You are currently viewing Economics, politics, and the parables of Christ: An interview with Fr. Robert Sirico

Economics, politics, and the parables of Christ: An interview with Fr. Robert Sirico

« The Economics of the Parables » (Regnery) is the most recent book by Fr. Robert Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute. (Images: Regnery and Acton Institute)

Fr. Robert Sirico is President Emeritus of the Acton Institute and the retired pastor emeritus of Sacred Heart Parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of numerous essays and several books, including Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, A Moral Basis for Liberty, and The Entrepreneurial Vocation.

His most recent book is The Economics of the Parables (2022), published by Regnery.

Fr. Sirico recently  spoke with CWR about economics, liberty, libertarianism, Catholic social teaching, the parables of Christ, and current challenges facing the Church.

CWR: Fr. Sirico, your economic worldview, and that of the Acton Institute, has been described as “libertarian.” Is that accurate?

Fr. Robert Sirico: There has long been a problem with political labels; the word “libertarian” is one such example. I have avoided the libertarian label because it is often confused with “libertine” or associated with the idea that whatever is free is good, and that is certainly not something I hold to. I rather prefer Lord Acton’s insight that “liberty is the political end of man.” The problem arises when people think that liberty is man’s telos or life’s goal. Of course, Truth is man’s telos as so clearly and repeatedly taught by St. John Paul II, who deepened my own approach to economic and political matters.

Liberty is only an option, a potential. Of itself, liberty has no content. It is merely the context in which virtue or vice can be perused.

Milton Friedman once told me that he feared Christianity’s insistence on truth claims would result in another Inquisition. I countered that the truth of which we speak is not coercive but something to be proposed, not imposed, which, of course, I stole from Vatican II. At least we agreed that liberty is necessary for society, but not sufficient.

CWR: What is “libertarianism”?

Fr. Sirico: I supposed it can be boiled down to the non-aggressive principle, which prohibits the initiation of force. Again, that’s fine, as far as it goes, but we need something far more robust. We want something more than a free society; we want a good society as well.

CWR: Much of Catholic social teaching condemns socialism and doctrinaire Marxism. However, most of Catholic social teaching condemns various elements of capitalism and economic liberalism. How can one be a good capitalist and a good Catholic?

Fr. Sirico: Capitalism is another of those tricky words that requires clarification. What the Church condemns is a capitalist ideology. Again, informed by St. John Paul, I prefer to speak of the entrepreneur, the empresario who creatively employs his economic initiative in developing resources for human betterment, guided by an ethical orientation under the rule of law. In this way, entrepreneurial activity actually serves the common good.

I once heard (I can’t recall from whom) Catholic Social Teaching summed up as condemning the roots of Marxism but only some of the branches of Capitalism.

CWR: Pope Francis famously condemned “trickle down economics” in Evangelii Gaudium (EG). What do you think of that?

Fr. Sirico: I wonder what the pope would say about a form of economics that percolates up rather than trickles down? I would like to see the pope think about the implications of his statement in EG that, “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

This describes the free market economy about which I am speaking. Free competition in a market, without the kind of mercantilist favoritism the Holy Father would be familiar with from his native Argentina, actually disables larger companies from preventing individuals and smaller businesses to offer alternatives. This economic freedom has the added advantage of increasing the knowledge of the real costs of production, through free pricing.

Politically dominated economies are really less informed than freer ones because they hinder the information that those outside the favored class possess. This increase in knowledge enables businesses to be better servants.

CWR: There is a school of conservative Catholics known as “post-liberal”. What are your thoughts on the idea that Enlightenment liberalism is dead?

Fr. Sirico: The rise of the various kinds of “post liberal,” “integralist”, or nationalist tendencies has been a deep concern to me. It is not as though such experiments have not be tried, with disastrous results, in the past. The critique of “Enlightenment liberalism” is perhaps a little too unnuanced in that it fails to see the fact that there was a variety of Enlightenment liberalisms in contention. The reverence for the human form, reason, the scientific method, and human rights was not the invention of secularist humanists. All this came from Christianity, and I would contend that the best of the Enlightenment, including free markets, comes out of thinkers like the sixteenth-century Scholastics of Salamanca.

CWR: Michael Novak played a crucial role in your formation. However, the thought of Novak and other neoconservative Catholics seems to have declined in popularity since the Obama presidency and the Pope Francis era. What will history’s verdict be on the Catholic neoconservatives?

Fr. Sirico: I came to know Michael Novak after reading his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, where for the first time I discovered a Catholic theologian conversant with the kinds of economists who drew me into an understanding of the free economy and prepared the way to the recovery of my Catholic roots.

Initially, we began a correspondence and when I began my seminary formation in Washington, DC, we became friends. Thanks to that friendship, I quite literally had a front row seat to the burgeoning neoconservative movement of those years in the early to mid-1980s. The Novaks would host a regular series of dinners parties in their home, which I attended (and even cooked for at times) to which the leading lights of the neoconservative movement came: Clare Booth Luce, Charles Krauthammer Irving and Bea Kristol (Gertrude Himmelfarb), Jack Kemp, Robert Bork, and many others.

Progressive thinkers came, as well as poets, artists and musicians. It was anything other than an ideologically closed conversation, often with internal debates among allies. I recall Clare Luce taking on Jack Kemp, Irving Kristol, and Bill Bennett (then Education Secretary under President Regan) all at once in a debate over the proper understanding of virtue. I wrote a bit about this in a previous book, Defending the Free Market .

Mind you, I never considered myself to be a neocon and disagreed at times with any number of them on what I saw as too robust a trust in military intervention or the welfare state. But I am indebted to that experience, which augmented my seminary training, where I was engaging with the likes of Avery Dulles, SJ, Charles Curran, and John Tracy Ellis (the dean of American Catholic history) at the time.

