Rev. Robert A. Sirico was recently a guest on The Matt Friedeman Show where he discussed the difference between charity and socialism. He talks about not only how we should give, but also how we can best help the poor. Socialism, according to Rev. Sirico, is the forced sharing of wealth and drains morality out of good actions. A discussion of the Acts of the Apostles also takes place in the following YouTube clip that contains a segment from the show.
Earlier this week on the Acton Institute Facebook page, Rev. Sirico’s archived article “What is Capitalism?” was posted and sparked a lively discussion between two people (click here to see our Facebook page and the discussion). This blog post is to serve as my response.
Your idea of communionism, at least from what I understand from your comments, bears some resemblances to communism which has the end goal of society or the community possessing property in common. This, however, doesn’t preserve human dignity properly; nor does not foster interdependence among people. Instead it creates a society dependent on a centralized government.
In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas explains some of the core the problems with common property. Like Aristotle, he notes, that individuals are better managers of property because it allows for a more orderly fashion of management, and as he states “human beings content with their own property live in a condition of peace. And so we observe that quarrels arise rather frequently among those who possess goods in common not individually.” The quarrels can arise because no individual is specifically responsible for the care of the common property. There is no person who feels like he or she has stake in the property. A direct result, and historical example, of common property is the tragedy of the commons.
In Capital Marx argues that there is no value in human labor per se. He states “human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.” This is contrary to Christian beliefs. There is intrinsic value in human labor itself. To work is a calling and a form of stewardship. In the encyclical Laborem Exercens, (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II explains how working is a direct expression of our human dignity. Such preservation of human dignity cannot be found in a system that devalues work.
The idea of property that you advocate is also found in Marx’s Capital and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. This idea is flawed on many levels. It doesn’t take into account that the entrepreneur purchases the raw goods that the workers use to make the end product. As a result, based on any definition of property, the entrepreneur is the sole owner of the raw goods and it is his or her private property, not the worker. The worker engages in a contract with the entrepreneur in an exchange of services. Just because the worker uses his or her services, which he or she is paid for by the entrepreneur, does not translate into the worker becoming the owner of the raw good which becomes the final product.
The idea of private property that you advocate, rescinding property rights for all corporations, is dangerous on many levels. It puts political rights, religious rights, and all private property rights in danger. Marx notes that the abolition of private property for the bourgeois leads to the abolition of family because, according to his argument, the family is rooted in property and private gain. Furthermore, Marx articulates that his beliefs, which bring forth a communist centralized system, also abolish religion.
In Federalist Paper No. 10 James Madison argues how the first object of any government is the protection of property. Furthermore, in Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville explains that what makes America successful is its protection of private property for all. No landed property class exists. He articulates how the protection of private property translates into the protection of political rights even to the least of all citizens. Furthermore the right to property fosters “…obedience to established law, of the influence of good mores in republics, and of the assistance that religious ideas lend to order and freedom…” What makes America special and successful, according to Tocqueville, is the protection of rights for all people. As Tocqueville demonstrates, the right of property needs to be protected because other rights stem from it. This right extends to even corporations. Rights should be guaranteed for all, not winners and losers picked by the government.
Again, private property should be protected at all levels, for both individuals and corporations. Hernando de Soto explains this in his book and in an essay both titled, The Mystery of Capital. Through examples found in his essay, book, and case studies (which can be found by clicking here), de Soto effectively argues using proven facts, statistics, and real world examples that the protection of capital and private property rights has led to economic prosperity in the west, whereas the lack of protection is a leading reason to the economic disparity in poor countries. If we fail to protect private property rights on all levels, then we begin down a path of economic decline. Without the protection of private property rights, and an effective legal structure to guarantee such protection, the wrong message is being sent to businesses. No business will want to invest in an economic climate that is hostile towards them.
A market system, which is what Rev. Sirico argues for in his article “What is Capitalism?” actually fosters virtues that all Christians value. This is articulated by Stephen Grabil in his essay “The Market, School of Virtue.” Here Grabil shows that greed is not what makes a free market churning, but instead it is virtue. Some of the virtues fostered in a free market are trustworthiness, self-control, sympathy, and fairness. Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem, demonstrates that greed is a vice which even Adam Smith condemned. Richards also shows why greed does not lead to a successful market economy, but actually destroys it.
