Religion & Liberty Online

The Year in Acton Commentary 2017

Every Wednesday we publish the Acton Commentary, a weekly article that covers topics related to the mission of the Acton Institute. As 2017 comes to a close we thought it would be worth highlighting the top ten commentaries produced by Acton staffers and contributors over the past year.

1. 5 ways the church can help the poor

“My community includes people who are both materially poor and ‘poor in spirit’,” says Zachary Ritvalsky. “However, what exactly does it mean to say that people are ‘poor in spirit’?”

To be “poor in spirit” is not the same as being economically poor, yet both kinds of poverty matter, and the church must address both. In his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland interpreted the phrase like this: “The poor in spirit would be those who sense the burden of their present (impoverished) state and see it in terms of the absence of God; who patiently bear that state, but long for God to act on their behalf and decisively claim them as his people.”

2. More than compassion needed for Europe’s refugees

“Irrespective of the political forces at play,” says Trey Dimsdale, “there is no arguing with the fact that such a large number of displaced immigrants presents a monumental humanitarian crisis in which survival becomes the initial, but not final, concern.”

Prior to 2014, fewer than 300,000 refugees and migrants arrived in the European Union each year. Due to war and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, that relatively slow trickle more than quadrupled by the end of the year. The result was squalid refugee and migrant camps, crowded train stations, and anti-immigrant demonstrations across the continent. Most refugees and migrants entered Europe via nations least able to absorb and support them, causing internal EU tensions to rise. By mid-2015 it was clear that Europe was facing a major humanitarian and political crisis not likely to be easily resolved.

3. Regensburg Revisited: A West Still in Denial

“A decade ago, a 79 year-old soft-spoken, white-haired German theologian returned to visit a university at which he had spent much of his academic career,” says Samuel Gregg.

In this instance, however, the speech delivered at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI, had immediate global impact. For weeks, even months afterwards, newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, and even entire books attacked, defended, and analyzed the almost 4,000 words which came to be known as the Regensburg Address. Copies of the text and effigies of its author, however, were also ripped up, trampled on, and publicly burnt throughout the Islamic world. Television screens were dominated by images of enraged Muslim mobs and passionate denunciations by Muslim leaders, most of whom had clearly not read the text.

4. We are getting income inequality wrong – and that’s dangerous

People tend to be poor because they are excluded from market exchange, says Anne Rathbone Bradley. Wealth redistribution doesn’t change that but reforming cronyism does. What we need to ensure is that financial capital doesn’t become equivalent to political power for corporations.

The topic of income inequality is not new, but it is increasingly dominating academic and policy conversations. When French economist, Thomas Piketty, wrote a 704-page tome on income inequality in 2014 it sold out quickly. How could a massive book on such a technical concept generate so much popular interest? Piketty tapped into some deep and growing concerns that Americans have about income inequality. Is the large gap between the rich and poor in the United States a problem and is it getting worse? If so, what should we do about it and what can we do about it? Christians must wrestle with these questions if we truly want to help not only the poor, but all those who might be increasingly marginalized by a rigged system.

5. The Michael Novak book that changed reality

From a 2017 vantage point, it’s easy to forget just how radical this book was, says Samuel Gregg. In penning the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novak was the first theologian to really make an in-depth moral, cultural, and political case for the market economy in a systematic way.

Needless to say, Novak’s book generated fierce reactions from the religious left. The opprobrium was probably heightened by the fact that the Spirit confirmed what had become evident from the mid-’70s onwards: that Novak was well on his way to abandoning his previously left-wing positions.

Thirty years ago, however, many Christians — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, clerical, and lay — were marching in precisely the opposite direction to Novak. Theologians in the Americas and Western Europe were still waxing lyrical about “dialogue” with Marxism. The fight-back led by Blessed John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger against the doctrinal heresies and Marxist analysis underlying liberation theology had only just begun.

6. Anti-Americanism at the Vatican

Kishore Jayabalan on the anti-Americanism on display in some areas of the Vatican.

I spent five years working at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace during the pontificate of John Paul II. (It has since become part of the newly-formed Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development because justice and peace weren’t difficult enough to achieve!) It was generally known as the Vatican office where lefties could feel like good Catholics. We avoided talking about the Church’s retrograde sexual teachings and focused on trendy issues like the environment and disarmament and how wonderful the United Nations would be if only …

7. It’s time to bury the ‘executioner’ Lenin for good

Rev. Ben Johnson comments on the solemn centenary of the Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s ascendancy to power.

These century-old events continue to dominate the news in modern-day Russia, where leaders grapple with how to deal with one tangible legacy of the Marxist past: After his death in 1924 at the age of 53, Lenin’s corpse became the centerpiece of a gargantuan, pyramid-shaped mausoleum in Red Square, where he still lies in artificially preserved repose. Today, many would like his body, and his legacy, buried.

8. Is foreign aid a sacred cow?

Victor V. Claar explains that it hasn’t been aid that has lifted people out of poverty, but trade and access to markets.

While many of the world’s politicians would like to take credit for cutting extreme global poverty in half in just 20 years, and the aforementioned faith leaders seem quite ready to thank politicians for their achievements, the source of this success is far simpler: economic growth. As the Economist magazine has put it, “ … the biggest poverty-reduction measure of all is liberalising markets to let poor people get richer. That means freeing trade between countries … and within them.”

9. Finding ‘the lost tools of learning’

“If you were to read Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning and thereafter read the curriculum of Veritas Classical Academy,” says Elizabeth Yeh, “you would find that the “lost tools” have been found in the small town of Marietta, Ohio.”

The curriculum at Veritas is based on the Trivium. In her book, novelist and essayist Sayers explains that the genius of the Trivium is that it coincides with the natural stages of a child’s development.

First is the grammar of learning, taking place at what Sayers names the “Poll-parrot stage” of youth, when students willingly memorize fundamentals that will be foundational for subsequent thought. Next is the dialectic, which corresponds to the “Pert Age,” when students undoubtedly love to argue, but necessarily need to be taught how to make logically sound arguments. Finally, rhetoric is taught in high school during the restless “Poetic Age” of life, in which the creative and increasingly philosophical mind of youth is trained in its expression, i.e. speaking and writing. The schooling culminates in an individually chosen senior thesis, which taps into both the skills and moral development of the earlier stages and is orally delivered to an audience.

These are the timeless tools of learning.

10. Davos Man, globalism and the case for free trade

“Times are tough for free trade, says Samuel Gregg, “the toughest since the first era of globalization came to a shuddering halt with the outbreak of war in 1914 and tariffs swept the world after 1918.”

Across the planet, economic nationalism is on the march. Faith in economic globalization’s benefits is waning throughout the West. Nothing symbolizes this more than Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency.

If the case for free trade is to have a future, it requires a radical rethink. And part of that makeover is going to involve shedding something that only damages the cause of free trade. This is its association with what’s often called “Davos Man.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).