Blog author: rsirico
Thursday, June 2, 2011
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I have said it many times in the past, but now I have confirmation: According to the editors of the New York Times, the Pope is not permitted to make moral judgments because only the Editorial Board of the New York Times (all genuflect here) is permitted to pontificate:

“Ms. Abramson, 57, said that as a born-and-raised New Yorker, she considered being named editor of The Times to be like “ascending to Valhalla.”

“In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion,” she said. “If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”

The budget proposed by House Republicans has lead to a heated debate; one key facet being whether funding should be cut for programs that benefit the poor and vulnerable. Critics claim the House Republicans’ proposed budget violates Catholic social teaching (click here to read the critics’ open letter to Speaker Boehner). Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s first response to Boehner’s critics appeared in NRO. In this week’s commentary Rev. Sirico expands upon his first response and articulates how Catholics can disagree on how to assist the poor and vulnerable. The article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Not Whether to Help the Poor, But How

By Rev. Sirico

The debate over the application of the core teachings of the Christian faith began when Jesus was presented with a Roman coin containing Caesar’s image. In that moment, the Lord drew both a limitation to the legitimate power of the state and a distinction between it and the supreme authority of Almighty God. What would unfold over the years following was a highly balanced and well thought-out hierarchy of values rooted in a core understanding of the dignity of the human person. Yet it was not so abstract a set of principles as to be incapable of providing guidance for concrete policy recommendations that nonetheless do not collapse dogmatic and unchangeable doctrine into the dynamic stuff of politics and policies.

Along this circuitous route to a more balanced set of principles, there have been dead ends and extremes from which the Church has pulled her faithful: the medieval Spiritualist Franciscan (i fraticelli) who wanted to ban private property as intrinsically evil, or, more recently, the Liberation Theologians who attempted to “collapse the eschaton” of the Kingdom of God into socialist revolution.

Yet the incarnation of Christ does not let the Christian off the hook when it comes to our beliefs about human dignity and the practical protection of the vulnerable. Understanding how to translate the social implications of the gospel into workable and concrete solutions is at times as frustrating and ambiguous as understanding the homoousian clause of the Creed.

Let us take the recent occasions of public discourse by Catholics on these matters occasioned by an open letter issued by a group of Catholic professors, which argues that the budget proposed by House Republicans violates Catholic social teaching, and in which they come close to calling the Speaker of the House a heretic.

There is evidence in this letter, and in some of the commentary surrounding it, of a failure to grasp the necessary distinctions in Catholic moral theology (of which, as the popes have noted, the social teaching is a branch). I pointed out in my original critique of the open letter that the Catholic professors’ statement neglected the important distinction between “non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines” and the “prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching.” Then I cited the Compendium of the Social Doctrine: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions” (571).  The use of the phrase “contingent questions” in the Compendium is quite deliberate. It means that it is simply inaccurate to say that Catholics who debate how to address poverty dissent from the Church’s teaching in the same way as someone who does not support the Church’s insistence on legal protection for the unborn.

Some Catholic commentators reject this point, offering in defense a quotation from Caritas in Veritate: “Clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it…. There is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.”

Benedict’s point here is that the Church’s teaching in the moral realm is one consistent body of thought. It is not a hodgepodge of policy concerns, among which Catholics may pick and choose along the lines of the fashionable Cafeteria Catholicism. The Church’s solicitude for the poor, the marginalized, the unborn, and the elderly is all of a piece. In that sense, the critique is correct: A Catholic cannot subordinate “justice issues” to “life issues”; he must embrace the Church’s teaching as a whole, because life issues are justice issues.

Yet the distinction holds. This is not because “justice issues” are less important than “life issues,” but because they are fundamentally different — a difference rooted in two millennia of Catholic moral reflection. Abortion involves the direct and intentional destruction of an innocent human life. It is never permissible intentionally to choose evil. Laws that permit abortion are inherently unjust, and Catholics are obligated to work toward legal prohibition of abortion.

When it comes to doing good, however, which is what addressing poverty entails, the Church does not stipulate exactly how such good is to be done. Helping the poor requires a different sort of moral analysis — not because I (or the Church’s teaching) am “dualist,” as some critics suggest, nor because assisting the poor is “less important” than protecting the unborn, but because the two issues possess different characteristics and therefore require different sorts of moral analysis.

This distinction holds, for example, outside the realm of the Church’s social teaching and can be seen in her teaching on the moral manner in which life is conceived. A superficial criticism of the Church’s stance against artificial contraception says, “Why is it wrong to avoid conception by the use of chemicals or condoms, but not immoral when using natural family planning methods?” The error in this argument is the same one made by the critics to whom I am responding: In the former case, an evil means is being chosen (the action to chemically prevent conception, for example), rather than refraining from doing good at a given time (actions leading to conception). It is not a sin to refrain from choosing from all the many goods available; it is always a sin to intentionally choose to do evil.