In regards to the referenced Fulton Sheen article titled “New Slavery” it is important to note that the article was written in 1943 when many monopolies were present in the market. Acton has never believed in or supported crony capitalism. Monopolies do not allow competition which is bad for the consumer and the worker. Also, Sheen does not advocate for the end of private property in his article. Instead he says we have a right to private property and our use of it should be righteous “Possession [of property] has two faces, two aspects: we all have a right to private property, but this is accompanied by our responsibility for its righteous use.” As Sirico articulates in the posted article, when the market is structured successfully it is the consumer who has primary control and then next is the worker. This is because of competition. Monopoly capitalism comes when the government gets into bed with businesses, and essentially block new entrepreneurs and potential new competitors from entering into the market.
Free markets are not just about an economic system. It is something greater than economics, it is about freedom. The freedom to choose what to purchase, the freedom for the worker to find an employer and not be forced into employment with the state or a monopoly, and the freedom to hold property and have it protected, this freedom is what capitalism is about. Tocqueville saw this in his visit to America and correctly articulated how the protection of private property, in all levels, has led to the great freedom Americans enjoy. However, Tocqueville also recognized the need for virtuous men and women because he knew America cannot succeed, nor its structure of government without them. As he states, “There are no great men without virtue; without respect for rights, there is no great people: one can almost say that there is no society; for what is a union of rational and intelligent being among whom force is the sole bond?”
A dispute has arisen in Illinois between Catholic Charities and the state government. As the National Catholic Register explains it, “Catholic Charities branches of three Illinois dioceses have filed a lawsuit against the state of Illinois in order to continue operating according to Catholic principles — by providing foster care and adoption services only to married couples or non-cohabitating singles.” In an interview, with the newspaper, Rev. Robert A. Sirico defends Catholic Charities in light of the principle of subsidiarity while arguing for the right of the Catholic Charities to exist and conduct its own business without the influence of the state:
“What is it about foster care that necessitates a state-run system? Why can’t it be done on local levels?” he said. “Why can’t a city, municipality or affiliation of organizations do it and merely abide by standards set by the state? But when you have it monopolized, in effect, by the state [which uses organizations such as Catholic Charities as contractors to provide services], then you have the political-interest groups in control.”
Rev. Sirico also offers a solution for guaranteeing the independence of Catholic Charities:
“I think we need to separate the giving from the mechanism of the state,” Father Sirico continued. “I think there are ways to incentivize people to give that aren’t channeled through political and bureaucratic agencies. For instance, what if we had a tax credit to corporations or individuals that allowed their money to be used in a way that isn’t run through the state, but for services that they’re already obligated to pay the state to perform? For example, you have a tax obligation; but let’s say you’re allowed to take the portion going to social services and designate it to a specific charity you wanted to support. You don’t pay the state. The state reduces its involvement in that sphere. What you do is present the state with a documented receipt that you paid money to that charity.”
Click here to read the full article
The budget proposed by House Republicans has lead to a heated debate; one key facet being whether funding should be cut for programs that benefit the poor and vulnerable. Critics claim the House Republicans’ proposed budget violates Catholic social teaching (click here to read the critics’ open letter to Speaker Boehner). Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s first response to Boehner’s critics appeared in NRO. In this week’s commentary Rev. Sirico expands upon his first response and articulates how Catholics can disagree on how to assist the poor and vulnerable. The article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine.
Not Whether to Help the Poor, But How
By Rev. Sirico
The debate over the application of the core teachings of the Christian faith began when Jesus was presented with a Roman coin containing Caesar’s image. In that moment, the Lord drew both a limitation to the legitimate power of the state and a distinction between it and the supreme authority of Almighty God. What would unfold over the years following was a highly balanced and well thought-out hierarchy of values rooted in a core understanding of the dignity of the human person. Yet it was not so abstract a set of principles as to be incapable of providing guidance for concrete policy recommendations that nonetheless do not collapse dogmatic and unchangeable doctrine into the dynamic stuff of politics and policies.
