Sunday, 23 December 2012

Pope in Financial Times

The first article by a Pope in the Financial Times supplies us with a suitable message for Christmas. In the article, made available by the Vatican, the Pope writes:
"Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Same-Sex Unions

Sappho: fresco from Pompeii
The latest issue of Humanum is dedicated to the theme of Same-Sex Unions and the question of gay "marriage." Humanum is the online journal of the Center for Pastoral and Cultural Research, at the John Paul II Institute in Washington. It contains articles and book reviews on a different theme every few months, intended to be useful to people working in the field of marriage, health care, bioethics, and moral theology. In the case of Same-Sex Unions, of course, we are dealing with a hot topic that needs careful thought and has wide political and cultural implications.

Marriage is a particular kind of bond, partly supernatural in origin, between a man and a woman open to a child (or children), its nature being to create a family that will serve as a solid foundation of civil society. In order to achieve the right degree of unity, marriage must be indissoluble, exclusive, and open to procreation (even if children never come). Each of these elements has been under concerted attack for some time. The final stage

Friday, 16 November 2012

Cardinal Scola in London: REPORT

One of the leading Communio bishops in the Catholic Church, H.E. Cardinal Angelo Scola the Archbishop of Milan, was visiting London on a rare visit this November to present the experience of his "Oasis" Foundation on the topic of Religion, Plurality and the Common Good. At a time of great tension between Christians and Muslims, especially in the Middle East, the Oasis Foundation is exploring ways that the interaction between them can become more peaceful and fruitful.

The first meeting was in the morning of Thursday 15 November at the House of Lords, at the invitation Lord Alton, for an invited group of religious policymakers, scholars, and representatives of civil society. The second was a public lecture and discussion, cosponsored by Heythrop College and the Catholic Union, in the afternoon of the same day, in the Loyola Hall of Heythrop College, Kensington Square.

Oasis is an International Foundation created in 2004 to encourage mutual understanding and opportunities for encounter between Christians and Muslims in contemporary societies. To this aim Oasis publishes a journal in several languages (including English, Arabic and Urdu), a newsletter and two series of books. The events in London follow the presentation at the UNESCO in Paris (2005), the dialogue with the rector and professors of Al-Azhar University of Cairo (2006) and the conference at the UN Headquarters in New York (2007). Oasis believes that interreligious dialogue involves intercultural dialogue, because religious experience is always lived and expressed through the medium of culture: not merely on the theological and spiritual level, but also on the political, economic, and social levels.

Further information about Oasis is available here: The talks are available on the Oasis website. For health reasons, I was unable to travel to London, but I have been receiving reports and copies of papers. What follows is mainly my summary of the Cardinal's two papers, followed by an extracts from responses.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Catholic Social Teaching Moment

As many observers have noted, as the economic crisis of our century continues to unfold, and political parties flounder to define their own identity (Big Society? One Nation?), there is a growing interest in Catholic social teaching (CST) even among non-Catholics.

A recent analysis by Matthew Taylor for BBC Radio 4 traced this teaching back to the 19th century and the encyclical Rerum Novarum, which, he said, “called on the one hand for compassion for the poor and respect for the dignity of labour and, on the other hand, for respect for property and the family – all held together by the core idea of the common good.”

The encyclical enabled the Church to align herself with the urban working class, yet without encouraging revolutionary violence. In the century that followed, it enabled her to steer a course between the clashing rocks of Communism and Fascism. In the

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Distributism in Italy

Marco Sermarini reports from Italy:

On Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 October 2012 we were in Norcia in Umbria for a two-day meeting that had two main purposes. (1) It marked the beginning of our "Opera [Works] G. K. Chesterton" (the union of all cooperatives, school, sporting association, etc... under the umbrella of the local Catholic movement “Compagnia dei Tipi Loschi del beato Pier Giorgio Frassati”). (2) It was a meeting of all the cooperatives that have been developing as part of our national network, the “Associazione Santa Caterina da Siena”.

It has become a tradition with us to come together like this in significant places. Norcia is one of our favourites, not just because of the beauty of nature but because of the presence of the Benedictine monks and the magnitude of what was born from St. Benedict’s inspiration. We met with Fr. Benedict Nivakoff OSB, the vice-prior of the monastery of Norcia (the prior is Fr. Cassian Folsom OSB). As men, women, children, pupils, and workers, we who form part of these movements are dedicated to mutual help and the construction of the Catholic Church through our everyday life, making us less reliant on the banks, the government, and the large commercial institutions.

Our organization is named after Gilbert Keith Chesterton because of his clarity in describing these objectives and in providing solid, practical solutions (we believe that Distributism is one such practical solution, even only a few have seriously tried to make it happen). It started almost nineteen years ago with an after-school service to help the families of our Catholic movement to face the challenges of education, and now it includes in its activities a middle school (for 11- to 13-year-old pupils), a high school (for 14-19 year old pupils), a cooperative for the disadvantaged, a management cooperative, a sports club, a service of mutual support among families, and many other things.

“Opera G.K. Chesterton” is a founder member of a nationwide network of similar institutions, whose name is “Santa Caterina da Siena”. (St. Catherine of Siena said: “if you are what you should be, you will set fire to all of Italy” – a challenging but fascinating motto). This network has found interest and support among the monks of Norcia. This year we gathered around 350 people from all over Italy. The Italian Chesterton Society is an active member of this network.

Fr. Benedict Nivakoff lectured in the Civic Theater about the link between education and work, starting from the Rule of St. Benedict and their everyday work in the monastery, including a newborn brewery (producing Birra Nursia).

Friday, 12 October 2012


The online book review journal Humanum is published by the John Paul II Institute in N. America. It has a particular concern with topics that directly affect the poor and the vulnerable in our society. Please consider registering on the site for a free subscription, so that each new issue can be brought to your attention as soon as it appears.