It is possible to argue that cutting welfare programs is consistent with Catholic social teaching, because we may choose from the various options available to us to do good by evaluating them in the hierarchy of goods. It will not do to fling citations of social encyclicals at each other on this point. Certainly there are passages that could be found to support increased government activity in the economy and provision of social services — when necessary to serve the common good. But there are also passages that suggest decreased government activity and withdrawal from social services (i.e., critiques of bureaucracy and calls for more vigorous private charity). Whether a particular situation — in this case, the budget battle in the United States in the year 2011 — calls for one or the other is manifestly a prudential question about which Catholics may disagree.

At the root of the incredulity and exasperation of some Catholics who mix fair arguments with vitriol is an incapacity to recognize that we really believe that many government programs aggravate rather than ameliorate poverty and other social ills. Rather than debating the prudence of the policies at hand, detractors resort to ad hominem attacks and pronounce anathemas selectively. Yet there is by this time a vast literature on the damage wrought by the war on poverty and its failure to achieve its goals. Such critics can continue to believe that shoveling government money into welfare programs discharges Catholic social teaching’s obligation to assist the poor if they wish, but their inability to see other views as reasonable, at least, is distressingly myopic.

A Catholic may not disregard the Church’s teaching to assist the poor and vulnerable; to do so would be to neglect the words and example of Christ Himself. It would be, in effect, to deny the Faith. But on the question of how best to fulfill that obligation, Catholics will indeed disagree, and the Church does not teach that it must be otherwise. The same kind of latitude is not permitted when it comes to legal protection of the unborn. I do not believe that this is “my view” of the matter; it is the mind of the Church, to which I hope my own mind is conformed.

Long-time Acton Institute friend and Markets and Morality contributor Jean-Francois Orsini has a new book out. In Fight the Left (yes, it has a polemical edge!), Orsini argues that there are essentially two approaches to the world: liberalism and conservatism. His use of liberalism is decidedly contemporary (i.e., modern, not classical liberalism). His conservatism is sympathetic to the free market but, more importantly, it is “first principled,” meaning that he lays out the foundation on which conservatism must be based. In particular, it must recognize the truth about man: a being, created by God, endowed with the ability to choose good or evil. From this anthropology flows the rest of Orsini’s discussion, including a brief historical survey of conservative giants (Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan); an exposition of Catholic social teaching; and a few policy applications.

If you’re looking for a brief, easy, but nonetheless thought-provoking read, check out Fight the Left.

Doubtful, at least on these terms. Does the institutional church have to officially advise the government in order to have influence?


European institutions “more open than ever” to church co-operation
By Jonathan Luxmoore

Warsaw, Poland (ENInews)–A senior ecumenist has welcomed growing co-operation between leaders of European institutions and churches, and predicted a growing advisory role for religious communities.

“I think we’re seeing a greater openness today than ever before,” said Rudiger Noll, director of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). “Our latest meeting was triggered by the Arab uprisings and European response, and by Europe’s financial and economic crisis, and in both areas the institution presidents were very clear. What’s needed is a new value-based, community approach in Europe, rather than just an economic system. They’re turning to the churches for this.”

The United Church of Westphalia pastor was speaking after a Brussels meeting on 30 May between 20 religious leaders and the Portuguese president of the European Union’s governing commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, as well as the European Council’s Belgian president, Herman van Rompuy, and the Polish president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek.

In an ENInews interview on 30 May, he said religious leaders now had regular “institutionalized meetings” with senior European officials, including the EU’s rotating presidency, and “dialogue seminars” on issues of common concern, in line with Article 17 of the EU’s 2008 Lisbon Treaty, which guarantees churches an “open, transparent and regular dialogue” with EU institutions. However, he added that church leaders also hoped to strengthen the structural contacts with a “deeper culture of dialogue.”

“EU leaders have said they didn’t need the Lisbon Treaty to have a relationship with us,” said Noll, whose organization, founded in 1959, groups 125 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic churches, and 40 associated organizations.

“Although it would be naive to believe all our member-churches speak the same language, we should at least singing, at the end of the day, from the same hymn sheet – playing different instruments, but making up a single orchestra.”

In his address to the annual meeting, the religious leaders’ seventh with European institution presidents, CEC’s Orthodox president, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, said the world of faith could “prove a powerful ally in efforts to address issues of democratic rights and liberties.”