Along this circuitous route to a more balanced set of principles, there have been dead ends and extremes from which the Church has pulled her faithful: the medieval Spiritualist Franciscan (i fraticelli) who wanted to ban private property as intrinsically evil, or, more recently, the Liberation Theologians who attempted to “collapse the eschaton” of the Kingdom of God into socialist revolution.
Yet the incarnation of Christ does not let the Christian off the hook when it comes to our beliefs about human dignity and the practical protection of the vulnerable. Understanding how to translate the social implications of the gospel into workable and concrete solutions is at times as frustrating and ambiguous as understanding the homoousian clause of the Creed.
Let us take the recent occasions of public discourse by Catholics on these matters occasioned by an open letter issued by a group of Catholic professors, which argues that the budget proposed by House Republicans violates Catholic social teaching, and in which they come close to calling the Speaker of the House a heretic.
There is evidence in this letter, and in some of the commentary surrounding it, of a failure to grasp the necessary distinctions in Catholic moral theology (of which, as the popes have noted, the social teaching is a branch). I pointed out in my original critique of the open letter that the Catholic professors’ statement neglected the important distinction between “non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines” and the “prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching.” Then I cited the Compendium of the Social Doctrine: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions” (571). The use of the phrase “contingent questions” in the Compendium is quite deliberate. It means that it is simply inaccurate to say that Catholics who debate how to address poverty dissent from the Church’s teaching in the same way as someone who does not support the Church’s insistence on legal protection for the unborn.
Some Catholic commentators reject this point, offering in defense a quotation from Caritas in Veritate: “Clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it…. There is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.”
Benedict’s point here is that the Church’s teaching in the moral realm is one consistent body of thought. It is not a hodgepodge of policy concerns, among which Catholics may pick and choose along the lines of the fashionable Cafeteria Catholicism. The Church’s solicitude for the poor, the marginalized, the unborn, and the elderly is all of a piece. In that sense, the critique is correct: A Catholic cannot subordinate “justice issues” to “life issues”; he must embrace the Church’s teaching as a whole, because life issues are justice issues.
Yet the distinction holds. This is not because “justice issues” are less important than “life issues,” but because they are fundamentally different — a difference rooted in two millennia of Catholic moral reflection. Abortion involves the direct and intentional destruction of an innocent human life. It is never permissible intentionally to choose evil. Laws that permit abortion are inherently unjust, and Catholics are obligated to work toward legal prohibition of abortion.
When it comes to doing good, however, which is what addressing poverty entails, the Church does not stipulate exactly how such good is to be done. Helping the poor requires a different sort of moral analysis — not because I (or the Church’s teaching) am “dualist,” as some critics suggest, nor because assisting the poor is “less important” than protecting the unborn, but because the two issues possess different characteristics and therefore require different sorts of moral analysis.
This distinction holds, for example, outside the realm of the Church’s social teaching and can be seen in her teaching on the moral manner in which life is conceived. A superficial criticism of the Church’s stance against artificial contraception says, “Why is it wrong to avoid conception by the use of chemicals or condoms, but not immoral when using natural family planning methods?” The error in this argument is the same one made by the critics to whom I am responding: In the former case, an evil means is being chosen (the action to chemically prevent conception, for example), rather than refraining from doing good at a given time (actions leading to conception). It is not a sin to refrain from choosing from all the many goods available; it is always a sin to intentionally choose to do evil.
It is possible to argue that cutting welfare programs is consistent with Catholic social teaching, because we may choose from the various options available to us to do good by evaluating them in the hierarchy of goods. It will not do to fling citations of social encyclicals at each other on this point. Certainly there are passages that could be found to support increased government activity in the economy and provision of social services — when necessary to serve the common good. But there are also passages that suggest decreased government activity and withdrawal from social services (i.e., critiques of bureaucracy and calls for more vigorous private charity). Whether a particular situation — in this case, the budget battle in the United States in the year 2011 — calls for one or the other is manifestly a prudential question about which Catholics may disagree.
