Letter from the Director

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

Easter greetings from the Eternal City, which, as I write, is gearing up for the May 1 beatification of Pope John Paul II.  No one seems to know just how many people will turn out for the ceremonies, which include a prayer vigil on Saturday, the beatification mass on Sunday, and a mass of thanksgiving on Monday.  In the end, however, numbers don’t really matter all that much when the Church proclaims that we have a new blessed or saint to intercede for us in heaven.  As someone who was baptized, confirmed and received my first communion from John Paul II and later worked for him in the Roman Curia, I have enough personal interest to encourage me to look past the media’s feeding frenzy and preoccupation with controversy and scandal.  (If you are interested in hear some of my reflections on JPII, you can listen to this Vatican Radio interview recorded a couple of weeks ago.) 

But unfortunately for those of us who are also looking for ways to think and act constructively in a free society, the media’s blatant misinterpretation of John Paul’s message continues to find new life.  Here’s what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has to say in an April 24 column entitled “Hold the Halo”:

Certainly, John Paul was admirable in many ways. After he became pope, he was a moral force in the fight against totalitarianism, touring his homeland and giving Poles the courage to resist the Soviet Union. When Lech Walesa signed an agreement with the Communists recognizing Solidarity, he used a pen etched with the face of John Paul.

After Communism collapsed, John Paul offered a stinging critique of capitalism, presciently warning big business to stop pursuing profits “at any price.”

“The excessive hoarding of riches by some denies them to the majority,” he said, “and thus the very wealth that is accumulated generates poverty.”

As progressive as he was on those issues, he was disturbingly regressive on social issues — contraception, women’s ordination, priests’ celibacy, divorce and remarriage. And certainly, John Paul forfeited his right to beatification when he failed to establish a legal standard to remove pedophiles from the priesthood, and simply turned away for many years.

Santo non subito! How can you be a saint if you fail to protect innocent children?

I know I shouldn’t take the ravings of someone like Dowd in the New York Times too seriously, but the above selection basically summarizes the Catholic left’s problems with Church teaching and more specifically with John Paul II.  More than twenty years after the fact, communism is largely seen as not all that much of a threat to Western-style liberalism.  Cold Warriors such as John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher now gain respect for their “moral clarity”, even though they were hotly contested and denounced by most leftists at the time for calling using moral terms such as good and evil.  Then there are the nice touches on capitalism and the pseudo-Freudian diagnosis of John Paul’s sexually regression and tolerance of pedophiles priests.  Some admiration indeed.

Because of its immediate interest to the mission of the Acton Institute, I’ll stick to John Paul’s so-called “stinging critique of capitalism.”  A quick internet search reveals that Dowd’s citation is from a meeting with entrepreneurs in Durango, Mexico on May 9, 1990.  (The original Spanish and Italian versions are on the Vatican website; there’s no English version so I have some doubts that Dowd read the whole message.)  The Pope told the entrepreneurs, “You truly occupy a position of capital importance in the structure of society.  Your decisions have a multiplying effect and particular repercussions on the social and economic fabric.  For this I place great hope in you.”  He adds:

It is not right to affirm, as some do, that Catholic social teaching condemns with certainty an economic theory.  The truth is that it, respecting the just autonomy of science, gives a judgment on the effects of its historical application when it in some way violates or endangers the dignity of the person.  In the exercise of her prophetic mission, the Church wants to encourage critical reflection on social processes, having always as its scope the overcoming of situations not fully conformed to the ways traced by the Lord of Creation.  The Church would do harm if it remained only at the level of a simple social criticism.  It is therefore up to her members, experts in the diverse fields of knowing, to continue the search for valid and durable solutions that orient human processes towards the ideals proposed by the revealed Word.    

John Paul II then goes on to talk about the situation of Mexico, and even mentions the negative effects of inflation on all levels of society. (Ben Bernake, are you listening???)  Because economics recognizes that material goods are limited, he adds, “excessive hoarding” can indeed lead to poverty for some.  In my opinion and that of economists such as Hernando de Soto and Peter Bauer, this occurs especially when the poor are denied property rights and entry into the formal economy – a widespread occurrence in Latin America, as we know.  Economic activity, moreover, can never be a merely technical, mechanical task but must be motivated by solidarity and directed towards the common good.  It’s an overly-technical or narrow reading of “economic interests” that leads to anti-natalist campaigns and the culture of consumption, the Pope warned.  He also spoke of environmental damage and threats to family life, all themes that figure prominently John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus, which was to be published just about one year after the Pope’s trip to Mexico and which can hardly be called “anti-capitalist.”

The Pope did have criticisms against profit pursued “at any cost”, which is “usually united to a thirst for power,” but it is a tortured reading to separate this statement from his larger social concerns and the Gospel message.  As John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel recently wrote, all of John Paul’s accomplishments are the result of his radical conversion to Christ, and that is what has gained him beatification.  And it is the lack of such conversion that explains the actions of pedophile priests and other problems within the Church, and indeed all sin.  To think otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand not only John Paul II as a person and Pope but the message of Jesus Christ Himself.  “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33) is a passage John Paul II quoted to the same Mexican entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, Maureen Dowd’s cynical misinterpretation of this message is becoming all-too-typical among some American Christians.  A recent Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Survey found that:

More Americans believe that Christian values are at odds with capitalism and the free market than believe they are compatible.  This pattern also holds among Christians. Among Christians in the U.S., only 38% believe capitalism and the free market are consistent with Christian values while 46% believe the two are at odds. Religiously unaffiliated Americans look similar to the general population and to Christian Americans, with a plurality (40%) saying capitalism is at odds with Christian values, compared to 32% who say they are compatible; 14% say they do not know. There are significant differences by gender, party and income.

So what difference does religious belief and affiliation make?  The survey concluded that most respondents were worried about inequality between the rich and poor, wanted more government regulation of business, and higher taxes on the rich.  I guess this is not surprising given the persistence of economic troubles in the United States.  We can therefore reasonably conclude that Catholic social teaching, especially as it has been developed by John Paul II, has not effectively influenced the thinking of most Catholics and Christians, let alone others “of good will”, as his much-less-criticized predecessor Pope John XXIII had hoped.  Though we think of ourselves as atomistic free-thinkers, we still tend to be much more influenced by our peers, income and other socio-economic factors that are often out of our control.  Are we nothing more than what the novelist Saul Bellow (who incidentally died just a few days after John Paul II in 2005 and whom I had the pleasure of seeing at the University of Toronto just days after my baptism in 1996) described as, quoting the critic Harold Rosenberg, “the herd of independent minds,” free spirits who all have the same opinions?

It would be a sorry appreciation of John Paul’s life and example if we were to settle for this dour assessment.  For there was no one else in recent times who challenged each and every one of us to live heroic, saintly lives with the assurance that we had plenty of help all around us – and especially from above.  Perhaps the JPII generation will prove the sages wrong, as they did at so many World Youth Days during his pontificate.

As always, we hope you enjoy this month’s selected Acton News and Commentary pieces in English and Italian.  The 2011 Novak Award winner Hunter Baker writes on socialism and secularism, Jordan Ballor writes on the very topical matter of declining fertility rates and the coming debt crisis, and we have an excerpt from the new Acton monograph International Aid and Integral Human Development by our friend Philip Booth in London

Kishore Jayabalan