When the Acton Institute was founded in 1990, America was in a heyday of harmonious thinking about capitalism and Christian values. Catholic intellectuals such as Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel gained renown for defending economic freedom. Novak described the ideal Christian economic creed as “ordered liberty”: a system that acknowledges the risks of consumerism and competition and mitigates them with a moral culture rather than state regulation.
This cohort influenced Acton Institute co-founder and president Father Robert Sirico. His ordination as a Catholic priest in 1989 followed his conversion from the leftism that marked his early career as a Pentecostal minister and political activist. One year after the think tank opened, Pope John Paul II published his encyclical “Centesimus Annus.” The document rejected socialism and embraced private property. Father Sirico calls it a limited but explicit blessing of the union between faith and economic freedom.
This school of economic thought transformed politics in the coming years. Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1996, argued that limited government would help lift up poor Americans, a direct appeal to the needy largely missing from the middle-class orientations of the Reagan and Bush administrations. In the same year, Congress enacted welfare reform that brought millions of Americans back to the work, guided by the premise that there is more dignity in a job than an endless stream of checks.
Two decades later, the capitalist consensus has begun to crumble.