Sonntagberg, Austria

by Pavel Bachleda

My participation at the Toward a Free and Virtuous Society Conference, which took place in September 2007 at Sonntagberg in Austria, was more or less a matter of coincidence. Never before had I heard anything about the Acton Institute. It was a friend of mine who told me once about the Institute and its activities and aims. Since I have been always interested in politics and pursued the activities of some conservative associations in Slovakia, I decided immediately after having had a look at the website of the Acton Institute to register for the conference in Austria. I was very pleased to get the scholarship and today I am convinced that taking part at the conference was a great opportunity for me; an opportunity to enrich my thinking and clarify many questions that occupied my mind at that time.

I am student of Law in Vienna, Austria and in Bratislava, the capital of my homeland Slovakia. Since the very beginnings of my studies I began to realize that behind the thick net of positive law and its mechanisms that made up the major part of the learning matter at the faculties of law, there were a lot of questions emerging that seemed to be much more important and even more difficult to answer. These questions dealt with the principles standing behind the law itself. Once having seen the legal hypertrophy and overregulation in nearly all fields of law, especially in the growing regulation of the social security system and the state fiscal policy with its detrimental impacts on the free enterprise, I began, gradually, to think more about the state in its role of the legislature-imposing body. Should the state really protect everyone against any thinkable social injustice (injustice that is even hard to define)? Should it really take upon itself the care for the ‘sunny future’ of our children by the means of today’s family and social policy?

Moreover, economic and social questions weren’t the most urgent ones that occupied me. As a practicing Roman Catholic, I was often confronted with the problem of the binding power of law that conflicts with the conscience and the moral of those in our society who still believe that there is one, sole and absolute Truth that determines the entire life. In Slovakia, I have often experienced the destructive impacts of the Marxist ideology that infiltrated and dominated our education during forty years (and still continue to do so), having completely perverted the understanding of the law and its function in the society. The Toward a Free and Virtuous Society Conference occurred at this very period when I have been thinking a lot about the limits of the government and compatibility between the subject of my studies and my personal belief.

I think that those four days we spent at Sonntagberg, one of the most beautiful pilgrimage places in Lower Austria, was a great experience for all the participants. I really appreciate the faculty that led the sessions on various topics that were being discussed at the conference. After each lecture there was some time for questions and it wasn’t rare that they turned to a lively discussion between the lecturers and the students. Listening to the lectures on the topic of limited government, history of globalization, Catholic Social Teaching and the teaching of the Austrian School of Economics, I realized that I had lived in a world of many illusions before (especially regarding economics). I also realized the lack of a firm basis, on which I could build my opinions. The conference helped me feel responsible for the future of our region and became for me an appeal to study more and to deepen my knowledge in philosophy and economics. The collection of books that we received from the Acton Institute at the end of the conference was definitely a great contribution to this aim.

It would take a lot of time to sum up all the points that I profited from at the conference at Sonntagberg. There were too many impulses whose importance for my thinking I realized some time later. I would rather like to quote Lord Acton – whose work on the relation between liberty and morality inspired also the founders of the Institute – defining liberty as “the highest ideal of man, the reflection of his divinity”. I would like to wish to all future participants of the Towards a Free and Virtuous Society Conference who don’t accept principle of moral subjectivism, so common in our modern society, to become convinced and passionate proponents of the real freedom which is and may be rooted only in Truth.

The Acton Institute's Towards a Free and Virtuous Society conferences are an extremely powerful and effective tool for this goal. In fact, the Acton conferences held in Austria together with Europa Institut are the only of their kind in Europe!

By Lisanna Goertz

Traveling to Sonntagberg, Austria, provides a change in perspective on several levels. Located on the top of a mountain in the beautiful lower Austria region, visitors leave behind the everyday, and are offered an exhilarating view of the Eastern branches of the Alps. This scenery provides an ideal backdrop for stimulating lectures and thought-provoking discussions.

For me personally, however, the trip to Sonntagberg for the Towards a Free and Virtuous Society conference 2007 held more than just a beautiful view. I was born and raised in the west of Germany, less than three hours from Brussels, the political center of the European Union. When I arrived at the conference venue after a 10-hour train trip, I realized that among more than 25 participants from Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Slovakia, I had had the longest journey. It was the first time I became truly aware of how the geographical center of Europe had shifted with the eastern enlargement of the EU.

In the course of the conference, it was also precisely the mix of participants from the old and the new member states of the EU that prepared the ground for most fruitful discussions. The participants from the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia provided a unique view on the subjects of human dignity and freedom, shaped by the experience of growing up in countries that had experienced decades of Socialist rule. These participants were among those who defended the value of personal freedom most fervently, and it is their stories that all of us from those countries that have been spared the first-hand experience can learn from.

I vividly remember a heated discussion between participants on the issue of whether Socialism is “bad” or not. One participant from Austria pointed to the good intentions of the founders of Socialism, arguing that the theory itself was essentially benign in nature, but that it had been the incorrect implementation of its principles that had led to unintended side effects in the past. This argument mirrors a conviction that seems to be widely shared across Western Europe, namely that the state is responsible for the welfare and security of its citizens, and that growing bureaucracies and increasing dependencies are an acceptable price to be paid in the process. At the same time, however, many feel disempowered and are skeptical of what the future might bring.

Against this background, the Acton Institute’s Towards a Free and Virtuous Society conferences serve an important purpose by advocating an alternative approach to solving the problems we face today. In our world, which honors secularism as a value in and of itself, many would like to confine religious convictions to the private sphere. I am grateful to the Acton Institute for having made it their business to remind young people, such as myself, that this is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, the principles of Natural Law and Christian anthropology are truly universal in the sense that they can provide guidance for human action in all different spheres of life, including economics, and at all times, including today.

If we remain aware of the inherent dignity of every human being, and if we are mindful of the fact that each choice comes with a moral obligation to do right, there is little risk in “risking” more freedom. Yet, there is so much to gain from it. Because in taking our lives into our own hands, in acting responsibly, creatively and entrepreneurially, not only do we create opportunity and prosper economically. More importantly, we carry out God’s mandate of using our talents wisely and thus grow as human beings.