In Jerusalem, Jews and Catholics talk Religion, Economics, and Freedom

September 18, 2015

4 min read

By: Josh Hasten

Orthodox Jews. Catholics. Religious liberty. Economic freedom. This seemingly disjointed hodgepodge of topics made for deep intellectual discourse during a recent conference in—where else?—Jerusalem.

Days before the Jewish New Year, a group of Jews—mainly Orthodox—and devout Catholics gathered for a one-day conference inside a state-of-the-art auditorium outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the relationship between faith, religious liberty, and economic freedom, elements that bond the two religious groups.

The event, dubbed “Judaism, Christianity, and the West: Building and Preserving the Institutions of Freedom,” was organized by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty as well as the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies. The conference was actually the fourth session within a five-part series titled “One and Indivisible? The Relationship Between Religious and Economic Freedom,” with the previous sessions held in Rome, Washington, DC, and Buenos Aires. The final session is slated for Rome next April.

Conference materials handed out by the Acton Institute say that “by bringing attention to the important and complex relationship between religious liberty and economic freedom,” the organization “hopes to stimulate deeper reflection about the ways in which these two forms of freedom can support each other and thereby magnify a broader understanding of freedom more generally.” At the end of each lecture throughout the day, the diverse group of Jewish and Catholic attendees—and those watching the event through a live webcast—were given the opportunity to engage with the speakers through question-and-answer sessions.

One featured speaker was Professor Daniel Mark, an Orthodox Jew and an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, Pennsylvania’s oldest Catholic university. Mark is also a visiting fellow in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His lecture argued that the Jewish community needs to restore and promote religious freedoms based on the centrality of Jewish obligations, or “commandments.” Mark stressed the difference between “obligations” and personal “rights.”

The Torah doesn’t have a word for “rights,” Mark tells Judaism instead thinks in terms of obligations.

“We can defend the idea of [religious] rights by defending the idea of obligations. The reason we have to respect people’s rights to religious freedoms is because we have to respect their rights to religious obligations,” he says.

Mark explains that hypothetically, “If the government were to make one’s religious practices illegal, they would in actuality be withholding your obligations, not your rights or preferences.”

But the scholar believes that Jews—especially more observant ones—have failed in their God-given mission to speak up for the religious freedom of other groups when Jews themselves are not affected.

“Jews have learned to keep their heads down,” Mark says, listing social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

But Christians, he says, are heavily involved in such social issues.

“This is a failure of the Jewish mission,” says Mark. “Jews have a responsibility from the Torah to get involved. We have a responsibility for the moral wellbeing of our neighbors.” Mark explains that while the Jewish community might get involved in easing the physical suffering of their non-Jewish neighbors and humanity in general—raising funds for the needy, or sending rescue missions to countries around the world as Israel often does—he is concerned that providing help when it comes to “morality” has been ignored.

Mark believes that eventually, if Jews—particularly in the Orthodox realm—don’t realize that the world is changing and continue to wall themselves off instead of fighting the battles of religious liberties, it could come back to haunt them, perhaps financially in their own communities. He describes a scenario in which a Jewish organization might lose its non-profit status should it not adapt to new social realities as a result of landmark legal decisions.

Another conference speaker was Rev. Professor Martin Schlag, academic director of the Markets, Culture, and Ethics Research Center at the Rome-based Pontifical University of the Cross. Schlag gave a historical synopsis of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine and its overall negative attitude towards “The Wealth of Nations,” a fundamental work in classical economics written by economist Adam Smith and regarded as the basis of the philosophy that is modern-day “capitalism.” Smith deals with issues such as division of labor, productivity, and free markets.

While Schlag says “The Wealth of Nations” did influence Catholic thought, today there are many in the Catholic Church who upon hearing about the concept of a “free-market economy” believe that it is simply “exploitation by the elite, to horde all of the wealth.”

Schlag says that while he has defended free-market economies, there is “an inevitable communication problem” that causes some to misunderstand that concept, causing them to believe that the goal of free markets is to exploit the poor.

Elucidating what he calls the “Jewish-Christian notions of heroic charity,” Schlag describes a society in which Judeo-Christian values allow for an ideal and harmonious community where there is no need for extremists or “heroes” trying to help those in need. He explains that this scenario can backfire if a vacuum is formed in which young people from Western societies become misguided—hence the phenomenon of young Westerners joining terror groups like Islamic State. The bottom line, says Schlag, is that “you can serve others without going to the extremes.”

Commenting on the first-ever visit to the U.S. by Pope Francis, which is scheduled for later this month, Schlag says that while the pope might not be an economist, he “acts out of love and the gospel and says that it’s not enough to give aid to the poor, but we must include them in the free-market system by giving them dignity to earn their own bread.”

Ironically, it is Mark—the Orthodox Jewish professor—who is directly involved with the upcoming papal visit, not the Catholic scholar Schlag. Mark is a featured speaker at one of the events being held in Philadelphia during the pope’s visit, entitled “The World Meeting of Families.”

“This is a great opportunity for the pope and for the Church to highlight the importance of the family,” Mark says. “The event will help advance the conversation about the strengthening of the family, which is the cornerstone of Orthodox Jewish life.”

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