Fr. Sirico goes to Congress

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week, Fr. Robert Sirico, the head of the Acton Institute, testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing on climate change. The internet lit up with this video of an exchange between Fr. Sirico and Senator Barbara Boxer (the exchange begins at 1:17, but the whole thing is pretty distressing):



I find Boxer, a leading libertarian on sexual issues, as distasteful as the reverend father, a leading libertarian on economic issues. Watching their catfight, I imagine that the feelings I entertained were akin to those of, say, the Israeli Defense Minister during the Iran/Iraq War.

That said, I read Fr. Sirico’s testimony at the committee’s website and found it more than passing strange, albeit not unpredictable, in almost every way. He said it was “a version of a paper” he had delivered earlier to a Catholic group, and he seems not to have felt the need to change very much for such a wildly different platform. His choice, but it strikes me as a bad one, leading him to offer his own highly tendentious understanding of Catholic moral theology and other ecclesial issues.

For example, on page three Sirico states, “First, as an encyclical, Laudato Si’ makes no general claim to infallibility as such.” We have heard this from others who oppose Pope Francis, and not only on the encyclical. Setting aside the fact that we NEVER heard these same people suggest any such thing about every utterance that dropped from the lips of Saint Pope John Paul II, let me affirm that Sirico’s statement is true. It is also misleading. The aim here is to relativize and minimize the significance of the document. (Yes, Virginia, there is a “dictatorship of relativism” on the right too.) There has only been one exercise of papal infallibility in history, the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into Heaven. Laudato Si’ has the same magisterial authority as, say, Evangelium Vitae.  As for the Holy Father’s suggestion that there be a lively debate among experts, I would emphasize the word “experts.” I have noted before that many of the “experts” the climate change deniers trot out are nothing of the sort.

After offering his usual defense of the market for its ability to collect information and process it more effectively than any central planning could achieve, he states on page 5:

This of course is precisely why centralizing knowledge and planning is inadequate to yield the broad range of knowledge required to prevent degradation of the economy and environment. People, workers, producers and consumers alike must be able to clearly see the connection between material goods and economic value.

There are two problems here. First, he is not wrong that centralizing knowledge and planning has its limits, but so too does the knowledge yielded by a market, which reduces all persons to consumers, and to individual consumers at that. There is no room for the common good, which is arrived at from reflection and first principles, not mere data collected from purchasers. The key is to find a balance, accepting the information the market offers but checking it against other values arrived at by political authority.

The second problem is that “people, workers, producers and consumers” cannot “clearly see” the environmental effects of their individual purchasing decisions. Whether I choose to drive a gas guzzling car or not will have an effect on the melting of the Arctic ice pack, but I do not see that melting. When Midwest factories were dumping toxins into the air, resulting in acid rain in my home state of Connecticut, the factory owners did not see any economic value in cleaning up their emissions, until the government forced them to do so. And, when scientists tell us about Artic ice melt and acid rain, and connect it to my gas guzzler or those factory emissions, in comes Fr. Sirico to deny the connection, or to minimize it, or to suggest there is no alternative except reliance on the market to fix the problems. 

On the next page, unsurprisingly, Fr. Sirico turns to Hayek to bolster this point about the limits of central planning. The crowd at Acton and other libertarian think tanks consider Hayek to be canonical. Sirico states:

It is true that, for the needs of those who are impoverished and lack resources, knowledge will be required and some kind of concentrated social effort enacted for their benefit. But this process of discovery as to what the actual needs are and what real resources are available to meet those needs, as well as the relative tradeoffs that will be required to transform those resources into the goods required, is dispersed. The only way it can be obtained is through the free signals called prices sent from across the economy by producers, consumers, buyers and sellers. This is what is known as a market economy, which must be free in order to reliably communicate accurate information across all sectors of society.

I call attention to the words “the only way.” Again, Fr. Sirico follows not just Hayek, but Adam Smith here, in reducing human needs and desires to “free signals called prices.” We are, in the laissez-faire world, first and last, consumers. Fr. Sirico goes on to qualify his statement, noting that “this does not mean that market growth by itself can guarantee integral human development,” but whenever anyone tries to introduce non-market factors, like government regulation, the libertarians raise an anguished cry about the need for markets to be unfettered.   

On page 7, Fr. Sirico states that “the sanctity of life must be the primary concern of human political and economic organization.” I agree with this prioritization of the sanctity of human life, but Fr. Sirico seems unwilling to acknowledge the degradation of human life that is being caused right now, not just with climate change, from the multinational corporations that think nothing of polluting other people’s backyards, or destroying valuable rain forests, for eradicating, in the name of efficient and lower prices, stable, sustainable, local economies in the face of external investment. It is all just the market yielding its information. And, regarding climate change, it should be obvious to those who care about the sanctity of human life that if abortion threatens the foundation of the house which is Catholic social teaching, climate change threatens the entire neighborhood.

I note in passing that Fr. Sirico suggests the Church itself is “somewhat compromised” because Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who supports abortion, is a consultant to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Of course, Fr. Sirico knows something about being “somewhat compromised” when you look at the donors to his Institute. Sachs is wrong on abortion, I believe, but he is right about climate change and it is on this last issue that he advises the Vatican.

After extolling the increase in wealth around the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the remarkable increase in average life spans, Fr. Sirico states, “this dramatic increase in human well-being takes place in a way that is clearly and obviously inequitable: the rich get richer to a greater and faster degree than the poor climb from poverty. And yet, as you observe the long run trends, what you see is remarkable: rising wealth has benefitted [sic] the entire world community.” Ah, the old trickle-down theory. He seems genuinely incapable of imagining a system in which people are valued as workers first, and consumers second (or third), in which the “clearly and obviously inequitable” way the increase in human well-being takes place is made less inequitable, or the role of non-free market factors in achieving the increases in well-being, such as government-run social services and health care, or advances in medicine achieved because of government-funded research.

When the Holy Father denounces the “ideology of money” and you do not know exactly what he means, you need only consult the writings of Fr. Sirico and his colleagues at the Acton Institute. Their commitment to libertarian ideology is absolute. It is also repulsive to anyone even vaguely familiar with, and committed to, Catholic Social Teaching.




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