Acton Institute Powerblog

Commonweal’s Heresy Hunt

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One does not broadcast his opinions in various forums over the years as I have done without receiving my fair share of disagreement from all sides, friends and foes alike. One participant who came to a recent conference remarked, “All my life I have been looking to build a fair and egalitarian society, but I have now learned why it is better to advance a free and virtuous society.”

Yet, something new came my way when I received an envelope with the return address of Commonweal, a publication known for – how shall we put this gently? – a progressive stance on matters of faith and public policy. Inside was the September 26 issue of the magazine, with a helpful note from the editors pointing me to page 8 where I came upon the “Libertarian Heresy — The Fundamentalism of Free Market Heresy” by Daniel Finn, who is a professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. In his essay my colleague Sam Gregg and I are his primary targets. In a single, canard-laden article, we are attacked for heresy, fundamentalism, neo-conservatism and on questions of law and morality, for voicing “libertarian” and generally un-Catholic, not to mention anti-Thomistic views.

Professor Finn’s not-so-subtle polemical technique is to raise and make patently absurd questions and assertions and then leave it to the reader — and me — to conjecture an answer. Like so: “So has Fr. Sirico mixed libertarian heresy about human freedom into his Christian view of morality and law? I’ll leave that for him to reflect on.” As well as putting in my mouth the rather un-nuanced argument that “raising taxes to help others is unchristian.”

Facing an accusation of heresy from Commonweal was too delicious an irony to pass over without comment. So, on Oct. 13, I faxed the magazine this letter:

Commonweal Magazine
Office of The Editor
475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405
New York, NY 10115


For a magazine that regularly publishes authors who rather consistently dissent from some pretty non-negotiable moral and theological postulates of the Church’s Magisterium (e.g., the intrinsic evil of contraceptive acts, the impossibility of women’s ordination etc), it is, at the very least, nice to see that Commonweal has not lost all sense of opposition to heresy, which I and my colleagues at the Acton Institute are accused of in Daniel Finn’s “Short Take” column (“Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free-Market Theology”, September 26).

Leaving aside the questionable reasoning characterizing his piece (including a rather shallow reading of Aquinas), the selected passages Mr. Finn cites from my brief essay are edited in such a way as to distort my position. Presenting my line, “Jesus never called on public authority to enact welfare programs,” he mistakes this for the gravamen of my argument and then leaps to accuse me of fundamentalism. Of course, he neglects to let his readers know that the problem I am addressing is precisely the fundamentalism of “…the slick move from personal ethics to public policy.”

Nor is it the case, as Finn would have it in his second charge that I believe or said that “a legal obligation makes virtuous behavior impossible.” Rather, I argue that legal obligation does not always equate with moral obligation. I illustrate this by quoting Ebenezer Scrooge who, in dismissing his need to be charitable, says: “Are there no poorhouses” – the Victorian version of the welfare state.

Finn’s final anathema is based on a superficial summary of my conclusion as being, “raising taxes to help others is unchristian.” Of course, this is not a quotation, because I wrote no such thing. What I did write – which your readers, even if they do not agree with me, will nonetheless see is very different to what Mr. Finn says that I say – is the following:

“What is required of us as individuals may or may not translate into a civic policy priority. In the case of the welfare state, it is possible to argue that it does great good (though I would dispute that). Whether it does or does not, however, a government program effects nothing toward fulfilling the Gospel requirement that we give of our own time and income toward assisting the poor.” (Emphasis added.)

Mr. Finn concludes his essay by stating that he has “no interest in squelching a much-needed debate about the proper balance of public and private action in how we fulfill our obligation to the needy.” If he is truly interested in such a discussion, Mr. Finn might begin next time by stating his opposition’s position accurately. Not only would this engender a more fruitful and honest debate, but it is also a basic requirement of reason, not to mention justice.

Fr. Robert Sirico, President
Acton Institute

While the editors were mulling over my letter, they found the time to publish a letter from Angus Sibley, of Paris, France, in the Oct. 24 issue. He applauded the Finn article and charged that I had an “un-Catholic and unbiblical” disrespect for the law based on a libertarian “obsession with ‘negative freedom.’” Obviously, Mr. Sibley had not read the original article for which I was being anathematized, or from what I could detect, anything I’ve ever written about law, government, economics or Catholic teaching. A brief visit to the Acton Institute Web site might have disabused him of these notions.