A 30 May CEC press release said the mostly Orthodox and Protestant representatives had reiterated their commitment to promote “the rights of minorities and migrants, economic justice, participation, solidarity, freedom of speech and expression as well as religious freedom.”

The meeting followed a 25-28 May annual plenary of CEC’s Church and Society Commission in Brussels, which was attended by religious affairs specialists from the EU’s European External Action Service, Bureau of European Policy Advisors and European Parliament presidency.

A 27 May CEC statement said the commission had agreed to finalize a human rights training manual for European churches and join the Sunday Alliance network, adding that member-churches were committed to operating as “responsible and competent partners for the European institutions,” while seeking to “speak with a common voice and make sure this voice is heard.”

The inclusion of the Church and Society Commission on a new EU Transparency Register, requiring companies and organizations lobbying the EU to have their activities publicly recorded, would “allow for regular and non-bureaucratic exchanges to complement the formal dialogue process,” the statement said.

In his ENI interview, Rudiger Noll said the current openness to churches and faiths was a “common sentiment among EU officials,” but added that CEC also counted on the appointment of a “permanent facilitator” in the 736-seat European Parliament, to ensure dialogue was maintained during an upcoming change of leadership from the center-right European People’s Party to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

“When it comes to relations with the institutions, the churches are always surprised to see how much they have in common–the context in which we live is much more important than any theological or confessional divergences,” the CEC Commission director told ENInews.

Abraham KuyperRecently, the Acton Institute announced a partnership with Kuyper College to translate Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace. Understanding the importance of reaching out to the evangelical community, Kuyper’s work is essential in developing evangelical principles and social thought. The Common Grace translation project is summarized by the Acton Institute:

There is a trend among evangelicals to engage in social reform without first developing a coherent social philosophy to guide the agenda. To bridge this gap, Acton Institute and Kuyper College are partnering together to translate Abraham Kuyper’s seminal three-volume work on common grace (De gemeene gratie). Common Grace was chosen because it holds great potential to build intellectual capacity within evangelicalism and because a sound grasp of this doctrine is what is missing in evangelical cultural engagement. Common Grace is the capstone of Kuyper’s constructive public theology and the best available platform to draw evangelicals back to first principles and to orient their social thought.

The Grand Rapids Press interviewed Stephen Grabill, director of programs at the Acton Institute who is also serving as the general editor of the translation project. Grabill explained the current relevancy of Kuyper’s work:

“In terms of the way Christians have brought their faith into the public sphere in the last 30 years, Kuyper represents a much more thoughtful and reflective way of building a constructive public theology,” Grabill said.

“He wasn’t a policy wonk but an idea guy who sought to synthesize a lot of movement and point to various economic political trends that integrated the Christian faith and did it in a way that didn’t politicize the faith, which is a breath of fresh air to people today.”

[…]

Grabill said he hopes the translation will provide evangelicals with a coherent social philosophy to guide their agendas in a way he believes is lacking today.

“I think Kuyper would say both the left and the right have polarized the gospel in ways that may have been unintentional in the beginning of the process,” Grabill said.

“They need a better understanding of culture, and what Kuyper does is he provides the foundational theological and philosophical thought to understand culture in a way that’s constructive and not ideological, and merely an attempt to change it to a different end.”

Volume one of Common Grace is scheduled to appear in the fall of 2012.

Readers can sign up for project updates by clicking here and can become fans of Common Grace on Facebook by clicking here.

Click here to read the full article appearing in the Grand Rapids Press.

The Acton Institute captured the attention of the Italian secular press when advocating a Judeo-Christian, value-based economic model to ensure continued free and healthy economic growth in Asia.

The press was eager to interview the conference speakers who articulated this perspective at the Institute’s international conference held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University last May 18: “Family-Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty: The Asian Transformation” .

In the following Video, Istituto Acton Director and conference moderator, Kishore Jayabalan, spoke candidly to UniRoma TV along with morning panelist, Dr. Raquel Vaz-Pinto of the Catholic University of Portugal.

Kishore Jayabalan says that when difficult ethical problems arise in economies, we are expected to use our “reason and faith” to resolve moral dilemmas and that the Church plays a most vital role in educating society in basic moral principles. Dr.Vaz-Pinto says that in terms of advancing the necessary foundations of a free society, Asia has made great progress in demanding higher standards for human and political rights as businesses are left freer to grow and develop on their own.

Click image to watch UniRoma TV video

When I first went to work for former Mississippi Congressmen Gene Taylor, I was going through a file cabinet and spotted a thick folder with the name “J.C. Wheat.” I sat down and read through it. J.C. was the father of Marine Lance Corporal Roy Mitchell Wheat. The folder contained all the things Congressman Taylor had done in helping to pay tribute to J.C.’s son. A Naval ship was christened in Roy Wheat’s name in 2003.

