While in Argentina for Acton Institute’s March 18 “Christianity and the Foundations of a Free Society” seminar, President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico conducted a wide ranging interview with La Nación, the country’s leading conservative newspaper. For more on the event, jointly sponsored with Instituto Acton Argentina, go here. What follows is an English translation of the interview. The original version, titled “Una sociedad con bajos impuestos es más próspera” in Spanish, may be found here.
La Nación: Why did you decide to devote yourself to economics in relation to ethics and religion?
Sirico: In the 1970s, while living in California, I was away from the faith and was involved in a number of leftist social change movements. Someone gave me some books to read on economics, which I did. This set off a chain reaction which resulted not only in rethinking my more socialist activism, but also in my return to the Catholic Church and eventually continuing on to seminary and the priesthood. Once ordained, I continued to write and speak about these matters and eventually formed an Institute which engages many scholars and writers of all religious persuasions to discuss these kinds of ideas.
Do you like to be defined as a liberal Catholic?
The use of the work “liberal” carries with it many connotations. I certainly believe in freedom, but the kind of freedom that is not a license to do whatever one wants but rather a liberty to do what one ought to do. I think liberty is essential in building the kind of society worthy of human beings, but it is not sufficient. Because freedom is essentially a vacuum it requires an orientation which only the truth can offer it. On matters economic, I think that history demonstrates that the lower taxes and fewer regulations a society has, the more prosperous that society generally becomes. But such a society will also and always need a moral sense of its purpose because as the political institutions in a nation recede, it is important that moral (and voluntary) institutions become stronger. Only in this way can I see the formation of a truly free and virtuous society.
Do you think that the Church should be involved in politics? Isn´t that a clericalism?
Clericalism is when the clergy mistake their role in society as an essentially political one. (I should mention here that I am not a member of a political party and have no political ambitions). This, I think, was the great threat of Liberation Theology. But what makes the Church sometimes look political is that she must often insist on her moral teaching in the face of an expansive state that takes over more and more control of society, the economy and even attempts at times to substitute itself for the Church. The heroic bishops in Venezuela are a case in point. In a recent statement they decried the authoritarianism of the Chavistas not because they were in favor of another specific party, but because their people are suffering economic, political and moral brutality at the hands of the present regime. That is not a political voice; it is a call to put politics (and politicians) back in their place.
Do you think that the current Pope is going to change the Catholic Social Thought in relation to homosexuality?
First of all, the Church being consistent in her teaching on homosexual activity is not an essential part of her Social Teaching but of her moral teaching. It comes from the way the Church views human personhood, human dignity and marriage. And in a direct answer I would say, no, the Church will not and cannot abandon this insight. What she can do, and is doing especially through the Holy Father’s pastoral work, is to demonstrate that this teaching applies to us all, which includes people who find themselves experiencing same sex attractions. It is imperative that the Church and her priests be seen as truly good shepherds, for that is our vocation and to be seen reaching out to the margins of society and embracing, so to speak, “the woman caught in adultery” and to distance ourselves from the legalism of the Pharisees. I just fear that some think this means never having to say, “Go and sin no more.”
Today it seems as if politics were no man’s land for ethics, like a space where every code has been broken. How can this be fixed?
There are two forms of constraint: power and authority. Power is a form of constraint that is external to a person where Authority is a form of constraint that is interior. Think of it this way: A gentleman removes his hat when he enters a home not because there is a law constraining him to do so, but because there is a respected custom that he should; a driver obeys speed laws, not generally because he is a cautious driver (we would prefer to go faster) but because he knows if he gets caught he will be fined. So it is with society as a whole: When the dominant form of constraint is power, i.e., legal and political, people will conform their behavior to the letter of the law if they can get caught, but no more, because they do not necessarily believe in the legislation; but when the dominant form of constraint is authority they will behave on the basis of a tradition, ethical code or more because they have interiorized it. The state, in becoming the great substitute for society and increasingly for the family, has weakened religion, tradition, and other forms of authority.
In the next few months we will have an encyclical about ecology. Do you think that the Church should give an opinion on this technical issue?
The Church’s competency is morality, not empirical science. The facts are the facts in regard to climate change and the like and we hardly need the Church to certify the truth of empirical claims. What the Church will do, even if the pope expresses some personal empirical opinions (to which he is entitled) is guide us morally as to our stewardship responsibilities regarding care of the natural world. The real faith cannot and will not contradict real science.
What do you think about capitalism?
I think it is in general a poor and narrow word to describe a much larger human reality of trade, commerce, value and the best and most sufficient allocation of scarce resources. St. John Paul II said that the preferred term to describe free human activity in the economic sphere was the private economy, the business economy or simply the free economy. This is not and ought not to be an ideology, simply a belief that voluntary action is to be preferred over coerced action.
How do you see Argentina in comparison with your previous trip to the country?
Of course for the whole world Argentina takes on a new interest because of the election of Pope Francis. If we are going to understand his pontificate we must understand this part of his past. Beyond that, I have always thought of Argentina as an incredibly sophisticated country that had somehow been troubled by authoritarian political leaders that has prevented this incredibly well-endowed nation to reach its highest potential.