The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz, a Congregationalist minister who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality, passed from this life on Monday. He had just celebrated his 92nd birthday on February 11.
A man of wide reading and high culture, Ed Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of a kind of proto-Acton Institute, the Remnant, which was a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers. To Ed’s way of thinking, “[M]en must be free in society because each person has a destiny beyond society which he can work out only under the conditions of liberty.”
A significant portion of Ed’s work was produced in the midst of the cultural and social confusion of the 1960s which would eventually lead to the production of his erudite book outlining both the reasons and the importance of such an integration in Religion and Capitalism: Allies, not Enemies.
It is stunning to think of how dramatically different the world was when Ed Opitz sat down to write his main work: The “God is Dead” movement was in its ascendancy, and, in prestigious centers of learning, various forms of state intervention and control were accepted as the moral and necessary course for society. Either religion was useless in coming to grips with the development and progress the world needed, the cognoscenti said, or it was harmful and impeded such progress toward socialized utopias.
Although theologized forms of Marxism were only just coming into vogue, Ed was able to spot the trajectory of such philosophical seeds in their nascent form, and while it would be excessive to say that the writing of Ed Opitz caused the shift in religious thinking away from socialist paradigms, it would not be inaccurate to say that the moral premises and arguments he employed are at the root of such shifts. Presently, the manifest economic and moral failure of economic collectivism is laid bare for all to see. But when Ed Opitz first began making his case for the free society most were skeptical.
Despite the demise of Real Socialism, there remain significant numbers of people who still fail to see how a free economic order in a free society can be consistent with the transcendent ends of religion and morality.
Ed Opitz confronted the confusion of a purely spiritualized religion when he argued that moral sense can and must be made of the physical world which was fashioned by a benevolent God, who then situated the human family within the exigencies of scarcity–and thus the law of supply and demand.
Never to be mistaken for an “economic fundamentalist,” much less a theocrat of any variety, Ed was always careful to note that Christianity qua Christianity offered no specific economic model any more than economics qua economics has any specific moral model to proffer–which is precisely why they both need each other.
For some 40 years Ed labored tirelessly on the banks of the Hudson, generously scattering his intellectual seed through articles, books, pamphlets, and lectures. He was chivalrous with women; he was patient with students; he was encouraging to colleagues, and generous and kind even with his enemies. He was unfailingly the gentleman’s gentleman.
I cannot think of Ed Opitz without recalling the passage from Newman on the qualities of the gentleman: “The true gentleman…carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast–all clashing of opinion, or collision of feelings, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home…If he engage[ed] in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He [may have been] right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to [have been] unjust.”
I counted Ed as a mentor, a colleague, and a friend, and considered it a great honor when he said to me once that he felt his legacy was continued in the work of the Acton Institute. May the angels take you to paradise, Ed.
–The Reverend Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.