About seven or eight years ago I came across a poster about a small conference on freedom and virtue. This unique event attracted young leaders from many backgrounds and professions. Most were still graduate students. There were thirty students in the group and four teachers. I was allowed to sit on the edge of the circle and observe. I felt like I had wandered in from the cold. As I listened to Catholic and Protestant scholars explain the freedom of markets and governments, all rooted in virtue, I felt as if I was drinking from a fountain that I had been searching for over the course of my whole life. I was frankly tired of political partisanship as a way to change culture. I wanted to connect with people who saw a better way to make a real difference in society without overtly linking their vision and efforts to raw party politics. I also wanted a different paradigm for understanding principles of economic freedom that was not rooted in the modern ideas of socialism, capitalism, etc. (Capitalism is not the same thing as economic freedom and a free market!)
Founded in 1990, through the efforts of the president, Fr. Robert Sirico, and the executive director, Kris Mauren, the Acton Institute is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There is also an international office in Rome, where I spoke for Acton just this past week. The Acton Institute was named in honor of the famous Catholic layman, Lord John Acton (1834-1902). Acton made the history of liberty his life’s work. Indeed, the most notable conclusion of his work is that political liberty is the essential condition and guardian of religious liberty. He thereby points to the union of faith and liberty, which has been the inspiration for the mission of the Acton Institute from 1990 to the present.
It is also Lord Acton who is known for one of the most frequently quoted, and often misused, statements about power you've heard: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The Acton mission and perspective is summed up on their website by this statement:
The mission of the Acton Institute is to promote a free, virtuous, and humane society. This direction recognizes the benefits of a limited government, but also the beneficent consequences of a free market. It embraces an objective framework of moral values, but also recognizes and appreciates the subjective nature of economic value. It views justice as a duty of all to give the one his due but, more importantly, as an individual obligation to serve the common good and not just his own needs and wants. In order to promote a more profound understanding of the coming together of faith and liberty, the Institute involves members of religious, business, and academic spheres in its various seminars, publications, and academic activities. It is our hope that by demonstrating the compatibility of faith, liberty, and free economic activity, religious leaders and entrepreneurs can contribute by helping to shape a society that is secure, free, and virtuous.
Acton Institute has several core values that are deeply rooted in their teaching and mission. The first two of these core values are the foundation for everything they do.
1. The dignity of the person - The human person, created in the image of God, is individually unique, rational, the subject of moral agency, and a co-creator. Accordingly, he possesses intrinsic value and dignity, implying certain rights and duties both for himself and other persons. These truths about the dignity of the human person are known through revelation, but they are also discernible through reason.
2. The social nature of the person - Although persons find ultimate fulfillment only in communion with God, one essential aspect of the development of persons is our social nature and capacity to act for disinterested ends. The person is fulfilled by interacting with other persons and by participating in moral goods. There are voluntary relations of exchange, such as market transactions that realize economic value. These transactions may give rise to moral value as well. There are also voluntary relations of mutual dependence, such as promises, friendships, marriages, and the family, which are moral goods. These, too, may have other sorts of value, such as religious, economic, aesthetic, and so on.
I will be teaching at the Acton University this June in Grand Rapids. I hope some of you will check this out and even make plans to attend. If the cost is a problem please contact Acton to see if they can help you in this regard. Certain qualified younger people can attend on scholarship.