A conversation with the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg (Part 1 of 2)

Mar 13, 2020

The moral philosopher and political economist speaks with Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann about differing emphases in papal thinking and teaching about capitalism and markets, the Vatican’s circles of engagement in consultations about them, and divisions within American conservatism today.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., which promotes the consonance of free markets and limited government with religious perspectives. He has been quite busy lately, what with all of the many serious questions and concerns being raised about the proper roles of markets and government—from Rome and in American public discourse, including within American conservatism itself.

Throughout his career as a public intellectual, Gregg’s work has been published widely, in both the academic and popular press, on matters of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural-law theory.

His most-recent book is the ambitious Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (2019), and his other books include For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016) and Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (2013).

The engaging and approachable Gregg is, though non-intimidatingly so, cerebral and substantive. Below is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of an enjoyable discussion that he was kind enough to have with us earlier this Winter. The second part—in which he talks about freedom and faith, economic nationalism and the working class, philanthropy and ideas, and faith and reason—is here.


Hartmann: Where’s home for you?

Gregg: I was born in Tasmania, Australia. That’s a long way away from here.

I went to university at Oxford University and I studied under a man named John Finnis, who is maybe the world’s leading natural-law scholar. I focused on basically on the relationship between natural law and economics, which is why I’m very interested in that particular intersection of ideas.

I’ve been living in the United States since 2001.

Hartmann: Working for Acton that whole time?

Gregg: Correct. This is my 19th year at the Acton Institute.

Hartmann: How are they going to celebrate your 20th year? Are they going to have a big bash for you in Grand Rapids.

Gregg: [Laughter.] We will see. I’ll leave that in their capable hands to decide.

Hartmann: What have you done for Acton over those two decades, and what are you doing now?

Gregg: I was brought on essentially to head up what we call the research department. In the research department, as the name suggests, we spend a lot of time writing books—internally published, but also with outside publishers. We publish journals. We publish smaller pieces, op-eds, etc. I also spend a lot of time, and my team spends a lot of time, lecturing both in the United States and abroad about the types of things that interest the Acton Institute.

Hartmann: How old is Acton itself?

Gregg: This year is the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Acton Institute. It was set up by Fr. Robert Sirico and Kris Mauren in 1990.

Hartmann: How’s it doing?

Gregg: I think it’s doing very well. Acton’s mission has not changed, of course. We haven’t gone through some sort of fundamental rethinking of what it is we do. What we have done is thought very carefully about how we calibrate our distinct type of messages for changing circumstances, both in America and around the world.

I should mention that maybe between 35 and 40 percent of our work is outside the United States now, because there is a demand both inside and outside of America for what we do from people who want to understand more about markets, business, commerce, and how all that relates to perennial moral questions that people have been thinking about since time began.

Schmidt: Has the geographical intensity changed over the time that you’ve been there? More Latin America, more Eastern Europe?

Gregg: That’s a good point. In the early days, Fr. Robert and Kris Mauren were doing things in Eastern Europe, because it was just after the Wall had come down and there was a tremendous interest and thirst for new ideas in that part of the world—which happens to be much more religious than, say, Western Europe. That focus on Europe has remained. In fact, we have an office in Rome, with two full-timers who work there, and which focuses upon the Vatican, while doing other things in Europe as well.

We do conferences in Africa, and we’ve done considerable work in Latin America and some activity in Asia. If there are spots where we’ve done less activity, they are probably in the Middle East and certain parts of Asia.

But Acton’s geographical reach, I think, has extended both in terms of depth and length over its 30 years.

Hartmann: One might think there’s a pretty-harsh critique of markets from the church recently. Is that Rome-centered, Rome-driven, or is that shared globally?

Gregg: If you look at what Pope Francis says about the economy, he’s not really saying anything that hasn’t been said by other Popes before. If you go back to the first modern social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, it accepts that industrial capitalism is something that’s here to stay, but it points out that there are some social and economic consequences of this which particularly affect people on the margins of society—and the church has to be concerned about that.

Pope Francis (Wikimedia Commons)

To that extent, I think you find that the same message and principles are being articulated. They’re being expressed by Pope Francis with a certain degree of sharpness, which you can find in other encyclicals as well—particularly those of, for example, Paul VI. You also find that there are particular things that the Pope has stressed that have been emphasized by previous Popes. He talks a great deal about materialism and consumerism. Of course, every Pope has talked about those topics.

What Francis does bring is his particular Latin American background. As we all know, Latin America is the continent that failed. These are generally speaking, with a couple of exceptions, countries which have not economically developed in the ways that others have. It’s not as if they haven’t been exposed to Western influences or that they don’t have good universities. But Latin America has been the continent that continually oscillates between left-wing populism and right-wing populism. That’s the context that Francis is coming from.

When you think about this background, many of his statements make a great deal of sense.

Hartmann: Are some conservative critics of Francis too harsh?