The first three issues were concerned with "The Child", with Children of Divorce", and with "Artificial Reproduction" (IVF etc.). A fourth on "Same-Sex Unions" and a fifth on "Absent Fathers" will follow. But we began with a focus on children as perhaps the most vulnerable members of human society. They are subject to most of the same pressures and assaults as adults; in addition to this, the very factors that make them children open up other areas of vulnerability. We are

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Deeper Ecology

An important article by Mary Taylor in Communio, based on her forthcoming book, offers Catholics a new paradigm for considering the ecological question. The following notes are based on her article. She calls the various ecological approaches “trajectories”, because they are not – or not only – theories, but encompass ways of thinking, of being, of acting, and of living. Roughly speaking, there are three such trajectories.

The First Trajectory sees the world as made up of separate entities, extrinsically related like the various mechanical parts of a machine. It is underpinned by the philosophies of modernity, characterized by mechanism in physics, representative epistemology, and instrumental reason. It is "dualistic" in the sense that it separates public and private, immanent and transcendent, subject and object, fact and value, mind and body. It tries to solve problems by tinkering with the machinery, making it more efficient and effective. The human will aspires to supremacy, and natural resources are valued only in terms of their utility to people.

The Second Trajectory focuses on nature as a holistic system that needs to be sustained for its own sake and not simply for human utility. This is the home of "Deep Ecology", which approaches environmental problems at levels above and beyond the

Friday, 5 October 2012

Phillip Blond parts company with Cameron

In an article in the Guardian newspaper, "Red Tory" intellectual Phillip Blond argues that David Cameron has abandoned his radical vision of bottom-up conservatism. "The government is now focused on a purely negative agenda of deficit reduction, and unable to offer a positive vision of the future.... A new conservatism has been strangled at birth; a failure to rethink the party's economic offer means that old economics have killed new politics." Blond picks up with approval the phrase currently being used to re-brand the Labour Party: "One Nation". Watch this space.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Distributism for Africa

It is sometimes said that the social philosophy of Distributism cannot easily be applied or implemented in complex, developed economies. Let us accept this point, for the moment and for the sake of argument. It does rather imply, however, that Distributism might well be eminently applicable – and beneficial – within a "less developed" society, and the vast, largely rural economies of Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, come to mind.

Some years ago, John Kanu, a bright student at Plater College in Oxford, who later went on to obtain a degree from Oxford University, conceived the idea – while sitting in the G.K. Chesterton Library learning about Distributism – of going back to his homeland of Sierra Leone (one of the poorest countries in the world, thanks to a long and devastating civil war) and setting up a Chesterton Centre there that would contribute to its economic and spiritual recovery.

He would help train people to farm the land, and educate them to understand that self-sufficiency is the key to economic recovery. He would work with government and NGOs and local chiefs to find ways of building local community and distributing resources and responsibilities more widely. And he did just that. The details of what he has achieved and photographs of some of the work of the Sierra Leone Chesterton Centre can be found on our web-site.

John still needs prayers and support, but he has shown himself a capable and inspiring leader, and we are happy to be associated with his work even in a small way.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Head of the family

A notorious section of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33, see below) telling wives to be “subject” to their husbands is much argued over. Evangelicals tend to take it as confirming that the man should be the moral and intellectual head of the family. The Catechism of the Catholic Church draws no such conclusion, and Blessed John Paul II makes the point that Paul opens his remarks with an insistence on “mutual submission”, not the one-sided dominion of one over the other. The teachings on headship have to be understood in that context. In his Theology of the Body he writes of the instruction “love your wives” that this “excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband, an object of unilateral domination.”
“Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and thereby subject to the Lord himself, just as the wife to the husband. The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection.”
Paul is trying to transform the ancient understanding of marriage into a teaching about how to live one's marriage as a sacrament in Christ. What he is really talking about is not the power to command, or authority to make decisions, but the sacramental life of the Christian. (It is no wonder that Protestant commentators tend to miss this.)

But why then does Paul address the woman first, and why the difference in the way the two spouses are commanded – the woman to "be subject" and the man to "love"? As so often in Paul, it is because he has in mind a passage from Genesis. The passage in

Monday, 17 September 2012

Doing something for peace

Peace Day 21 September 2012, sponsored by the UN, is intended to be a day of ceasefire and non-violence, a "Global Truce". Unrealistic? A worldwide campaign called Peace One Day is calling for and working towards the largest global reduction of violence – including domestic violence – ever recorded on one day. Surely that is worth supporting? On Peace Day 2008 the UN Department for Safety and Security announced a 70% reduction in violent incidents in Afghanistan. Peace Day agreements have already led to the vaccination against polio of 4.5 million children in recent years. If only this kind of pressure could also be applied to ongoing violence against the unborn. In any case, information about this year's "Global Truce" and how you can get involved can be found here.

Meanwhile the Pope has been in Lebanon, at the heart of the troubled Middle East, giving one of his great speeches on the building of peace in the world. The heart of it is this:
A commitment to peace is possible only in a unified society. Unity, on the other hand, is not the same as uniformity. Social cohesion requires unstinting respect for the dignity of each person and the responsible participation of all in contributing the best of their talents and abilities. The energy needed to build and consolidate peace also demands that we constantly return to the wellsprings of our humanity. Our human dignity is inseparable from the sacredness of life as the gift of the Creator. In God’s plan, each person is

Friday, 7 September 2012

Questioning consumerism

Is there a party in American politics that stands for community, the common good, the human person, and a sustainable civilization? Just asking. Without commenting on the candidates now standing for election, it seems worth mentioning some points of view that don't get much of an airing in the mainstream political debates. Take Amitai Etzioni and the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, for example. Worth following the link and seeing what they are about. Etzioni has an interesting article online called "Spent: America After Consumerism", where he calls for a balance between consumption and other pursuits, and a rethinking of what we mean by "the good life".

