By Thomas Storck
Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1834-1902) is chiefly remembered today for his remark that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it would be well were more generally known about him, for as a leader of liberal Catholicism in the nineteenth century he is a fitting symbol in the conflict between different versions of the Faith which has afflicted the Church since the 1960s. It is interesting, therefore, that Acton has been chosen as the patron of an institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an institute that is often considered as part of the orthodox Catholic "movement" in the United States. But as we will see, the Institute's name and patron are well chosen, for it continues the tradition of liberal and even dissenting Catholicism that Lord Acton himself partook of and that many of the Acton Institute's supporters would doubtless blush to be identified with, if they knew exactly who Acton was and what he stood for.
The true face of the Acton Institute is clear from statements made, or formerly made, on their web site (www.acton.org), for example, their kind words about Ignaz von Döllinger (theological tutor of Lord Acton), who left the Church rather than accept the definition of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council, and their opposition to censorship of pornography on the Internet, but in this article I will concentrate on their dissent from the social magisterium of the Catholic Church. I will examine assertions made by the Institute's president, Fr. Robert Sirico, to see whether they can be squared with the explicit teaching of the Church.
First, however, we must look at the underlying difficulty, the root, in fact, of the Acton Institute's dissent from the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. This lies in their unabashed acceptance of liberalism. In discussing liberalism it is imperative to recognize that this term, as used in papal teaching, does not mean the same thing as it does in contemporary political discourse in the United States. We would do well to spend some time discussing exactly what liberal means in order to understand the fundamental disagreement between the Acton Institute and Catholic doctrine.
Liberalism, as that term is used in papal teaching, and indeed in Europe and throughout most of the world, is that movement in Western civilization which arose in opposition to the Christian political and economic order of the Middle Ages, and to the continuation of that order by all or most European governments even after the Middle Ages ended. Thus these governments believed that they had duties toward God, including that of caring for the poor and seeing that the economy fulfilled its function of supplying all citizens with the material things needed for this life. Certainly these governments fulfilled their duties imperfectly, but none of them would have denied that it had such a duty.
Liberalism, however, in effect denies that the state or the human community is a creation of God or has duties toward him. At most, liberalism accepts that the individual has duties toward God. Important liberal theorists such as John Locke, held that society and the state originated in an agreement among men, the so-called social contract, and thus was a purely human creation, and as such, can have no inherent duties toward God. Liberal economic writers, such as Adam Smith, attacked the notion that the state should regulate the economy in the interests of the common good, positing instead that the economy was a self-regulating mechanism, the less interfered with by the state the better.
The Catholic Church confronted liberalism in the eighteenth, and especially the nineteenth, centuries. And against this liberal doctrine Pius IX, and even more clearly his successor, Leo XIII, taught that the state itself was a creation of God and thus had duties to God.
For men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, not less than individuals, owes gratitude to God, who gave it being and maintains it, and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. (Leo XIII, Encyclical Immortale Dei, November 1, 1885)
Liberals were not only hostile to the concept of the state as created by God and subject to his laws, but they opposed any efforts of the government to intervene in the supposedly self-regulating market. They loudly cried that such economic restraints retarded the progress of humanity. Now economic activity no longer was to need regulation, for the "invisible hand" of Adam Smith was to guarantee that greed and self-interest would work out the best for everyone.
What was the result of this new approach to economics and government? Pope Leo's classic description is worth repeating:
The ancient workmen's Guilds were destroyed in the last century, and no other organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws have repudiated the ancient religion. Hence by degrees it has come to pass that Working Men have been given over, isolated and defenseless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition. The evil has been increased by a rapacious Usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different form but with the same guilt, still practiced by avaricious and grasping men. And to this must be added the custom of working by contract, and the concentration of so many branches of trade in the hands of a few individuals, so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the masses of the poor a yoke little better than slavery itself. (Encyclical Rerum Novarum, 2;May 15, 1891)
Originally Published in Social Justice Review, vol. 93, no. 5-6, May-June 2002©Thomas Storck