Catholicism & capitalism, joblessness, Sir Thomas

NO HERESY HERE

For a magazine that publishes authors who consistently dissent from the moral and theological postulates of the church’s magisterium (for example, the intrinsic evil of contraceptive acts, the impossibility of women’s ordination, etc.), it is interesting to see that suspect economic heresies are also within Commonweal’s editorial scope.

I refer to Daniel Finn’s article, “Libertarian Heresy” (September 26), in which the selected passages he cites from my short essay were edited to distort my position. Presenting my line, “Jesus never called on public authority to enact welfare programs,” he mistakes this for the gravamen of my argument and then leaps to accuse me of fundamentalism. Finn neglects to mention that the problem I am addressing is precisely the fundamentalism of “the slick move from personal ethics to public policy,” which he does not cite.

Nor is it the case—as Finn would have it—that I believe “a legal obligation makes virtuous behavior impossible.” Rather, I argue that legal obligation does not always equate with moral obligation. Finn’s final anathema is based on a superficial summary of my conclusion as claiming that “raising taxes to help others is un-Christian.” Of course, I wrote no such thing. What I did write is the following: “What is required of us as individuals may or may not translate into a civic policy priority. In the case of the welfare state, it is possible to argue that it does great good (though I would dispute that). Whether it does or not, however, a government program effects nothing toward fulfilling the gospel requirement that we give of our own time and income toward assisting the poor.”

Finn concludes by stating that he has “no interest in squelching a much-needed debate about the proper balance of public and private action in how we fulfill our obligation to the needy.” If he is truly interested in such a discussion, he might begin by stating his opposition’s position accurately. Not only would this engender a more fruitful and honest debate, it is also a basic requirement of reason—not to mention justice.

(REV.) ROBERT SIRICO
Grand Rapids, Mich.
The writer is president of the Acton Institute.

 

THE AUTHOR REPLIES:

Fr. Robert Sirico and I agree that a vibrant private sector is essential for wealth creation, that not every moral obligation should be legislated, and that Christians should spend time to assist the poor and donate to private-sector charitable causes. Where we disagree is on the three arguments I claimed he employed in his piece in Religion and Liberty.

First, he asserts that I cited “selected passages” and “edited to distort” his position. Yet Sirico’s “line” about Jesus was actually part of a paragraph about collecting taxes to pay for programs to help the poor, which I did not quote in full in my article, but will now: “I cannot see how this method of redistributing wealth has anything to do with the gospel. Jesus never called on public authority to enact welfare programs. He never demanded that his followers form a political movement to tax and spend. Nor did he say that the property of the rich must be forcibly expropriated. He called for a change in the human heart, not a change in legislation.”

Does it seem a “leap” to describe this as a form of biblical fundamentalism (if Jesus didn’t authorize it, we shouldn’t approve it)? Sirico does not explain why this depiction is inaccurate. As I wrote in my article, I don’t think he really believes in such fundamentalism, since Jesus also didn’t authorize the free markets that Sirico argues Christian morality should support. My point was that he employed a fundamentalist argument when it furthered his ends.

Second, he reports that, contrary to my claim, he really does not believe that “a legal obligation makes virtuous behavior impossible.” If that is true, then why would he write the following about taxation? “If we are required to do anything by law, and thereby forced by public authority to undertake some action, we comply because we must. That we go along with the demand is no great credit to our sense of humanitarianism or charity. The impulse here is essentially one of fear.”

His argument goes far beyond his letter’s sanitized rephrasing: “legal obligation does not always equate with moral obligation.” Does that paragraph not argue that a legal obligation transforms the moral character of our choices from action motivated by virtue to action motivated by fear? And that occurs, he explains, not just to some extent but “essentially,” which sounds quite fundamental. Sirico does not explain how he can hold both views.

Third, he quotes a paragraph on his view of taxes that ends with the sentence, “A government program effects nothing toward fulfilling the gospel requirement that we give of our own time and income toward assisting the poor.” But are not taxes understood in Catholic moral theology as a contribution from one’s income for the common good? So it would surely seem that government steps to help the poor (whether local school-district outreach to Somali immigrant children or the federal earned-income tax credit) should be seen as a part of fulfilling our gospel obligation. I claimed not that government can completely fulfill that obligation, but only that Sirico apparently thinks it can fulfill none of it.

At the end of his letter, Sirico adds a fourth claim: that I have inaccurately and unfairly described his position. In my view of intellectual discourse, that is the most serious charge he makes, since the distortion of others’ views not only is unjust to them, but is an acid that eats away at the common good and undermines the civility so badly needed in the church and the world. I had expected that he and I would be differing over the proper interpretation of principles of Catholic morality, not whether he actually said what I claimed he said. But since the latter is the issue, I must now leave it for readers to decide.

DANIEL FINN

 

NOËL’S WAY

It is with great emotion that I read the article by Joseph Cunneen (“An Editor Without Borders,” September 12) on Noël Copin of La Croix. It evokes with much sensitivity the role and commitment of Noël, who was a friend and colleague for many years. I have the utmost respect for Commonweal.

HUBERT CHICOU
New London, Conn.
The writer is vice chairman of the board for Bayard, Inc.

 

 

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

An article by a university professor who recommends a vast new increase in government spending to deal with unemployment and income issues (“Help Wanted,” October 24) makes me wonder whether the writer is out of touch with the real world. Such is the case with Frank Stricker, who suggests an increase of $200 billion for a federal jobs program for 4 million people and justifies it by saying that it “is less than some recent federal deficits,” as if that made it OK. Stricker ignores the real causes of financial stress, which are waste, fraud, and abuse.

As a publication concerned with religion, politics, and culture—as the magazine states on its covers—Commonweal should consider devoting space to ethics in the public sector, where overstaffing, underperforming, overpayment, and intimidation of weak-kneed legislators by self-aggrandizing unions abound.

JOHN E. O’BEIRNE
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

 

ABRACADABRA

In the midst of the nation’s economic plunge and political tumult, I turned to Mollie Wilson O’Reilly’s review of the Broadway revival of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (“Fanfare for an Uncommon Man,” October 24). Her words were magical!

Forty years ago, I played the role of Sir Thomas in my parish’s annual theatrical production. O’Reilly’s critique of the recent production’s elimination of the Common Man brought back wonderful memories. I recall sitting in a pub with a friend after rehearsals discussing the interplay of Thomas and the Common Man, the role my friend played.

I could swear O’Reilly had been part of that conversation. Without the Common Man as an anchor, the play makes much less sense.

RICHARD WARREN
Jasper, Ore.

Published in the 2008-11-21 issue: 
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