All of this taught me that intellectual movements come and go and sometimes return. The competition in articulating ideas serves to refine our understanding of the truth of things (whether economically or intellectually). In very different language, Newman describes this process theologically in his work on the development of doctrine. I think history will judge the neocon contribution of that period to have been valuable in helping to bring a great intellectual depth to conservative ideas more generally.

As to the specific Catholic contribution, it did more to advance the intellectual credibility of Catholicism in the latter 20th century than any other movement that comes to mind. From its influence flowed vocations to the priesthood and religious life, an army of well-formed lay people who came to occupy important positions in business, government, and academe. If the popular focus has been deflected for the moment, I am confident in the resilience in some of its key ideas, and that its contributions will be retrieved and developed in coming generations. I certainly see nothing like this in the present circle across the Tiber.

CWR: The Republican party could once count on a coalition of conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and Jews who were united on a host of social and economic issues. However, the rise of Donald Trump appeared to demonstrate that a new conservative coalition will drive the Republican Party in the twenty-first century. Has social conservatism been eclipsed?

Fr. Sirico: I might see this a little differently. I don’t recall a complete unanimity of the various elements of those social and economic issues, but that people were more willing to work with others with whom they may have disagreed. I never had a sense that I would be excluded from the Novak Salon because I was not supportive of the drug war, for example. We would debate it (mind you, debate, not pronounce talking points), and work on whatever other priority was at hand that we agreed upon.

What strikes me in the current era is that it is very centered on personality, and this can be both politically fragile and culturally dangerous. Today it is not just the left that engages in cancel-culture.

If we are talking in an American context, there is the additional problem within the Catholic Church in that the factors that would promote such a cohesive conservative coalition are weakened by a timid episcopal leadership, who themselves are weakened by the confusion and lack of substance coming out of Rome.

Some of this could be corrected by the emergence of the new technologies, but I am afraid there is so much anger and grand standing and downright intolerance to engage in deeply conflictual yet civil discourse, that until this resolves itself, we are in for an unpleasant period.

What is sorely needed is people willing to speak past the barricades once again. Only in this way can ideas be refined and put to useful purposes.

CWR: Millennials and members of Generation Z have a strongly negative view of capitalism and are attracted to various forms of socialism. Are the glory days of capitalism behind us?

Fr. Sirico: Of course, it was Reagan who said that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” The threats to freedom come from both the right and the left who are much more similar that many people realize. I suspect that the negative view of capitalism, as you call it, is largely uninformed and esthetic. Ask most of the Gen Xers what they mean by capitalism (or socialism, for that matter) and you will find they haven’t exactly been reading Hayek or Piketty. In fact, I doubt may are reading very much at all, other than tweets and headlines.

So, the solution to ignorance is information, but information that people consume. This means we need to look to story, parables if you will. That’s one of the reasons I wrote about the Parables – Jesus employs a mode of teaching that is accessible to multiple layers of culture, age, and intellectual levels. Their durability is demonstrable in that we are still talking about them.

Then there is the esthetic critique. If what people think capitalism is the Wolf of Wall Street or the Kardashians, then I am with them. This is why a balanced and effective communication of the Church teaching is so practically and morally necessary: We have to demonstrate that the work ethic and private property is indispensable to generosity and self-giving. That there is a harmony of interests, not always a conflict.

But we have to show that, not just give people the data. People are rarely compelled by data, but they are moved by wisdom. Catholic apologists need to cultivate ways to employ humor, music, drama and parables into making the case for Christ.

CWR: Catholic media outlets—especially in America—seem increasingly split between a left-leaning or “Left Cath” coalition and an aggressive form of traditionalism. Is there a way to heal this divide?

Fr. Sirico: This is very true. We need reliable sources of communication that understand that just because everything seems to be going insane around us, we don’t need (and we dare not), get caught up in that insanity. There is a difference between being assertive and confident and being belligerent, even as there is a difference between being weak and being temperate.

The healing of the divide can be promoted by good and successful models. And I would like to say here, and not to pander, that I think The Catholic World Report is so critical in this regard as a model of professional balance with clear fidelity to the mission of the Church. I would like to think that the Acton Institute is another example of this, both within and outside the Catholic community. For a long-time we have tried to instill in our writers and staff what we describe as the right “tone and timing”.

That means to enter a conversation with the right language and tone that does not push people up against the wall, but gives them time to consider a different perspective. And then there is the question of prudence as to when something needs to be communicated. As a kid from Brooklyn mother used to say “what’s on my lung is on my tongue.” So, given that influence, I don’t always succeed in this, but I try.

If it is any indication that there is a hunger for this kind of approach, the Acton Institute has had its most successful year last year, in the face of COVID. I think people are looking for safe havens.

CWR: What would you say to Catholics who are often confused and even fatigued by the state of the Church?

Fr. Sirico: I would say that I am one of them. Here is what I try to do for my own well-being, spiritually, and emotionally.

I find real comfort is in reading the history of the Church. I fell in love with Newman many years ago and he sustains me in many ways, both in the beauty of his prose, which I find soothing, and the perspective he offers from his vast knowledge of the Church throughout the ages. As unbelievable as it may seem, our dear Mother the Church is not at her lowest ebb in this moment. There have been much darker times in her past from which she managed to emerge stronger and more glorious.

Another opportunity in gaining perspective is meditative prayer. Somehow, I find my troubles dissolve when I bring them to the Tabernacle.

Friendships likewise remind us that we are not alone and it is always comforting to know from like-mind comrades that we are not crazy, or at least not alone in the craziness.

And how could I not add service to others? As a priest I have many (perhaps too many) opportunities to help others, often just by listening. Personally, I find it greatly rewarding to accompany others in their pain and in their joys.

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