The pope has certainly earned his salary this week. In his attempt to heal a schism, he inadvertently set off a fire storm.

As most everyone knows by now, the pontiff lifted the excommunication of four bishops illicitly ordained by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre in 1988, whose dissent from the Second Vatican Council drew a small but fervent following. One of these bishops, Richard Williamson, is a holocaust denier.

To understand the saga, it is necessary to peel back its various layers.

Many who followed Lefevbre did so because of a devotion to the traditional form of what is known as the Latin (Tridentine) Mass. A smaller number rejected the whole of the efforts of Vatican II to take account of the modern world by engaging in ecumenical relations, and a deepened appreciation for religious tolerance and human liberty. Part of their complaint, rightly in my estimation, was that an excessively optimistic outlook whereby everything that was simply new was seen as automatically good was simply wrong and weakened Catholic identity. This would result in a spiritual malaise and moral mediocrity that would ultimately become unattractive and deadening. History bears out their insight, but as Chesterton once observed, “Heresy is truth gone mad.”

There are toxic vapors at the far end of the Lefevbre swamp and Bishop Williamson seemed to have breathed deeply of the fumes. The man, for sometime evidently, has been a marginal character, a fact that the Vatican and the pope admittedly should have known but did not. Some preliminary effort should have gone into uncovering Bishop Williamson’s conspiratorialist propensities. What’s more, an assessment of the communications failure on the part of the Vatican is appropriate.

The bishop now has a choice to make: paddle further out into the swamp (the Lefevbrites having already silenced him), or he can pull back and recant. The Vatican has demanded that he “distance himself in an absolutely unmistakable and public way from his position.” Unless he comes to see the historical absurdity and moral obtuseness of his assertions, he will have no ministry in the Church.

We need to be clear that the lifting of the excommunication of the bishops did not re-establish full communion between these men and the Roman Catholic Church. They remain suspended priests, forbidden by canon law from practicing their ministry. They will remain so until some resolution is achieved as to their full adherence to the authority the pope, which would include the authority of Vatican II. The lifting of the excommunication begins the discussion, it does not settle it.

Among the documents that Vatican II published is Nostra Aetate (The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions) which emphatically decries all forms of anti-Semitism, anywhere and by anyone. Whether or not these bishops follow the teaching of this document will be followed carefully.

It seems at least worth pondering the possibility that when people are offered the opportunity to come in from the cold they sometimes may come to learn the lesson of reciprocal responsibility which is what civilized life is mostly about. But sometimes they don’t.

Some of the reaction to all this is clearly justified. Certainly Joseph Ratzinger knows full well the evil of denying the very evil he witnessed at close range. This was the man who grew up in a family known for its resistance to the fascists, who as a child in his native Germany refused to attend the mandatory Hitler Youth meetings, and who had a cousin with Down’s Syndrome euthanized by the Nazis as part of their war against the disabled. He has spoken out repeatedly and consistently against anti-Semitism, as a priest, bishop, cardinal and now pope.

But some of the reaction smacks distinctly of opportunism by politicians, theologians and even some bishops who have other axes to grind with Pope Benedict. These opportunists have sought to exploit whatever confusion, ignorance and possibility this controversy affords.

For those of us inspired by Pope Benedict’s efforts at the renewal of the Church’s liturgy and life, it is sad that what might have been an occasion for a spiritual deepening — both for Catholics and with those outside the Church — has instead turned into a political imbroglio.

Was the real Che Guevara a lover of “humanity, justice and truth”? In his commentary today, Bruce Edward Walker reviews Steven Soderbergh’s new four-hour “Che” film epic and discovers “a cinematic paean to one of the twentieth-century’s most infamous butchers.”

Read the entire commentary at the Acton Institute website.

Amid the Washington clamor for more and bigger bailouts, a few brave voices among elected officials and government veterans are being raised about the moral disaster looming behind massive government spending programs. If we ignore these warnings, writes Ray Nothstine in today’s Acton Commentary, we may be “continuing down a path that may usher in an ever greater financial crisis.”

Read the full commentary here and share your comments below.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
By

In response to the question, “What is wrong with socialism?”

I can hardly do better than Pope John Paul II, who wrote in Centesimus Annus, “the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature,” because socialism maintains, “that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice.”

