When Lord Acton set out in the late nineteenth century to write a comprehensive history of liberty, he planned to chronicle its growth from antiquity. It is a sad commentary on this century that an updating of his work would require the last chapter to chronicle liberty’s decline.
There is afoot in the land a reassertion of what might be called the principle of fragmentation. This is seen in the excessive compartmentalization of personal life–the “either/or” mentality that separates one’s work from one’s family–or when the standards that govern public life are divided from those of private life. Living the illusion of this dualism breeds both an internal and an external tension which affects both personal integrity and social cohesion.
My point is a simple one: All reality is a whole. Our universe owes its existence to the One Source who created all things ex nihilo, and who keeps them in existence. This means that all human virtues are interrelated, and all human vices are, likewise, connected to each other. What does this have to do with the vision and mission of the Acton Institute, whose sixth year of existence begins this month? The Acton Institute hopes, in one small, yet highly critical sphere, to assert the contention that the world of finance and business–the human actions of a commercial society–sometimes so apparently mundane, can nonetheless become the occasion for the discovery of the spiritual.
There is, I believe, a natural law encoded in the human heart and in our world which tends toward a natural harmony. The human community is oriented toward God because our origin is God. And it is this natural harmony which collectivist economic and political arrangements inhibit.
Marxism, the most systematized manifestation of such thinking, brought to intellectual and historical fruition the idea of a divided society in its theory of class struggle. This concept is at war with the natural harmony of human society. It is only a small comfort that orthodox Marxism has so colossally failed in recent years, because whilst the orthodox articulation of this error has been repudiated, the little heresies of class struggle have scattered and established new roots.
We see this every time a social change movement employs the ideology of division: Economic antagonisms: the rich against the poor, workers against management. Ethnic antagonisms: whites against blacks against Asians against Jews. Sexual antagonisms: male against female, homosexual against heterosexual. Generational antagonisms: young against old–on and on the divisions go until all the world is torn asunder, and to echo John Donne, “all coherence is gone.”
It is against this balkanization that the Acton Institute has set its face. Our aim is to inoculate the religious community against the specious claims of the Left which seem to have such an appealing tug for the morally sensitive heart. That aim is to discover, from among all religious traditions, the future pastors, theologians, directors of social service agencies, the heads of denominations and the missionaries of the next millennium.
What we have been doing in the past five years is to declare a new integration–to reassert God into the marketplace, and morality into public life. To declare, with the philosopher Etienne Gilson, that “piety is never a substitute for technique, for technique is that without which the most fervent piety will be unable to make use of nature for God’s sake.”