Letter from Rome

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

The last few times I’ve written in this space, I drew attention to Italy’s economic woes, which now have many observers wondering when Italy replaces Greece at the epicenter of the European debt crisis.  I’ve heard Italian economists explain what separates Greece and Italy is that the latter’s public debt is held mostly by Italians themselves, so there’s no need to convince German and French banks of their impending “haircuts” or losses in case of default.  Fair enough.  Perhaps the Italian people will come to the rescue of its notoriously arrogant and corrupt political class before Italy reaches the tipping point, if for no other reason than out of self-interest.  But at some point you’d think the overall level of disgust with the status quo (i.e., virtually no economic growth in the last decade) would win out. 

So the question is: why do the Italians put up with their politicians?  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the Italian humorist Beppe Severgnini tells us that it is useless to separate democracy’s leaders from the people who voted them into power.  We get the politicians we deserve, and in this case, the Italians deserve Silvio Berlusconi.  Sounds harsh, but it’s true.

The great shame is that the Italian government shares its capital city with Pope Benedict XVI, who gave a concise diagnosis of the problems of modern democracy during his recent trip to Germany, for there seems to be little osmosis of wisdom from the latter to the former.  The Pope’s speech to the Bundestag was remarkably clear in its critique of positivism, and the message was surely not lost on a people who know the dangers of letting majorities determine what is true and what is false.  It is also noteworthy that Benedict speaks of the heart, rather than the mind, as the human organ of comprehension: “a listening heart” and “a heart which sees”, which he referred to in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (n.31b).  If there is one theme that Benedict has been stressing during his pontificate to people of all ages (see his World Youth Day vigils with their emphasis of Eucharistic adoration rather than pop music), it is the need to keep quiet and listen to what God is saying to our hearts, the seat of our deepest attachments.  No easy task is our world of constant communication, mobile technology, yet generally useless chatter in the grand scheme of things.  It really is a breath of fresh air; who else dares to speak to us about wisdom?

Even if the Pope’s words about the foundations of law were understood, there are even deeper currents to our predicament, as Fr. James Schall, S.J., notes.  Fr. Schall’s observations are worth quoting at length:

Benedict understands “human rights” and “ecology” benignly in this address. These will be, when seen in modern context, terms fraught with ambiguity.  Thus the pope speaks of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” He understands “human rights,” that most popular term in modernity, to mean a natural law explanation of why the human person is dignified and why the person is to be respected in its totality.

“Human rights,” with their de facto origins in Hobbes, also mean whatever a government or the individual wants them to mean. They frequently mean the power of the strongest, as the pope noted from recent German history. The positivist and historicist background of this view of “human rights” is discussed with reference to Hans Kelsen and his realization in his old age that a “pure” concept of reason is not sufficient: “Previously he [Kelsen] said that norms can only come from the will. Nature therefore could only contain norms, he adds, if a will had put them there. But this, he says, would presuppose a Creator God.”

Kelsen thought that this supposition of a Creator was “futile,” but the pope suggests that this is the very point: “Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason?” This pope, as he did in Spe Salvi with Adorno and Horkheimer, is fond of citing German agnostic thinkers themselves to indicate a way to the right conclusions. The alternative to “divine will” in things is “human will” in politics. But both divine will and human will are related to logos. Christianity never proposed the establishment of a divine law as civil law. One detects a reference to Islam here. Christianity “has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law.”

Benedict uses “ecology” as a foil against a positivist rationality that is separated from nature. I myself think that ecology has many “unpleasant” overtones. Ecological theory has pioneered a way by which man, in his individual dignity, is reassumed into nature to become subject to natural and political forces without any independent status of his own. The pope uses ecology to bring up the issue of “human ecology,” that is, that there is a human nature that is to be itself respected as indicating the outlines of what we are.

Ecology, with the save the earth programs, has too often worked against the interests of the poor and normal people. Man is not for the earth; earth is for man. The earth is not man’s goddess. The pope understands that a reasonable care is needed but not the notion that man’s numbers and well-being are subordinate to the very dubious notions of earth warming, species preservations, and the total state control that flows logically from these theories. They have often of late replaced other absolutism theories such as Marxism as the main justification for political control of all humans living.

That being said, the pope, as he did with “human rights,” keeps the word “ecology” but gives it a different meaning from the more usual ones, which have a dubious and dangerous heritage. Whether this strategy of redefining popular concepts will work remains to be seen. The old approach of going in someone else’s door but coming out your own may be the most practical one available today in the confused understanding of these notions. Their dominant ideological meanings and usage, however, are not the ones that the pope embraces.

Earlier this month, I lectured on Christianity, limited government and the rule of law at a “Towards a Free and Virtuous Society” seminar in Austria.  In preparation, I consulted the German jurist Heinrich Rommen’s The State in Catholic Thought, which has several chapters on the origins and foundations of political authority.  The section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on authority reminded me just how different the Church’s understanding is and how difficult it will be to make her unique voice heard.  If we only want to “question authority” and praise our own freedom, on what basis can anyone speak of duties and responsibilities?

One of the places where the recurring tensions between freedom and authority are apparent is Africa.  Istituto Acton was proud to co-sponsor a meeting of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance in Rome the first days of September.  These young entrepreneurs have studied and worked outside of, but are now returning, to their home nations with the hopes of starting new businesses to fight poverty in Africa.  Unlike the West, religion is thriving in Africa and authority is generally respected.  But so many entrepreneurial dreams are thwarted by corrupt government, pervasive rent-seeking, and general inefficiency.  Not surprisingly, these three obstacles to growth and prosperity are often found together.

Our articles this month examine, each in its own way, the tensions between God’s will, earthly authority and human waywardness.  Jordan Ballor looks at the role of human agency among the “lost” ones of the Gospel parables.  Kenneth Spence writes about the difference between a vocation to work and simply collecting a paycheck.  And finally Samuel Gregg re-visits Pope Benedict’s masterful Regensburg address, five years later.  (According to George Weigel, this is the sole piece among all the 9/11 commemorations that mentions Regensburg.)

As simple as the Pope’s message may seem to those of us who believe in the Catholic faith, it should be equally apparent that we are in a new phase of living this faith in the world.  And if the Pope’s diagnosis is correct, much will depend on our ability to understand the challenges we are facing, which concern the intellect more than the will, a heart that listens and sees.  We hope these articles help you better understand so you can better defend and give witness to the life of faith.

Kishore Jayabalan