Monthly Archives: September 2009

Toward a Free and Virtuous City

New York City Sky line


This past week I spent three days at a conference with Acton Institute attending their “Toward a Free and Virtuous City” conference.  I did not know much about Acton before I went, but the trip was free and I wanted to go to New York so I gambled and it paid off.  I learned a lot and there are still an number of concepts that I am still wrestling with.  Below are some of the ideas that I gleaned from the conference that I really liked.

The Principle of Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity – is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

Social Structures lowest to highest:  The lowest possible structure should assume responsibllity

The Individual   

Immediate Family           

Extended Family             



Church Family   

Civic Groups                  

Local Government          

State Gov           

Federal Government

While I agree with this concept, here is what I wrestle with:  What if the lower structures are not “competent” to deal with an issue.  Individuals who are disabled, family structures that are unhealthy, communities that are under resourced, issues that are too complex for local and state governments.  I agree with my friends from Acton that the lower structures are the “ideal” and I think we have all grown too comfortable looking to the Federal Government to meet all the needs.  However, I also know that in many families and communities, the ideal is simply not possible.  While I think we need to strive to move toward it as a long-term goal, I also think we need to have short-term measures to address human suffering but that avoid long-term dependency.


7 Marks of Effective Private Charities – Marvin Olasky

  1. Affiliation – those who know the person by natural affiliation are best able to assist.  The family should be the first line of assistance and family restoration should be the goal of the private charity if restoration would be healthy for all members of the family.
  2. Bonding – when no natural affiliations exist, care givers should enter into a relationship as a surrogate family with a willingness to become deeply involved in an individual’s life but with the individuals best interests not our need to “help” as the guiding principle.  Sometimes family have to choose tough love and as the family of God we can do no less.
  3. Categorization – effective care givers understand that everyone’s needs are different and use discernment to decide who is “worthy” of assistance.  “Work tests” are often used to separate those who are ready for assistance from those who are not.

Passage from the Didache and ancient Christian teaching – “But receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, and prove and know him afterward; for you shall have understanding right and left. If he who comes is a wayfarer, assist him as far as you are able; but he shall not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be. But if he wants to stay with you, let him work and eat. But if he has no trade,  see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle. But if he wills not to work, he is a Christ-monger. Beware that you keep away from such.”

  1. Discernment – wise giving and wise withholding are alike forms of charity.  Sometimes doing nothing is the best response.
  2. Employment – If we want to help people move toward self-sufficiency we MUST insure that all have the opportunity to work.  It is the only sustainable means of alleviating poverty.  Those who choose not to work should reap the consequences of this choice.

Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Research Institute states, “When we do something for someone that they could do for themselves, we are disrespecting that person.”

  1. Freedom – We must help individuals realize their full potential and not allow them to become enslaved by governmental program or hopelessness that keeps them from realizing their true potential.  When we cause another to become dependent on assistance from another we are enslaving them.
  2. God – true charity takes into account both the spiritual and physical needs of the person.


The concepts above are affirming of the efforts we have made at Embrace and also challenging.  I am still pondering how to put these theories into practice but took the first step by weaving them into our Unity Works training sessions. Should be an interesting conversation.   Lots to think about.  Please share your thoughts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Urban Ministry