Monday, 27 August 2012

Space exploitation

The recent death of Neil Armstrong came soon after the launch of Virgin Galactic and the birth of commercial spaceflight. Another corporation, SpaceX, will now be running regular cargo missions to the International Space Station. There is growing interest not only in space tourism, but in the mining of asteroids and other bodies in space for valuable mineral resources. Yet the existing space treaties make all of space essentially "common land" that is owned by everyone and no one. Pressure is growing to allow the claiming and enclosure of this common land by commercial interests. It seems to me that this would be the ideal time for a discussion of the whole issue of private property and land rights, before the economic and no doubt military pressures on the treaty become impossible to resist. Have we learned nothing from the colonization of the New World, or before that from the enclosure of the Commons in England by sheep farming interests in the wake of the English Reformation? These are interesting historical examples of an analogous process; one that has had a bloody history and mixed results. Should we even be allowed off this planet before we have learned to manage it sustainably? And did the garden of Eden, entrusted to our care, include outer space or not?

An alternative economics

I gratefully receive a consistently thought-provoking journal called The Social Creditor, brilliantly edited by Frances Hutchinson. It makes me think, but I never manage to come to a conclusion because I feel I don't yet understand the issues well enough. Of course, I recognize the common concerns of the Social Credit movement of C.H. Douglas (d. 1952) and the Distributists (expressed in, for example, Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State). Novelist Eimar O'Duffy puts it satirically like this:
"Suppose a party of people were wrecked on a desert island, what do you think would be the first thing they’d do? Obviously they would look around for a man with money to employ them in gathering fruit. If there were no capitalist among them, or if he didn’t see his way to make a profit out of the business, they would all remain unemployed and starve to death, no matter how fertile the island might be.
     "If therefore we want to have plenty of employment, we must give every possible incentive to entrepreneurs – encouraging them to get as much of our money from us as they can, so that they can spend it on employing us to make more for them.” (Asses in Clover, Jon Carpenter Publishing, 2003, pp. 246-7.)
An introductory article on Social Credit is available here. According to this,
"Douglas observed, as a matter of fact and not mere opinion, that finance flows into the economic system as bank-created debt. Firms use the debt-created finance to pay their costs of production. The wages, salaries and dividends paid out by firms form incomes to households. With their incomes, households can purchase the stream of goods and services coming onto the market. As the modern economic system has developed, it has created a massive bureaucracy. Behind that bureaucracy, obscured by the very complexity of the system, financial speculation, profiteering, marketing, advertising and a whole range of growth-driven economic activities are making human existence increasingly precarious."
Hard to argue with that, but can we really shift, as he proposed, from a debt-driven economy to a credit-based one?

For more discussion of the nature of finance and money see D.C. Schindler's philosophical analysis linked here, and Philip Goodchild on The Theology of Money.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The world's biggest problem

If you ask a hundred people what is the biggest problem facing the world today, you'll get a hundred very different answers. The economic crisis (and the failure of politicians to address it). The ecological crisis, which threatens life on earth (or at least our quality of life and ability to sustain a large human population). The collapse of the traditional family. Sexual morality and the spread of pornography. Oppression of women (still). Warmongering. Under-development and inability to cope with natural and man-made disasters in the third world (plagues, floods, earthquakes, civil war). Over-development and ageing populations in the West. Centralized planning and bloated bureaucracies. Too little centralized planning. Arms spending and the proliferation of WMDs. Terrorism that just won't go away. Religion. The wrong kind of religion. Lack of leadership. The possibility that the masses will turn to strong leaders. Human selfishness. And so on.

We all want to be part of the solution, not the problem, but the solution to which problem? All of them at the same time? We can't keep all of them in our minds, let alone investigate each one in turn. Yet there are certain underlying factors, and common threads, and you'd think more people would be interested in finding out what those are. Catholic social teaching is about these underlying factors and how to respond to the multi-demensional crisis, but because it has the word "Catholic" attached, it is easy to pigeonhole and ignore. Think of it instead as an attempt by the largest, longest-surviving, and most vibrant intellectual tradition in the world to find out what it means to be human, and how all of us can live in harmony and peace with our neighbours and the environment. That, surely, is a bit harder to dismiss.

It starts not from a set of commandments, although these may be used to codify the social teaching under certain headings. It starts, really, from the question of who or what we are and what we are doing here. Call it an "anthropology" if you like. The short answer to that question is simple enough: we are made in the image of love, to love and to become happy. We all know that love is what makes life worth living. We all seek happiness. The complications come in when we try to do it. Why is life so complicated? If we were just material creatures, squabbling over physical comforts and reproduction rights, we would have to settle for that. But we cannot be content with what we can grab. We are always seeking something more. Our desires are infinite. It is that burning discontent that complicates our animal condition.

"By Nature, Man is Relation to the Infinite" was the title of this year's Rimini Meeting. To see how this can lead to a new way of thinking about our relation to Christ as the "face" of the infinite, read some of the brief talks in the "News" section. But if you are allergic to talk about Christ, you can still find something helpful in Catholic social teaching, because these are guidelines not about religious belief but about human behaviour and achieving the right balance in our lives between the personal good and the common good, between central planning and local responsibility, between kindness and economics. In other words it is about reconciling our responsibilities to past and present, near and far, old and young, friend and stranger, human and animal. If you don't believe me, read Chapter 4 of the Church's Compendium of Social Teaching, or explore all these ideas further either on this blog or on the parent site, Second Spring ECONOMY.

