Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,
Welcome back to those of you who enjoyed a long Roman/European summer holiday. I hope you’re refreshed and recharged for the autumn, which will be an active one for Istituto Acton in its spirited defense of a free and virtuous society. Among upcoming major events are a November 9 conference on free-enterprise solutions to poverty in Lisbon, Portugal, and a December 2 Rome conference on the ethical care of the elderly. Be sure to check the new and improved Acton website for details.
The Acton mission deals with some permanent aspects of the human condition, and current events such as the global economic recession and the recurring threats of religious fanaticism (see the WTC mosque controversy, Terry Jones, the latest ravings of the Iranian president) and aggressive secularism (see the majority of Western Europe and large parts of North America) make our task especially timely.
I write this letter on the heels of Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom, of which there’s been plenty of expert coverage and analysis, including that of Acton’s president and co-founder, Fr. Robert Sirico, on ETWN television. As much as I would have liked to attend in person or follow the events on television, my Acton colleagues, Michael Miller and Samuel Gregg, and I were lecturing at a joint Acton Institute/Europa Institut student seminar in Sonntagberg, Austria. But reading some of the Pope’s texts and commentary on the trip, I see that our discussions at a remote location in lower Austria coincided quite well with Benedict’s message to Britain.
A lot of the pre-trip media coverage focused on the clash between heavily-secularized British society and the Catholic Church, especially in light of the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals but also attributable to the historical roots of British anti-Catholicism dating from the days of Henry VIII. The singular intolerance shown to the head of the Catholic Church is unfair and ridiculous by any objective standard. But it is also a central aspect of the “progressive” agenda that seeks to eliminate one of the last remaining obstacles to its particular vision of worldly bliss.
This makes it all the more remarkable that the Pope went to Britain primarily to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, the famed intellectual who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and was thereby ostracized by his contemporary academics at Oxford and other centers of British learning and culture. In his defense of the rights of conscience against the abuses of power, Newman can be considered a certain type of “modern” or “liberal” Catholic. Unlike many of the Church’s critics, however, Newman never supported an anything-goes morality; he put the truth of the Christian faith and its claims about man and God at the center of his defense of conscience. Here’s how Pope Benedict portrayed Newman’s task at the Hyde Park prayer vigil on September 18:
At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion. Here is the first lesson we can learn from his life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ, who is himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).
While the Pope was speaking these words, we were offering lectures on the relationship between freedom and truth to a group of 37 students, mainly from central and eastern Europe. In my talk on Christianity and the environment, I drew attention to the problems of technology in a “post-Christian” age. Much of the environmental movement seeks to find a replacement faith as a source of its ethics but doesn’t know where to find it because Christ is no longer recognized as that source. Just as Blessed John Henry Newman would have predicted and just as Benedict reminds us when he speaks of the stewardship of creation, which is a far cry from the population-control, limits-to-growth environmental movement. It is unfortunate that both men’s thought on the role of the Church in the modern world has been greatly, perhaps typically, misunderstood.
Once again this month we are pleased to offer English and Italian versions of recent commentary on these types of issues. One piece that generated quite a bit of news is entitled “Why Catholics Don’t Understand Economics” by Jeffery Tucker, an Acton University lecturer and editorial vice president at the Mises Institute. We’ve also included an Acton PowerBlog post of mine on distributism that attracted some reaction and counter-reaction about that particular school of thought.
As always we welcome your comments and suggestions.