Then, on Oct. 27, I received an email from a Commonweal editor with an edited version of my Oct. 13 letter attached. Oddly, my first paragraph in which I note Commonweal’s habitual dissent from the Church’s authoritative teaching was excised from my letter. I spoke with this editor who pleaded space limitations. Understandable. So I asked how many words he had room for. He said 340. I submitted 343, reinserting what I suspected was the offending reference to Commonweal’s dissenting proclivity and murdering some of my other little darlings.

The next day I received an email from The Editor of Commonweal Himself, one Paul Baumann, who expressed his desire to print my letter, but only under the condition that I not insist on the first paragraph which he said was “irrelevant to the issue at hand as well as inaccurate.”

Now, I find being judged a heretic by what some consider was once America’s leading Catholic opinion journal of dissent, a tad ironic. As to Mr. Baumann’s charge of inaccuracy, I leave to those of you with strong theological stomachs and powerful search engines to probe the bowels of Commonweal to determine the truth of the matter.

One final point worth noting and that is that when I responded to him that I thought he was a bit thin-skinned about my criticism and that he did not have my permission to publish an edited version of my letter, he promptly replied that neither would I have permission to publish his to me. Ouch!

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Should either of you really have the power to prevent the other from publishing an unsolicited letter, however edited it might be?
    I don’t think so.
    I encourage you both to print both letters, edit them if you want. The competition for ideas will be best borne out by allowing this.

  • Jared Watson

    I don’t quite agree. The ball is clearly in Mr. Baumann’s court to fully allow for “the competition of ideas” as you put it. An edited version of someone’s letter in many cases is no longer his letter. It may be attributed as such but printing only a partial version of what someone is saying tends, as is the point of the original post, to mask the fullness of argument. Fr. Sirico merely wanted his entire letter published which is perfectly reasonable especially given that he’d accommodated for the so-called space limitations. Mr. Baumann apparently did not want criticism (valid or invalid) of his magazine to appear in it’s pages which I find to be in poor taste. Especially when, as it became clear he wouldn’t have his way, he preferred that the entire exchange not get out at all by denying the publication of his own letter.

    Regarding your claim that neither of them should “have the power to prevent the other from publishing an unsolicited letter” I must heartily disagree (assuming you weren’t making a legal argument, which would have been odd). In a world where such gentleman’s agreements are few and far between I find comfort in the fact that these two still honor them.

  • Fr. Sirico’s blog post above asserts I wrote “a canard-laden article” which employs “not-so-subtle polemical technique . . . to raise and make patently absurd questions and assertions.” Like his original letter to Commonweal, these accusations are difficult to respond to since Fr. Sirico provides no reasons, no explanations, no arguments as to how my depiction of his words was inaccurate, only the assertion that it was.

    When I first began reading Fr. Sirico’s letter to Commonweal, I anticipated that he would be explaining and defending the intellectual substance of the positions he took in his original article, and thus I had thought that he and I would be differing on the proper interpretation of basic principles of Catholic moral theology. Instead the dispute is about whether he really said what I asserted he said.

    I greatly value fairness in intellectual argument and I am open to being persuaded that I misinterpreted his words in that original article. There is not space here to give an adequate reply to his accusations, but interested readers can refer to my letter of response, published in Commonweal, available on my website.

    In it I give reasons why I think my description of his views was indeed accurate, something that the reader will have to decide.

    Also appearing there are his original article from Religion and Liberty and my original Commonweal piece criticizing it.

  • Neal Lang

    “In a single, canard-laden article, we are attacked for heresy, fundamentalism, neo-conservatism and on questions of law and morality, for voicing “libertarian” and generally un-Catholic, not to mention anti-Thomistic views.”

    Hmmm! Interestingly, the late, great, “fundamentalist, neo-conservative, heretic”, Sen. Daniel Moynahan (D-NY) seemed to hold similar “libertarian” views on the travesty known as Welfare State as does Father Robert Sirico, when in 1965, as an Asst. Sec. of Labor under JFK-Johnson he wrote “The Negro Family:
    The Case For National Action”. In this paper, Moynhan documented how the government by violating the Catholic cherished “Principle of Subsidiarity” through the implimentation of Welfare State which eventually destroyed both the Black Family and the Black Community in America. And this was at its earliest stages at very beginning of the War on Poverty.

  • Guest

    It’s not your public policy positions that are heretical.  It’s your views of human anthropology.  Repent, sir!