Founded in 1990 in Grand Rapids, the hometown of former US President Gerald Ford, in the state of Michigan, the Acton Institute is one of the greatest exponents of the defense of liberty in the United States. United States. Named after the British historian John Dalberg-Acton, the think tank is supported by the motto coined by Lord Acton himself – “Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely” – to promote a “free and virtuous” society, based on the defense of the free market and Christian morality.
Every year, whoever participates in Acton University – a three-day meeting that brings together more than a thousand people from 80 different countries – you will bump into the founder of this endeavor in the halls of the event, wearing a white collar and a “President Emeritus”. This is Father Robert Sirico, the priest with Italian roots who found in the Catholic faith the moral foundation for the writings of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The surname in common with the late actor Tony Sirico, by the way, is no mere coincidence: the priest is his younger brother.
Over the years, Sirico has become a prolific commentator political and cultural: his latest book, which will arrive in Brazil in November, deals with the economic lessons in the parables of Jesus Christ. Last June, he hosted Gazeta do Povo in Grand Rapids for the conversation below, in which he spoke about free market morality, conservative support to “illiberal” regimes and the challenges of the pro-life movement after the overthrow of Roe versus Wade.
The title of his new book is “The Economy of Parables”. It is not very common to see economic lessons in the stories that Christ told. What, after all, do they have to do with the economy?
First, it is important for people to understand that when I talk about economics, I am not referring to abstractions, economic models or mathematical equations, but the central question which is: how do human beings survive in a world where there is scarcity? We, after all, don’t have enough time, we don’t have enough resources, and that requires us to economize, that is, to use them rationally. We prioritize and trade, we trade things we consider useless for what we value or need more. And that’s what the economy is all about.
That said, as a priest who has been preaching the parables of Christ for many, many years, and also as someone who works with the economy, It delights to think of how many economic insights are hidden in these stories. I’m not saying – and it’s important to make this clear – that Jesus was teaching economics. But he lived in a world that contained economic realities, and he told stories about them.
Economics is about how we deal with the things we value – and all these evaluations are subjective. And this principle is imprinted in several parables, such as that of the workers in the vineyard or the comparison of the Kingdom of Heaven with a great treasure, for which some are willing to donate everything they have.
Saying that “Jesus was a socialist” is a recurring cliché on the left. It happens that, on the other hand, there are those who use parables to say that Christ, in fact, would be “on the right”. Does it make sense to put Christ in an ideological box?
I wrote the book attentive to these two extremes. For starters, I think it’s anachronistic to think that Jesus was a capitalist, since capitalism didn’t even exist at the time. Of course people traded in the ancient world, but we wouldn’t call that capitalism.
Furthermore, Christ was focused on something far more important than the free market. Was Jesus creative and provocative? Yup. Was Jesus generous? Obvious. But that doesn’t make him a socialist or a capitalist. His teachings, in fact, give us the parameters through which we can develop our moral understanding of the economy.
The Church’s Social Doctrine condemns liberalism from the start. mid-nineteenth century. How, then, to reconcile the defense of the free market with the Catholic faith? There is much debate today whether they are, in fact, compatible.
The first thing that needs to be clear is: what kind of liberalism were the Holy Fathers referring to when they wrote these encyclicals? The condemnation of the Catholic Church concerns a specific type of liberalism: human freedom to think and create is not condemned, but the ideology of freedom, the belief that it is the ultimate goal of human existence, the most important value of life. .
Notice how the people who risked their lives escaping communist countries – whether crossing the Berlin Wall or swimming away to the United States – wanted to live in freedom. But once away from the shackles of totalitarianism, they want more than “just” to be free, because life goes beyond that. Freedom is a means, it is a tool: we seek, or should seek, the good, the beautiful, the true. Liberalism condemned by the popes is what sees freedom as an end in itself.
There is, especially in the United States, a growing movement of conservatives who they are breaking with liberalism, accusing it of supporting the progressive ideologies that are in vogue. How do you see this movement?
First, I think there is an attraction to power. If I wanted to describe as generously as possible these intellectuals attracted to the “illiberal” approach, I would say that they are so concerned with sowing morality that they are willing to use political force to demand that people be good. But that’s not possible: you just can’t force anyone to be nice.
On the other hand, I also understand that, from a practical point of view, this group represents a minority. They seem to forget that they will hardly be responsible for driving the political mechanism. They will, therefore, be giving very great power to those they cannot control. I also have the impression that they ignore the distinction that Christ himself made between God and Caesar: he recognizes the legitimacy of earthly power, but imposes a limitation on it.
And the kingdom of Heaven is even more exacting than the kingdom of Caesar: what Christ requires us to do for his sake goes far beyond what any government can demand. The government leaves you with a little bit of your life so you can work for the State, God wants your whole life. When you tear down the distinction between God and Caesar, or between what I would call power and authority, you start to confuse things: it diminishes the role of the Church and increases the power of the State, harming the Church and the public at the same time.
