Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: Novemember 1996

Novemember 1996

I'm Not Catholic, But Would I Want to Be?

I’m not Catholic, but it may interest your readers to know that I went to a liberal Methodist church for three years, and learned nothing. Not one thing! Recently I attending a wedding at a liberal Catholic institution. How did I know it was liberal? Because the priest gave us the same old idiotic it-doesn’t-matter-what-you-believe-or-do-so-long-as-you-love-one-another mantra, with the same old disingenuous “peace be with you” grin.

It’s a relief to know the NOR recognizes the problem and is trying to do something about it.

Bruce Elwell

The Acton Institute

Stephentown, New York

Call to Arms

Your October editorial, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” was, to say the least, provocative. I just hope there are enough people out there who will be stirred by your most eloquent call to arms.

Paul R. Smith

Walnut Creek, California

Eastern Orthodox Too

Mark Shea hit the nail on the head in his article, “When Evangelicals Treat Catholic Tradition Like Revelation” (Sept.), by making the point that historically Protestants have accepted the not-strictly-biblically-enunciated positions of the Roman Catholic Church on abortion, polygamy, and the Trinity. It might be added that these are not only Roman Catholic positions, but Eastern Orthodox ones as well. It might also be noted that orthodox Protestantism treated the “undivided” Church, the norm for the Eastern Orthodox, as infallible by accepting its decision as to what and what not to include in the New Testament canon. As an Anglo-Catholic, I feel it’s illogical for Protestants to do this without considering the seven ecumenical councils of the undivided Church to be authoritative as well. If the undivided Church was authoritative in the case of the canon, why not in the case of the councils?

Wallace Spaulding

McLean, Virginia

In Defense of the Acton Institute

The main point of Francis Manion’s article “Should Catholics Canonize Ebenezer Scrooge?” (July-Aug.) seems to be that laissez faire and Catholic social teaching are incompatible and that the Acton Institute is doing a disservice by promoting a synthesis of the two. As a philosopher associated with the Institute, I am compelled to point out the errors in Manion’s reasoning.

Manion’s critique relies almost entirely on a single case study, that of Richard Whately, the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin from 1831 to 1863. Whately, we are told, championed free markets while allowing his parishioners to starve. From this we are to infer that free markets have this result and should be rejected as out of touch with Christian principles. Obviously there are problems with defending a conclusion this general on the basis of one case, but there are at least two other problems with Manion’s piece:

(1) Manion claims that free markets in Ireland worsened the Great Famine of 1845-1849. But this is not persuasive. For while Whately’s reign lasted 32 years, the Famine only lasted four. Somehow Ireland dug its way out, and Whately remained Archbishop for 14 more years. History therefore demonstrates no causal relationship whatsoever between anything Whately did and the Famine. Possibly, for all we know, the applications of free-market principles helped end it.

(2) Manion blurs objections to free-market economics with invective against Whately’s personal character. The Acton Institute could have been wrong to select Whately as the best exemplar of a good Christian during the Famine. However, one need not defend Whately’s character, for, logically, his character has no bearing whatever on the validity of his claims on behalf of the free market.

There are better and worse defenders and practitioners of the free market — and better and worse Weltanschauungen in which to embed free-market thought. Defenses of the free market can be cashed out in the context of the worst sort of Hobbesian materialism and social Darwinism, positions obviously incompatible with Church teachings. It doesn’t follow that because markets embodying such notions have undesirable results, every defense of the free market fails.

The Acton Institute is trying to show that free-market activity is very much compatible with, and encourages, virtues which are outgrowths of Christian theism. True Christianity indeed commands action on behalf of the less fortunate. But it will not do to assume that the state is the institution most suited to discharge this obligation. Mediating institutions (the extended family, the Church, private charities, etc.) are closer to the problems, more efficient, and have more of a stake in the outcomes of their actions than do federal bureaucrats. They function best when bureaucrats stay out of the way. The state cannot force people to be good, and has largely undermined mediating institutions by trying.

Markets have as a rule improved living standards for poor and nonpoor alike, and thus created at least some conditions for respecting the dignity of the person. If contemporary capitalism is defective, this is because it has often come as a package deal with the Hobbesian/social Darwinist worldview imported from outside economics and therefore not intrinsic to free-market thought. This leaves open the possibility of a synthesis of free-market thought and Christian social teachings. Such a synthesis might just offer a superior basis for building a better world.

Steven Yates

Grand Rapids, Michigan

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