Sirico Strikes (Out) Again

by Michael Sean Winters

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One of the nice things about being in Connecticut is that I almost never watch television while there: My Dad has reorganized the TV room for the needs of one person and he is that person. So, I get more reading done and miss a lot of nonsense on the airwaves.

Back in DC, however, there was a re-run of “The World Over” on EWTN last night with Father Robert Sirico opining about the economy and other matters. It is difficult to determine who is more tendentious, Sirico or the show’s host Raymond Arroyo, but let us just point out that rarely, if ever, does Arroyo deliver a pointed question at Sirico. Instead, both men sit there tossing GOP talking points across the table like a ball at a tennis match, full of self-congratulation and certainty, dismissive of any real economic data or political facts that do not fit their narrative.

Here is an example of Sirico’s economic and political sensibilities from an article he published at the National Review Online. Siriro took aim at the “Circle of Protection” which he dubbed “not an honest faith-inspired campaign to protect the “least of these” from Draconian government cuts, as claimed. It is a hyper-political movement that offers up the moral authority of churches and aid organizations to advance the ends of the Obama administration and its allies in Congress.” Sirico claimed the Circle of Protection was “led by Jim Wallis and his George Soros-funded Sojourners group.” He accused the group of offering a “false narrative based on vague threats to the ‘most vulnerable.’”

Sirico goes on to note that a General Accounting Office report which reported waste in government-run assistance programs from which he concludes, “Apparently it is enough to simply launch a government program, and the bureaucracy to sustain it, to get the Circle of Protection activists to sanctify it without end. Never mind that it might not be a good use of taxpayer dollars.” And he faults the group for failing to note the vast sums of money raised by private charities in America – some $300 billion annually – and goes on to assert that: “To listen to them talk, it is as if a prudent interest in reining in deficits and limiting government waste, fraud, and bloat would leave America’s poor on the brink of starvation. It is as if bureaucratic solutions, despite the overwhelming evidence of the welfare state’s pernicious effects on the family, are the only ones available to faith communities.”

Finally Sirico writes that the Circle of Protection was endorsed by “a few Catholics bishops” and he takes a swipe at the staff at the USCCB. He writes of their motives, “The actions of Wallis and the co-signers of the Circle of Protection are only understandable in light of political, not primarily religious, aims.”

Where to begin? The fact that an organization receives money from George Soros is an irrelevancy. Soros has funded some very important and morally significant projects, supporting the organs of civil society in the countries that emerged from Communist tyranny in the 1990s: independent newspapers and radio and television, funding for schools, support for unions, in short, all those intermediate social agencies that give flesh to subsidiarity as called for by Catholic social teaching. Also, wouldn’t you like to know where Sirico gets his funding?

Maybe Sirico did not realize it, but the Circle of Protection leaders met with both Democrats and Republicans in their effort to protect the poor from draconian budget cuts and, in the event, both parties ended up taking some significant steps to protect funding for the poor, most obviously in the decision to exempt programs that help the poor such as food assistance and Medicaid from the across-the-board budget cuts mandated if the Congress fails to achieve a budget reduction agreement by the end of the year.

Sirico has a fondness for strawmen. No one within the Circle of Protection leaders, so far as I know, has ever argued that government programs that aid the poor cannot be improved or that avoiding waste and inefficiency is not an important goal. Quite the contrary. If Sirico had bestirred himself to attend the Social Ministry Gathering sponsored by the USCCB in February, he would have heard John Carr, one of those USCCB staffers whose motives he impugned, argue for revamping several programs so that they can better serve the poor. Carr gave as an example housing programs that do more for real estate agents than for the poor. The fact that a program needs to be bettered does not mean it should be eliminated, otherwise we would have shut down the U.S. Army in the days after Abu Ghraib.

When Sirico claims that “a few Catholic bishops” support the Circle of Protection he is somewhere short of the truth. The USCCB took the initiative in forming the Circle of Protection, not Jim Wallis. The bishops believed that the threats to programs that help the poor were so significant, they had to engage in an unprecedented effort to forge an inter-denominational front in opposing those cuts. When the Circle of Protection leaders met with President Obama, Bishop Ramirez attended not as the Bishop of Gallup but as an official representative of the USCCB.

It is his assignation of motives, however, that is most troubling. “The actions of Wallis and the co-signers of the Circle of Protection are only understandable in light of political, not primarily religious, aims.” Really? Does Sirico really think the USCCB was trying to provide cover for the Obama administration? That would be a first. And, why is it so difficult to believe that the bishops and the other religious leaders were motivated by religious aims? Sirico may think these religious leaders are misguided in their understanding of modern economics, but does he really think they are willing to trade in their authority as ministers of the Gospel to score a political point? That is not just wrong, it is offensive. He is accusing these religious leaders – including the USCCB – of being frauds.

“But in the moral calculus of Jim Wallis and his Circle of Protection supporters, there’s no problem with prostrating yourself, your Church, and your aid organization before Caesar,” Sirico finishes his little treatise. “As long as he’s on your side of the partisan divide.” Nice. The bishops have prostrated themselves before Caesar, Sirico claims. This is pernicious malice. The bishops have sided with the poor and told both parties they should do the same. Sirico is still maintaining his position as defender of the plutocrats. He is free to do so, but shame on EWTN for giving him a forum. And bishops should be advised that this priest has questioned not just the judgment but the motives of other bishops and think twice before inviting him into their dioceses.

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