At the Acton Institute's recent conference in West Cornwall, Connecticut, the presentations and discussions revolved around the concept of freedom: freedom as the freedom to pursue the good, in contrast with the freedom of the unfettered will of the human person. Our overriding thesis, then, was that a man who is free is one who is able to know the true good, and to arrive at it well—not just on occasion, but with permanence. This man, we say, is virtuous.
We gathered at a strikingly beautiful conference center to discuss the intersection of freedom, virtue, and society. Despite having traveled some 20 hours across the globe to the United States, I felt totally at home. I had read Fr. Robert Sirico’s writings on the Institute’s Web site and Dr. Samuel Gregg’s Challenging the Modern World, and I continue to follow the Acton Institute's academic research. It was edifying to meet with the Institute faculty and staff, including members of Acton’s Center for Economic Personalism. We were also fortunate to have Dr. Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, whose impressive first hand grasp of international events put a stamp of realism on the entire weekend.
The lectures were stimulating and focused on pursuing the benefits of a society which offers social and economic space for human initiative. We also spoke extensively on the notion of liberty and the challenges of globalization for a Christian conscience.
A general thrust of the discussion aimed at encouraging a progression from the rhetoric of distributive justice towards the generation of wealth. While there is an urgent need to enable basic resources to reach those in need, the way to go about this cannot be a naïve political equality which rearranges capital distribution according to socialist ideals. Such redistribution undermines the entire effort of eradicating poverty. In other words, economic redistribution deprives those who are able to generate greater portions of human goods. Justice properly understood is not simply equal distribution—unless we wrongly presuppose that all men equally deserve as much—not because they are not all deservedly human, but rather because not all can be as productive for the benefit of the common good. Rather, the classical understanding of justice—and rightly so—is the constant and perpetual will to give each accordingly as he deserves. With respect to whom deserves how much, capacity for production enters into the equation.
With this, the question of poverty takes on a totally different face. Instead of asking how we can get more, we have to ask instead, how can we create more and do so more efficiently? The answer is work—creative and well done, by the grace of God. This last is vital, because without grace, we shall lack the faith to persevere, the hope to look for a better future, and the charity which moves us to provide for our brothers for the love of God. But grace does not operate in thin air. The point so often remarked by St. Thomas is the classic theological axiom that grace perfects nature and presupposes it.
One might say that to operate through nature’s powers and particularly human natural powers is God’s preferred modus operandi. For many Christians, the common confession of the union of the Divine Person of the Word with human nature in the story of salvation is one sign of this preference.
Speaking from the Catholic Church's tradition, this modus operandi is confirmed by the Lord’s command at the Last Supper, "Do this in memory of me." As bread and wine, the work of human hands, is offered in Eucharistic consecration, so the body of Christ must bear the world through the powers of human nature. Human hands work at it and offer it through grace for the world’s salvation. And salvation aims at the eradication of the sin of poverty. A theology of liberation from poverty, then, is not simply about equalizing capital, but enabling the human creative effort for the common good.
The Acton Institute's Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference was excellent and, for me, a moment of grace. Certainly the issues will continue to be debated. We are carving theological history.