Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
Greed isn’t good but capitalism is. And, no, contrary to what Hollywood stereotypes like Gordon Gekko might have us believe, capitalism is not synonymous with greed. Greed, of course is a sin. But Reverend Robert Sirico, the Catholic priest who founded the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty says the principles capitalism and morality to be perfectly in sync. In fact, one of his organization’s key projects is PovertyCure – From Aid to Enterprise, an initiative built on the idea that entrepreneurial solutions are more apt than government programs to lift people out of economic distress. “What is better for people in developing countries?” Sirico asks, “Is it trade or is it aide?”
REV. ROBERT SIRICO: We do a lot of educating people on the economics and ethics of topics dealing with history, theology, economics and philosophy. That’s kind of the basic goal. We hold seminars, write books and articles — everything from an academic referee journal to podcasts, an active website and blogs — and we also produce documentaries.
JWK: I usually associate the Church with a more liberal view of economic affairs which holds that government is needed to temper the harshness of the marketplace and, in that way, lift people out of poverty. But you seem to be saying that it is the free market — more than government — that is likely to accomplish that goal.
RS: We could put it that way. It seems to me to be logical that if we really want to resolve the question of poverty — the reality of poverty — we have to provide jobs for people. It’s not just enough to redistribute money. That may be appropriate in certain circumstances but normatively the way people rise of poverty is by having access to productive work. So, in this sense, we’re in favor of the free economy. I mean a truly free economy, not a crony capitalist view of things.
JWK: Do feel that the media tends to present business — and business-oriented solutions — in a dark and unfair light?
RS: Very much so. I mean you go back to the Wall Street movies or now this Wolf of Wall Street movie and even just subtle portrayals of business people, it’s a real unfortunate prejudice that the people in the movie business — and I’d underscore the word business — do (have). As I said before, we all have to work — which means providing goods and services for people that find them of value and (will) pay for them. To stereotype people simply because they’re working and are economically successful undercuts the moral foundation on which a free economy is predicated and discourages people from aspiring to be moral entrepreneurs. That just kind of perpetuates this cycle of greed and selfishness that we see also exists in the market.
RS: If he were an enemy of capitalism, he wouldn’t say that business is a noble calling. He wouldn’t presuppose that business and enterprise is the way people will find their way out of poverty. Both of these things he said in the apostolic letter that he wrote that has cause so much of the discussion around these lines and in these matters, Evangelii gaudium. I think we need to be very balanced in our understanding of what he’s saying. He’s talking about the ethical obligations that people who have resources have to the poor and everything he says falls under the principle of subsidiarity which says that the government should be the resource of final resort, not the resource of first resort. So, in that sense, I don’t think that the Holy Father is being at all political or claiming to be an expert in economic policy matters. He’s calling for ethical actions…Catholics can have a variety of viewpoints when it comes to how you solve the problems of the poor.
JWK: In your view, how can government — and religion — help create an atmosphere in which free enterprise and business and do the most good?
RS: Well, I think that there are several things. If we address it from the point of view of government, government should do what government should do — that is to guaranty freedom to people so that we defend the weakest in our society and the weakest members in our economy. We do this by the rule of law — to prevent violence, to demand restitution where violence has been already enacted, to ensure the rights of contracts and the right of property, the right of trade. In regard to contracts (Government should ensure) that when people say that they’ll work for a certain amount of money that they’re indeed paid what’s been agreed upon for their work rather than being exploited. (Government should) make sure that when people sell things to people that (customers) get what they have paid for. All of this is the function of law.
In addition to that — and on the margins — the government may be used as a resource for those who are in a very desperate and extremely vulnerable situation. But, that action — what some call a safety net — has to be temporary. It can’t be replace all of the other sectors of society that also play a role in that such as business and mediating institutions like charities.
I think also, by not competing with the charities, the government can, in a direct way, assist those that are in need. In other words, right now there are various kinds of governmental charities that don’t treat the real needs of people…Maybe the best way to say this is to say that the most reliable indicator that a person will be poor is that (of being) a young girl who does not finish high school and who has a child outside of marriage. If you have those things going on in your life, it’s the most reliable predictor of poverty. It’s the largest sector of poverty.
And how might the government help (in) this (situation)? By not inhibiting the ability of people who are addressing the question of marriage and the question of teenage pregnancies, the question of sex before marriage, the question of learning life skills and of education. Very often, the government does just the opposite (by) presenting a girl like this an incentive to leave their home, to not get married and have various kinds of subsidies and would even increase the amount of subsidies based on the number of children that they’re having. In other words would, in effect, (the government subsidizes) this kind of thing by incentivizing lifestyle choices that exacerbate the problem…
…I remember when I was growing up we had St. Ann’s Homes…Very often there were girls who had gotten pregnant outside of marriage (and) came from a (problem) home. They would learn to stabilize their lives and would be helped to understand what virtuous living looks like. They’d get their high school education, get their training that they would need in order to raise children or put children up for adoption. Those kinds of approaches were more holistic than the kinds of bureaucratic approaches the government provides.