Saturday, 11 August 2012


Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Caritas in Đà Lạt Diocese (Lâm Đồng province, southern Vietnam) launched a microcredit plan in 2010 to help the poor meet their needs and break out of the one dollar poverty line. Most beneficiaries belong to ethnic minorities, living in difficult conditions in small communities without the necessary means to survive.

Since its inception two years ago, the initiative has helped more than 900 families "escape poverty," an internal audit found. In order to reach its goal of growth and development, the Catholic agency encouraged the establishment of volunteer groups serving the poor and the vulnerable of society. "In the beginning, participants were shy, suffering from an inferiority complex and reticent to join fully the project," one Caritas member said. Now, attitudes have changed and "greater participation" in the agency's activities has become the norm.

Microcredit entails small loans to the poor, especially from ethnic minorities living in rural areas or mountain regions, which can serve as seed money for small businesses, mutual help and entrepreneurship. [It is one of the methods recommended in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate.]

Titled 'The poor can help each other out of poverty,' the project aims to help children from poor families go to school, whilst preserving minorities' traditional cultures. For Đà Lạt Christians, the Caritas project's success in sustainable development is a source of pride. A Caritas volunteer told AsiaNews that after initial difficulties, "step by step, I learnt watching the work of nuns and other social workers." "With God's help," he noted, it is possible to find the strength and courage to promote all sorts of initiatives. "I am just a catalyst," he added, "creating the conditions for others to benefit from the microcredit project."

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Gift of a Dandelion

The G.K. Chesterton Library has its own web page at last. It is only a modest affair – a free blogspot used to post the vital information about our identity, plans, and needs – but a fully customized web site will replace it once the Library is properly launched in 2013. For the time being this is all we need, and it is there to encourage donations via PayPal to the Trustees or to the Oxford Oratory to support their work in promoting interest in one of England's greatest men of letters and Christian apologists.

One thing that may puzzle you is the emphasis on dandelions. You’ll see there a famous picture of Chesterton graciously accepting the gift of a dandelion from a young admirer next to an ugly brick wall. The page itself has a dandelion motif at the top (along with a picture of Oxford’s dreaming spires among which the Library is located). But dandelions are a pest, and a weed. They are the gardener’s bane – constantly spreading, rooting deeply, hard to kill. Their little golden faces are so lurid they could almost be called ugly. Looking unkempt, they creep into places deprived of human care and attention.

I have seen whole landscapes spoilt by unchecked dandelions (in Lithuania, for example). And yet everything that lives is holy, and Chesterton is a great inspiration to us because he would love and cherish and defend everything as a direct gift of the Creator and an expression of his wisdom and beauty. In his first book of essays, The Defendant (1901), he defended, among other things, skeletons, cheap thrillers, china shepherdesses, slang, planets, and ugly things in general. He even defended defending them in the Introduction. Yet he left it to the end of his life, to the last pages of his Autobiography, to mount a proper defence of dandelions. He mentions asking in his earliest juvenile poems, "through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking at a dandelion."
"I do not believe in Reincarnation, if indeed I ever did; and since I have owned a garden (for I cannot say since I have been a gardener) I have realised better than I did that there really is a case against weeds. But in substance what I said about the dandelion is exactly what I should say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed."
He goes on, this mystic of the ordinary, to defend his whole philosophy of life by means of a dandelion. And we want to preserve his precious words, as dense and prolific as the petals of a dandelion. Others choose more noble flowers as their emblem – the rose or the lily. But Chesterton’s emblem is a golden flower that no one values, the seeds of which were handed him by a little child.

A longer version of this article appeared in Gilbert! magazine. A rather different piece along the same lines – "The Romance of Receptiveness" – was published on the Imaginative Conservative website in August 2013.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

What is money?

The question is raised and discussed in David C. Schindler's brilliant article, "Why Socrates Didn't Charge: Plato and the Metaphysics of Money" (Communio, Fall 2009), available on our Economy website. "When St. Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil," Schindler writes,
"it would seem that he is echoing a Platonic insight. Our aim in the following is to understand what it is about the nature, the inner logic, of money that inclines it to usurp the divine throne, to see precisely how the question concerning the ultimate end of action serves to distinguish the philosopher from the sophist, and then to consider what a healthy love of money would be.... Money has the whole of its truth in being a symbol of the soul’s adherence to the good. It is meant, above all, to be a ‘reminder’ to those who are wealthy in a true sense.... Socrates does not think of money primarily as something to be stored, that is, as a destination of the soul’s love, but rather as something ever available to be spent, that is, always a means that brings to realization true, concrete goods. And so he does not call gold itself wealth. Instead, it is a token that enables him to recollect the true wealth that is wisdom, the soul’s free and rightful order under the sun, the light of the good." 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Italian Chesterton Society

Last week I was privileged to be among the speakers at an informal conference organized in the hot Italian sunshine by the Italian Chesterton Society, whose blog is an important point of reference on matters connected with GKC. Some photos of the event can be found on the blog post for 5 July. In the course of a week of events celebrating the brief but luminous life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, one day was set aside to discuss the philosophy and way of life known as DISTRIBUTISM – which seems to be alive and well in Italy. The country as a whole is blessed with relatively strong regional identities, strong families, and rich natural resources – and is the home of the Slow Food Movement. Of course, it, is affected as the rest of us by the economic crisis in Europe, but one feels that if anyone can find their way through the crisis to a new and saner way of life, it is the Italians. While there we heard about the Monti di Pieta (Montes Pietatis), credit unions and confraternities that flourished there in the past until swept away by modernity. The Italian Chesterton Society is playing its part in trying to revive such initiatives, by founding cooperatives to put Catholic social teaching into practice – and even a Scuola Chesterton, similar to the Chesterton Academy in the US. For my article proposing "a distributist philosophy of education" go to The Distributist Review.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Not for sale

