Politics & Policy

Getting Religion Back into Our Economic Lives

Freedom depends on it.

‘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.

LOPEZ: Can you unpack this assessment a little: that “the breakdown of trust, integrity, and responsible freedom#…#contributed mightily to the continuing financial crisis, which began in 2008”? What’s responsible freedom? Where did the breakdown start?

FR. SIRICO: I wrote those lines in my book to indicate that while the creation of systematic moral hazard throughout the economy resulting from massive government intervention in various segments of society and the economy (the housing market being just one notable example) was certainly responsible for much of the crisis, the economic explanation of woes is only a partial explanation. The cultural and moral decline, in my estimation, goes hand in hand with the economic (which is the whole point of my book) erosion.

When we lose touch with human vulnerability and service to those in need, when we confuse means with ends and having with being, everything goes awry because our values become distorted. The Left is right in pointing out the dangers of greed and consumerism (not that they enjoy a monopoly of such warnings or are free of it themselves) — but they are sadly wrong in their analysis of the causes and especially the remedies.


LOPEZ: How do we rebuild? Are we rebuilding? 

FR. SIRICO: We rebuild by understanding. No one builds anything (whether a house or a program) without first understanding what they want to do and how it needs to be put together and what resources they have at their disposal or can obtain. As to whether we are learning our lessons, I am afraid the jury is still out on that. Maybe.

LOPEZ: How troublesome is Ayn Rand? Does Paul Ryan have a problem here?

FR. SIRICO: I believe it was Chesterton who said something to the effect that “heresy is truth gone mad.” This is certainly the case with Rand. Few writers describe more dramatically, clearly, and, at times, hysterically the evils of collectivism. She knew how to get the reader’s attention. Whatever happened in her life before she escaped the USSR enabled her to see down to the root of the danger of socialism, but not until it scarred her deeply. From all reports, she was as bright as she was cruel. She could vehemently denounce Communism in one breath and exercise a slave driver’s control over her followers in the next.

All of this is to say that one can find some good things in Rand (her appreciation of Aristotle, grudging respect for Aquinas, and high regard for America). Yet she was also contemptuous of religion (especially Christianity), people who were religious, the poor, and the vulnerable, and she had an utterly irrational contempt of unborn human life. This means that Rand inspires contradictory thought among many. Obviously Rand has an appeal, especially to the young in search of heroes and idealism. Rand gives this to them in spades. Are there other places to find these things? Of course, but not everyone finds them early on. Is she troublesome? Yes. But most of the people I know who read her when younger have outgrown her and moved on.

I certainly do not think that Congressman Ryan has a problem with anyone he would not already have a problem with. His descriptions of what he liked about Rand are all references to what some might call the “Good Rand.” Besides, all you would have to do is imagine what Ayn Rand would think about Paul Ryan to know just how far removed he is from her core philosophy. She would, for one thing, utterly despise his Catholic faith and his solid pro-life record. If you know Rand, it would not take a great imagination to construct what she would say about him. That, I should think, would establish the moral and philosophical distance between them.

So, no, I do not think Congressman Ryan has a problem with any reasonable person.


LOPEZ: How can you get more greed with socialism than capitalism?

FR. SIRICO: To the extent that socialism holds back creativity and thus productivity, it increases poverty. When people become desperate, even good people can become self-centered. Few of us are at our best in crowds where everyone is trying to get out the same exit, or when trying to grab for the last remaining sale item. Socialism begins with the material world (the redistribution of pre-existing things); capitalism begins with ideas and dreams (the creation of things). Socialism increases the hoarding instinct and often places power in the hands of petty dictators (wait in line in a governmental office to see what I mean). We all know where that leads.

Of course, I am not saying that a system of free exchange will abolish greed. But even here, free markets and competition tend to temper greed, subordinating it to the service of others, which is the only way you are going to be successful in the market.


LOPEZ: How is government-run health care uncompassionate?

FR. SIRICO: As in most institutions dominated by politics and bureaucracy, a gap grows between those being served and the ones doing the “serving.” This is especially the case when the bureaucracy is far away from the need and the principle of subsidiarity is ignored. The latter do not know the former and it is difficult to have real compassion without personal relationships. Human beings are lost sight of in politics and bureaucracy.

