A thought struck me while attending Acton’s "Toward a Free and Virtuous Society" conference in Putten, the Netherlands: This is an experience that all young Europeans should have. Those who attended, more than thirty young people from the Netherlands, Lithuania, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Finland, and Belgium, came up with some extraordinary ideas at the conference, ideas that Europe seems to have forgotten. The Acton Institute and the Edmund Burke Foundation, organizers of the conference, enabled us to grow profoundly in our understanding of liberty and virtue. Although I was the only Italian there, I did not feel so lonely; the atmosphere was very welcoming and allowed for the formation of new friendships.
The most interesting part of the conference, in my opinion, was the lecture time. We had the occasion to attend lectures by Dr. Sam Gregg and Rev. Jerry Zandstra, and we were able to dialogue with those lecturers on very important topics. The lecturers first pointed out that what we were really looking for was the correct conception of the human person. The answer to the main question "Quid sit homo?" was the key to understanding the whole conference. And there were other issues: Is the human person capable of arriving at truth, or is he only someone that is trying to maximize pleasure? What is human freedom? If we identify what freedom is, how can we prepare people for it? Where do we find the justification for a free society, in utilitarianism or in the moral life?
These questions have been answered by using different anthropologies. There is a great clash, though, between a conception of the human person based on the inheritance of Aristotle, Christianity and the natural law, and another based on secularism. The first anthropology sees the human person as a being with integrated mind, spirit and body, as a truthseeker intrinsically worthy of rights. Secularism, on the other hand, bases everything on desire, and consequentially on utilitarianism; it says that we do not use reason to see if something is good or bad, but to see how to get what we want. The type of anthropology used has an influence on one’s conception of civil society. The role of the Church, or of the Churches, in civil society, as seen from a Christian prespective, is to remind us that the human person is an image of God - nothing more, nothing less.
At the Putten conference, we Europeans also had the privilege of listening to words spoken against legal positivisim, which is at the heart of the most common positions of European “bold-state” thinkers. There are two different tendencies to look at with regard to the role of the state: the tendency to the “bold State,” and the tendency to the “no State.” The first one sees people as evil, unable to make the right decisions, and irresponsible; it makes use of coercion. The second onesees people as good, rational, and responsible. Because power is seen as a corrupted force, “no State” conception does not make use of coercion. Of the two options for the state, limited government seems to be the rational choice.
The lecturers also posed this important question: Who restrains the power of evil and promotes the good in single individuals? The answer, which we are not used to hearing in Europe, lies in subsidiarity. According to this principle, power is located in the following places and in the following order: 1) oneself; 2) the family; 3) community and Church; 4) larger communities; 5) local government; 6) state government; and 7) federal government. A classical European answer would be: 1) State; 2) State; 3) State.
Lastly, we also discussed the field of economics in its relation to ethics. Today, much of the distinction between right wing and left wing is based on different conceptions of economic markets. If we follow orthodox Christian anthropology, we view the market as being comprised of people, and this means that we would see business relations as vehicles not only of economic relations, but also for affirming non-economic values. Furthermore, the spread of these kinds of person-based commercial relations allows for the growth of intermediate societies that have the capacity to allow human beings to flourish. Thus, there is a deep relationship between morality and the economic life.
The Putten conference stimulated us to think about the nature of freedom, morality and the State -- fields which in Europe we normally separate in a strict manner. We had the occasion to hear great ideas from the American experience based in the Christian tradition of liberty. These ideas provide rational and concrete solutions to the problems of the relationship between morality, economics and the State.
If I can put my two cents in, this is what Europe needs today.