by Lubna Nabi
When I was first referred to the “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society Conference,” I was curious as to how the presenters would define a society that was both “free and virtuous.” In the first session, we were asked: “Would you rather live in a free society, void of virtue, or in a virtuous society with no freedom?” The ensuing philosophical discussion proved to be a great foreshadowing for the intellectual discourses that would follow. My participation at the April 15-18, 2004 conference in Lake Bluff, Illinois proved to be both theoretically challenging and practically enlightening.
The real thrill lay in being able to theorize and theologize and then apply those concepts to the socio-economic reality of our world. Some such soul-searching reflections: Values are mundane, while virtues are transcendent…To understand what we are called to, we must ask: Who am I?...Property rights reflect two theological facts: that we are made in the image of God and that we are fallen creatures in need of protection from ourselves and each other…If the poor of our society define themselves in terms of what others do for them, they relinquish their own power…The principle of Subsidiarity is important because social programs are most effective when created and enacted by the people who will benefit from them…
And in terms of practical application, we pondered the following matters…The basic duties of a government are to ensure the accessibility of the market, to guard property rights, to protect the less fortunate, and to allow all people to live in liberty…Rather than through taxes and the Faith Based Initiative, the government should encourage charitable giving of time and resources through tax breaks for pro bono donations and volunteer time…Regarding the pitfalls of globalization, a wiser approach to shutting off developing countries from both its costs and benefits, is to help them adjust to the change it brings…The just aim of a business corporation is to create wealth and work for the community in which it is situated….
In essence, we debated the merits of everything from Walmart to balancing the budget, from private charity to economic entrepreneurialism. And thanks to the presence of representatives from Kenya, Tanzania, and Argentina, we all gained a broader perspective on the international context of the issues we were debating. At mealtimes, the presenters would spread out at the different tables and indulge us in lengthy discussions on the topics of our choice. It was rare that we even took a break to go back to our rooms, so engrossed were we in conversation. I would have needed a couple of months to learn all I wanted to know about the presenters, the topics, and about the attendees, but all we had were three intense days of enlightenment and a couple late nights of philosophical bantering.
It was providential for me to have attended the conference at this point in my career as a future development economist. My childhood years in Indonesia, my college studies on economic development in Latin America, and my work as a Catholic Campus Minister who teaches on economic justice, have sometimes provided conflicting views on globalization, economic development, and their effect on developing countries. I have often been frustrated by my fellow Catholics who are avid social activists, but seem to have an unbalanced view of the modern systems they tend to vilify. On the other side of the spectrum, I have been disheartened to see the science of economics treat humans as merely a player in the game of supply and demand with no real value of their own. So to find a context in which I could uphold my Christian values, while appreciating the merits of our modern economy, felt like an ideological homecoming to me.
I had opportunities to talk to several of the presenters about my future plans and to seek thoughtful guidance on what path to pursue. And I relished getting to know my fellow students: future religious leaders with inquiring minds and a passion for truth. My participation in the Conference was an opportunity unparalleled in originality and educational value – a truly a life-changing experience.