I felt a little guilty for not knowing much about Roy Wheat after I found out what he did. He was killed in Vietnam in August of 1967. A portion of his Medal of Honor citation reads:

Shouting a warning to his comrades, L/Cpl. Wheat in a valiant act of heroism hurled himself upon the mine, absorbing the tremendous impact of the explosion with his body. The inspirational personal heroism and extraordinary valor of his unselfish action saved his fellow Marines from certain injury and possible death, reflected great credit upon himself, and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Wheat and his family have a story. I remember seeing an old haunting photo of his parents at his Medal of Honor ceremony from 1968, stoically posed, but obviously wracked by grief. I remember reading an article that talked about how his mother, a devout Christian, prayed for his safe return from Vietnam. Wheat, who was from the small community of Moselle, Miss., was like a lot of country boys across America. He was God-fearing, loved to hunt, and dreamed of one day owning his own cattle farm.

The Virtual Wall helps to tell the stories of the men and women who died in Vietnam. Many daughters and sons write heart breaking notes wrapped in tribute and grief to fathers they never knew or barely remember. Often, they plead for men who served with their father to reach out to them so they can learn something new about their dad. Like the monument in Washington it supplements, the Virtual Wall testifies to the cost of war.

There are more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. Other names include John Geoghegan, a great representative of the courage of the men who fought in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. Geoghegan was killed trying to rush to the aid of one of his men, Willie Godbolt. Godbolt’s name is next to Goeghegan’s. Casualties on the wall are listed chronologically. The story of the men of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Ia Drang is superbly depicted in the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. A popular movie based on the book was released in 2002.

This Memorial Day we might also remember the courageous but tragic stories of the men who took to the dangerous skies over Vietnam. Men like Harley Hall, Earl Hopper, Jr., Michael Blassie, and Lance Sijan. They all have stories that are made visible by the Virtual Wall. Sijan, who was brutally tortured by his captors as a prisoner of war, died still plotting his escape while in an emaciated condition. Defiant to the end, Sijan is a symbol of the very best of American values, resistance, and courage. His life and sacrifice is immortalized in the excellent book Into The Mouth Of The Cat: The Story Of Lance Sijan, Hero Of Vietnam.

John Wheat, who is Roy’s youngest brother, was quoted in a news story a few years back saying how important it was to recognize Roy as a hero. But he wanted people to remember the cost. Holding back tears, his brother declared:

When you see a man there that’s 19 years old, and you can look in the casket and his shoes are at the end of it. And his pants legs is neatly rolled up. It’s, that’s when you realize what war is.

One might think that Muslim women, in traditionally Muslim countries, are under severe constrictions when it comes to becoming entrepreneurs.  After all, in Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive, and in places like Iran, women are forced to veil themselves under the law.  Do such restrictions create undue burdens for women wanting to start and maintain businesses in the Muslim world?

In a study published in International Management Review (Vol. 6 No. 1 2010), John C. McIntosh and Samia Islam of the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University set out to explore the question:  “How is female entrepreneurship shaped by Islamic traditions and Shari’a  in a conservative Muslim context?”  (Shari’a law is traditional Islamic law.) The researchers looked at concepts like wearing the hijab (a scarf Muslim women wear to cover their hair), and whether or not being a women limited one’s social and business contacts due to gender restraints in Islamic society, such as adult women needing to rely on male family members to make contact with male non-family members.

The results?  Muslim women are not suffering undue constraints when it comes to entrepreneurship in Islamic countries.  Women wearing the hijab did enjoy better access to business networks, and those women with supportive families enjoyed greater social contacts that aided in building up their businesses.  However, when it comes to securing funding from banks, wearing a hijab was statistically insignificant from not wearing a hijab for the loan-seeker.

This is not startling news.  If one were to look at the business world anywhere, one could say that appropriate cultural dress, supportive families and social contacts are three keys to starting and maintaining a new business.

What does it take to become an entrepreneur?  There are many sound answers to this question, but none of them should have anything to do with gender, religion or geography.

Andreas Widmer makes a point as Michael Miller looks on last week in Boston

Acton On The Air Last week in Boston, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Miller and Seven Fund co-founder Andreas Widmer joined host Scot Landry on The Good Catholic Life on 1060 AM to talk about enterprise solutions to poverty, the intersection of faith and business, and the PovertyCure initiative. You can hear the interview via the audio player below:

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In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.

Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.

In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.

There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”

The community garden at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.


One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”

Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.

New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”

These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full: