Acton Institute Powerblog

Interview: On Poland’s Economic and Cultural Transformation

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When in Krakow, Poland, for Acton’s recent conference, I was interviewed by journalist Dominik Jaskulski for the news organization Fronda. Dominik has kindly allowed us to publish excerpts from his translation of the interview.

Father Sirico, tell us why your conference, organized with the Foundation PAFERE, is important for Poland.

Today, many people in the world are in a situation of transition. If you do not respond well in such conditions, you may see a repeat episode where – as you had here in Poland — people turned to socialist and communist ideas. I think it’s very important that people understand what culture is and how dynamic it is. With the foundation of a moral framework, it is much easier to choose the proper path of development. In that framework, we want above all to respect the dignity of the human person.

In Poland, we often see a discrepancy between the views of younger people and their elders about the nature of the transformation that occurred. Older people often talk about the loss of state benefits.

It’s quite funny, because less than 20 years ago, when I first came here, I gave an interview in which I was asked about how I thought things would go in the next few years. I said something like this: When the Israelites were leaving Egypt, it took them 40 years to arrive at the Promised Land. That’s mainly because Egypt was still in their hearts. In the Bible, the Israelites constantly asked, “Where is the land of milk and honey? When we were in Egypt, at least we had the dates and other food.” It took a whole generation to accept the changes that occurred.

What about unemployment? Under communism, we all had jobs. Currently, unemployment exceeds 10 percent. A few years ago it was even 20 percent.

Well, I think what the case was in the past in Poland is that everyone seemed to have a job. Authentic work, in which everyone is responsible for that work and understands its purpose, is productive. Many people were employed in Poland, which was not free, but many of these workers had no purpose and were unproductive. And, at the end, it led to massive poverty. Poverty, not wealth, was socialized. If we could measure the level of satisfaction and happiness then and now in Poland, I would be surprised if it isn’t now much higher. Yet it is true that some people find themselves in a difficult situation during the transition. We will discuss this during the conference.

Economics, as we know, has its cultural consequences, just as culture has economic implications. How you assess economic and cultural changes in Poland?

I must say that from all countries historically affected by communism, Poland and the Czech Republic were the most successful in their transformation. In Poland, largely thanks to the Church, the local culture remained intact. Of course, questions about the transformation continue to occur. This indeed was a dramatic shift because this country escaped one of the most horrific, depraved systems in human history. There is a cost, which we had to go through. We just have to understand that this transformation brings together a number of costs.

Currently, Poland is getting closer to Western culture. Is there a risk of materialism?

Yes. Sometimes people think that they become something more as a person when they have more. This can be lethal. The basis of psychological, spiritual and moral values is to develop an adequate internal hierarchy. I refer to our inner life, which is not dependent on the external world. The outside world affects us, because we are physical beings. When we realize the truth in any situation we find peace and joy in our inner lives. This helps us make better choices in the market. We will be able to say, “That iPhone is a great gadget but I do not need it.” On the other hand, if we do not develop an inner life, we become prone to a confusion of “having” and “being.”

Let’s talk about the global financial crisis. We have completed the first phase — the crisis of financial institutions. Now we have a debt crisis. Is there a chance that these events will alter our ethical perspective on the economy?

I think that something like that could happen. But not necessarily. People might learn a lesson from the situation (but maybe not politicians). What they’ve learned is that many have not accumulated enough savings. What’s the alternative? Enlarging debt. This debt will have to be repaid by the next generation, or maybe even further out. If we continue to borrow money, then we can go for a long time kidding ourselves that everything is in order. In the process, we forget about the relationship between crisis and debt. Many economies are now living an illusion. You asked earlier about people unemployed. As in the communist era, full employment was only an illusion. What people will do now from an ethical point of view will therefore depend on whether we all understand that in a situation of deprivation the appropriate behavior is to save, not borrow more money. More debt will not solve the problem.

Does the Church has a role to play in this crisis?

Yes, the Church here plays several roles. The first is that the Church must be what it always has been — a tool for Christ’s love and salvation. What’s more, the Church can teach people, because it has the gift of education and formation. It is able to teach people responsibility for themselves and their loved ones. Maybe I can offer a small counter-example. I was very disappointed when during the early stages of the financial crisis I received a letter from an American cleric. He wanted to give me ideas about how the Church should respond to the crisis. I thought to myself, “Oh, it will be good.” So I read it, approximately a 10-page letter. He was full of ideas on how to redistribute wealth and goods, how to care for the poor, and consume fewer resources. All of his ideas, if put into action, would give us a zero-sum game. There was no one specific suggestion, not a single one on how to help local community create employment, training, how to look ahead. Nothing creative.

Last year, Pope Benedict issued his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Perhaps this was precisely the answer to the crisis?

When the encyclical was published, there was some debate about it in the United States. Some said that it will be a nail in the coffin of socialism, but in my opinion it was not at all about that. Benedict XVI did not contradict John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. What’s more, the Caritas in Veritate analysis was not about the financial crisis. Instead, it is a broad, social account of moral responsibility and the Pope expressed himself very clearly on the issues discussed in it. He said that the market is not something the public should be afraid of. The market is not something against what society needs protection. But the market can also suffer distortion, because of ideology. I think focusing on this whole issue more holistically will be very helpful to answer these questions as Benedict XVI looks at the economy and the linkages between economic efficiency and moral responsibility.

Rev. Robert Sirico Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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