Letter from Rome

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

Happy New Year to one and all!  This first newsletter of 2012 is delayed just a bit due to the Roman holiday season, which extends to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.  Falling on a Friday this year allowed us a couple more days of parties and shopping, interspersed, one hopes, with time to offer personal praise and thanks to Our Lord for all His benefits we’ve received.  As happens every year, there are always a few scolding voices telling us to stop all the celebrating and get back to work, but considering the special circumstances of the Italian economy at the moment, these kill-joys were more correct than usual.

Mario Monti’s “technical” (i.e., unelected) government is seeking to trim Italy’s massive debt mainly by raising sales and property taxes, and attempting to crack down on tax evaders.  Somehow the reason why Italians evade taxes that are too many, too high and too onerous to pay in the first place is completely lost on the ruling class.  After the bond markets refused to be impressed with the tax hikes, the government is now aflutter with “plans” for growth, saying it will decree a new measure a month to get the laggard of the major eurozone countries moving again.  Once again, the levels of economic ignorance and lack of common sense exhibited are staggering.  When taxes, regulations and bureaucracy are killing an economy, the solution is NOT to re-introduce new burdens with a fresh coat of paint.  No matter how smart the lawmakers think they are, they will never be wise enough to allocate resources in a village economy productively, let alone in a country of 50 million people.

The real tragedy of this charade is that the one advantage Monti’s government has is not having to face the wrath of the entitlement-addicted, competition-averse voters at the next election.  The government could easily take on the trade unions that normally block every sensible reform package, and simply ride off into the sunset, letting subsequent governments gather all the praise for a more productive, growing economy.  But alas, no.  To most observers, the question is no longer if but when the eurozone, and with it the entire post-World War II European project, will come crashing down.

In this environment, one would hope that religious leaders would have the good sense to call out the fundamental unseriousness of European politicians.  Of course this would require the work of several Acton Institutes and even more benefactors like the generous ones we currently have.  The media seems to love it, however, when religious voices issue jeremiads against business and “the rich.”  The slightest criticism of capitalism from Pope Benedict can drown out all the other, much more perceptive and interesting things he has to say, as this First Things commentary nicely put it.

Truth be told, it would be awfully surprising to hear a pope say that bond markets are right to punish spendthrift governments who make promises they can never keep, but this is, in effect, what popes have implicitly said when they call upon political leaders to exercise more responsibility and accountability in their primary objective of realizing the common good.  Despite the caricatures of what preachers say, “tough love” is not normally the subject of a Catholic priest’s homily.  Perhaps it could be better said that while the markets pursue justice with ruthless efficiency, the Church talks about love and mercy, and the two sides rarely seem to come together, at least here on earth.  Mercy presupposes rather than negates justice – I can’t forgive someone for a wrong that never happened or is never acknowledged as a wrong.  What the markets do, religious leaders can and should say are the just deserts of decades of mismanagement and delusion.  At the same time, it can be an individual and social (but not necessarily governmental) duty to care for those who are made worse off by these times of austerity.   

Yet if we look past the media’s presentation of religious leaders and read what the best of them, especially Pope Benedict, have to teach us, we would have even more reasons to thank God.  The months of December and January are especially rich ones for papal documents and speeches, such as the World Day of Peace message, the address to the Roman Curia, the Christmas Eve homily, the Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi message, and the address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.  All are worth reading and help us appreciate the remarkable ability of the pope to take difficult theological concepts and express them in clear, accessible language – like the evangelists and other great apostles, he can turn the joy of Christ’s incarnation and redemption into words.

One very recent news item concerning Pope Benedict was his announcement of the creation of 22 new cardinals, among them a very dear and long-time friend of the Acton Institute, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.  If you have ever experienced a consistory in person, you will know that it is a uniquely “Roman” event; full of solemnity and appreciation for the tradition of the papacy and the college of cardinals that elect him, combined with the usual festive “disorganization” of Roman celebrations that, somehow, always manages to come together without a major catastrophe.  Those who know Archbishop Dolan will agree that he personifies everything that a consistory is.  His many family members and friends will show up in force on February 18-20; we at Istituto Acton are looking forward to their and all the other pilgrims’ arrival.

This month’s newsletter features two articles by Sam Gregg, one on the suicide of the “eurocracy” while another takes a provocative look at what a “post-euro” European economy may look like.  In our third piece, Jordan Ballor explains how Christians should be “occupying” and indeed sanctifying Wall Street and all other streets as well.  It’s not necessarily news but it’s a message that cannot be heard often enough.  I hope these help you get the year off to a cheerful, good start.

Kishore Jayabalan