JWK: Do you think that — with the help of the government — a sort of poverty industry has developed that actually benefits by perpetuating the behaviors that increase poverty?
RS: Well, of course, the real people who make the money off of poverty aren’t the poor. It’s the politicians and the bureaucrats, the people who are providing the very services that are operating in these large bureaucratic institutions. I think, for the most part, we treat the poor themselves as animals. You know, when an animal is hungry you give it something to eat and when it’s thirsty you lead it to the trough to get something to drink. When it’s cold you put it in the barn. That’s what these industries are doing. They’re just providing the material things that people need rather than investing their lives in the vulnerability of human beings. The last people I’m going to criticize are the most vulnerable.
RS: Cardinal Pell (of Sydney, Australia) is kind of having the oversight of much of this. With the experts that I heard are coming in, I think there’s going to be a level of professionalism and transparency that the bureaucracy in the Vatican — which is also a bureaucracy even if it’s run by priests — that the Vatican hasn’t seen. I think it’s going to be very good to break up the kind of support systems that they have there where the nepotism just keeps going (and) you just have your relative and your friends (running things). All of that looks like it’s going to be broken up and made much more professional, transparent and accountable.
JWK: Do you think those changes will translate into how Church resources are funneled to the poor?
RS: Yes, I think that’s all of a piece, the Vatican Bank and the overarching bureaucracy.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the Vatican Bank however. While the Vatican itself — the Holy See — has some money in that, much money goes through it in terms of the repair and maintenance of various works of art and structures of historic importance in Vatican City. I don’t really know what the percentage is but I’d be comfortable saying that the majority of money in the Vatican Bank is not owned by the Vatican. It’s owned by orders and priests and nuns and other people who use the bank as a bank. Many times what this means is that a religious order that has missionaries in troubled areas in the world need an independent banking system — a system outside of the country — where they can have the money safely saved and then used for various outreaches. I know that the Vatican Bank was used, for instance, under communism to funnel money into the Church in difficult areas of the world.
So, it’s a misnomer to think the Vatican Bank is just holding on to all of this gold in its basements.
JWK: What do you say to people who say that the Church should just sell its great artwork and gold and give the proceeds to the poor? Is that a fair criticism?
RS: No, think it’s a very superficial understanding of what that artwork is. The Church holds (these things) as a patrimony — in trust for history. I mean where are you going to move the Sistine Chapel? Who’s going to buy it? Who should by the Pietà? The New York Museum? And if that’s what you’re doing why not demand that the New York Museum of Art also sell it? These are things that are in trust for humanity. The Church doesn’t make money (from keeping these things). I don’t think (admission fees) even cover the maintenance cost of running the museums that it has. So, I don’t think that’s a very fair criticism. I think the fair criticism is to say “If you’re gonna run it, run it professionally.”
JWK: How can people support your work at the Acton Institute and learn more about it?
RS: Acton.org is our main website. It’s like a huge library. We’re named after Lord Acton who was a historian in 19th-century England. On that website there are lots of clips from our various documentaries (and) tons of articles…For those particularly interested in the question of poverty, I’d refer you to another website — povertycure.org. This website deals with the question of trade versus aid…It’s an exciting website because it’s got lots of film clips of people (going) about their particular circumstances and the provocative things that they say — counter-intuitive things that they say.
JWK: Not to get too political — but I would imagine that you don’t endorse the policies of the current administration in Washington. Am I right about that?
RS: That’s a big question. There are a lot of policies. If you mean the (economic policies), of course I’m against (those). The general tendency toward economic interventionism — the kind of crony capitalism that it supports under the guise of environmental concerns, the various kinds of class struggle initiatives that it puts forward. I don’t (support those). Now, I could have given you a litany of policies under the Bush Administration that I didn’t approve of either. I’m not a member of a political party. Our real interest isn’t the politics, as such. It’s the philosophy that goes into the politics.
The joy of giving never gets old. I Like Giving, a non-profit media platform (ilikegiving.com) that uses video storytelling to inspire a generous world has something of a viral hit on its hands. One of its videos, I Like Being 98, has crossed the two-million views mark on YouTube — garnering over 1.5 million over the past week alone. The short film tells the story of Evelyn who doesn’t allow her own advanced years to prevent her from coming to the aid of her neighbor and friend Joyce.
I Like Giving founder Brad Formsma says “We are so humbled by the tremendous support we’ve received for this video. We’ve had people from all across the world reach out to tell us how moved they were by Evelyn’s story. We hope this video will continue to inspire others to live a more generous life.”
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11