‘Can it be mere coincidence that we are beset by decline just as the Judeo-Christian worldview has retreated from the public square?” Fr. Robert A. Sirico asks in his new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. The president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Fr. Sirico asks the question in a chapter titled “The End of Freedom?” He argues that “the link between economic liberty and public morality is not tenuous; it is clear and direct.” And he talks a bit about what he means in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The bishops have been all about their Fortnight for Freedom. You’ve got a new book on the moral case for a free economy. What’s the Catholic obsession with freedom lately?
FR. ROBERT A. SIRICO: In one sense it is nothing new. The idea that “the truth will set you free,” and the “liberty by which Christ sets us free,” are ideas that have a rather long heritage — 2,000 years and more in Christianity and even more in Orthodox Judaism. I think today, in particular, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which our liberties — religious, economic, and personal — are being eroded are becoming dangerous and obvious. This risk to our institutions has brought the whole thing to a head — which I believe is welcome on many levels.
It is good because it forces us all to think through the interconnection of all of our liberties. How can we have religious liberty if we do not also have economic liberty to build our institutions as well as the liberty to own and control private property? How can we have political freedom if religious liberty — which allows us to freely formulate the most fundamental answers about the biggest questions of them all — is suffocated?
This entire debate is also good because it has drawn some lines of loyalty within the Church more clearly. I think it is obvious that when push has come to shove, those more “progressive” elements of the Church that make no secret of their dissent on some fundamental matters of faith and morals will turn on the bishops — who are, after all, the Church’s authoritative pastors and teachers on matters of faith and morals — while those who don’t dissent on the non-negotiable issues are supporting the Church’s shepherds.
LOPEZ: Are these all matters of prudential judgment, though? How does this freedom talk in political and economic realms tie back to the Gospel?
FR. SIRICO: Yes, much of it consists of prudential actions. Surely one is not a formal heretic if one has not seen the wisdom of the Fortnight for Freedom effort. But I think it is good to remember that the internal polarization that took place after the Second Vatican Council between those who adopted the hermeneutic of rupture and those who maintained the hermeneutic of continuity (to use the pope’s categories) is that the former tended to abandon a more theological understanding of the Church and its role in the world and diminished it to a merely political, “historically conscious,” and socially activist (sometimes even socialist!) paradigm.
This means that those who opt for the rupture model care more deeply about politics — in fact, it seems to be all they care about sometimes – and see it as the core of the Church’s mission, whereas those who see the Church today as the same Church prior to Vatican II believe that the primary role of the Church is human redemption and salvation. When, in effect, Caesar impedes the Church’s salvific mission (which is what the building of our institutions is all about), then this clearly ties back to what the Lord said in Matthew 25: What you do unto one of the least of His brethren you also do unto Him.
LOPEZ: Why have there been nuns on a bus, and can you meet them anywhere (policy-wise)?
FR. SIRICO: From what I can tell, the sisters who are on the bus have largely imbibed this hermeneutic of rupture and a near obsession with secular politics, the effects of which are seen in their inability to attract new vocations. It is an ominous warning when their graveyards are growing more exponentially than their novitiates (which are virtually empty).
What I cannot understand about all the discussion surrounding these sisters is what the debate is about. In some cases, they dissent from the core teachings of the Catholic Church about who Christ is, the inviolability of life from conception to natural death, magisterial authority, marriage, the priesthood, and the like. The love that people might feel for nuns is not necessarily for the kinds of nuns we see on the bus, but for those nuns who taught us in school and helped our parents and grandparents to die well in their care in hospitals.
And yes, while it is not fundamental, I think it is important, because it is iconic, that those nuns were in habit. It communicated a consecration to something beyond this world. The nuns on the bus have lost all that. They’re basically religious relativists who have filled the void by absolutizing politics and activism. Even where we might be able to “meet,” as you say, in the area of serving the poor and vulnerable, there is a difference in anthropology. This accounts for the ambivalence that many of the “nuns on the bus” had and still have for someone like Mother Teresa, who saw her work with the poor as a form of evangelization. I fear that the nuns-on-the-bus type would say that was patronizing and exploitative.