The socialist experiment is attractive because its model is the family, a situation in which each gives according to his ability and receives according to his need—and it works. Unfortunately, the dynamics of family life cannot be replicated at the level of society.

The contention that socialism is unsustainable because of its inherent misapprehension of human nature is supported by the historical record. To my recollection, socialism has only been successful to any significant degree and for any significant amount of time in one institution other than the family: consecrated religious life (e.g., monasteries). Needless to say, there are some rather peculiar dynamics involved there as well, which cannot be replicated across a society.

This lack of success is not for lack of trying. We’re all familiar with the grand national attempts in, for example, the Soviet Union. But socialism has failed on smaller scales as well: in the communes of Brook Farm, Massachusetts; Oneida, New York; and New Harmony, Indiana, to name just a few American instances.

Can a socialist experiment ever succeed? History casts doubt.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 2, 2009
By

This guy fails the ‘anthropological Rorshach’ test:

Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, says curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming. He says political leaders and green campaigners should stop dodging the issue of environmental harm caused by an expanding population.

The 2 child limit that Porritt encourages is not just an attempt to limit population growth, but is instead a policy that would put the UK well below replacement levels. Even assuming everyone maxed out their 2 child ‘limit,’ that wouldn’t meet the replacement level of 2.2 children per couple.

The misanthropy of much of the radical environmental movement is becoming increasingly blatant. No longer must the “P” word be spoken in hushed tones in darkened alleys. Folks like Porritt are making sure of that.

“I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate,” Porritt said.

Couching such rhetoric in terms of “responsibility” and even “stewardship” is a powerful tool of deception. After all, who wants advocate being irresponsible?

Read more about environmental misanthropy on this side of the pond in the joint Acton Institute-IRD paper, “From Climate Control to Population Control: Troubling Background on the ‘Evangelical Climate Initiative’.”

Oh, and the “P” word? Porritt means “population,” but a better “P” word is “person.” Population is an abstraction. Personhood is a reality that can’t be so easily dispensed with. To quote a wise creature, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

In response to the question, “What is wrong with socialism?”

Writing well over 2000 years ago, Aristotle answered Plato, whose Republic advocated socialism, thusly:

What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. People pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common; or, at any rate, they care for it only to the extent to which each is individually concerned. Even when there is no other cause for inattention, people are more prone to neglect their duty when they think that another attending to it . . .

The Republic advocated that women and children also be common property. What Aristotle wrote about sons applies to other things, as well:

[Under the plan of The Republic] each citizen will have a thousand sons; they will not be the sons of each citizen individually; any son whatever will be equally the son of any father whatever. The result will be that all will neglect all.

In other words, the word “son” loses its meaning when abused in this fashion. The same is true of the concept of property.

Aristotle is right. We love the particular, not the general. Good philosophies of government will recognize that and will thus operate on a human scale as much as possible. Socialism fails in that regard and thus loses all the non-coercive power of simple affection and care.

This week we introduce a new regular feature we’re calling “PowerBlog Ramblings” (PBR). The concept is simple: we’ll post a question along with some background for why that question has been selected, and various PowerBlog contributors and guests will respond to that question.

We’ve named this feature “PowerBlog Ramblings” in part as an allusion to the publication with which the institute’s namesake Lord Acton was closely associated for a time, The Rambler, which was in part aimed “to provide a medium for the expression of independent opinion on subjects of the day” on topics including “home and foreign literature, politics, science and art.”

But “ramblings” are also more informal and occasional than other sorts of discursive expression, and in that spirit we’re looking to start conversations and dialogue on questions of the day with the mix of moral, theological, and economic insight you’re used to getting from the PowerBlog. That’s why these questions and answers will sometimes be more polished and sometimes not.

We’ll have a sidebar on the blog main page where we’ll post the main PBR along with all of the posted responses. Old questions and ramblings will be accessible via an archive. As always, we welcome and value your responses. If you’ve got suggestions for questions you’d like to see us tackle, email the PowerBlog staff.

The inspiration for this week’s question is a brief exchange on Fox News Channel, which includes Bob Beckel asking, “What is wrong with some form of socialism in certain areas?” The context of the quote is a discussion about the desirability of lowering domestic economic production out of concern for environmental impact.