Gregg: There’s no such thing as the perfect pontificate. I could give you critiques of Benedict XVI’s pontificate or John Paul II’s pontificate. Some of the conservative critics of Pope Francis go completely overboard—some say that he’s not really the Pope or he is somehow a heretic. I don’t think any of that is true.

He’s less precise with language than his most-immediate predecessor and John Paul II. That can lead to confusion. That said, he also stresses that “I’m a son of the church.” I’ve always taken consolation from that, because if that is your position, then you’re unlikely to endorse things that openly contradict the church’s established teaching.

Remember, the job of the Pope is not to make stuff up. The fundamental job of the Pope is to spread the gospel and to guard the deposit of faith. If you look at some of the fundamental questions that come up, things like the life issues—abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc.—he says what the church has always said about those issues.

At the same time, there’s a tremendous emphasis upon mercy in this pontificate. We hear this word over and over and over again. Of course, mercy must go hand in hand with an emphasis upon truth. Some of the critics of Francis believe that he doesn’t say enough about truth. If you look at some of his statements, there’s some substance to that critique. But if you look at some of his other statements, it’s very clear that he doesn’t see mercy and truth as separate from one another.

Circles of engagement

Schmidt: In 1991, soon after Acton started, John Paul II wrote his encyclical Centesimus Annus, which was considered in large part a refutation of Marxist ideology and a condemnation of the dictatorial regimes that practiced it. What’s happened to that sort of thinking?

Gregg: We know that there were extensive consultations with economists while that encyclical was being drafted. A number of very prominent economists were received by John Paul II to discuss what they thought should be the right economic way forward after the fall of communism. That was the big question.

St. John Paul II (Wikimedia Commons)

It was very wise of the Holy See to engage serious economists, not all of whom necessarily held all the same views. The Holy See essentially said, “Maybe we should talk to some economists before the Pope pronounces on these particular things.” They talked to a wide range of economists, ranging from people who would be conventionally described as on the left and some people would be regarded conventionally as on the right.

What we find today in much of the Holy See—and this is true of many good Catholics—there’s a tendency to think that the people who really care about the poor are on the center-left: that the center-left is the people who care about the poor, and that people on the right somehow are not interested in the poor or don’t care about the poor. I think that’s mistaken.

It’s not clear to me that some people on the center-left do care very much about the poor, except as a means to achieve other objectives. At the same time, plenty of people on the center-right really do care about loving their neighbor, especially those people on the margins. Their solutions for dealing with these issues, however, are through civil society, through business, from integration into markets, rather than looking to the state as the primary means to deal with these types of problems.

For a very long time, long before Pope Francis, there’s been a sense among many people working in the Vatican, but also many Catholic clergy, that the center-left is where the action is when it comes to concerns about poverty and marginalization, etc. We’ve seen a certain resurgence of that type of thinking during Francis’s pontificate.

If I had any concrete suggestions to make to the Holy See, it would be to widen the circle of people that they consult about these issues. If you consult, for example, an economist like Joseph Stiglitz—who’s essentially on the center-left and has spoken several times at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences—why not bring in another Nobel economist who brings a more conservative or pro-market perspective, so that you have a genuine plurality of views being presented?

Schmidt: Is this a deeper and more-serious phenomenon, maybe even extending beyond economic issues?

Gregg: I think that’s right. If you look, for example, at the last couple of synods, the question I keep asking is, “Why do we particularly care what the Catholic church in Germany has to say about anything?” It has a track record of substantive failure over the past 50 years. Almost 250,000 Catholics left the German church in 2019 alone.

Their proposals for reform involve embracing what St. John Henry Newman called “liberal religion.” But we know liberal religion is the path to self-destruction. Every church that’s gone down that path is a disaster. The Church of England is a prominent example, but most mainline Protestant churches in the United States have embraced that outlook and paid a huge price. They have effectively become vaguely religious NGOs.

I keep asking myself, “Why aren’t we paying more attention, for example, to what African Catholics are saying?” In Africa, the church is growing so fast that the clergy can barely keep up. They have so many vocations. They’re also doing very well in terms of educating their people in the faith.

The primary reason why some people pay attention to the Catholic church in Germany is because it has a lot of money, because of what is called the Church Tax.

Hartmann: Government-collected money.

Gregg: Yes. If you want to opt-out of the Church Tax, you basically have to apostatize. Now, the last time I checked, declining to pay the Church Tax was not a mortal sin. But in Germany, if you don’t pay the Church Tax, you face the prospect of being denied the sacraments, which is absurd.

There are plenty of good German Catholic thinkers—scholars, priests, lay people, a small number of bishops that I think are very good—but German Catholicism has more or less been captured by what I’ve called liberal religion and we’re seeing the results of it right now.

Hartmann: Sounds like you might think collecting government money, even to further conservative social ends with the help of faith-based institutions, would be risky?

