Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,
I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where the Acton Institute held the fifth of seven conferences in the Poverty, Entrepreneurship and Integral Development  series on Thursday, March 24. The Nairobi event was entitled “Economic and Cultural Transformation: Breaking the Shackles of Poverty”  and featured a number of experts on the various challenges facing the socio-economic development in sub-Saharan Africa. The conference took place at Strathmore University  and was co-sponsored by the Strathmore Governance Centre .
Many Strathmore students were apparently on a post-exams break; nevertheless I was still very impressed by the number of participants and, more importantly, by the energy and seriousness shown by those who took part. If there’s one thing Africa has over, say, Europe, it is a youthful, entrepreneurial and politically/socially-aware population that still believes in God and the Christian faith (if I may be permitted to generalize, contrary to the continent’s and Kenya’s tremendous diversity).
The conference was divided into two sections, the first a mainly academic discussion of the topic, with the second featuring practioners of enterprise. Bishop Anthony Muheria of Kitui, Kenya gave a very solid and comprehensive overview of Catholic social teaching’s view of economic and cultural transformation and its emphasis on the human person. Prof. Robert Vivian of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa spoke of the different economic natures of some African states and how political groups and parties have come to control the institutions and processes which would otherwise help these nations develop much more robustly. Prof. David Sperling of Strathmore related the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history of economic growth in Kenya, also in a very impressive manner.
Rev. Chanshi Chanda of Zambia gave a stirring presentation to open the second session, as he explained why religious leaders tend to neglect the entrepreneurial vocation among the laity. We then heard from two real entrepreneurs, Michael Macharia, who has launched a number of new ventures, including an information technology start-up, and Eva Muraya, who began Color Creations, a printing and embroidering company we visited, and is now involved with promoting women entrepreneurs and the concept of “branding” among African businesses, in addition to starting an educational fund to assist schools. Eva is also featured in our Poverty Cure documentary trailer . My Acton colleague Charissa Romens was with us and blogged on her take of the trip here .
Though nowhere nearly as qualified to speak on Africa, I was among the “talkers” rather than the “doers”, and presented a paper in the first session on the moral and attitudinal pre-requisites of successful entrepreneurship in developing countries. I wanted to show how the entrepreneur, as a human type, has certain character traits that should be kept in mind if we want to promote entrepreneurship, while also looking at some of the “defects” of the entrepreneurial mindset. One of the counter-intuitive traits of the entrepreneur, I noted, was that he or she often does not have a clear vision of where the new venture will lead, so flexibility and quickness are vital. The entrepreneur can also be a restless or anxious type that is rarely satisfied with past accomplishments, which can be both a blessing and a curse spiritually speaking. My aim was to bridge some of the divide between business and religious leaders, a bridge that has been under construction by Fr. Sirico and the Acton Institute from its beginning, of course. I’m not sure this bridge will ever be completed but based on the reception of these talks in Nairobi, if economic development is to finally reach Africa, it looks like the growth of the Church and enterprise will be very much intertwined.
The next conference in this series,“From Family and State to Market Economic Orders: The Moral Foundations of Prosperity in Asia ”, will take place in Rome on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. Like Africa, there is quite a bit of interest and attention among religious and business leaders in Asia, though the continent is also extremely vast and diverse, making it difficult for Europeans and Americans to understand. The May conference may lack some of the local flavor of the Nairobi one, but promises to be equally fascinating and relevant to our common concerns.
Moving on to this month’s articles, one not to be missed is Sam Gregg’s “Benedict XVI, Hans Kung and Catholicism’s Future.” I have been reading the second volume of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth since its release earlier this month, and I am continually grateful for the clear yet profound insights found on each page. It is a shame that the polemics of those like Kung gather so much attention, but perhaps God is using the polemics to draw us to the far more edifying life and lessons exemplified by the Holy Father.
We also have an article by Acton’s 2011 Novak Award winner , Hunter Baker, on the issue of income inequality and justice, as well as an interview of Fr. Robert Sirico by National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez on Catholic social teaching’s take on labor unions.
Finally, I’d like to mention a very current news item that’s a bit outside the relationship between religion and economics but worth mentioning because of its implications for Church pronouncements on economics.
The imposition of a no-fly zone and the commencement of air strikes by the U.S. and other Western nations in Libya has once again raised questions of Catholic just war theory and the appropriate use of military force. And once again many observers fail to draw the necessary distinction between the principles of Catholic social teaching and the application of these principles usually made by lay people who have a particular political responsibility, indeed vocation, to do so.
There is no question that all citizens of a democratic society should – even if they usually don’t – engage in serious public debates on questions of war and peace. This engagement would apparently include some kind of duty to inform oneself about the nature and history of nations besides one’s own, rather than take the easy path of cheap sloganeering. Thought and argument, rather than willful and vocal assertion, are tools of reason the Church has promoted for centuries.
It is therefore remarkable how often the Church’s teachings on the use of force are used by those who have very little, if any, interest in virtually any other Church teaching, under the rubric of the “seamless garment of life.” The minute a moral case for military action is presented and the Pope seems to urge caution , pacifists seem to suddenly discover the Pontiff’s absolute moral authority and urge universal obedience. If only such zealous shows of faith were made about Sunday mass attendance….
A friend of mine jokes that this line of debate ought to be called the “seamless straightjacket” because it is so commonly invoked to proclaim the Church’s support for any fashionable cause while keeping silent on matters that cut against the liberal grain, such as abortion and euthanasia. (Here  – especially n. 3 - is what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote on the subject in 2004, in the context of the worthiness to receive Holy Communion.) The distinction between the non-negotiable points of Catholic dogma and the prudential judgments regarding most political and economic matters needs to be re-iterated time and again. Even if no one seems to get it.