The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and former Reith Lecturer has been mentioned on this site before, as a search will reveal, but his latest book sounds worth drawing to your attention. Here are some extracts, reproduced from his article in The Atlantic. The whole article, and I am sure the book, is worth reading. (See the review by Rowan Williams.) Sandel writes:
"As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life."
He speaks about the dent put in this prestige by the economic crisis, and denies that the root problem was simply greed:
"Some say the moral failing at the heart of market triumphalism was greed, which led to irresponsible risk-taking. The solution, according to this view, is to rein in greed, insist on greater integrity and responsibility among bankers and Wall Street executives, and enact sensible regulations to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. This is, at best, a partial diagnosis. While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger was and is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t."
So, of course, most of his book is about this debate. There is nothing divine or absolute about markets. We decide what is for sale, and how the rules of the market will operate. But "without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society," says Sandel. "The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market."

Sandel is no Catholic, but his thought has a direct bearing on Catholic social thought and needs to be discussed in those circles.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Human Ecology

In a recent post I talked about Environmental Solidarity by Pablo Martinez, as representing a fresh approach to ecology from within the Catholic tradition. A recent issue of Second Spring was also devoted to this topic, including articles by Cardinal Angelo Scola and Dr Mary Taylor. The Thomist journal Nova et Vetera had the same focus (based on a most enjoyable conference that was held last year). Now the international review Communio has also made an important contribution, in its Winter 2011 issue called "Toward a Human Ecology: Person, Life, Nature", again featuring Dr Mary Taylor, a key player in the development of the "environmental solidarity" approach. (See also a helpful article by David Cloutier in the Winter 2010 issue of Communio called "Working with the Grammar of Creation".) An article on "The Orthodoxy of Catholic Ecology" by William L. Patanaude appeared in Catholic World Report in June. Other relevant articles and links will continue to be be posted from time to time in the Ecology section of our Economy project website.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

R.I.P., Rodger Charles SJ

Last week an old friend died – Fr Rodger Charles, the UK's greatest expert on Catholic social doctrine. I want to pay tribute to him here. At the turn of the century, he and I were collaborating in the writing of the world's first MA in CST, which would have been offered at Plater College, accredited by the Pontifical Lateran University under Cardinal Scola, if Plater itself had not mysteriously been closed by the Catholic bishops the following year. His greatest book on the subject was the two-volume textbook, Christian Social Witness and Teaching (Gracewing). He also wrote a smaller book called An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching (Ignatius Press). His approach was less philosophical and theological than historical and doctrinal. He had a difficult life, being part of a religious order by which at times he felt frustrated. Several books he had planned and even written were never able to appear. But he remained ever faithful to the Society of Jesus and to the Church, and did what God permitted him to do in his place and time. In 2008 he was honoured by the Pius XI Award, given by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists (SCSS) to men and women who have made an outstanding contribution to building up a true Catholic social science. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Universal Ethics

The discernment of good from evil is surely the most important issue of our time. On Tuesday 22 May a small conference at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, helped to launch the English translation of an important document of the International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic. The event was organised by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre (formerly the Linacre Centre).

Each section of the document was presented, discussed, and criticized in turn. It starts with the need for a universal ethics and the difficulties of achieving it. How do we know what is good and what is evil, except by accepting the authority of the Church or of some other institution or tradition? The most successful modern attempt to find a moral code that everyone can agree on was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which deliberately avoided reference both to “God” and to “nature” in order to achieve an international consensus. But the ITC document explains that even this attempt has been widely criticized and disputed, and the concept of rights is currently devalued and exploited by special interest groups. It therefore argues for a new look at the concept of natural law as offering the missing foundation for the universal sense of right and wrong, and of the inalienable dignity of the human person.

The document begins by examining points of “convergence” between the great human and religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the Greco-Roman, Chinese, and African traditions (i.e., focusing on similarities rather than differences), tracing the development of the Jewish and Christian traditions against this background. The core of the document is a clear and helpful presentation and defence of the natural law theory (and the theory of nature) that was brought to its perfection by St Thomas Aquinas. It concludes that the moral law is “inscribed in the heart of human beings” and “appeals to what is universally human in every human being”. 

In the end, law itself is transcended in the Holy Spirit and the requirements of love revealed in Jesus Christ, but it is not necessary to be a Christian to enter into the philosophical discussion of a “rationally justifiable basis” for a universal ethic, and the document invites “the experts and proponents of the great religious, sapiential and philosophical traditions of humanity to undertake an analogous work, beginning from their own sources, in order to reach a common recognition of universal moral norms based on a rational approach to reality.”

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Rights in Islam

In its modern sense, the concept of human rights could be said to be alien to the Islamic tradition. That is because the modern doctrine of rights is an invention of the European Enlightenment. It was an attempt to base the humane social order on reason rather than revelation. Unfortunately the secular foundations of the doctrine of rights were never successfully secured. Philosophers disagreed on the origin of rights and even on what counts as a right. Some philosophers believed that rights derived from an implicit agreement among human beings to maintain a mutually beneficial social order. Others based rights on some idea of human nature and personal dignity more or less derived from the earlier notion of man as the image of God. But most Enlightenment discourse about rights tended to revolve around the concept of freedom. The most important right was freedom, meaning in this case freedom from constraint (freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom to speak one's mind, freedom from the authority of the Church, and so on). Even the right to life was defined in terms of freedom – freedom to live one's life without having it taken away.

