A Response to Fr. Sirico

Writing at Crux, Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, has responded to Pope Francis' message to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. I wrote last week about Stephanie Slade's response to Francis, but Sirico's column is so strange, and his position so prominent, it warrants a response too.

The Acton Institute is the spearhead of libertarian thinking in Catholic circles. Their annual "Acton University" draws Catholics from around the globe to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for seminars and speeches. They keep an office in Rome, and Sirico and others at the institute have been frequent guests on EWTN and speakers at Napa Institute events.

Fr. Sirico was a gay rights activist and Pentecostal minister before becoming a priest, and he performed some of the first ever same-sex marriage ceremonies way back in the 1970s. He then returned to the church, was ordained as a Paulist, then left the Paulists and was affiliated with the Kalamazoo Diocese, and now he is pastor of a parish in the Grand Rapids Diocese. You might say he approaches religious affiliation with the same commitment to personal autonomy that he brings to the study of economics, with similar peripatetic results.

This latest essay is typical of Sirico's writings. It is confused. It erects and pulls down rhetorical straw men. It reflects a superficial understanding of Catholic social doctrine.

So, for example, Sirico follows Slade in making the point that there are varieties of libertarianism and the pope does not distinguish amongst them. He writes:

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Consider, for example, that there are many schools of libertarianism — Lockean libertarians, bleeding heart libertarians, Nozickian libertarians, Hayekian libertarians, Randian libertarians, even Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists, to name just a few.

True enough. There are also different colors of M&M's, but they are all M&M's, and they are all delicious and all fattening. Whatever differences there are among the libertarians is less important to the pope than what they share, an inflated understanding of the autonomous self that distorts their anthropology and an outsized commitment to liberty at the expense of the common good. This whole discussion about the varieties of libertarianism is a dodge.

Catholic libertarians are keen to point out that they are not followers of Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand was both an aggressive atheist and a defender of abortion rights, so they need to create some distance between themselves and her. Interestingly, however, Sirico once penned an essay that amounted to an apology for Rand, even suggesting that the hero of Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged was a Christ-figure. Go figure.

In the event, you do not have to be a Randian to come within the orbit of what the pope was criticizing. Pope Francis said, "Thus libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good because on the one hand it supposes that the very idea of 'common' implies the constriction of at least some individuals, and the other that the notion of 'good' deprives freedom of its essence."

The Holy Father did not pull these words from thin air but was referring to specific, and reasonably famous, statements by prominent libertarians.

In his 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick wrote: "There is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more." That corresponds to the first part of the Holy Father's comment, and the second seems like a direct response to this quote from Friedrich Hayek, from his 1960 work The Constitution of Liberty: "Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom."

Obviously, Fr. Sirico is familiar with both men seeing as he refers to "Nozickian" and "Hayekian" libertarians in his commentary. And Sirico's own 2012 book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, lists eight citations to Hayek in the index. He may not have had that particular quote to which the pope was responding at hand, but the ideas are familiar. Consequently, this game of "Who's got his hand in the cookie jar? Not me!" is ridiculous on its face.

Now, we can all hope the pope is not up late at night flipping through the pages of libertarian tomes. The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences has been examining these issues at various symposia in recent years. Both of the above quotes were cited in an important, wide-ranging contribution by Anthony Annett to the World Happiness Report, sponsored by the United Nations and in which the Holy See is involved. Annett is a frequent participant in events at the social sciences academy, so his paper would likely have made its way to top officials in the Vatican.

Back to Sirico's article. He draws on a distinction between "power" and "authority" articulated by Robert Nisbet. "Power is a form of constraint external to the person," Sirico writes, while authority "is a form of constraint interior to the person." He goes on to allow that "legitimate law" and "legitimate acts of sovereign governments" are both forms of authority. I suppose an anarchist would see such government acts as an example of external constraint, but the church has always taught that we are citizens, and so governmental restraints are both internal and external.

My question for Sirico is what kinds of "legitimate acts of sovereign governments" he is prepared to recognize. A slew of blog posts at the Acton Institute warn about the harmful effects of minimum wage laws, laws which the church has long supported. Acton's research director, Samuel Gregg, in his book Becoming Europecriticized the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe because "the Americans who designed and administered the Marshall Plan were thoroughly imbued with Keynesian and New Deal planning notions." Gregg does not admit: It worked! In January, Acton's Joe Carter explained why right-to-work laws, which are used to bust unions, are a good thing, a position that puts them at odds with Catholic social doctrine, at least as it has been recently articulated by Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis and Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky. Last autumn, Acton published an article entitled "Bring Back Child Labor," a piece which caused such an alarm that the author or editor changed the title to "Work is a gift our children can handle."

So, Sirico and his team acknowledge that there are, in theory, legitimate forms of governmental "constraint" but in practice, not so much.

But there is a deeper problem here, and it points to the very reason why all varieties of libertarianism are incompatible with Catholic social doctrine. With the libertarians, it is always the individual who gets to decide what counts as legitimate constraint versus illegitimate. They label taxation as coercive, even violent. They bend their knee at the laissez-faire altar, unwilling to let anyone interfere with the pristine operations of the market. Libertarians of all kinds fail to see that their putatively "free" market is not free of values, and those values are the values we associate with the Scottish Enlightenment, not with Catholic social doctrine.

Sirico and Slade are no doubt well rewarded for their slavish work on behalf of wealthy people, finding ways to assuage their consciences, if such a need is even felt. The best thing the rich can do for the poor is not to seek ways of ameliorating a system's flaws, but by just doing their own thing, demanding the freedom to pursue their own objectives, heedless of the moral claims that attach to private property. Just because Sirico is not intellectually serious does not mean he can be dismissed. They receive a lot of funding at Acton, from a lot of sources, to pursue their work. Rich people have an interest in convincing religious people to find religiously based justifications for that wealth: They know, as Sirico surely knows, that there is a revolutionary impulse at the heart of the Gospel, articulated by the Blessed Mother in the Magnificat — "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty" — that should at least give pause to those whose wealth is morally suspect.

As the pope said, with the libertarians, it is the idea of the common good that is morally suspect. But that same idea is at the heart of Catholic social doctrine. It is rooted in our Scripture and in our liturgy: We are all bound together by the Word of God and the Sacraments. Until libertarians view the common good as more than the sum of individual desires sifted through market decisions, until they cure their allergy to government intervention to alleviate human problems, until they place the actual lived circumstances of people in front of their ideological commitments, they will not be able to wrap themselves, not even a little, in the mantle of Catholic social doctrine.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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