Others are making the argument that we ought to “shrink our economy” not out of environmental but rather cultural concerns.

So the PBR question for this week is, “What is wrong with socialism?”

Ramble on…

Ramblings:

As the media bombard us with misleading language describing the role of government in the economy (e.g., that a stimulus plan will “inject money” or “create jobs”), those who know better need to keep up a steady drumbeat of common sense concerning the potential and track record of the state’s involvement in economic affairs. Long-time Acton associate Paul Cleveland’s newly published Unmasking the Sacred Lies is a valuable contribution to the effort.

Professor of Economics at Birmingham-Southern College, Cleveland combines here a scholar’s appreciation of policy details with a down-to-earth style that will appeal to a wide audience. Cleveland is master of the telling anecdote, demonstrating in each of a series of policy areas—inter alia, monetary, transportation, education, and welfare—that government intervention often has pernicious consequences, whether intended or not. If, for example, you were not aware of just how contorted federal agriculture policy is, his chapter on that subject will be a disturbing revelation.

Academics will quibble with the simplified story lines of some of these analyses (e.g., this historian would dispute a few points in the treatment of Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War), but the decision to sacrifice some complexity for the sake of readability is a trade-off any writer can appreciate.

Significantly, Cleveland concludes the book with a chapter titled, “The Lawlessness of Too Many Laws.” It is perhaps paradoxical, but in the present situation of pell-mell government expansion, I believe it is limited-government and (non-anarcho-) libertarian folks who are the defenders of the dignity and integrity of government. As Cleveland aptly observes, the generation of too many laws turns the normally law-abiding citizen into an unwitting law-breaker, with the result that the rule of law itself is severely compromised. Some would say we’re already there. At least in certain fields of economic activity, I think that’s hard to dispute.

If it is any longer possible to turn this ship around, it will be only by a massive intellectual and moral awakening. In that cause, this book can only help.

On the first half of today’s installment of The Diane Rehm Show, Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute got off a good line in the midst of a discussion concerning federal regulation of emission standards.

Concerning the performance of the American car manufacturers in comparison to that of foreign automakers, and the moral hazard involved in the various bailouts, Taylor said, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.”

Other guests included Mary Nichols (Chairman of the California Air Resources Board), Phyllis Cuttino (director the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Global Warming Campaign), and David Shepardson (Washington Bureau Chief for The Detroit News). The discussion focused in large part on the attempts by California to regulate emissions within its own borders more strictly than allowed by the federal EPA.

Arguments that California is “too large” of a state and has too big of an economy to enjoy certain rights doesn’t strike me as very convincing. That’s simply a consequentialist argument: that the nationwide effects of allowing California to do this will be bad, and therefore we shouldn’t recognize the state’s right to handle its own regulation. If it really is an issue of federalism and state’s rights, the issue shouldn’t in the first place be whether or not recognition of a right will presumably have a negative economic impact. There are a lot of assumptions wrapped up in that argument.

No state is an economic island unto itself. The mere fact that the national economy is largely integrated doesn’t by itself mean that states do not have the right to make decisions about how to regulate things within their own borders. Just what is the line between acceptable and unacceptable national economic impact? Adverse feelings to this particular action on the part of California isn’t sufficient to draw lines too hastily. How might this apply to other industries and commodities?

Indeed, we can discuss whether CO2 emissions ought to be regulated at the federal level under the commerce clause, but I don’t think the size of a state should determine what rights it does or does not have. Maybe the consequentialist line of reasoning is inherently wrapped up in the commerce clause (I’m certainly no constitutional expert). But the clause has been stretched so much (e.g. it applies to a farmer consuming what he grows on his own farm) that a little pullback seems warranted, and without the creation of a(n) (inter)national carbon market (a remarkably bad idea) the clause doesn’t seem to me to be directly relevant to emissions.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 26, 2009
By

By happy serendipity two books of related interest caught my attention today.

The first is David Cowan’s Economic Parables: The Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ (Paternoster, 2007). Michael Kruse recommends the book in a brief review.

The other book is a newly-announced Christianity Today award winner in the “Biblical Studies” category. The judges describe Klyne R. Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus as “a superb culmination of career-long reflection on one of the most important genres in biblical literature.”