Liberty, Justice, and Fr. Sirico


I first met Father Robert A. Sirico at a conference in western Connecticut 13 years ago. Sirico is a big man who bears a family resemblance to the character Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos – his older brother, the actor Tony Sirico, played the part – and his commentaries have frequented the Wall Street Journal and other high-profile media outlets. His writing sparkles, but the talent is marshaled in the service of basically one thing – promoting pure, unbridled capitalism.
At that conference in the summer of 1999, I interviewed Sirico and asked a question that alluded to his “conversion” – the priest had related that as a young man in the 1970s, he led a dissolute, confused (and left-leaning) life, before committing himself ultimately to the Catholic faith of his childhood in Brooklyn. I was thrown off a little when he replied, “Which conversion?” Sirico had also told me about his turn toward free-market thinking (in his twenties), but I hadn’t realized that he saw this change of political perspective in such a religious light.
There were two conversions – to the Lord, and to Lord Acton’s classical liberalism (which came first, chronologically). John Acton was the 19th century English Catholic historian who stressed above all other human values the liberty to “do our duty unhindered by the state [and] by society.” In 1990, Sirico founded the influential and amply funded Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with offices in Rome. The think tank, which he still leads, concerns itself specifically with economic liberty and wealth creation.
What brings this pastor of plenty to my attention again is a superb series last week by Michael Sean Winters in his Distinctly Catholic blog at NCR Today, the valuable daily online offering of the National Catholic Reporter. Winters debated Sirico on January 28 at the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought in Boulder, Colorado, and in his blog, he responded in three parts to Sirico’s 2012 book, stalwartly titled, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy (Regnery Publishing).
Not So Neutral
Sparse reporting on the debate indicates that one of Sirico’s prime contentions was that the market is “morally neutral” – that “the human actors in the market must bring good morals to it.” What’s needed, he said, is individual virtue and “moral transformation,” not government regulation.
This is a refrain often heard from the free-market choir. The logicians in that loft argue that any problems associated with unregulated capitalism must be caused not by the system itself (being morally neutral), but by individuals who lack good values. All too often, the problematic individuals are identified as those who don’t succeed in the marketplace because of alleged moral failings including a dim work ethic. These are, of course, the 47 percent.
Here’s (partly) how Winters countered the notion of morally neutral markets in his second installment:
Let us look at the behavior the market requires. What values does it celebrate? Who are its heroes? The market celebrates the self-made man, not the man who evidences solidarity. The market, drenched in Calvinistic roots, celebrates frugality and thrift, not gratuitousness and generosity. The market requires self-assertiveness, not self-surrender. The market is all about activity and not at all about contemplation. The market evidences competition not cooperation. The morals of the market leave out fully half of the Christian moral framework!
Put that way, the market doesn’t sound very neutral at all.
You’d expect to see a lively critique of Sirico in the liberal National Catholic Reporter. You might not expect the same from a review in First Things, but that’s what Edward Skidelsky has delivered in the January 2013 edition of that unmistakably conservative religious journal. Skidelsky is a young British Anglican (“Anglo-Catholic,” he specifies) moral philosopher who draws significantly on Roman Catholic social teaching. Here’s his final verdict:
Defending the Free Market is, if I may be permitted to speak as a European, a very American book. Only in America has Christianity reached so complete an accord with market imperatives. “The free economy is a dream worthy of our spiritual imaginations,” writes Sirico in his introduction. Perhaps, but it was not the dream of St. Benedict or St. Francis, nor even of Luther and Calvin.
Only in America! (Note the conflicting asides on Calvin in the Winters and Skidelski pieces – I agree with the Anglican on that point; see my “Calvinism 2.0“).
Who Laughs Last?
There may be a bit of American Catholic exceptionalism lurking here as well. I’m not saying Catholic opinion has skewed in any appreciable way toward Sirico’s brand of libertarianism. The U.S. Catholic hierarchy, however, has at times given the impression that the primordial biblical issues of peace and the poor aren’t all that pressing, compared to such matters as the minutiae of HHS regulations on access to artificial contraception through private health insurance plans. In that way, leading bishops have helped nurture a sort of social-justice-teaching vacuum, arguably opening up greater space for market fundamentalism, whose Catholic disciples include Sirico and Congressman Paul Ryan. They and others would find little such opportunity in the European Catholic context.
And then there’s the broader skewing of U.S. public policy toward the wealthy over the last few decades, aided by that American Christian “accord with market imperatives” (although Skidelski might be painting with an overly broad brush on that score). These aren’t rough times for those who bless unfettered markets.
My fellow native Brooklynite Robert Sirico is getting panned left and right by thoughtful commentators. But is he also getting the last laugh?

0 thoughts on “Liberty, Justice, and Fr. Sirico

  1. The very Mention of the idea “””free-market thinking””” Has proved itself
    To be – Nothing more then buring and pludering – and the very essence of the
    biggest – Social Program – There ever was – Corporate Globalization – when
    pludering and burning all the profits – there-of – but a Corporate Globalization
    social program – when it all comes – crashing down – – – The beggers are back on
    their high-horses – Yelling – let the blood of the poor – once again – to become
    – the lubricant – for our building of Corporate Globalization….

