This afternoon, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico joined host Paul Edwards on The Paul Edwards Program (broadcasting live from the Acton Institute here in Grand Rapids today, by the way) to discuss some of the hot issues in the world of politics and economics, including the efforts of governors in Wisconsin and Michigan to address the fiscal issues faced by their states, and also giving a response to Jim Wallis’ question of what would Jesus cut? Listen via the audio player below:
Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, William McGurn looks at some of the root causes of the catastrophic decline of the city of Detroit. Census information released last week showed the city — once the fifth largest in America and a place which had such awe-inspiring industrial might that President Roosevelt labeled it the Arsenal of Democracy — had lost more than 25 percent of its population in the last decade. Detroit’s population fell to 713,777 in 2010, the lowest since 1910 (two years after Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced). The city, vasts stretches of which are depopulated, is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.
As McGurn points out, much of Detroit’s problems are of its own making. There was no tsunami or hurricane to blame. He quotes Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, on the cultural factors that have contributed to the city’s demise:
Most Americans did not need to be told that Detroit is in a bad way, and has been for some time. Americans know all about white flight, greedy unions and arrogant auto executives. The recent census numbers, however, put an exclamation mark on a cold fact: A once-great American city today repels people of talent and ambition.
“Detroit is a classic example of how a culture that was legendary for enterprise and innovation was slowly eroded by toxic politicization from the 1960s on,” says the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. “It’s been class warfare on steroids, and the inevitable result is that so many Detroiters who had the means—black and white—have fled the city.”
Another way of putting it is this: Unlike New Orleans and Japan, the ruin we see in Detroit is entirely man-made.
Read “A Requiem for Detroit” in the Wall Street Journal.
In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Acton President and co-founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico publishes a new opinion piece that looks at “the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions” through the lens of Catholic social thought:
Catholic teaching’s pro-union bias
By the Rev. Robert A. Sirico
There is a long-standing bias in Catholic social teaching toward unions, and this dates from the long history of labor struggles for fair wages and safe working conditions. There is a romance associated with this history, and it is bound up with strong moral concerns. And it is not just historical. The Catholic Church played a heroic role in the fall of Communism in Poland through its influence on labor unions that were striking against oppression, which is to say state coercion.
Pope John Paul II, who knew something about the social role of labor unions, also warned about their drift into politics. In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, he wrote: “Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.”
The reality with all public affairs, however, is that conditions change. Just because something is called a union does not make it automatically good and moral. Essential considerations of justice and freedom must be in place. Generally speaking, the long history of unions has been bound up with the right of free association. So far as I can tell, the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.
This reality comes to mind because of the protests in Wisconsin against proposed changes in collective bargaining for public-sector unions. But the driving force behind the budgetary move has nothing to do with human rights, unless one considers the rights of Wisconsin taxpayers.
The alarming reality of state and federal overspending and debt is something that cannot be denied. Prudent and necessary cuts must be made in the Wisconsin budget, and state employees must be part of that plan. How do public-sector unions fit into this? It is nearly impossible for anyone to work for the public sector without being a member, and unions collect dues, which operate like taxes for most everyone else.
This was not always the case. Public-sector unions emerged after World War II in the wake of the crack-up of many big-city political machines, and they were a convenient way for government employees to extract higher salaries and benefits at public expense.
What does this have to do with the freedom of association? Industrial unions have been on the decline for decades precisely because of the freedom of association. Organizing activity for years has shifted to the public sector, where union political contributions carry a lot of weight. Unions that remain strong are that way because they push against the freedom of association, denying alternatives to workers and taxpayers.
A one-time member of a Wisconsin union, Stephen J. Haessler, tells me: “My previous experience with agency shop as a former member of a WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) local affiliate is instructive. I opposed my dues monies going to endorse pro-choice political candidates, but my opinions and preferences did not matter because dues were automatically deducted from my pay whether I joined the union or not. This was a violation of the principle of the freedom of association.”
Here’s the question Catholics need to ask themselves: Are the unions I support of the same type that are idealized in Catholic social teaching? Or have they changed to the point where they are unions in name only but actually just political machines for coercing workers and extracting money through the political process?
The bias toward unions in Catholic social teaching is rooted in a perception that unions fulfill certain moral conditions. When they fail to do so, the application of moral teaching can change. There is no a priori reason to back every union demand and no reason for Catholics to feel under any doctrinal obligation to do so.