And yet absence of constraint had been a relatively minor element in the traditional notion of freedom, which we might call the "religious" notion of freedom. Servais Pinckaers OP in his important study The Sources of Christian Ethics has shown that the traditional

Monday, 14 May 2012

Animal welfare

Do animals have rights? The Catholic Catechism tells us (section 2416) that "Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals." On the other hand, it also says (2418): "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons."

The same Catechism adds (2417): "God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives." All the issues raised by these quotations revolve around the distinction between man and the other animals, and what that implies. The distinction is based on the fact that only human

Friday, 11 May 2012

Environmental Solidarity

The past few decades have seen the beginnings of a convergence between religions and ecological movements. The environmental crisis has called the religions of the world to respond by finding their voice within the larger Earth community. At the same time, a certain religiosity has started to emerge in some areas of secular ecological thinking. Beyond mere religious utilitarianism, rooted in an understanding of the deepest connections between human beings, their worldviews, and nature itself, this book tries to show how religious believers can look at the world through the eyes of faith and find a broader paradigm to sustain sustainability, proposing a model for transposing this paradigm into practice, so as to develop long-term sustainable solutions that can be tested against reality. Coming soon: the Environmental Solidarity Institute.

Friday, 4 May 2012


G.K. Chesterton was once described as a "Conservative" thinker. He responded as follows:
"Because I want almost anything that doesn't yet exist; because I want to turn a silent people into a singing people; because I would rejoice if a wineless country could be a wine-growing country; because I would change a world of wage-slaves into a world of freeholders; because I would have healthy employment instead of hideous unemployment; because I wish folk, now ruled by other people's fads, to be ruled by their own laws and liberties; becuase I hate the established dirt and hate more the established cleanliness; because, in short, I want to alter nearly everything there is, a cursed, haughty, high-souled, well-informed, world-worrying, sky-scraping, hair-spliting, head-splitting, academic animal of a common quill-driving social reformer gets up and calls me a Conservative! Excuse me!"
The word "conservative" should, in fact, never be used without a public health warning – or at least without careful definition. Its opposite, "liberal", is no better.

I don't wish to "conserve" the Catholic or the Christian tradition merely because it is the tradition I happen to be born into (in fact I wasn't), but because I believe it is true to reality. Furthermore, I do not wish to conserve it in aspic or on ice. It is a living tradition, and that means it is growing and developing just as any organism would do. The continued vitality of this tradition depends on us. If a label is needed, "conservative" is better than most, but it has to be qualified: perhaps "imaginative conservative" comes closest to what Chesterton was and what I aspire to be; conserving what is good and changing everything else.

The picture shows Chesterton's typewriter (on which, for all I know, the words I quoted were originally written). It is one of the items belonging to the great man that we conserve here at the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford, and which sometime next year will be transferred to the new library building at the Oxford Oratory, to be looked after in perpetuity. If you are interested in supporting this great work, the most helpful thing you can do is donate to the Oratory Appeal.

Friday, 27 April 2012

We Are Not Gods

The NEH-funded Jefferson Lecturer this year (2012) was the great American writer Wendell E. Berry. In his lecture, entitled "It All Turns On Affection", he says the following:
"The problem that ought to concern us first is the fairly recent dismantling of our old understanding and acceptance of human limits. For a long time we knew that we were not, and could never be, 'as gods.' We knew, or retained the capacity to learn, that our intelligence could get us into trouble that it could not get us out of. We were intelligent enough to know that our

Friday, 13 April 2012

Do's and don'ts

Catholic social teaching – a branch of moral theology – is often misperceived as a list of do's and don'ts. Mostly don'ts. Don't defraud the poor, don't cheat and lie, don't pollute the environment, don't torture prisoners, and so on. The list is pretty much endless, and many of the Church's strictures (especially concerning sexual behaviour) are more honoured in the breach than the observance, even by Catholics.

The Church used to say she was upholding a set of "norms" to which we should conform. To behave in accordance with these norms is to be virtuous, to fail to do so is to commit a sin (in Greek "to miss the mark"). Thus the Church offers Christ as "the norm" for all human behaviour, the "concrete universal", the model of holiness to which with the help of grace we should try to conform ourselves. He is the embodiment of Catholic social teaching, indeed of all Catholic teaching.

But in the modern world the word "normal" is barely comprehensible. The word "norm" conjures up a statistical norm, created by measuring the way a majority happens to behave, whether sinfully or not. From being prescriptive, norms are now regarded as merely descriptive. In a world where the bridges between "is" and "ought" have all been smashed, normal behaviour is simply what most people do.

Would it therefore in some circumstances be preferable to use the word "ideal" – to hold up generosity, or kindness to neighbours, or faithfulness in marriage, as ideals to which the Church is calling us? But that word, too, has its problems. It implies an aspiration, one

Saturday, 31 March 2012

What's wrong with liberalism?

"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave" (The Eagles). Juxtapose this quotation from one by Jesus – "everyone who commits sin is a slave" (John 8:34) – and you have a critique of liberalism and consumerism. Most people assume that the sheer freedom to do whatever they want, or buy whatever they want, renders them free. But if you can never actually "leave" (so that whenever you check out you find yourself back in the same hotel), and if you find it impossible to be virtuous and do the right thing (though you can do a million things that aren't right), you are still essentially a slave. Furthermore, you cannot free yourself, any more than you can open a locked door from the inside. To do that you would need to be outside the state in which you find yourself imprisoned. You need the jailor to come along. Jesus, of course, in the terms of this analogy, is the jailor who gets born into the prison (or hotel) along with you, and opens the door from the inside.

