Priest-Scholar Celebrates Free Market

FATHER ROBERT SIRICO, a critic of the welfare system who advocates free market principles as a better means of meeting the needs of the poor, gives a mixed response to President Bill Clinton's promise that he will “end welfare as we have known it.”

“I wish it were true,” the priest told the Register in a recent telephone interview from his office in Grand Rapids, Mich.

He reported spending some time in Washington testifying before congressional committees during the welfare debate last year, and finding that Administration officials “wanted to dress welfare up in a different outfit, but not change it substantially.”

Father Sirico, a Paulist priest, was not totally discouraged. “We have made some positive moves in the right direction.” But he immediately added that those were “not substantial enough to affect the well-being of the poor.” More basic, structural changes must come, he said, though he did not hold out much hope for them until after the next presidential election.

The plan to make bloc grants to the states and let them handle welfare according to their 50 perspectives and judgments has not touched the root of the problem, in Father Sirico's view. That “devolution,” he said, still assumes that it is the responsibility of the federal government to meet welfare needs, and that it might decide to delegate some of its responsibility to state governments.

Father Sirico insists that any valid and effective approach must start at the other end—with the principle of subsidiarity. That means responsibility originally and properly belongs at the individual and community level, and only when “a manifest failure” occurs there, should a larger governmental authority enter in and even then only as an aid, not a replacement, and only as a temporary expedient, not as a continuing program.

For an alternative, he proposes a program of “tax credits, not tax deductions,” that would allow individuals to give part of what they are assessed in federal income taxes to a charity serving people below the poverty level. The government would reduce its welfare spending by a corresponding amount and, he predicted, the result would be a “renewal of philanthropy” in America and a more careful oversight of charities by those contributing to them.

Father Sirico, 46, said he had reached his current outlook through a couple of “conversions.” A native of Brooklyn, he left the Catholic Church in his teens, tried out some other Churches, and for a time involved himself in left-wing politics in California. He also worked in television.

But along the way he was given some literature on economics, and was led to the conviction that “the best way to incorporate the marginalized in society was through a free economy.” With this political “conversion,” he has become an advocate of the approach to economics and politics commonly called neo-conservative.

In recognition of his standing among people of this outlook, he has been accepted as a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, an organization founded by Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), an economist who was born in Vienna and became known as a free market advocate at the London School of Economics.

Father Sirico's second “conversion” was a religious one—a return to dealing with the deeper questions of theology and philosophy, and then to the Church. After a year as a Benedictine novice, he studied for the priesthood with the Paulist Fathers and was ordained as a member of the order in 1989.

However, he said he is currently on leave from the order and is thinking of becoming a diocesan priest in Grand Rapids. The Paulists sent him to Grand Rapids to serve in their information center there. But with a lay friend, Kris Alan Mauren, he established an institute to “educate the religious and business communities on the moral virtues of a society with limited government and a free market economy.” He later began to work full-time as president of the institute and left the information center.

Father Sirico said he got funding from grass roots donors, corporations, and conservative philanthropists and foundations. He named it for Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834-1902), an English Catholic historian who was known as an advocate of liberty.

Acton was also a critic of the papal exercise of temporal power, and a leading opponent of the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility, though he accepted it after its promulgation by Vatican I. He was in Rome during the Council, and read much of the material about it published by the historian Johann von Dollinger under the byline Quirinus.

Father Sirico has in some similar fashion become a critic of the Church on temporal matters. His Washington testimony on the welfare issue last year put him at odds with the bishops and the position they have been advocating through the U.S. Catholic Conference.

In the interview, he identified himself with the position of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). At a fund raising dinner held by the Catholic Campaign for America in New York this past February, Santorum was honored as Catholic American of the Year for his Senate fight against partial-birth abortion. In an address, he talked about that issue, but went on to attack the stance of the Church, with attention directed particularly to Catholic Charities, on the welfare debate.

“We have a system in welfare today that destroys the spirit, and we have a Church that stands up and defends it,” Santorum said. And he asked, “Why?” The answer, he suggested, lay in the fact that government provided most of the income of Catholic Charities.

