worldview is only viable inasmuch as it reflects what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, which he defined as, “the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment …” (more…)