By Edward Pentin
ROME, DEC. 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- It is better to give than to receive, but it’s not easy to be generous with your wealth when there’s a recession eating away at your wallet, or perhaps stealing your job. Yet charitable giving and philanthropy are vital to a prosperous society, and should be encouraged in good times and in bad.
The reasons for this were outlined at an inspiring Rome conference co-hosted by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Acton Institute. Titled “Philanthropy and Human Rights: Creating Space for Caritas in Civil Society,” the Dec. 4 seminar tried to show how important it is for philanthropy and human rights to flourish in society, creating room for “caritas,” or individual acts of charity, so that everyone can prosper.
The most spirited defense of charitable giving came from Professor Arthur C. Brooks, the recently elected president of the American Enterprise Institute. The author of many books on philanthropy, Brooks explained how, until a few years ago, he never believed in the philanthropic philosophy of John D. Rockefeller, the 20th-century American multi-millionaire (Rockefeller was sure that by giving his wealth away he became richer, and believed that God would take away his money if he stopped giving).
“The reason I didn’t believe it is because I’m an economist,” he joked. “As an economist, I learned you had to have money before you can give it away. It’s not that you give it and then you get it — it has to be the reverse.”
In fact, he was so sure he was right that four years ago he set out to prove Rockefeller wrong by conducting a comprehensive survey of 30,000 households across the United States. But the data he acquired simply backed up Rockefeller’s philosophy, one shared by many other entrepreneurs: that those who gave to charity ended up richer.
It took a psychologist friend of his to tell him why this was so, reminding him that the secret was happiness. His friend had found that when people gave, they became happier, and when they were happier they became richer. Brooks was subsequently converted, and the discovery changed his life. Moreover, now he realizes that people have as much need to give as they have to receive, he believes those institutions that act as a conduit between the giver and the receiver, such as the Church, must be helped and encouraged.
Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, pointed out that such encouragement and assistance can only be achieved in the context of economic liberty. But with such freedom comes responsibility to serve God and neighbor at all times. “The system that encourages the entrepreneurial vocation,” he stressed, “should also encourage an entire network of voluntary associations.”
The United States, of course, leads the way in individual charitable giving, which partly explains why the country is so prosperous. Several of the speakers pointed out that American citizens gave around $300 billion to charity last year, more than the entire income of Sweden, Denmark or Norway. Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, said such generosity has been made possible thanks to public and private efforts, not least President George Bush’s initiative to encourage faith-based institutions.
Ambassador Glendon wanted to co-host the conference to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She recalled how the United States and other countries successfully lobbied the Declaration framers to consider a space for “caritas” in civil society so as not to dampen private initiative or to give too much power to the state. The Soviet Union had wanted to make the state the primary guarantor of all social and economic rights.
Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, referred to Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” in his message to the conference, delivered in his absence by Cor Unum’s secretary, Monsignor Karel Kasteel. The Pope stressed that “caritas” is always needed, even in the most just society, but that what is required, above all, is holiness. “It is not charity that makes us saints,” Cardinal Cordes reminded the conference participants, “but holiness that makes us truly charitable.”
In his speech, Professor Brooks made clear he was not advocating that individuals give just to be prosperous.
But in today’s financial world, the “quid pro quo” mentality dominates, and often it stems from a utilitarian approach in which profit and reward are the sole incentives. It’s a philosophy which Blessed Antonio Rosmini fought against in the 19th century and which he would probably say was most to blame for today’s economic woes.
That’s according to Professor Carlos Hoevel, who was the guest speaker at another Acton Institute conference held in Rome last Friday on the topical subject of “Finance, Globalization and Morality — A Challenge for the 21st Century.”
A professor of history and philosophy of economics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Hoevel gave a fascinating insight into how profoundly relevant Rosmini’s writings are to the current economic crisis.
The Italian priest and philosopher, Hoevel pointed out, gave the market economy an ethical, anthropological and Christian basis in his writings. He was one of the first Catholic thinkers to embrace the market economy and strongly believed that it couldn’t function without an ethical and moral foundation. “In an immoral or culturally poor environment, market competition is deformed and loses many of its beneficial effects,” Hoevel said, drawing on Rosmini’s writings. A utlitarian philosophy that places profit as an end in itself results in an “endless and vain race of unhappy people to reach happiness through inadequate means.”
But Hoevel, who collected the Novak Award at the conference for outstanding research into Rosmini, stressed that the philosopher avoided extremes and can best be described as a moderate liberal in the economic sense. He wasn’t in favor of a totally unfettered free market, but neither was he supportive of those who, like today, are reacting to the current crisis by demanding nationalizations and quasi-collectivist policies.
So what would be Rosimini’s solution to the current crisis? Hoevel said that, according to the philosopher’s vision, what we most need now is not so much “the endless injection of billions of dollars and euros” into the economy and heavy government interference, but “the urgent recovery of moral balance and moral content.”
Rosmini argued for more juridical institutions based on natural law “to help and guide the moral recovery” and help foster fair and just competition. He did not believe the markets were self-regulating, but that some intervention was necessary in order to repair their failures and help them work in a normal way, being “extremely careful” not to damage their spontaneity.
Similar to calls today for a “globalization ethic,” Rosmini also advocated a “global rule of law” in order to combat international monopolies, and he supported gradual free immigration but with protection of national and regional cultures.
“Rosmini is a secret treasure,” said Hoevel, “that many Italians and many others in other countries don’t know about.” Hopefully today’s world leaders will discover this sensible and prophetic thinker who, although he lived over 150 years ago, would probably remark today: “We’ve seen this all before.”
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: [email protected].