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Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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This is a grotesque misuse of a passage extacted from William Cavanaugh's admirable scholarly work. I'm trying to go with the Ignatian principle of seeing another's argument in the best possible light, but Sirico's disregard for context makes that very difficult here. Bill's too much a gentleman to sue for defamation of character, but he could.    

Weren't the passages quoted by Sirico given in the Auburn report?  

Reading the report, I missed any discussion of the notion of legal or fictive persons. For the purposes of law, for example, is not a labor union a fictive person? In the contemporary debate, would not the arguments against considering corporations as persons apply also to such entities as labor unions, churches, NGO's, etc.?  This is a genuine question of mine, asked because I don't understand what the argument is about, as a matter of law, not of politics.

Fr. Sirico does indeed quote Cavanaugh from the report: "Unions, families, churches, and other organizations of people must remain strong in order to resist the reduction of public life to a binary of the state on the one hand and individuals on the other." Fr. Sirico then interpolates his own observation, "The same holds for businesses..." and then goes on to quote the Center for Competitive Politics that  "social justice activists" pursue "an ideological agenda unrelated to the profit-maximizing interest of most shareholders."


Among the things Fr. Sirico does not quote from Bill Cavanaugh's contritbution to the Auburn report is this paragraph:  

"From a Catholic point of view, the dominance of money over political discourse should be resisted for the same reason we should resist the reduction of personhood to individuals: we are at least potential members of one another and of God. We strive to be a corporate person in which the weakest and most vulnerable members receive the greatest attention (1 Corinthians 12:22-23). The goal of political speech should not be that everyone with the means to do so gets to speak, but that everyone hears the truth. And for those who worship a crucified God, the truth is often revealed through those who cannot afford to speak."

To read Cavanaugh as Sirico intends us to, extracted from this context, is to misrepresent Cavanaugh and his argument.  


Forgive me. I should have written above "To read Cavanaugh as Sirico  apparently intends us to..." I can't know Fr. Sirico's intent, and perhaps he is guilty of nothing more than carelessness or an unforuntate combination of selective reading and confirmation bias. I've said enough already. 


Mr. Volck - you are being too generous - Sirico writes, speaks, and acts in similar ways to Mr. Donohue at the Catholic League,  Nothing is out of bounds in pursuit of their ideology.

I posted elsewhere that if Sirico was at a university, the academic council would have suspended him for this grotesque manipulation of a colleague's work.

Perhaps the real Breaking New is the Archbishop Nuncio of Columbia who was just stripped of his priesthood for pedophilia.  Or perhpas worse teaching children how to become prostitutes. The fact that this archbishop has gotten away with this behavior all these years show that their is a cu lture which protects. Catholics have to urge their leaders to put a stop to this.

Bill Mazzella:  Glad you posted this story.  

It should be a stark reminder to all those who faint at the mere suggestion that the church's descent into the rape and sodomy of children is somehow over, or a thing of the past.

[Just for accuracy sake:  It was the nuncio to the Dominican Republic, not Columbia - although I wouldn't be surprised to find church prelates in Columbia doing essentially the same thing.  It's alway easier to exploit the poor no matter what the culture or society.]

There’s entirely too much pussy-footing around with and about Sirico.  He was sleazy when he was a minister in MCC in the early to middle 1970s.  People learned to not trust him and to not allow him in a counseling situation on a one-to-one basis.  I was a member of MCC in those days and I know more than one person who knew Sirico and his reputation personally.  He was not held in any good form of repute and he left the fellowship unless less than positive circumstances.  Google will tell you a lot about him with but a little bit of research.

He discovered that there is much more fun in profit in Catholicism.  The fact that people still dignify him by calling him “Father” just plays into his game.  He is of the same ilk as “Fr.” John Zuhlsdorf.  Scam artists both.

Stop dignifying and encouraging Sirico by quoting him and keeping reporting about him.  He deserves nothing better than being ignored.

When I saw this post, I was planning to offer the relatively light-hearted and non-theological observation below about consistency in describing corporations as persons. 

However, by this time, several other comments have intervened, and I can't help asking:  Does it really serve dotCommonweal to make a post on any subject whatsoever the occasion for expressing outrage about clergy sex abuse?  Or to imply that prelates in Columbia are likely to abuse youngsters sexually on no evidence whatsoever except, perhaps, that all prelates are so inclined?  Or to state disreputable things about Sirico's character that none of the rest of us have any real way of verifying?

Having got those irrelevancies off my chest, I refer to the "Economic View" column in the Sunday New York Times Business Section by N. Gregory Mankiw, Harvard professor and economics advisor to GOP administrations.  It is an argument for repealing the corporate tax altogether, accompanying repeal with other tax reforms that would likely, though not necessarily, aid the rich--but are politically unlikely in any case.  