So much for the Christian critique of liberalism. Strange to find it echoed by the influential secular journal of the Royal Society of Arts. The latest issue contains a brief but important article by Adam Lent (director of the RSA's programme) titled "On Liberty". Since the RSA makes their journal freely available online, you can read it by following the link. Lent begins by pointing out a strange fact: "We fight wars in its defence. It is a

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Green Thomism

The latest issue of Nova et Vetera (10:1), the Thomistic theological journal published by the Augustine Institute, contains an impressive collection of articles on "Green" or environmental theology. It could be seen as complementary to the recent issue of Second Spring on the same theme.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Christian country

Is England a Christian country? Secularism takes a different form in England than it does in the USA, even though in both countries the traditional ethos, grounded in natural law, is collapsing, along with the sense of what we are here for (other than making money and having fun). In the US the Church and State are "separated". In England the Church is "established" because its head is also the nominal head of State. This has made it possible for many Christian-derived customs and habits to have been preserved into the twenty-first century. However, the pressure of secularism leads to a watering-down and an emptying-out of Christian conviction. The result is that the commonest form of Christianity in England is not Evangelical or Nonconformist, as it tends to be in the US, but rather a well-meaning but woolly kind of faith that hardly knows what it believes or what it stands for.

It is this semi-secularized Christianity, an instinctive but attenuated adherence to the Christian tradition, that prevails in the United Kingdom. Christianity becomes secularized when it fails to be both intellectually coherent (i.e. rational) and mystical. That is, when it reduces faith to a doctrine or set of beliefs, a bit like pieces of clothing we can choose to wear or not according to taste. Religion without genuine transcendence sits well with the

Thursday, 8 March 2012

More than human

Three years ago I wrote on Transhumanism here. An important series of articles is unfolding on Zenit in the form of an interview with Dr Christian Brugger herehere, and here. This is not science fiction.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

"After-birth abortion"

The recent furore over the publication by a reputable medical ethics journal of an article arguing that infanticide should be permitted because there is no moral difference between an embryo and a newborn, and the other fuss about the discovery that women in the UK are regularly given abortions on the NHS simply because they don't like the gender of the child ("gendercide"), have caused a certain amount of consternation in the minds of the British public.

If we are on a slippery slope to barbarism, it started earlier than the 1967 Abortion Act. It can be traced back at least to the 14th-century Oxford philosopher William of Ockham, and to other nominalist and voluntarist philosophers of the Middle Ages. Abortion is a social justice issue, and a moral issue, but more than that, it is an ontological and epistemological one. What is a "person", and what is a "right"? Modern dilemmas over abortion stem from the widespread assumption – derived from these philosophers – that the word "person" is merely a label that we choose to apply to some group of individuals we choose to relate to as equals. It does not, that is, have a deeper

Friday, 24 February 2012

Head of the family?

In the light of the public debate about the nature of marriage, it seems appropriate to reflect on some controversial aspects of that venerable institution. I have an article on the main site about the nature of marriage and why the Church says same-sex marriage is not just undesirable but impossible. Cardinal Keith O'Brien's strongly worded statement on the government's plans can be read here. Archbishop Nichols' Pastoral Letter can be read in full here, and his reflections on marriage and friendship here. An overview of the global panorama on same-sex unions is provided by Zenit here. Meanwhile, over at Humanum is an editorial concerning divorce, and a future issue will review the arguments over same-sex unions. The following notes concern rather the question of equality in marriage in the light of the "new feminism".

St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (5: 21-33) tells us to "subordinate ourselves to one another in the fear of Christ" (we might say, "out of respect for Christ"). He goes on to tell wives to be "subject" to their husbands as to the Lord, because "the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ is the head of the Church, the redeemer of his body." So husbands must love their wives "as their own bodies", "just as Christ himself loved the Church and handed himself over for her", in order to to sanctify her. He is saying all this, he adds (v. 32) "in reference to Christ and the Church".

It is easy to read these instructions in a "worldly" way, and derive from them an instruction to place the man in the position of master, with woman as the passive slave ("body"). But in the light of the relationship of Christ and the Church, there is another way

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Religious freedom (2)

The Muslim peer and Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Warsi recently spoke at the Vatican about the militant secularism and the attacks on Christianity that have become more prevalent in Britain in recent years. Muslims and Christians stand united on this issue, she said. The Queen has also, on her Diamond Jubilee, defended the role the Church of England plays in our society.

On 15 November, in a meeting that has had to be postponed from 11 April, Cardinal Angelo Scola will make a rare visit to London to speak about the work of the Oasis Foundation, which promotes the mutual understanding of Christians and Muslims, especially in Islamic countries where Christians are a (sometimes persecuted) minority.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Religious freedom (1)

In the US, the so-called "contraception mandate" proposed by the Obama administration has been bitterly contested by the Catholic bishops and others – such as Steve Krason of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists in his "Call to Action", and President William Fahey of Thomas More College in his "Open Letter". Requiring Catholic employers to provide (or in the revised version at least indirectly support) contraception and sterilization services in employee health insurance plans seems a clear violation of conscience. Furthermore, as Dr Fahey points out,
This mandate casts human life and pregnancy in the same category as diseases to be prevented, and it reduces the beauty and goodness of human sexuality to an individual, utilitarian, and dangerous act. If birth-control, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs are to be considered curative – as the administration desires – one must ask what is it that they 'cure' or 'prevent'? Human life itself is now placed into a category of social burden, which the government now claims the competence and authority to control and define. Such an action undermines the very purpose of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The point is that, while the US Constitution enshrines a certain separation of Church and State, this does not make it into a secular state. On the contrary, the US has traditionally been highly religious, if predominantly Protestant, in character. The separation of powers

