Letter from the Director - January 2011

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

The big news in Rome this month was the announcement of the beatification of Pope John Paul II, with the miraculous cure of a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease attributed to the late Pontiff’s intercession. (The day of the announcement I was interviewed by Catholic radio host Al Kresta; click here to listen to the interview.) Pope Benedict will preside at the beatification Mass on May 1, so we are expecting many friends to visit Rome for this joyful occasion. Coming soon after the recent publication of George Weigel’s account of the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate, we now have even more opportunities to recall and reflect on John Paul’s Christian anthropology and what it means for the politics and economics of our time.

I’ve been in the US since Christmas, so please permit this rather America-centric letter - I believe the themes raised here should have an appeal outside the USA. 

With the new Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives beginning a new session in January, the topic of health-care reform remains at the top of the political agenda, as the Republicans push for repeal of so-called “Obamacare” that was made law last year. 

This month, we are featuring three Acton News and Commentary articles regarding the intersection between Christian social teaching and the role of government in providing health care and economic well-being. One contribution comes from Dr. Donald Condit, who applies the principles of Catholic social teaching to Obamacare and indicates areas where true reform in the health-care industry can take place. The second article is a piece by Anthony Bradley that looks at the similarities between President Obama’s governing philosophy and that of Otto von Bismark, the explicitly anti-Catholic father of the welfare state in modern politics. The third contribution is by Kevin Schmiesing, who points out the fallacy of central planning made evident by a teenaged character in a recent film. These latter two were originally published in English last fall, but their relevance and timeliness remain so we decided to share them with our Italian readers.

All three articles raised larger questions of the relationship between the Church and politics, and especially when and how religious leaders ought to intervene in public debate on controversial issues. Unfortunately, most commentators tend to agree or disagree with these interventions depending on “whose ox is being gored”, i.e. their own political preferences; such commentary generates more heat than light. (With the tragic shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there is a renewed push to silence political debate in the name of civility, even though it is quite clear that her assailant was mentally deranged and not politically motivated. “Civility” here is a substitute for “my secular progressive way or the highway.”) What religious leaders and commentators in a democratic society ought to understand is the necessity and importance of political partisanship in a free society. 

Two recent examples come to mind where partisanship is not, but ought to be, given free reign:

Exhibit A: A recent Time magazine blog post is misleadingly titled “Catholic Bishops Don’t Support Repeal” because, as the blog recognizes, the bishops don’t oppose repeal either. Rather, the bishops lay out the criteria that should guide the debate, though, as Dr. Condit’s article makes clear, Obamacare fails on many counts. Just because a bill promises “universal access to health care” does not guarantee such access to, let alone quality, health care, and such promises ought not to blind us to the real, significant costs of a particular reform package. Religious leaders should be calling for more debate on a matter of critical importance not only to us as individual believers but to the many religiously-affiliated institutional providers of health care in the U.S. and around the world.

Exhibit B: Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (where I used to work), made news by criticizing the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries, saying that GM crops may create economic dependence of farmers on the multinational companies that provide the seeds for such crops.  Yet the Cardinal also said “the real issue is not being for or against” and that “we are pastors, and we don't do politics.” So is the Holy See promoting or discouraging the use of GM crops to fight hunger and malnutrition? Is there really such a thing as economic independence for farmers in developing countries, many of whom would like to be able to market their products in developed countries and make themselves “dependent” on the tastes and preferences of consumers in those markets? No one seems to know.

Many religious leaders seem to suffer from a type of bi-polar disorder, swinging from enthusiastic but often ill-considered support of particular politicians and agendas to a complete denial of political concern bordering on indifference and neglect. Surely there must be another, saner way that takes politics seriously without making politics the end-all, be-all of our existence. For years, many of us at the Acton Institute have been arguing that religious leaders need to distinguish between matters of principle and matters of prudential judgment. As the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained in its “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding Participation of Catholics in Political Life” (published in 2002, when Cardinal Ratzinger was the prefect), there are the non-negotiable issues, such abortion and euthanasia, on which no serious Christian, let alone anyone concerned about social justice, can dissent. The realm of prudential judgment covers many other issues, including the proper level of taxes, regulation, and how to cure poverty, on which people of good will can and ought to be able to disagree.

I hope this slight digression and this month’s articles engage you to think and argue about these matters in a civil and serious manner.

Very best regards,

Kishore Jayabalan