Let that proposal be argued on its own merits.  What struck me was this: We need to acknowledge, Professor Mankiw writes, that "corporations are more like tax collectors than taxpayers."  The corporate tax is in reality--and here he states what many economists would--is merely a tax on "people," on "some combination of the companies' employees, customers and shareholders."  Corporations are "mere conduits."  We should "focus more directly on the people."  

Now this is interesting.  When it comes to free speech, political campaigning, or religious freedom, it seems that corporations are persons, people like you and me.  When it comes to paying taxes, corporations are mere "conduits," in contrast to "people." 

Actually, as I think Joseph Komonchak and Bill Cavanaugh are suggesting, the concept of fictive or legal "personhood" that allow us to act collectively over time is an extraordinarily valuable one. These legal entities can in some ways be independent of those who constitute them, in some ways the instruments of those who constitute them.  But just what rights and duties these corporate persons share or don't share with individual human agents is another matter.  The idea of an equivalence is untenable.  And the lack of consistency in language among corporate defenders is telling.  

Fr. K and Mr. Steinfels - here is what I posted elsewhere:

Here is the actual summary of William Cavanaugh's paper at the Auburn seminary - quite different from the Sirico spin:
"William Cavanaugh says that we should resist the influence of money in political discourse,and that corporate personhood is a critical tool for protecting the vulnerable.“The dominance of money over political discourse should be resisted for the same reason that we should resist the reduction of personhood to individuals: we are at least potential members of one another and of God. We strive to be a corporate person in which the weakest and most vulnerable members receive the greatest attention, so that when one suffers, all suffer together, and when one rejoices, all rejoice together. The goal of political speech should not be that everyone with the means to do so gets to speak, but that everyone hears the truth. And for those who worship a crucified God, the truth is often revealed through those who cannot afford to speak.”The dominance of money over political discourse should be resisted for the same reason"
You will note that Sirico's interpretation of Cavanaugh is the exact opposite of what Cavanaugh says and what his thesis is.  Like your final sentence, find Sirico's identification of corporate personhood with the *body of Christ* to be delusional and it strikes me that Cavanaugh was saying that the notion of a coroporate person's duty is to protect the disadvantaged.  How Sirico somehow believes that the *US Corporation* is a disadvantaged person is beyond me and Cavanaugh clearly states in his paper that, altho a corporation may be a person with rights to free speech, that doesn't mean that corporation's wealth and power can negate the rest of the *body's* dignity and well-being.  In fact, the Auburn conferernce was about Citizens United and all ten papers framed the danger of allowing the Citizens United ruling to limit the rights of the disadvantaged, the poor, those without power.  (Sirico appears to turn this upside down)

I agree wholeheartedly with Peter's call for staying on-topic and exercising a modicum of respect and responsibility in our comments. 

I take Cavanaugh's point to be that there are mediating institutions in the world, one category of which is that of for-profit corporations.  It seems reasonable to suppose that in some ways they should be treated as persons (as for legal, tax and political donating purposes) and in other ways they shouldn't. 

Having plus-oned Peter's gentle and reasonable scolding to folks not staying on topic, please don't take what follows be a digression, because I assume that what is at the root of the antipathy for categorizing corporations as person is a concern about social and economic inequality.  I've thought for some time that one way we can conceptualize the problem of inequality in our society is that the primary engines of employment - for-profit corporations large, small and in-between - have little or no use for unskilled and poor Americans any more.  Machines are more predictable and reliable than American humans, and Asian and Eastern European humans are just as skilled and reliable as their American counterparts and cost a good deal less to employ. Some day the labor market will come back into equilibrium but it will be a slow (probably multi-generational) and incredibly painful process for Americans.  Mankiw's thought may be that if corporations aren't taxed, some of the no-longer-taxed revenue could go into the wages of American employees.  It's a happy thought.


I agree that considering corporations to be a type of legal person is reasonable. They are distinct from their creators and it is reasonable for us to create a set of legal constructs to recongize the various ways people come together for a shared purpose. Each has its own set of rights and responsibilities, some of which are not available to human persons, such as limitations on liability or tax-exemption. The frustration that I have with the recent Supreme Court cases is that it is taking the power to decide what balance between special rights and special responsibilities is prudent away from the people and the effect is to allow the rich to enjoy the privledges of corporations without the restrictions that were the price of these privledges.