“I agree with Sen. Santorum that Catholic Charities is excessively dependent on the government,” the priest said. The fact that the bishops take a different position does not make him feel obligated to change his. “Let's be clear about what the bishops' teaching authority is. It does not extend to prudential policy statements. In their pastoral on economics, and in the earlier one on peace, they invited disagreement. I am accepting their invitation to disagree with them.”

Father Sirico emphasized that he does not disagree on the necessity of concern for the poor, or on the declaration that an economy should be judged on what it means for the welfare of the poor. In reference to his earlier days in leftist politics, he said: “My concern for the poor has not changed one bit. It is the means [to help them] that have changed.”

The poor should be served primarily through local efforts, he now believes, and they also stand to benefit by measures that stimulate business, such as tax relief. Government, even at the local level, is often more a hindrance than a help, in his view. He said a local feeding program in Grand Rapids was blocked by the county government on the basis of health regulations. But the deeper spiritual problem, he said, was the damage to Christian life when individuals and the Church turned responsibility for serving the poor over to government.

He had preceded Santorum in critique of Catholic Charities with an oped article published in The Wall Street Journal in 1995. The direction of Catholic Charities has been affected by the types of government funding it has taken, and this dependency relationship “colors” its public policy positions, he wrote. He cited references in the mission statement of Catholic Charities to helping “shape federal social legislation” and monitoring “the public budget process to ensure economic justice…. That, of course, is a political mission that may or may not have anything to do with actually helping people,” he told the Register.

He finds the entire welfare mentality lacking. In an article published by Forbes magazine in 1994, he advocated policies that upheld “the virtue of work” and warned against the kind of charity that “encourages indolence.” Recalling time he spent during seminary days helping a nun who ran a soup kitchen, he said that he began to think they were engaged in a questionable enterprise. They were functioning as “competitors” of a seafood pub down the street, he said, and making the pub proprietor's “efforts to provide for his own family more difficult.”

But from the standpoint of the Church and its charitable programs, government aid is dubious because of the restrictions imposed, the priest said. The idea of a “partnership” between government and the Church brings the danger that Church agencies will come under pressure to implement policies contrary to Church teaching. “We have to be very, very careful.”

An article by Joe Klein in the June 16 issue of New Yorker magazine reported the view of a number of people who contend that Churches show better results than government in helping people deal with poverty, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, and other social ills. Klein argued that the strict insistence on Church-state separation be relaxed so government can fund Church efforts without requiring suppression of the religious dimension that is central to the motivation and effectiveness of the best programs.

Father Sirico said he agreed that the emphasis on Church-state separation had produced a “ridiculously thick wall between religion and society,” and that this tradition could be modified without violating the constitution. But he said it would be dangerous to work for that goal as a “preamble for government subsidies to religious institutions.”

It is not just a matter of officials deciding they can let churches keep their crucifixes on their walls when they get government money. “There will be no way that a government funding agency will give money without some kind of reporting and control,” he said.

Father Sirico contends that charitable agencies can do their work without government help. The Acton Institute picks out 10 model programs each year for recognition through its Samaritan Awards. These are agencies that do not receive any direct government aid, and whose programs “empower people to take charge of their lives and break the cycle of dependency.” Those chosen get a $1,000 prize, and a top winner is given $10,000. Last year, the top honor went to Interfaith Housing Coalition, a Dallas agency that “addresses the root cause of homelessness, empowering families with job placement, living skills, lessons in budgeting and three-month transitional housing.” It reports that 70 percent of its clients complete the program successfully and all get a job.

Father Sirico observed that the Shriners maintain a high-quality children's hospital without government funds, and wonders why the Catholic Church could not do the same. The government gets its money from the people, a significant percentage of whom are Catholic, he noted. If these Catholics were allowed to direct their money to causes they chose, then it could come to the Church.

But meanwhile, Church agencies have to keep paying their bills month by month. Is the change Father Sirico advocates likely in any foreseeable future? “It will be further off if the bishops don't ask for it,” he said. “I don't hear them lobbying in that direction.”

Tracy Early is based in New York.