Gregg: Any time you take money from the government, whether it’s the government collecting the money or the government giving you grants, there are always strings attached—whether it’s preventing you from saying what you think, what you need to say, what you have to say, who you can employ, who you may not employ, etc. These are the problems that come along with government funding. It compromises the freedom of the church. And it also damages the willingness of the church to sometimes confront politicians when they need to be confronted.

Numbers of cheers

Schmidt: We’ve written about the American bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy in 1986, preceding Acton’s creation, and the sort of alternative, “Team B” lay letter put together during its development with private philanthropic support. What did you think of that exercise? Should someone consider a similar effort now?

Gregg: First, there were some very politically progressive bishops at the time who wanted to get very political with the Reagan Administration. It’s very hard, I think, to deny that.

Second, the people who were involved in drafting the 1986 pastoral letter were overwhelmingly on what anyone would conventionally described as the center-left.

The third thing about that document is that it was, on a subliminal level, about trying to fix the broken relationship between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. By this stage, the Democratic party was well down the path of adopting lifestyle liberalism as its core identity—which meant very progressive policies on all the usual subjects, and the Catholic Church was obviously not going to go down that path.

There were quite a few bishops at the time who wanted to basically keep the “old team” in place. In the 1940s and 1950s, most Catholics voted Democrat, joined unions, Roosevelt was their hero, etc. There were many bishops in the 1980s who were basically trying to resuscitate that. And the pastoral letter was one way of trying to do it.

When it comes to the present situation, Pope Francis clearly wants the church to focus more upon those on the margins of society—not just those who are economically marginalized, but those for all sorts of reasons we often lose sight of. That has had some good effects. I know, for example, that Pope Francis has caused me to look differently when I encounter a panhandler in the street.

I also think that what we see happening in much of this pontificate, as I said, partly reflects his own experience of Latin America. The widespread economic and political failures in that part of the world, the prevalence of what we call crony capitalism in that part of the world—which corrupts business, corrupts the market, corrupts everything—breeds a reluctance to move beyond what you might call conventional center-left thinking when it comes to economic issues.

As I mentioned before, economic issues for Catholics are overwhelmingly prudential. There’s no one Catholic position that tells us that, for instance, the top marginal tax rate should be 30%, rather than 28%. These are very prudential subjects and they’re primarily for the laity to decide, rather than the clergy. That’s an important distinction that we need to underscore.

I see in this pontificate, at least on the part of some of the Roman dicasteries—the departments that work for the Pope—that most of the people who are called in to advise the Vatican on economic issues are mostly from the center-left.

A good example of this occurred a few years ago. There was a conference at the Vatican to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus. Three left-wing populist Latin American presidents were present. Not a single center-right politician from Latin America was there. I strongly doubt that any were invited.

Hartmann: Much less a businessperson or economist.

Gregg: Well, they had some economists there, but they were mostly people whom we would conventionally describe as being on the economic center-left. To me, that was a sign that there was a reluctance, at least on the part of some people working in the Holy See, to move beyond that sector of the ideas world and have a genuine debate about, for instance, what causes poverty? Or how do we fix poverty? What’s the role of markets in that situation? What role should the state play?.

Hartmann: Do we need another lay letter?

Gregg: Michael Novak was really the instigator of that the lay letter of 1984. He’s the Catholic theologian who wrote the very important book called The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which came out in 1982. He’s really the first prominent Catholic intellectual to come out, so to speak, as pro-market and pro-capitalist, and to articulate a strong normative case message for the market. Up until then, most pro-market messages were more about efficiency and effectiveness.

Novak was very involved in crafting a Judeo-Christian, if you want to call it that, vision of what economic life should be like—one that takes the market very seriously. He was the prime drafter of the lay letter, but Catholic laypeople like the former Treasury Secretary William Simon, were also involved in that particular project.

Do we need something like that today? My sense is no, because I think it’s presently more effective to have particular individuals expressing their own ideas about these particular subjects in as many forums as possible.

Hartmann: So if we don’t need another letter, do we need another Michael Novak?

Gregg: Yes. I think there are many people who are potential heirs.

Hartmann: Like …?

Gregg: People at the Acton Institute, I think, are playing that role.

Hartmann: Novak was one of the early neoconservatives, who famously were for “two cheers” for capitalism. I thought you guys were pretty much closer to three, with some of what I’ll call the First Things group maybe now at one. Is that an unfair sketch?

Gregg: [Laughter.] I think I’m for two and a half cheers, to use the cheering calculus, for markets. The reason I say two and half cheers is because I do not believe there’s such a thing as the perfect economic system. All economic systems have particular failures and particular weaknesses.

My argument has always been that capitalism best reflects who we are as human beings, part of which is the fact that we’re weak and sinful. Markets are much better at recognizing that reality than any other system and of taking advantage of that and turning it to good.

Some free-market people are reluctant to talk about this because they have great difficulty moving beyond efficiency arguments. These are important, but they’re not sufficient reasons for why you should commit yourself to the market economy rather than another economic system.


The conversation continues in Part 2 of 2 here.