Thanks to Brian Volck and Bill de Haas for noticing that Fr. Sirico's use of my article gets it only half right.  After defending the idea of corporate personhood, I go on to explain why all corporate persons are not the same, and why the business corporation is an especially dangerous type. Here is more of what I wrote in the full Auburn paper: 

"In theory, all kinds of individuals and groups—wealthy individuals, poor individuals, business corporations, unions—have the same rights to free speech.  In reality, the voices of the wealthy crowd out the voices of the poor, and the voices of business corporations dwarf those of labor unions.  The gap between the rich and the poor has grown dramatically in the last few decades, at the same time that union membership has shrunk to its lowest level since the Great Depression.

In addition to having access to more money, business corporations are also fundamentally different types of corporate persons than unions and other associations.  A union is a group of workers united by common interest; a business corporation is a group of stockholders, managers, and workers whose interests may be diametrically opposed to each other.  Managers, for example, may want to keep workers’ wages low in order to increase profits and reward the interests of stockholders.  Speech from a business corporation often uses the resources generated in part by the workers to oppose the workers’ interests, because the managers and stockholders—and not the workers—decide what political speech to support."

I go into all of this at much greater length in my chapter "Are Corporations People? The Corporate Form and the Body of Christ" in the volume Christian Political Witness, ed. George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee. 

Professor Cavanaugh:  You wrote: "In addition to having access to more money, business corporations are also fundamentally different types of corporate persons than unions and other associations.  A union is a group of workers united by common interest; a business corporation is a group of stockholders, managers, and workers whose interests may be diametrically opposed to each other."

Granted that their respective interests may at times be diametrically opposed to each other, but are there not interests common to the stockholders, managers, and workers in a business corporation? E.g., that the business make profits in order to remain in business and so generate and sustain jobs? So I do not see why corporations and unions are "fundamentally different types of corporate persons". 

I agree that there is a basic problem of inequality when it comes to campaign financing, but I do not see that the issue is one of whether or not a corporation may be considered a person, as if in this respect it differs from a labor union. I'm old enough to remember the power that labor unions once had to influence candidates, their parties, and their policies, and I live in a state and near a city where a few of them still have and wield great power over them, including by financial contributions. 

Peter: I've often wondered whether taxes on corporations represent a kind of double taxation: shareholders pay taxes on their own income and then again when their corporations are taxed and the amount paid in taxes diminisihes the profits the shareholders might share.

A union is a group of workers united by common interest; a business corporation is a group of stockholders, managers, and workers whose interests may be diametrically opposed to each other.

But unions also have a management layer, and the interests of union managers may be opposed to the interests of the rank-and-file.  


I agree that there can be common interests among stockholders, managers, and workers in a business corporation.  But my point is that business corporations are class-divided entities, which stretches the corporate person analogy founded in Paul past its breaking point.  A corporate person in the true sense is one in which the weakest members are clothed with the greatest honor, and when one suffers, all suffer together (I Cor. 12, obviously).  This becomes highly unlikely in a class-divided organization, especially when the gap between the wealthy and the workers has grown as large as it has now.  It is for precisely this reason that the Distributists like Chesterton advocated closing the gap between owners and workers by giving the workers an ownership stake in the corporation.  This type of business corporation could be a true corporate person, in Paul's sense.

Labor unions of course have their own problems, but the main problem these days is that they are few and many are too weak to protect workers.

I grant that there are different kinds of corporate persons, and perhaps there could be conceived business corporations that would approximate what Paul hoped for at Corinth.

Charles Partridge, one of my great-great-grandfathers was a quite successful businessman in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1854 he announced to employes in his match factory that he was going to institute a profit-sharing policy. He told them:

Unity of interest alone can produce and preserve harmony between capital and labor; and I propose to bring this about in the following manner, viz.: Let capital, or the employer, continue to pay the same prices for labor that they now do, or may hereafter, under any advance in the cost of living, and, in addition to this, divide a liberal percentage of the net profits of the business among the operatives, annually, in the ratio of services each has rendered....

Now as to the influence I would have this arrangement exert over you: I desire to make you feel that the business is your own to the extent to which you are interested, and hence to feel that our interests are identical; that it is your interest as well as mine to make the best matches at the least cost; and that it jeopardizes your interest to have a gross of inferior matches made or sold, and that you can not afford to let any thing go to waste. Therefore I expect you to be more vigilant as to the economy and the quality of the work. The demand for our manufacture is constantly increasing, and with our united efforts and vigilance as to quality, we expect the quantity will reach 100,000 gross the ensuing year, and the dividends to you, we trust, will be larger than the present year.

The newspaper headline for the story was: "Novel Treatment by an Employer of his Employees."

It's unfortunate that something like this doesn't happen more often, and sometimes it's the capitalists and sometimes its the unions that don't want to engage in this sort of common project. 