At the root of the incredulity and exasperation of some Catholics who mix fair arguments with vitriol is an incapacity to recognize that we really believe that many government programs aggravate rather than ameliorate poverty and other social ills. Rather than debating the prudence of the policies at hand, detractors resort to ad hominem attacks and pronounce anathemas selectively. Yet there is by this time a vast literature on the damage wrought by the war on poverty and its failure to achieve its goals. Such critics can continue to believe that shoveling government money into welfare programs discharges Catholic social teaching’s obligation to assist the poor if they wish, but their inability to see other views as reasonable, at least, is distressingly myopic.
A Catholic may not disregard the Church’s teaching to assist the poor and vulnerable; to do so would be to neglect the words and example of Christ Himself. It would be, in effect, to deny the Faith. But on the question of how best to fulfill that obligation, Catholics will indeed disagree, and the Church does not teach that it must be otherwise. The same kind of latitude is not permitted when it comes to legal protection of the unborn. I do not believe that this is “my view” of the matter; it is the mind of the Church, to which I hope my own mind is conformed.
Rev. Robert Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute called Ronald Reagan a “sunny warrior for freedom” with “a clear sense of moral priority.” The commentary was written a day after the former president’s death in 2004. If you walk into the Acton office you might notice a photo of Rev. Sirico and Acton executive director and co-founder Kris Mauren with Reagan at his former office in Century City, California. He holds a visible imprint at Acton.
Sunday is Ronald Reagan’s centennial birthday. ABC News has a good overview of some of the festivities. The Super Bowl even has a tribute video planned for the giant jumbotron in Dallas. The centennial site at the Reagan Library has news about the celebration and a list of events. General Electric, a former employer of the president, has their own centennial page.
Here in Grand Rapids, we are hosting our own event, Acton on Tap: Faith and Public Life in Ronald Reagan’s America. You are invited.
Acton has a lot of rich Reagan content. Some of the best is linked below:
- Deeper Truths Magnify Reagan Centennial
- Review: Rendezvous with Destiny
- The Reagan Moral Vision
- The Spirit of 76: Reagan Style
- Review: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan
- Ronald Reagan on Free Enterprise
- Review: Reagan & Thatcher
- Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004)
- The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom
- The Tyranny of the Obvious
The Colson Center for Christian Worldview is preparing to release a new study DVD this fall titled, Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics. The DVD is designed as a resource for small-group studies and features leading thinkers who explore the need for ethical behavior in the marketplace, public square, political life and other areas. Hosts Brit Hume, Chuck Colson, Dr. Robert George and a distinguished panel — including Acton’s Rev. Robert Sirico and Michael Miller — undertake a six-part exploration of ethics before a live student audience in Princeton, N.J.
The panel, students and interviewed guests will examine and discuss the following questions over six 30-minute sessions:
– How did we get into this mess?
— Is there truth, a moral law we can all know?
— If we know what is right, can we do it?
— What does it mean to be human?
— Ethics in the Market Place
— Ethics in Public Life
Panelists and guests include:
— Donovan Campbell, Chuck Colson, Doug DeVos, Joni Eareckson Tada, Dr. Robert George, Jim Grant, Dr. Chris Hook, Brit Hume, Alveda King, Dr. David Miller, Michael Miller, Eric Pillmore, Dr. Neil Plantinga, Dr. Scott Rae, Bob Rowling, Dr. Stan Samenow, Fr. Robert Sirico, Ben Stein, Glenn Sunshine, Dr. Ken Swan.
Doing the Right Thing is a joint project between the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Lansdowne, Va., and The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., and was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
A new column by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, was published today in the Detroit News. This column will also be linked in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton newsletter here.
Faith and policy: Respect others’ rights, but also their values
FATHER ROBERT SIRICO
If such an award were to be given for the Most Contentious Religious Story of 2010, the two main contenders would undoubtedly be two Islam-related stories: the threatened burning of the Quran in Florida and the plan to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of ground zero in New York.
