It’s that time of year again, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promotes the anemic Fortnight for Freedom (FFF) and the Acton Institute, headquartered in my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI, holds its annual Acton University gathering. Acton University, as I have discussed before, is less of an academic experience and more of an indoctrination program where (primarily young) Christians can drink deep from the wells of liberalism. Although Acton University is ecumenical in nature, the Acton Institute itself is mostly run by Catholics and targets a Catholic audience. In recent years, has begun pulling in more Eastern Orthodox propagandists, likely because Orthodoxy, unlike Catholicism, lacks a strong social magisterium. That is not to say the Orthodox Church hasn’t spoken on matters such as democracy, the relation between church and state, and economic liberalism; it’s just that Orthodox Christians, particularly in America, are fond of ignoring teachings which does not fit snugly within their personalized worldviews.
The FFF, as most know by now, has been a failure. Since its inception, the United States has, inter alia, legalized same-sex marriage, compelled religious institutions to violate the moral law, and further marginalized Christianity from public life. Some, of course, rejoiced at the election of Donald Trump on the questionable belief that he would serve as a protector for Christians, both at home and abroad. That hasn’t happened, at least not to the extent expected. Instead, Trump has opted to aggravate the sorrowful conflict in Syria while targeting Chaldean Catholics for deportation and death on highly questionable grounds. The position of the Catholic Church in the U.S. has not improved since Trump’s election, and pandering to the empty promises of liberalism, such as “religious freedom,” won’t do a damn bit of good.
Don’t tell that to the Acton Institute, which leans heavily on largescale donations from economic liberals to advocate for an unholy union between Christianity and capitalism. The strategy of Acton University is rather simple. First, without regard for the deep-rooted methodological and philosophical disagreements at the heart of the economics discipline, Acton sells the heterodox “Austrian School” of economics as a “science” in a highly disingenuous manner. Second, with this misinformation in place, Acton’s next step is to selectively latch onto Church teachings or the private opinions of select theologians to convince those in attendance that rather than condemning core elements of capitalism, such as usury and unjust wages, the Christian tradition affirms the free-market system without regard to core questions of justice. For Acton, the only injustices worth focusing on are those allegedly perpetrated by the government when it imposes environmental, social, and labor regulations.
Orthodox and Protestants are likely more susceptible to this raw nonsense than Catholics, though that’s not saying much given the large number of Catholics ready, willing, and able to flush away magisterial documents such as Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, and Pope Pius XII recently translated address on the 50th anniversary of Rerum. If they pay any mind to the social magisterium, it is usually focuses on more recent iterations such as John Paul II’s Centesimus Annos, and even then they must apply a strict hermeneutic of selectivity in order to avoid the hard truth that the document does not baptize the global capitalist order. As for the stern (albeit sometimes confusing and imprecise) statements of Pope Francis against capitalism, well, they are reduced to little more than the “private views” of a man yet to be enlightened by the tenets of “economic science.”
It is probably too much to hope for the Church to step in, investigate Acton’s errors, and demand that those Catholics who participate in or promote those errors cease immediately. We are long past the point when the Church can be bothered to redirect the faithful so that they do not lose their souls. However, dare we hope that small, but noticeable, shifts in the international order in recent years might inspire Catholics both old and young to rethink any attempt to fuse liberalism—specifically economic liberalism with its indifference toward moral and justice—with the Gospel? Might not the recent “rediscovery” of integralism, with its emphasis on the authentic and proper relationship been the spiritual and temporal orders, spur Catholics to call out liberal projects like Acton University and submit them to withering criticism? Much has already been written against Acton’s diabolical enterprise; a great deal more remains to be done.