As a seminarian at Calvin Theological Seminary, I was given the opportunity to attend the Acton Institute's conference in Lake Bluff, Illinois, from April 25-28, 2002. The conference was attended by a diverse group of future religious leaders, both geographically and theologically. There were Irish Presbyterians, Kenyan Protestants, and American Roman Catholics and Protestants from various denominations and locations. This ecumenical spirit was encouraging and inspiring as we future moral leaders worked toward greater unity in Christ's church.
Beginning with the readings I received before the conference, I was exposed to a position that is not popular in many Christian circles. This position stresses property rights, the rule of law, subsidiarity (or sphere sovereignty), and an economic philosophy strongly advocating free-market principles. The Acton Institute's position is different from the usual secular right-wing platform in that they also advocate a strong moral voice promoting private charity and compassion for the poor and marginalized.
In contrast, much of contemporary theology regards some form of socialism as the most compassionate and Scriptural system of political and economic organization. Although this tendency is motivated by genuine concern for the poor and the horrifically unacceptable conditions in which they often live and die, it is not well thought-out. The Acton Institute identifies with the motivation of concern for the crisis of the poor, but their proposed solution is much more informed and supported by history. It is summed up in the following words—property rights, rule of law, subsidiarity, and freedom grounded in virtue as opposed to the ability to choose anything and everything.
Property rights state that each individual owns particular things that another individual does not and cannot own simultaneously—private ownership rather than communal ownership. When an individual owns an item, he or she is the only person who has a rightful claim to it. There is no confusion about the rightful owner of any given item. The problem arises when an individual with greater power seeks to take by force what is defined by clear property rights as belonging to another. If the conflict is limited to the two individuals, the more powerful will successfully steal the property and injustice will occur. Therefore, property rights alone are not enough to ensure a free and virtuous society.
The rule of law must be clearly articulated and enforced regarding property rights. Under law, the conflict expands from two individuals to include the governing body that promised to enforce the right to own private property. When the more powerful individual attempts to steal the weaker individual's property, under the rule of law, the governing body now has the authority and the responsibility to intervene and ensure the retention of property by its rightful owner. The problem here arises when the governing body is far removed from the individuals who are in conflict. If the governing body is too unfamiliar with the conflict to intelligently adjudicate, injustice is likely to occur. Therefore, property rights and rule of law are still not enough to ensure justice.
Another element necessary for a free and virtuous society is the principle of subsidiarity. This principle argues that, "A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with the view to the common good" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1883). Under this principle, then, a conflict between two children fighting over the ownership of a toy is resolved not by the FBI, but by parents. Since the parents know their children intimately, they will be far better equipped to justly resolve the conflict than an FBI agent who has never before visited the city in which the children live. Instead, the FBI should ensure national security by protecting all American citizens, including those two children, from terrorism and crime, and should refrain from interfering in disputes between children. The problem here arises when the parents favor one child over the other and, despite their responsibility and adequate ability to justly resolve the conflict, they consciously decide to give the toy to the child who does not own it.
Therefore, no matter how many intelligent structures are defined and enforced, a free and virtuous society is not guaranteed because all justice comes down to individual choice. This was the conference's central, crucial tenet. It is understood that the parents are free to resolve this conflict. The question is, what does the freedom of the parents really mean? If they are "free" in the sense that all options of treatment are open to them, then an unjust resolution remains an exercise of free choice. However, if they are "free" in the sense that they have the option to choose justly, then an unjust resolution becomes a violation of the free choice of those parents. Thus, in order to move fully and intelligently toward a free and virtuous society, freedom must be carefully defined. According to Lord Acton, it is the right to choose what we ought, not the right to choose anything we want.
Throughout the weekend, I was continually struck by the clarity and profundity of the arguments and principles presented. The Acton Institute provides a truly unique educational opportunity in the Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conferences, one which I highly recommend to any future religious leader concerned with a proper understanding and clear rationale for furthering freedom and virtue within our world.