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My Response to Rolling Stone Magazine’s Claim that Pope Francis is Taking on ‘Conservative U.S. Clerics’

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RS cover from 2014
RS cover from 2014
On Sept. 10, Rolling Stone magazine published a long article titled “Pope Francis’ American Crusade — The pope takes on climate change, poverty and conservative U.S. clerics.” From the title alone you could tell where this was headed. Predictably, the magazine asserted that “deeply alarmed by the power of Francis’ message, an entire network of -right-wing Catholic organizations has been increasingly willing to push back against the Vatican.” In ticking off members of this “network” it said this about the Acton Institute and yours truly:

Then there’s the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which is run by a Catholic priest named Robert Sirico — he’s the brother of actor Tony Sirico, best known for his portrayal of Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos — and hosts forums with titles like “Government: Less Is More.” Sirico recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal attacking “Laudato Si'” for its “decided bias against the free market and suggestions that poverty is the result of a globalized economy,” though he failed to disclose the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations Acton has received from extraction-industry giants such as Exxon Mobil and the Koch family.

I wrote a response to this article and sent it to Rolling Stone editors but they, not surprisingly, declined to publish it. Here it is in full:

To the Editor:

News Flash! Admitted pro-market think tank accepts donations from pro-market supporters. (“Pope Francis’ American Crusade — The pope takes on climate change, poverty and conservative U.S. clerics,” Sept. 10).

Of course this revelation is presented in Mr. Mark Benelli’s – what was it, op-ed, news analysis, hit piece? – as something far more sinister, implying, but not saying, that somehow The Acton Institute is controlled by the dark financial interests of evil capitalists, instead of the reality that (1) we hold to a position and (2) we invite others who hold to the same or similar positions to support us.

The deeper journalistic problem with this piece is its sheer superficiality in understanding Catholicism or what the Acton Institute (which, incidentally, is an ecumenical organization that works with people ranging from like-minded Evangelicals to observant Jews) does. This is understandable given that Mr. Benelli relies to a great extent for his research on the hyperbole from the fainting couch of one M.S. Winters who writes a breathless blog for the Rolling Stone of Catholic journalism, the National Catholic Reporter.

It is more than a little amusing that Catholics such as myself who are committed to the Church and its magisterium (including the magisterium of this pope), are put in the same category as those who dissent from the Church’s most fundamental, ancient and irreformable teachings. It may come as a surprise to Rolling Stone readers that neither this pope nor the Catholic Church has a doctrinal position on, say, the cause or reality of climate change, the just rate of the minimum wage, or the precise details of welfare policy. What the Church does teach authoritatively is that humans have a privileged responsibility for the stewardship of the planet and a solemn obligation to the poor and vulnerable because of its belief in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. The prudential applications of these teachings are, instead, overwhelmingly left to the faithful.

For Mr. Benelli to describe my response in the Wall Street Journal to the pope’s own invitation to dialogue about the matters contained in “Laudato Si’” as an “attack” is to confuse his own ad hominum approach with mine. Likewise, to permit others to imply racism in my simple affirmation what the pope himself has described as his “allergy” to economic matters and his lack of economic understanding more generally, is to be reminded of the recent unpleasantness of Rolling Stone’s making serious allegations that turned out to be false.

It also comes as news to this priest, who hears confessions on a regular basis and who more than 20 years ago helped to found a ministry of reconciliation to women who have had abortions, that the pope “startled conservatives” by declaring that all priests throughout the world would have the faculty to absolve from abortion during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy. In America, for example, most priests already have this permission. What Mr. Benelli also doesn’t seem to grasp is that priests absolve sin. Indeed, the pope would not have made this faculty more available if he didn’t believe – as has the Catholic Church from the 1st century – that intentional abortion is a sin. “Startled”? Mr. Benelli needs to go back to his catechism classes.

Regards,

Rev. Robert A. Sirico
President, Acton Institute

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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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