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WSJ profiles the Acton Institute, the antidote to ‘woke’ capitalism?

The Acton Institute reached an international audience of influencers this weekend with its mission of uniting markets with morality. The Wall Street Journal published a profile of Acton, and an extended look at the ministry of Acton co-founder Fr. Robert Sirico, in its “Weekend Interview” feature on Saturday, August 3.

When the Market Meets Morality” by William McGurn introduced a critical group of thought leaders to Acton’s work of promoting a free and virtuous society. McGurn writes that, like Lord Acton, “Father Sirico and his merry band argue that political liberty and economic liberty are the guarantors of religious liberty.”

Yet the WSJ article goes deeper, presenting Acton’s approach as the antidote to “woke” capitalism, the marriage of corporate behavior with the culture of outrage.

Fr. Sirico tells McGurn that Acton’s purpose is not merely to endorse the efficacy of markets or freedom but “to ask: What’s freedom for? And to answer that question, you have to understand what man is for.”

Economic liberty is a necessary but not a sufficient means of establishing the good society. Acton believes that liberty, McGurn writes, requires “a ‘telos,’ a sense of higher purpose – of how human beings should use their freedom. That depends on the realization that not all choices are morally equal.”

The market produces the goods and services that society craves in abundance. That is its genius – and its dilemma. Its creative forces reflect the values of the underlying culture.

As society frays, corporations become increasingly brittle and censorious.

Social conservatives who blame these failings on capitalism, or “liberalism,” cite the dominance of companies like Google or Twitter. But McGurn notes that institutions that once “looked monolithic and invincible—the Big Three television networks, IBM, local taxi monopolies,” fell as innovative competitors grabbed their market share just as unexpectedly as protesters felled the Berlin Wall.

“Market innovations before they are made always seem impractical,” Fr. Sirico says.

Woke capitalism “will ultimately immolate itself,” Fr. Sirico forecasts, because its intolerance chafes the freedom that lies at the core of our human nature.

But then comes the hard work of rebuilding from the foundations, a process that relies on the work of institutions that understand the deepest dimensions of the human person:

“It’s a tall order,” he says, “but we are culture builders. And one of the tools in the toolbox is capitalism—to form our people to compete well in the market, and to execute, to have confidence in what they are doing.”

The article is accompanied by a three-minute video excerpt from Fr. Sirico’s plenary address at the 2019 Acton University, discussing his history as a young left-wing activist. McGurn cleverly contrasts this with his current work of revitalizing Sacred Heart church and school in Grand Rapids, where a classical curriculum shapes the next generation of business and civic leaders.

The message is clear: The Acton Institute embodies the lessons society has learned over the last half-century. Culture, not command, will transform the public square.

McGurn concludes by encapsulating Acton’s message in two pithy sentences:

“The answer isn’t to head to the hills,” Father Sirico says. “The answer is a simultaneous liberality in our economy and vigor in our moral stances.”

You can read the full WSJ article here:

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.