Catholic Priest Defends Market Economies

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by Bruce Walker  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  May 1, 2019   

Honors St. Joseph the Worker rather than government redistribution efforts

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - The world's poor benefit more from free markets than they do handouts, according to Fr. Robert Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

What's more, he added, the free-market approach is complementary to rather than at odds with Catholic doctrine pertaining to charity and care for the poor, stressing the moral implications of entrepreneurship and creation of wealth.

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico on May 1, 2019

Speaking to a luncheon crowd in Detroit on May 1, Sirico also addressed the increasing popularity of socialism among millennials and politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

He attributed the rising popularity of democratic socialists more to rampant confusion among young people, saying between 70% and 80% of millennials who identify as socialists believe the United States would be better off under a greater form of collectivism than today. By contrast, he said 70% of millennials' parents reject socialism.

"When millennials go off their parents' insurance and when they begin to pay taxes, it will change a lot of attitudes," he said. Sirico also mentioned the failure of the collectivist government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, whose regime narrowly survived an overthrow coup on Monday.

"Socialism fails invariably due to practical reasons," he said, citing that socialist countries defend their borders to keep people within rather than attempting to keep immigrants from entering.

Referring to Austrian Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek's "fatal conceit," Sirico noted that socialism relies on subjective responses from a government bureaucracy that "pretends to know what it doesn't know." He added: "Economics are not cookie-cutter problems with one-size-fits-all solutions. No group of people can ascertain what a society needs."

Sirico stated that the main difference between socialism and free markets is one of morality. He referenced Pope John Paul II's writings on anthropology to explain socialism as a fundamental failure to understand human dignity.

Good impulses shouldn't be coerced by a bureaucracy that enforces it.

"Today is May 1, which traditionally is a worldwide celebration of communism," he said. He said the Catholic Church recognized that this type of governance violated the Church's subsidiarity doctrine, which was outlined in Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.

He said it was no coincidence that the Catholic Church placed the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on the same day.

"God is the great impresario," said Sirico, "and it's a social misconception that humans are cogs in government schemes rather than creators."

He defended entrepreneurs against charges they were motivated only by greed: "If greed can be manifested in the market economy, the core vice of socialists is envy." 

He praised entrepreneurs for taking risks, which he called virtuous behavior, but warned against the temptation to yield to what he calls the "theocratical impulse" wherein the desire to do good works is so strong, that desire becomes the law of the land.


"Good impulses shouldn't be coerced by a bureaucracy that enforces it," he said.

While defending free markets, Sirico emphasized that a major focus of the Acton Institute's work is to promote virtuous living that constrains human passions and rejects the use of government as a first resort when conducting business. Just as socialism is disordered, so too, he said, is crony capitalism wherein businesses use government force to protect their financial interests.

"The right understanding of anthropology inevitably leads to a moral understanding of society," he said.

Sirico was ordained a Catholic priest in 1989 after completing his novitiate with the Paulists Fathers' House of St. Paul's College in Washington, D.C. While completing his studies and novitiate, Sirico took the opportunity to engage with many Catholic intellectuals on a regular basis.

Among them was Michael Novak, whom Sirico befriended after reading Novak's book-length rebuttal of Liberation Theology, Will It Liberate? Afterwards, Sirico considered Novak a valued mentor in moving the future priest's advocacy from democratic socialism to free-market capitalism informed by a deep understanding of both economics and Christian principles upon which are based the Acton Institute's mission. 

Sirico and co-founder Kris Mauren opened the Acton Institute 30 years ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sirico and Mauren christened the institute after the English Catholic politician, historian and writer Lord John Dalberg-Acton who is best remembered for the adage: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton was born in 1834 and died in 1902. 

Sirico also reminded his audience that Acton also said: "Liberty is not the power to do what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought."

Liberty is not the power to do what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.

Over the past 30 years, Sirico and Mauren have expanded Acton's reach to offices in Rome as well as public appearances throughout the world. The annual Acton University, held each June in Grand Rapids, features dozens of renowned faculty members who instruct hundreds of international ecumenical clerics, religious and laity on economic, political and cultural issues from a free-market, scriptural basis.

Since opening the doors of the Acton Institute, Sirico has appeared frequently on cable news programs to comment on issues ranging from faith and economics to politics and issues related to the Catholic Church. Additionally, Sirico and other Acton Institute principals have published extensively in many of the nation's most widely read newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Sirico delivered his comments at the stately Detroit Athletic Club, a private institution that was formed in the late 19th century. Situated in the Motor City's historic Harmonie Park district since 1916, the six-story building was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn. The club was established by prominent businessmen from Detroit's burgeoning automotive and advertising industries.

Sirico noted the building and its legacy made it an ideal environment to discuss the value of entrepreneurship and conducting uncoerced business to a healthy, Christian society.

Paul Buckles, a Detroit-area financial advisor and one of the sponsors of the event, said Sirico spoke to the issues that pose the greatest threats to a Catholic understanding of work, society and economics.

"Father Sirico gave a doctrinally sound defense of market-based economies by employing Catholic writings on anthropology and subsidiarity as well as refuting the politically biased arguments against market economies," he said. "What's more, he steadfastly refused to identify market economies as 'capitalism,' which is a term invented by Karl Marx to denigrate all creators of wealth."

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