Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,
I write to you in the middle of travels to the United Kingdom and the United States, with my final destination of Acton University in Grand Rapids, June 12-15. Since I left Rome on May 24, there’s been quite a bit of Vatican intrigue, such as the arrest of the Pope’s butler for allegedly possessing and releasing confidential documents and the unexpected removal of the president of the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican bank. These news items follow the Vatican’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the continuing legal battle between the Church in the United States and the Obama administration over the latter’s mandate to provide abortifacient, sterilization and contraceptive services in Catholic institutions. So there’s been no shortage of controversy in the last few weeks.
Any hint of misbehavior in the Church or clashes between Catholic leaders and progressive elements of the modern world make for salacious reporting, especially when the subject involves sex. It is a sad but inevitable fact that those who hold themselves and others to higher moral standards will fail to live up to them. Because the Church remains the one institution that continues to maintain such standards on the basis of both faith and reason, there is a certain amount of schadenfreude when one of the Church’s own suffers a fall from grace. Students of political philosophy may recognize elements of the great debate between ancients and moderns: is a high moral standard that is often breached preferable to a low but easier to achieve one? What are the wider consequences of moral hypocrisy on one hand, and limiting our moral vision to more mundane ends on the other? In one sense, these understandings of human nature are not so easily reconciled and we may be forced to make a fundamental choice between them. Yet, in another sense, the Church is able to incorporate human excellence and human sinfulness, the ideal and the actual, in a coherent anthropology and worldview. And despite the scandals and failings caused by Christians, our lives would be much poorer in many ways without the Church and her perennial teachings to guide and give us hope.
In last month’s letter, I mentioned that I would be attending the State of Europe forum compromised mainly of European Evangelical Protestants in Copenhagen, and the discussion I encountered there reminded me of what happens when we neglect the Catholic Church’s contribution to European civilization. There was plenty of material offered as evidence of Europe’s economic, political and spiritual woes. Yet I was struck by the extreme disregard for human reason expressed by many of the participants, as well as what seemed to me to be an overconfident application of political and economic models found in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, to today’s world. While this may be a standard Catholic critique of the Protestant worldview, I am inclined to see other influences at work, including a less-than-complete understanding of how free societies and free economies function within a broader moral and ethical context. It does not seem that American Evangelicals, for instance, share the same distrust of reason as their European counterparts, who perhaps not coincidentally also look to the welfare state to solve many of their problems. I was also struck by the lack of any mention of marriage and family issues, something that is nearly always mentioned at similar American and Catholic events I’ve attended in the past. Without meaning to offend any ecumenical sensibilities, I offered Pope Benedict as the one European public figure who can help lead us out of this seemingly bottomless abyss. I will have to wait to see if I am invited to next year’s forum to know if this recommendation found any welcome ears.
After the Copenhagen forum, I attended the annual meeting of the Transformational Business Network in London, which gathered together venture capitalists and social entrepreneurs from many difference parts of the world. And unlike the Copenhagen event, there was no shortage of energy or ideas on how to develop societies in ways that better reflect human dignity. While the approach is not explicitly Christian, I couldn’t help but think that businesspeople I met in the United Kingdom understood the challenges in a more concrete, tangible manner compared to the theologians and other intellectuals I encountered in Denmark. While we definitely need to recognize the difference between theory and practice, there are many things each side can teach the other when it comes to saving Europe from its all-too-apparent destructive tendencies, many of which seem to start in the head and crush the heart. Combine this with all the “austerity” plans in Europe, which means nothing more than higher taxes and unmet promises to limit the growth of, without actually reducing, public spending, and it’s a bleak picture indeed.
Now that I am Stateside, I am sure to notice a fair share of problems affecting the American mind and spirit as well; there’s no lack of bad news on this side of the Atlantic. But as in years past, my fellow lecturers and participants at Acton University tend to have a more positive outlook on what can and need to be done. I look forward to seeing some of you there soon, and encourage the rest to apply to attend this unique event in 2013. Whether you are in Greece, France, Italy or Spain, there is simply too much at stake to give in to the secularizing, statist trends that are in ascendancy on the Old Continent. Follow Grover Norquist’s advice (go to 3:07 of this clip), do what Europeans with common sense have been doing for 200 years, and come to America for a breath of much-needed fresh air.