  2. Somehow you have missed the real story with Sirico’s notoriety, such as it is. It is mostly the result of having been the nearly weekly guest and talking -head on the EWTN Catholic network’s putative “news” show called “The World Over”. There Sirico has held forth, commenting at great length (with more air time than any other figure on the network’s show) about every aspect of the American economy and even minutiae of cultural life. So when you say that American Catholic opinion has not “skewed” towards the sort of libertarianism Sirico offers, I think you are missing the forest for the trees. There is simply no way that he could have been continually allowed to appear on that network, which has the strong support of the US Bishops, without having a very strong support at some level generally. Indeed, for years Arroyo and Sirico held forth televising from the JP II Cultural Center, no less, the utter sign of Catholic acceptability, and there is of course no chance that could have continued for years without the broad support of the Bishops’ Conference. So, to say the least, a more ample hermeneutic is needed to understand this curious figure’s position in modern Catholic conceptions.
    Somewhat ironically, Sirico’s interlocutor for the debate, Mr. Winters is himself on the receiving end of a similar sort of largesse from the US Bishops. Such that it leads one to be a bit doubtful about the supposed nature of the urgency of the debate between them. On the central issues of the rights of minorities — and I include sexual preference minorities in that notion– Sirico and Winters seem to accept the very incongruent logic of the US Bishops as to rights. This simple fact makes one seriously doubt the ability of one to seriously critique the other. An echo chamber is more like it. It think it would be good for journalists such as you to read a bit more between the lines. Thank you, with respect.

  3. Thank you for the informed comments, especially about EWTN. I do think the only way to argue that the American Catholic people have skewed toward free-market libertarianism is to look only at very selective segments of that population–at the trees, as you say. But I agree with you to a point. As I say in the piece, influential bishops have helped nurture a sort of social-justice-teaching vacuum, and in our plutocratic times, people like Sirico might be getting the last laugh.

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I think I see now the point of your “vacuum” comment in the piece. And it may be indeed, ultimately, that folks like Sirico benefit from a Horror Vacuii in the RC Bishops Conference. By that I mean that they would rather have someone spouting orthodox rhetoric on moral matters, even if they blatantly contradict Rerum-esque thinking generally on economic matters; rather than leaving an empty space of free debate that RC liberals are more likely to do. By a strict analysis, if we accept that they in fact the Bishops are aligned with the manifest social teachings of the Popes since Leo XIII, what those Bishops are in fact then engaged in by coddling Sirico is a Faustian Bargain, plain and simple.
    For to hear Sirico try to square his views with those of the Popes is an amazing bit of incoherence, if we are talking about simple ideas. But please note carefully, that it is not incoherently stylistically if we consider the larger issue of how the Catholic Church positions itself on a panoply of diverse ideas, and of course not limited to economics. They seem to proclaim lately some special alchemy by which a mixture of jerry-rigged interpretations of their own position make them somehow avatars of religious liberty, and yet they maintain positions against those liberties for others. That it makes no conceivable sense is precisely the point. This is how Sirico is considered coherent in the Catholic realm, and allowed to go on portentously on EWTN with the Bishop’s approval. Not being coherence, is in fact coherence for them, and a re-assuring sign ironically. Sirico is clever enough to have figured this all out. This is also what he has in common stylistically with Mr. Winters. Catholic thought was at one time known for a certain rigor in its own limited sphere. Now the Faustian Bargain has made it much more likely, as you seem to suggest insightfully, that an incoherent figure like Sirico will be a symbol of American catholicism in this age. Yet I still think you have underestimated the gravity of the matter, in saying it is a matter of the “last laugh”, though I recognize you may have just been rhetorical. As a religious tradition which represents the largest denomination in this country it is
    a matter of some tragedy and even polity-concern that such a huge group is symbolized by such incoherence.
    Fortunately, when push comes to shove politically, even Catholics themselves turn away discomfitedly from the same Sirico-esque melange in figures like Paul Ryan. And according to polls they turn away, similarly, from the pro- Catholic Bishops’s view against gay marriage as well, which Winters and Sirico both might as well symbolize. But that still leaves a cultural tragedy for the United States when a huge group of people are symbolized by figures who would marry Ayn Rand and Thomas Aquinas for economics (and then deny they even wanted the marriage). It is true, that someone like Winters would not support that shotgun wedding, but he seems to support plenty of others in the Catholic realm, and that is the overarching point. It may be fitting that the unique way Catholics deal with an un-sexed (that is unconsummated marriage) in annulling of marriages, might be a potent symbol of the add position they are in as a community. They somehow got hitched to free-markets but they have not liked their marital duties to it. But as Mr. Winters recently noted, in citing our mutual professor John Tracey Ellis, “The Bride of Christ has many warts.” Not an inviting prospect for a wedding night success with the “marital embrace (as they like to call it on EWTN!)

  5. I think you’re sounding an important warning. I just don’t know if it’s all come to that yet. Officially the bishops as a conference are taking roughly the same bread-and-butter liberal positions on economic justice issues that they’ve always taken. But they’ve been drowning out their own voices on these issues, putting the culture wars above all else. Hence the bargain of which you speak. Thanks!

  6. Exactly. It always helps to make things concrete with an example, instead of all abstract. To wit, in the summer of 1986 I worked at the Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Center in Miami, with Tom Wenski, who is now Archbishop down there. There was even an article in The Miami Herald about our summer working there at the center, and I am quoted saying something. Imagine a quarter of a century later seeing Tom Wenski opening the entire Republican Convention on TV, striding out as if on some new mission known only to him and a few others. Thank Lord Jesus, none of their mission came to pass, and Obama was elected. As the great viral video auto-tune remix says: “Aint nobody got time for that!” I think even Catholics are tired of it……with their own hierarchy no less.

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