The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, is quoted in a Religion News Service story on the Wisconsin budget and union battles. The wire service story was picked up by, among others, the Huffington Post and Christian Century:
Wisconsin dispute exposes Catholic split on unions
Feb 28, 2011 by Piet Levy
(RNS) The fierce budget battle in Wisconsin that’s pitting unions against Republican Gov. Scott Walker has also pitted the state’s top Roman Catholic bishops against each other in a series of public exchanges over the church’s historic support for unions.
The war of words — however polite — has exposed a longstanding rift between the church’s progressive and conservative wings, reopened in the birthplace of the modern labor movement.
Walker’s budget-repair bill requires public employees to pay more for their pensions and health care, and restricts collective bargaining power for most. The plan has prompted impassioned protests by thousands at the state capitol in Madison, and sent Democratic lawmakers into exile to prevent a vote.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki kicked it off with a statement on Feb. 16 that, quoting Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, said it was “a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth.”
The next day, Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison issued his own statement, emphasizing the church’s neutrality. Within a week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sided with Listecki, praising him for his “clear statement” and making no mention of Morlino’s.
The same day the U.S. bishops sided with Listecki’s pro-union message, Morlino wrote in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald, that he and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference were neutral, even though the Catholic Church has long sided with the rights of unionized workers.
“The question to which the dilemma boils down is rather simple on its face: Is the sacrifice which union members, including school teachers, are called upon to make proportionate to the relative sacrifice called for from all in difficult economic times?” Morlino wrote.
“The teaching of the church allows for persons of good will to disagree as to which horn of this dilemma should be chosen because there would be reasonable justification available for either alternative.”
To be sure, Morlino has emerged as a hero of the Catholic right. In the heat of the 2008 campaign, he blasted vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “stepping on the pope’s turf — and mine” in appealing to church fathers for their support of abortion rights.
In 2009, Morlino fired a female church worker for using male and female imagery for God in her 2003 Master’s thesis.
Morlino argued that unions should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or be too closely linked with them. Conservative Catholic activists soon rushed to Morlino’s defense, with the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Michigan-based Acton Institute praising him as a “model of clarity” in the fractious debate.
“It is also useful to keep in mind that the Catholic position on unions is not an endorsement of all unions, in all places at all times and under every circumstance,” Sirico wrote at Catholicvote.org.
The Rev. Bryan N. Massingale, associate professor of theological ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, doesn’t necessarily see a conflict between Morlino and Listecki — at least from the statements.
“That’s not the way Catholic bishops tend to operate,” he said. “They tend to want to present a unified public voice.”
But Michael Fleet, a political scientist at Marquette, sees it differently.
“Obviously (Morlino) wouldn’t have written (his letter) unless some clarification or reframing was necessary,” he said. “If you think about it, Morlino would write a short letter if he agreed with Listecki, but he wrote a longer letter articulating how (Listecki’s statement) should be understood.”
For their part, priests in Listecki’s archdiocese sided with their archbishop. The Milwaukee Archdiocese Priests Alliance released a statement Feb. 25, that noticeably made no mention of Morlino’s statement in calling for the governor to restore collective bargaining rights for the unions.
Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank, suggested that the bishops’ response to the union protests marked a new era of episcopal leadership and a more nuanced understanding of economic realities in the United States.
He noted that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had sought to reorient an overly politicized approach to social justice concerns and that new Catholic leaders had responded to this new direction. “Politics is not the governing hermeneutic of the Church,” said Father Sirico, “but for many years politics was the whole paradigm through which everything was seen.”
But he also suggested the Wisconsin bishops’ stance implicitly acknowledged “the changing reality of the American Catholic population as a whole. “The only sector of union membership that is growing is public unions,” he said. “That is highly problematic from a Catholic point of view, because these public unions publicly favor abortion rights and ‘gay marriage’ and seek to undercut the Church’s agenda on social questions.”
Full article here.
On CatholicVote.org, Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews Rev. Robert A. Sirico about various bishops’ statements concerning the budget battles and labor union protests in Wisconsin:
Kathryn Jean Lopez: The archbishop of Milwaukee issued a letter a few days ago on the rights of workers, noting that “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” Does that mean he is on the side of Democratic lawmakers who are hiding out on the job?
Fr. Robert Sirico: There are many commentators who would like us to think so, but Archbishop Listecki was simply outlining the Church’s teaching on the rights and dignity of workers (and all people for that matter, because after all, it’s not just employees who are “workers”) as well as his pastoral concern for the people involved in a very contentious debate. The archbishop knows very well the clear warning given to unions by Pope John Paul II to the effect that unions need to avoid partisan political identification.
Lopez: What’s the most important message of his letter?