Monday, 13 February 2012

Faith and marriage under attack

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are witnessing a concerted attack on Christianity and on the institution that the Church deems the fundamental cell of society, namely the family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman. In the US, Archbishop Chaput and other bishops have reacted strongly to the "contraception mandate" – the plans of the Obama administration to force Catholic agencies indirectly to fund contraception and abortion services. In the UK, the High Court ruled "unlawful" the practice of local town councils to open their meetings with a prayer. A government scheme permits girls as young as 13 to receive secret contraceptive implants at school without the knowledge of their parents. Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned against the movement to legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia as representing a disastrous shift in the "moral and spiritual atmosphere". In both the US and UK, where homosexual unions are increasingly regarded as normal, pressure is growing for the right to homosexual "marriage", contrary to the dictionary definition as well as the longstanding universal tradition that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman,

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The feral rich

A major article by Peter Oborne, chief political commentator in the "right-wing" Daily Telegraph newspaper, appeared today under the title "The Rise of the Overclass". Oborne argues that the middle and working classes are now caught between an overclass and an underclass that are effectively out of control – on the one hand the class of super-rich who seem "immune from the restraints that govern the lives of ordinary people", and whose wealth and immunity has grown steadily for the past 30 years, and on the other a "dependent and sometimes criminal class of welfare claimants", among whom "the idea of responsibility, duty, patriotism and neighbourliness has been destroyed". The interesting point is that Oborne shows that these last comments (about lack of patriotism and so forth) apply just as much to the overclass as the underclass. "These feral rich pose, in their way, every bit as much of a danger to society as the rioters who stole and pillaged London streets last August." It is a significant addition to the ongoing debate about the future of capitalism.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Competitive Social Market?

The bishops' conferences of Europe (COMECE) have produced a brief analysis of the present economic crisis under the title "A European Community of Solidarity and Responsibility". It is a statement on the EU Treaty objective of a competitive social market economy. Among other things, it states that "it is of primary and utmost importance in the present European crisis to reaffirm the cultural bases of the concept of the social market economy. For it is much more than an economic model. It is based on the philosophical and juridical bases of Greco-Roman antiquity and grounded in Biblical theology."

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Corporation and the Market

In a recent series of articles on this site, Michael Black argued that the Corporation can only be understood theologically – further, that the modern economic crisis is a crisis of the Corporation. But what about the "Market", which is the other big player in the economic game, along with the State and the Corporation?

In economic theory the corporation is a monstrous, if only temporary, aberration. It stops the march of contractual transactions and therefore is by definition “inefficient”. And economic theory is quite correct: the corporation always costs more than a set of equivalent markets. The market, after all, has no overheads, no supervisory management, no administration. If this is all that we see, we can only bemoan the fact, as many managers as well as corporate critics do, that the corporation continues in existence at all. What ever the Corporation is for, it is not for providing lower-cost products and services. So what is it for, in economic terms?

The Corporation creates economic value. Markets establish prices, not value. The Corporation determines what constitutes value – speed, precision, beauty, harmony, or any of an infinite number of other criteria – and persuades the participants in the Market

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Chief Rabbi on European crisis

In his impressive address in Rome on the crisis in Europe, the Chief Rabbi praised the modern market economy and modern capitalism, which "emerged in Judeo-Christian Europe and not in other cultures like China that were more advanced in other ways," because our religious ethic was "one of the driving forces of this once new form of wealth creation." It "originated in Europe in the fertile environment of Judeo-Christian values sympathetic to hard work, industry, frugality, diligence, patience, discipline, and a sense of duty and obligation."
"The market’s 'invisible hand' turned the pursuit of self interest into the wealth of nations, and intellectual property fuelled the fires of invention. Capitalism has enhanced human dignity, leaving us with more choices and a longer-life expectancy than any generation of those who came before us."
But he adds that "his same ethic taught the limits of capitalism. It might be the best means we know of for generating wealth, but it is not a perfect system for distributing wealth. Some gain far more than others, and with wealth comes power over others. Unequal

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The importance of crafts

An article by Sir Christopher Frayling in the prestigious RSA Journal ("Tools for Survival") claims that with the rise of the "maker movement" and the recognition of the importance of manufacturing in our economy, the crafts sector is back in the spotlight, only held back by an "outdated vocabulary". The crafts need to be "reclaimed and re-evaluated" – he has in mind the reinvention of guilds and apprenticeships and a new stress on the teaching of practical skills (in schools and colleges, but also to prisoners and young offenders to equip them with the skills they can use to rebuild their lives). Frayling doesn't say this, but I suppose one of the things Steve Jobs achieved with his obsessive emphasis on quality of design and attention to detail at Apple was to begin to blur the line between mass production and craftsmanship. Frayling even talks of the "potential for a second industrial revolution". His most recent book is called On Craftsmanship.

The illustration shows my brother-in-law working as a glassblower.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

God will provide

St Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio)
Veteran hagiologist ("specialist in human goodness") Patricia Treece, author of numerous books on the lives of the saints and the strange phenomena associated with sanctity, has produced a new book in response to the present world economic crisis that will both comfort and amaze. God Will Provide is subtitled (rather sensationally) "How God's Bounty Opened to Saints – and 9 Ways It Can Open for You, Too". It is full of well-researched examples of how God met the physical and financial needs of people who relied on him to do so, from Mother Teresa and Padre Pio to much more obscure people. And it encourages the reader to do likewise, proposing nine ways in which you and I can align ourselves with God's providence, overcoming our fear and anxiety about the economic situation: 1) surrender everything as much as you can, 2) make serious efforts to grow your faith, 3) avoid faith-killers like the plague, 4) cultivate gratitude, 5) retool your mind, 6) cultivate belief in divine providence, 7) do your part to meet your material needs, 8) don't block the flow of God's supply, and 9) pass on the wonderful news of God's providence. All of these are illustrated by vivid examples. The book is recommended by Robert Faricy SJ.