After three days at the Acton Institute conference, I returned to New York City with a different perspective on the poor, homeless, and unemployed who make up so much of this city’s population. While I knew these "problems" had been seriously exacerbated by the bloated welfare state, I saw their solution in mild public policy reforms rather than in the radically different approach that Christian anthropology provides. The conference lectures urged me to consider the special contribution of Christian anthropology—in particular, Catholic social teaching—to current questions of poverty, globalization, welfare reform, and private charity. In my discussions with fellow participants and lecturers, I realized a profound flaw in current political discourse on social questions: its refusal to address the subject of who the human person is and for what end he is created.
The objectives of the conference were to explore the concepts of freedom and virtue and to discuss the political and economic systems that encourage authentic human development. The Acton Institute promotes a free society based on a moral order. They believe that free markets, limited government, and incentives for private charity are the mechanisms that enable the development of this free and virtuous society. The conference lecturers laid out the philosophical and theological basis for Acton’s approach and then encouraged participants to discuss the practical implications of this view. It was a rare gift to participate in this conference at a time when American public debate over such questions is shifting significantly. President Bush’s recent attempt at encouraging faith–based charities was of particular relevance to our discussions.
The most impressive aspect of the conference was its ecumenical dimension, including the beautiful prayer service on Sunday morning. For many Catholics such as myself, the weekend was an opportunity to meet Protestants interested in Christian social teaching. Many Protestant students commented that this was their first exposure not only to young practicing Catholics but also to the riches of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. Given the difficulties of ecumenical dialogue, discussions at the conference were admirable in their respect for and sensitivity to different theological perspectives.
In addition, the presence of foreign students lent a necessary non-American perspective to our work. The contributions of students from Nigeria, Uganda, Northern Ireland, China, and Korea reminded Americans that most countries lack even the basic infrastructure of democratic capitalism. In many ways, it is a luxury for Americans to talk of complex issues such as tax cuts and healthcare, since we already have the required institutions in place. The Nigerian students, in particular, reminded us of the persecution of Christians and the economic hardships in their country. It is important for young Americans who have grown up in peaceful and economically prosperous times to hear this. Conversely, foreign students need to see and hear about the American experiment in ordered liberty to realize the human potential unleashed by a society built on freedom and virtue.
The existence of the Acton Institute is an indication of what the secular academy–and, in many cases, Christian schools—are not providing. In this three–day conference, students discussed universal concepts of truth, freedom, faith, and virtue–concepts that most university courses in the humanities do not even address. In short, Acton is making a powerful contribution to the education of young people interested in the fundamental questions of religion, liberty, and a free society.