Fr. Sirico: First and foremost, the Archbishop is a pastor and has many people within his flock who are torn on both sides of this divisive issue. From what I can tell, he is simply attempting to calm the waters, remind people of their mutual dignity, yet without taking sides. In all but the most extreme cases of industrial disputes, that’s exactly what a Catholic bishop should do.
Lopez: Thursday morning a press release went out from the Catholic bishops’ conference in Washington seconding what Archbishop Listecki had to say. Does this make it look like the Church in some way is all about the protesters in Madison and opposed to the governor?
Fr. Sirico: I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of the statement that came from Bishop Blair. On the one hand he wants to express his (and the Bishops’ Conference’s) solidarity with a fellow-bishop trying to guide his flock in a difficult situation. That is entirely appropriate. On the other hand, I can see how some might think it gives the impression that Archbishop Listecki has taken sides in the debate, which he and his spokesman said he has not.
Lopez: Does Bishop Robert Morlino’s letter on “fairness” provide the most clear moral guidance about what’s going on in Madison?
Fr. Sirico: Bishop Morlino, as the bishop of the diocese in which all this is going on, has given us a model of clarity of the role of a bishop in an admittedly volatile situation. In a letter published in his own diocesan newspaper, and modestly noting that he is only addressing the people in his diocese, Bishop Morlino clearly states that he and the Wisconsin bishops are neutral, and yet walks his people thought how one might think about the matter.
Lopez: Morlino wrote “I simply want to point out how a well-informed conscience might work through the dilemma which the situation poses.”
Fr. Sirico: This really demonstrates the respect that Bishop Morlino has for his own people. He helps them to inform their consciences and provides a model how to come to a conclusion on the matter without going beyond his role as a teacher of the Catholic faith.
Much more here.
Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s World Over program, has invited Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on the show tonight (Thurs., Feb. 17, 8 p.m. Eastern) to discuss the federal budget as a “moral document” and the mounting federal deficit. And no doubt the conversation will explore other important faith and policy issues of the day.
Check your local cable listings or tune in live online here.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, published a new column today in the Detroit News:
‘Social Justice’ is a complex concept
Rev. Robert Sirico: Faith and Policy
A column by Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic writer for the Washington Post, makes the claim that “Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth.” He went on to say that “there can be no disagreement” that unions, the government and private charities should all have a role in fighting a trend that has “concentrated” money into the hands of the few. In this conjecture Stevens-Arroyo confused the ends with potential means.
What Stevens-Arroyo is promoting is an attenuated and truncated vision of “social justice” that has fostered a great deal of injustice throughout the world. This path, he should know, has been decisively repudiated by the Church.
He also betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff — by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that “social justice” demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That’s not social justice; that’s materialism.
A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that “facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition.” That’s the market economy.
The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn’t happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.
What happens when wealth is “redistributed” is obvious now.
We’re seeing the train wreck of the “social assistance state” in Europe.
In his 1991 social encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II warned that a bloated state “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concerns for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” I call that prophetic.
Let’s also be clear that the Church’s teaching condemns the idolatry of money and material goods.
The Church finds another way, neither condemning market activities nor exalting them beyond their rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It asks us to work for the highest good and to contribute as we can our time, talents and wealth that we have earned for the betterment of the world. The Church also demands that we build just systems of trade that enable the poor to be the agents of their own betterment.
So let’s drop these false notions about what constitutes the Church’s understanding of social justice.
A system that pits the haves against the have-nots, with politicians and bureaucrats acting as referees, should be rejected by anyone sincerely interested in building a just social order.
If you weren’t able to join us in person for the inaugural lecture of the 2011 Acton Lecture Series, fear not: today, we’re pleased to present Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity” for our loyal PowerBlog readers. The lecture was delivered on February 3rd at the Waters Building here in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Wrapping up our recap of last year’s Acton Lecture Series, today we present two additional lectures for your enjoyment.
The first was delivered in April of 2010 by Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico, and was entitled “Does Social Justice Require Socialism?” In this lecture, Sirico examined the increasing calls for government intervention in financial market regulation, health care, education reform, and economic stimulus in the name of “social justice”.
And finally, we present Jordan Ballor’s lecture from July of 2010, entitled “Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Appraisal.” On the heels of the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 18-27 2010), and in anticipation of the eleventh General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (Stuttgart, Germany, July 20-27 2010), Jordan J. Ballor looked at recent developments in the public witness of the mainline ecumenical movement. Focusing especially the question of economic globalization, he responded to ecumenical pronouncements, subjecting the movement’s witness in its various forms to a thoroughgoing ecclesiastical, ethical, and economic critique.