Can a free market help the poor? Fiery debate set Jan. 28 in Boulder
By Jean Torkelson
What is a better friend to the poor—the government or the free market system?
That provocative question is the tinder in the firepit for this year’s “Great Debate” on Jan. 28 and sponsored by the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought in Boulder.
Father Robert Sirico
Michael Sean Winters
Two prominent Catholic thinkers will square off for the official question: “Can the free market adequately care for the poor?” Father Robert Sirico, author, commentator and expert on economics and co-founder of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., will argue that free markets have an important role to play in helping the poor, while Michael Sean Winters, a nationally known essayist and reporter for the National Catholic Reporter, favors the government assistance position.
The debate is set for 7 p.m. on Jan. 28, at the Cristol Chemistry building, Room 140, on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. College student admission is free, and a $5 donation is suggested for all others. To reserve tickets and learn more about the debate, go to www.ThomasCenter.org.
Both debaters will base their argument on Catholic social teaching, said Matt Boettger, director of intellectual formation for the Aquinas Institute. (See accompanying box for links to documents on Catholic social teaching.)
“Obviously the Church never speaks directly about economics, only insofar as it relates to our responsibility and stewardship to the poor,” Boettger said. When the Church speaks about economic philosophy, it is in the context of “What is the best way to take care of our neighbor and those who are marginalized?”
So the issue for Sirico and Winters isn’t whether the poor must be helped. They differ in what is the best role for government and free markets to provide that help.
In a pluralistic society, the answer is complex, Boettger said.
“In our pluralistic understanding of the economy, the answer (will likely be) not having one entity do everything, but having a pool of competing resources available,” he said. “That’s why we’re so excited about two Catholics coming in to debate. They show there is a wide enough spectrum in this discussion for competing ideas.”
The Aquinas Institute is the intellectual arm of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Its aim is to promote the “Catholic intellectual tradition and the unique voice of the Church at the University of Colorado.” The institute sponsors a half dozen major lectures annually by prominent intellectuals. Six years ago it added a “Great Debate,” featuring some of the most challenging and intriguing thinkers of the times.
Debate guests have ranged from the atheist provocateur, the late Christopher Hitchens, to the groundbreaking author and bioethicist Dr. Janet Smith, who argued the debate position that contraception harms women. Its format and the quality of its speakers loosely recalls the legendary Oxford Union Debating Society in England, founded in 1823 and still active today.
Boettger said the institute organizers sensed they were on to something when the first Great Debate in 2008—“Is abortion morally justifiable?”—was planned for 350 people, and more than 700 people showed up. It suggested there was an audience clamoring for the weighing of serious ideas, much in the tradition of its great intellectual patron, St. Thomas Aquinas. Since then, the Great Debate’s success has continued across a broad range of topics.
“We hold these debates intentionally on St. Thomas Aquinas’ feast day as our way of celebrating his legacy of scholasticism, academics and dialogue,” Boettger said. “Often his arguments were dialectic in nature; we’re not afraid of dialogue and discussion and debate. We want to promote his sense of bringing multiple views into one arena.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING
Go to: www.usccb.org and enter the document name.
Four key papal encyclicals form the foundation of Catholic social teaching in the 20th and 21st centuries:
“Rerum Novarum,” (“Regarding the New Things”) Pope Leo XIII, issued May 1891: “We thought it expedient to speak now on the condition of the working classes.”
“Quadragesimo Anno,” (“The fortieth year”) anniversary of “Rerum Novarum,” issued by Pope Pius XI, May 1931
“Centesiumus Annus,” (“The one hundredth year”) anniversary of “Rerum Novarum” issued by Pope John Paul II, May, 1991
“Caritas in Veritate”: (“In Charity and Truth”) “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine … but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practised in the light of truth.” Pope Benedict XVI, June, 2009
Two more documents from the USCCB may be helpful to understand Catholic social teaching:
“Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching”: An overview of documents and further links summarizes main elements of Church teaching, 2005
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Catholic Citizenship”: “A call to political responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” November 2007