Letter from the Director

May 2011

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

The month of May started with a bang for us in Rome with the beatification of John Paul II, and it feels as if the energy from that glorious event has carried us through one of the busiest seasons in the city and around the university scene here.

The beatification definitely makes the short list of most memorable occasions in my 11+ years in the Eternal City, certainly along with World Youth Day in the Jubilee Year of 2000, and JPII’s funeral mass in April 2005, not only for the sheer world-historical importance surrounding the late pontiff but also for the arrival of many friends and other faithful who simply wanted to thank God for the gift of this extraordinary servant.  These are the times when Rome truly feels like caput mundi rather than a museum of artifacts providing access to a civilization’s past greatness amid the current squalor and dysfunction, which can make it seem an Italian version of Athens, which I believe Rome would be were it not for the presence of the Pope in the city.  (I happen to be writing this on the feast day of St. Philip Neri, one of the great Roman saints of all time, who was very well-known on the streets of our neighborhood and is buried just a few yards away, so please forgive the particularly Roman Catholic boosterism!)

In this month’s newsletter, we’ve included an interview of Acton’s president and co-founder, Fr. Robert Sirico, that focuses on JPII’s understanding of the principle of subsidiarity and what he may have to say about today’s economy.  The interview appeared in the Italian website IlSussidiario.net and these two sections stands out:

What are John Paul II’s teachings about the principle of subsidiarity and the Welfare State?

SIRICO:  In a sense one might indeed refer to John Paul as the Pope of Subsidiarity. No previous pope, including Pope Pius XXI, has outlined in such depth and detail and applied it so manifestly to the modern Welfare State as John Paul did. He showed the levels of society needed to meet human needs where they actually existed: when “neighbors act as neighbors to those in need” and also identified the way in which a erroneous effort leads only to creating expensive and ineffective bureaucracies that fail to see the deepest needs of the human heart.


In terms of John Paul II’s social and economic positions, which ones are still relevant today, and which ones are now outdated?

SIRICO:  How I wish our world has learned the lesions John Paul tried to teach us about subsidiarity, human freedom in the economic realm and the moral potential for a Christian entrepreneurship!  While Real Socialism has collapsed in the form of the Soviet Union and its allies, the same errors are at work today in radical environmentalism and the political form of globalization which is really protectionism under the guise of free trade.

There’s an understandable tendency among Catholic media to portray JPII as well as Benedict as an orthodox in theological and social issues but left-leaning on economics because of the Church’s overriding concern for the poor and marginalized.  The tendency needs to be corrected for a number of reasons, most of all because it’s so-called “right-wing”, free-market economics that provide the most opportunity for the poor to escape poverty, despite the sometimes severe dislocations that take place as a result.  But to say that the Church is somehow politically schizophrenic or doesn’t speak coherently is simply not the case, and more the result of the failings of our political language and thought.

The categories of left and right are, after all, the legacy of the French Revolution that caused so much trouble for the Church and influenced its largely negative understanding of liberalism for 200 years.  If the right was considered the “throne-and-altar” faction, and the left was the “secular-liberal-democratic” party, there has been much shifting of alliances among the supporters and advocates of revolutions, reform and reaction.  Whether the old categories are still helpful in understanding Catholic social teaching today is debatable, to say the least.

Religion and liberalism was also the theme of a conference on the work of Leo Strauss held at the Fondazione Magna Carta in Rome May 14-15.  The arguments presented were much too difficult to summarize here, but it suffices to say that Strauss formulated and highlighted the theological-political problem with such force and clarity that the complexities of his writings is often neglected by both his attackers and defenders.  The Magna Carta conference was revealing insofar as those who seemed to know Strauss best spoke the least, while those who admitted they weren’t very familiar with Strauss’s work spoke as if they knew much more.

The Acton Institute organized the sixth of our seven-part series on Poverty, Entrepreneurship and Integral Development at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.  The May 18 event was titled “Family Enterprise, Market Economies and Poverty: The Asian Transformation” and featured a number of academic and business experts.  Not surprisingly, much of the focus was on China and the direction it will take in the future.  We’ve included some of the media coverage of the conference in this newsletter; I’d also like to draw your attention to Bret Stephens’s Wall Street Journal interview of Henry Kissinger.  As was the case with the Strauss conference, it once again appears that those who know the most are actually talking the least…..

In addition to Fr. Sirico’s interview on John Paul II, this month’s articles include one by our prolific director of research Samuel Gregg on the Church’s often-neglected understanding of the moral aspects of debt and finance, as well as a longer excerpt from the American Enterprise Institute’s Steven Hayward’s book Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World.  You should find both to be quite perspective in their takes on religious understandings of current affairs.

Most of us at Acton are currently very busy planning for our major annual event, Acton University, taking place this year June 14-17 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we’ll have about 600 people attending from 60 countries.  I will be lecturing on distributism, liberation theology, and Nietzsche’s critique of capitalism and Christianity, the last of which is an especially challenging topic, so please keep me, and all of us who will be travelling and participating, in your prayers.  I’ll have more to say about Acton University in next month’s letter. 

Until then,

Kishore Jayabalan