I see two main issues on this thread.  First, the selective use, to the point of gross distortion, of William Cavanaugh’s theological discussion of corporate reality—in order to defend the growing and frightening role of wealth in skewing democracy, both in terms of elections and of shaping the agenda for public deliberation.  I haven’t seen any serious disagreement on this point.

Second, the distinctions between different types of corporate entities, primarily between business corporations and labor unions, and the significance of these distinctions for public morality and policy.  I too dissent from the reflexive equation of for-profit business corporations and labor unions.  The reasons for this equation are patently political: business generally supports Republican power, labor supports Democratic power.  So let’s just be even-handed and treat them symmetrically, no?   

However, I’m not sure that I can articulate this difference very well.  I sympathize with those who point out ways in which the distinction is less than clear-cut, and I certainly feel a gap between theological language and my experience as a willing member, at different times of life, of the Teamsters and the Newspaper Guild.  My intuition is that this distinction cannot be drawn realistically apart from the historical context of modern capitalism and its forms of organization. 

So it’s only a sidebar that Joseph Komonchak quite generously asks me whether “taxes on corporations represent a kind of double taxation”—as though I might know the answer to this question any more than others on this blog!  Well, my own amateur answer is yes, and so what? 

Corporations are taxed on net income—revenue minus business expenses—but they cannot deduct dividends as business expenses.  The fact that corporations are thus taxed separately from “owners,” i.e., shareholders—again, something rooted in the history of the chartered corporation—is a result of exactly what we have been discussing here: that corporations have an existence independent in many important respects from their owners.  And this is all the more true today when “owners,” shareholders, may change from week to week or even it seems from nano-second to nano-second. 

I think I could justify this separate corporate tax philosophically.  But whether it is a good idea compared to alternatives strikes me as a purely pragmatic question.  Is the resulting distribution fair?  Is it prudent (read fair, in some larger and long-term sense) in terms of economic growth, the revenue needed by government, and other political and social consequences?  If the conservative Professor Mankiw would do away with the corporate tax, I believe that the liberal Professor Robert Reich would do the same.  I’m pretty sure that the alternatives they favor would not be the same. 

The discussion of capital and labor unions is good, but it bears the possibility of distorting our view of the reality of the marketplace.  Most employers employ fewer than 500 employees, and most workers in the US work for such employers.  It seems reasonable to assume that the majority of those firms, probably the vast majority, are privately held.  And we know that only a very small percentage of private-sector employees are unionized.  

How wealthy are those private owners of these small-to-medium-size firms?  Here is PolitiFact in 2010, when President Obama was proposing to let the Bush tax cuts expire on single individuals who earn more than $200K/year (I believe, when all was said and done, the cut-off point was $400K/year):

There's one final point we want to clarify here for our readers, because we've been asked about this before: If you are a small business owner yourself, you would have to be a whiz running a very profitable small business to get hit with a tax increase under the plan Obama supports. You would have to report total income of more than $200,000 (or $250,000 for couples) after all your business expenses were deducted. You may remember this being a key point during the Joe the Plumber debate during the 2008 campaign when Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher said to then candidate Obama, "I'm getting ready to buy a company that makes 250 to 280 thousand dollars a year. Your new tax plan's going to tax me more, isn't it?" Back then, the Tax Policy Center analyzed all taxpayers, of any income level, who report these types of business income. They found only about 2 percent of them would see tax increases if the government increased the rates on the top earners. So the vast majority of possible small business owners would not see a tax increase if the Bush tax cuts expire for those in the top incomes.

Certainly, there are precedents and  models for joint employee/employer ownership and profit-sharing besides Fr. Komonchak's admirable great-great-grandfather, and one needn't travel to Germany to find them.  In law firms, accounting firms, insurance agencies, real-estate firms, consulting firms and a number of other industries, partnerships are common ownership models, and provide well-defined paths to "make partner" - to become a part-owner of the firm and share generously in the firm's profits.  

Why don't burger joints, tool-and-die shops, and independent grocers (to choose three industries where small-to-medium-size firms predominate) adopt a similar operating model?  I imagine the top answers are, greed, history and custom.  I don't underestimate the potency of any of those factors, but I don't know of a legal or economic reason that any private owner couldn't provide a path to partnership and ownership to her employees.  Nor do I know of a reason that a start-up couldn't be incorporated to adopt an employee-ownership model.  There is some research out there that indicates that employee-owned businesses actually outperform traditionally-owned firms.   Could the Greens (of Hobby Lobby) or the Waltons (of WalMart) be induced to offer a path to ownership for employees?  


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