These stories remind us of a valuable lesson at the core of America’s founding. I am not speaking here of tolerance, but of what makes tolerance possible: the right to private property, and of something even deeper — the freedom such property allows.
The pastor in Florida is by all accounts a marginal figure whose fame has been aided by the media, fueled by the technologies that amplify any opinion or action. Soon, the pastor will recede from the spotlight.
The plan to construct the Islamic center is supported by numerous personalities, costs a great deal of money and will be a rather permanent fixture once erected.
At the legal and political heart of each of these occurrences is a bedrock principle: the right to private property, which is to say: the right of a pastor to destroy a book he owns and the right of a group of Muslims to build in lower Manhattan on property they own.
We do well to remember that the right to property is never merely the right to the possession of some material object in itself. Beyond possession, it involves its production, creation and disposition as well. And while the right to private property is not absolute, it is nonetheless sacred and to be respected both in culture and in law for reasons relating to the very nature of human beings. The right to property is just a smart idea because it ensures numerous other liberties that make for a free society.
I find the idea of burning a text considered sacred by others to be both stupid and odious. Other than offending people, I am not sure what the purpose would be.
I can better understand the purpose of building an Islamic center, though I think it is a very bad idea and one that is generating as much consternation in its own context as had even the threat of burning Qurans has in another.
Do these people have the right to do these things, all things being even?
Ought they to be doing this?
I’m afraid not.
And this brings us to the core of the issue: not one of right, but a matter of prudence and culture. Surely, the right to private property, eroded in so many ways by politics and legislation, is indispensable and necessary if we are to have a free society.
Yet, it is not sufficient if we are to achieve a good one. For that we require forbearance with one another, that is not mistaken for agreement. The greatest moments in our history have been when we have exceeded the requirements of the law to create a society that is more than “just” but is also good.
That sage commentator on religion in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put it about right when he asked how “society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”
Saturday February 27 was the second anniversary of the death of the conservative giant William F. Buckley, Jr. I first saw Buckley in person when Ole Miss hosted Firing Line in 1997. I read National Review in High School even though I admit I did not always understand some of his words at that age. It was a wonderful reminder of the importance of intellectualism and conservatism, and that I still had a lot to learn. The political left too had to respect Buckley’s brand of conservatism because of the seriousness of those ideas. It didn’t hurt that he was charming, gracious, and extremely generous.
After his death, Buckley was publicly honored with the Faith & Freedom Award by the Acton Institute at its annual dinner. He had long been a friend of Acton and Rev. Robert Sirico. Kate O’Beirne accepted the award on his behalf. It was a very touching evening and one we still remember well. The media department, with most of the leg work coming from Tabitha Blanski, produced this tribute video in honor of Buckley. It premiered at the 2008 Acton Annual Dinner. It is available publicly and on the Powerblog for the first time. The tribute is well worth the view.
Rev. Robert Sirico delivered a sermon titled “Whistling Past the Graveyard” at Mars Hill mega-church in Grand Rapids, Mich on September 20. You can listen to his sermon in its entirety by clicking on the sermon title above. Mars Hill was founded by Rob Bell in 1999.
Rev. Sirico addressed Christology, mortality, atonement theology, and the problem of evil. In his remarks Rev. Sirico declared:
And the vision of that hill, there on Golgotha’s bloody mount, is the answer to the riddle of human existence. There in the crucified Christ, we see one who not only suffers for us…but he suffers with us. He enters our grief, our solitude, our pain. And because the one who is suffering so is innocent, he has the capacity to subsume into himself, into his divine person, all of humanity’s suffering, all the history of limitation and death.
Over at World Magazine, Lee Wishing cites a speech by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, on the subject of putting our faith in God and our own abilities instead of the government to manage economies. He quotes Rev. Sirico: “Many thinkers throughout the ages have noted that we face a choice between holding a robust faith in God or putting faith in man and institutions such as the state.” In such tough economic times, we are reminded that we need to put our faith and trust in God first.