LOPEZ: So after the president’s health-care try, what would you suggest we do?

FR. SIRICO: Politicians are generally followers, not leaders. In order to change the way society works, we need to first change, not primarily the politicians, but the way citizens think. Americans simply need to get over the notion that they can get something for nothing. When put that way, everyone agrees, until you start to zero in on one of their particular goodies or pet subsidies: Think student loans, Social Security, tariffs that benefit my business, or subsidized loans and grants that benefit my company or farm. A free and competitive economy in all these and other areas, under the rule of law of course, is a more risky place, but ultimately for everyone concerned a more prosperous place as well.


LOPEZ: Is marriage an indispensable support for a moral economy?

FR. SIRICO: Traditional marriage (one man, one woman, open to new life, and for life) is utterly indispensable. In a way, the family as I have just described it is a microcosm of the world — in a way similar to that in which a entrepreneur conceives of an idea and perseveres, in a stable commitment, to fashion and create that idea, making what was once merely a non-material dream or concept into something real and concrete, so too love in marriage that is open to procreation embodies all those ideals at a far more fundamental and personal level than any business. This is how and why business can be also understood as a type of calling.

Immediately people will reply, “Well, that is not always possible; that is merely an ideal of marriage.”

I agree with this observation, but I would not use the word “merely.” Ideals are benchmarks, objective goals determined to be worthy and good in themselves. Too many people today reduce their moral standards to the level of the low secularist expectations of the good life rather than striving and persevering in the truth to get the way they live to give effect to morality.

Yes, couples separate or divorce, or one or the other dies. Sometimes grandparents raise their grandchildren or a single uncle or aunt takes in an orphaned child. The varieties of the arrangements could go on. The thing is that they are not what we should set out to do; they are not the norm.


LOPEZ: Is religion an indispensable support for a moral economy?

FR. SIRICO: Certainly some kind of ethical belief is essential for an economy to flourish. If I were, for the sake of time, to choose just one virtue, it would be trust, as an example; a free economy simply could not exist without some level of trust.

Now, that is not the same as religion. What seems to be to be undeniable is the fact that the Judeo-Christian set of presuppositions about who human beings are — and the importance of reason, freedom, and creativity for the building of civilization — has resulted in the most free and prosperous society the world has ever known — bar none. That is no coincidence, I think. This happened precisely because of those fundamental ideas.

The cultural dimension of how to build a society worthy of human beings is often underplayed by some of my libertarian friends. The fact is, you can remove all the barriers to trade and free expression and the like, but that does not ensure you are going to be able to create a society that people want to live in. Human beings don’t just seek freedom — this is, of course, necessary, but it is not sufficient. And when you begin to consider what other factors go into the making of a society that is both free and good — or, as I have been saying for years, “the free and virtuous society” — that is when you bump into religion.


LOPEZ: Do we make those two last connections — about the indispensable supports that are marriage and religion — enough?

FR. SIRICO: Not nearly enough. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, which is deadly both to the economy (which becomes devoid of virtue) and to religion (which becomes disembodied and irrelevant to our free choices and actions).


LOPEZ: Can economic activity ever be “green”?

FR. SIRICO: Generally by its nature, free economic activity and private property conserves things. Economic life is not just about creative destruction. Much of the problem with various kinds of externalities is a problem in clearly defining private property. As I ask in the book, Which car do you tend to slow down when driving over some railroad tracks? A rental car or your own car? When you probe why we tend to conserve our own property rather than “public” property, then you understand why free economic activity tends toward conservancy to a greater extent than collective, political, or socially owned and managed property. Aquinas made the same point in his own defense of private property as the normal way in which we realize the universal destination of good.


LOPEZ: “If one ponders the state of our society carefully, one finds signs of human flourishing side by side with creeping desiccation.” Is there more of one than the other? Are we at a time when we are called to choose one over the other?

FR. SIRICO: I fear we may be at a tipping point, and we are going to have to decide whether we can imbibe the myth that we can all live at everyone else’s expense, as Bastiat put it. I understand that we are approaching the point at which the majority of people are living at the expense of the remaining taxpayers. Now, this is complicated, because they usually also pay taxes as well, but at some point it is going to be difficult if not impossible to reverse the trajectory.