In these “illiberal” conservative circles, there are Christians who support Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Viktor Orbán’s Hungary as countries that have succeeded in stopping the advances of the Progressivism – see the speech of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church about gay parades in the West. How do you assess Christian support for these regimes?
I think it’s an error. We need to continually remember that God could have compelled Adam and Eve not to sin and yet respected their free will. I share the Russian patriarch’s opposition to gay pride parades, but I don’t think the solution is to put people in jail. My proposal is much more difficult: we need to convert them. If we believe to profess the truth about human life and sexuality, it is our obligation to propose it, instead of transforming it into an imposition.
Realize, in fact, how the “illiberals” they have the same mindset as the contemporary LGBT movement: they no longer want tolerance. They are not asking that we leave them alone with their relationships, but that children be educated in a certain way and that there be tacit approval of everything they do. I think both are wrong, and the solution to that is not to create a coercive mechanism. That is to say: there are certain things that, while legal, are immoral. And then we point to immorality.
We live in a world where big business has almost as much power as the government. No wonder, there is so much talk about capitalism woke. Today, aren’t they even more dangerous than the State and, at the limit, are an example of the excesses of liberalism?
When I defend myself against market economy, it is important to say that I am referring to a truly free economy, not one that gives tax breaks and legal advantages to certain companies, pushing their competitors out of the competition. Like everyone else, I’m very frustrated with what I see regarding the role of Facebook or Twitter in censoring voices that disagree with progressive dogmas, but I think the solution to this problem is to increase competition.
For this, it is necessary that the State suspend the benefits granted to these companies, even disguised as “regulation”. Note that when Mark Zuckerberg tells the US Congress that its companies should be regulated, in effect he is asking for more protection – after all, he has the resources to uphold the new rules. In a free economy, they know they will be challenged. Then, we will see who has the most interesting and coherent ideas.
Some say that the Republican Party should become the party of the working class, using political power to stop the power of large companies. Do you agree with this proposal?
It is important to say that I am not a member of any political party. My problem with politics, at least in the United States, is precisely that it has become too important in people’s lives. Increasingly, political leaders seem to be the only ones in society, so everyone looks to the state when they need to solve their problems. And, yes, the working class faces real problems that need to be solved, but only some of them are political.
Note that in politics there are winners and losers, while in the market logic – the logic that respects exchanges, freedom and human relationships – there are benefits for everyone. When we turn everything into political problems, we get stuck in the dynamic that always leaves someone behind.
How do you see Pope Francis’ criticism of capitalism and market economy?
What I can say about Pope Francis – and I say it with all reverence for his ministry and office – is that, regarding the economy, the Holy Father is absolutely confused. I can see that he wants two things: he wants us to take care of the poor and for businesses to be productive with the aim of promoting the common good. And then it condemns the mechanism through which these things can happen.
Redistribution of wealth and charity, in the end, do not increase access to wealth: what it does is the possibility of people being integrated into the market, so it makes no sense to say that it is intrinsically evil – which the Pope does not say openly, but implicitly. I think that if he studied it a little more, he would realize the contradiction. Saint John Paul II himself presented a much more balanced, understandable, and yet critical view of capitalism.
Conservatives achieved a very important victory in the United States. States, with the overturning of the Roe decision versus Wade by the Supreme Court. How should defenders of liberty allied with morality engage in this cause, so as to go beyond political divisions and appeal to those who do not necessarily agree with all the principles of the free market?
Here’s what worries me about the Supreme Court decision: the pro-life movement in the US has worked hard for half a century to overturn it. I fear that, now that this has happened, the movement will lose focus and the impulse to face the serious evil that the reality of abortion still is.
Much has changed culturally and socially in the country in this environment. century, with an increasing number of Americans accepting or approving the practice of interrupting management. As a culture, many of the agreed upon social norms have been altered. ed so that, regardless of the legality or illegality of abortion, people no longer maintain the same moral norms as in the past. When this is combined with technological advances that make abortion relatively easy to obtain even in the early stages of pregnancy, we have a serious problem of morality and justice.
If our concern is the defense of dignity of human life, whatever the stage of development, what needs to happen is an intensification of education and training about when life begins, coupled with a clear understanding of people’s responsibility to support women and their children before and after birth. Fortunately, this has been in place for a long time – now we need to improve and strengthen these institutions.
What does this mean? highlights is the reality that law and politics, in this case in the name of protecting vulnerable human life, although necessary, are never sufficient. The most important thing is to promote what Saint John Paul II called a “culture of life”. Only then can we hope to have a society that promotes virtue and a political and legal ethos that protects every human being.