LOPEZ: “We confuse facts with meaning, and imagine we can Google our way to wisdom.” What do you have against Google? It might help find this interview for someone somewhere sometime!

FR. SIRICO: I have nothing at all against Google. My serious point in writing this was to make the distinction between accumulating data and obtaining wisdom. Data is a good thing, but it is only so if we know what it is for. Human beings do not just seek the facts; we seek the meaning behind the facts. We are beings designed with purpose and intentionality and can only find meaning in our existence by seeking the core of that purpose.


LOPEZ: How does “retrieving a right understanding of the human person” help the economy?

FR. SIRICO: Economics is not essentially about finances but about human reason, free will, choice, and action. In short, understanding who human beings are in their totality is indispensable in understanding and acting positively in terms of economics. If we simply view reality through the lens of “economic man,” we come up with an attenuated vision of the human person, the well-known caricature of the “homo economicus,” a bloodless abstraction that fails to take into account the fact that the economic dimension of human life is an important, but only one, aspect of who we are and what motivates us to act.


LOPEZ: “Ultimately the aim of freedom must be the truth, and the Truth.” But don’t we have the freedom to reject it? The freedom the Catholic bishops are fighting for, for all Americans, isn’t quite the freedom to believe everything they do, right?

FR. SIRICO: God has placed within our hands the capacity to turn from Him. Free will is an awesome thought that underscores human dignity. But we need to be clear that freedom is only a capacity — it is not the end or the consequence of our choices. It is a vacuum, and by its nature must be ordered and directed to something beyond itself. The truth is not some subjective whim; it is an objective fact, and in theological terms it is the very orientation of the human person. The opposite of the truth is a lie, and a lie has no existence or meaning in itself; it is the dissembling or breakdown of meaning. So it is literal nonsense to say anything other than the aim of freedom is truth.


LOPEZ: What’s a priest like you doing running a think tank?


FR. SIRICO: Throughout the ages, priests have done all kinds of work associated with various dimensions of the Church’s apostolate, such as being professors, or scientists, heads of universities, etc. My concern about a proper understanding of the moral potential of the market economy within a free and virtuous society led to my co-founding the Acton Institute. I hasten, however, to add that in the 22 years of Acton’s existence there has never been a period when I have not been engaged in the traditional pastoral work of celebrating Mass, baptisms, weddings, hearing confessions, giving spiritual direction or retreats, visiting people in hospitals, working with the poor, and so on. That is the core of my identity as a priest. Often my parishioners do not know of my activity in the world of ideas, but sometimes there is an overlap.


LOPEZ: You’ve gotten some grief for having been on the opposite side of some issues in your past, namely gay marriage. Are we not welcoming enough to converts? How do we balance trusting but verifying, as Christians, discerning who is being honest and credible?

FR. SIRICO: I am a revert to the Catholic faith, having abandoned it when I was 13 and returned to it about 13 years later (over 35 years ago now) when I was about 26. Those were the years of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. I am very sorry to say that was a period of great personal, intellectual, and spiritual confusion for me, during which, as you indicate, I was involved in things that quite frankly embarrass me today. I describe some of my conversion in Defending the Free Market. In brief, it was initiated by thinking about economic matters, which in turn led me to ask more fundamental questions about who human beings are, which is when I returned to the Church.

When Saul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, the early Church was initially skeptical of him. After all, he had been rounding up and killing Christians. Those who were closest to St. Paul eventually testified on his behalf, and Paul, of course, lived a consistent, accountable, and transparent Christian life and made an incalculable contribution to the nascent Church.

Now, I am no St. Paul, but I don’t know of any other way to proceed. I had a real conversation many years ago, and I gave a full and honest account of my sins, in detail, first to my confessor and to each of my superiors and close friends over the years. When honest people ask about my past, I speak of it. On the other hand, I have no interest in simply living off the stories of my past. Saints Paul and Augustine did not spend their respective lives’ work recounting over and over again their transformation. They gave an account of themselves, consistently lived the life, and got on with their work for the Kingdom. That is what I have been trying to do.


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