Economics According to John Paul II's Anthropology

Interview With Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute

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ROME, APRIL 19, 2005 ( Is it possible to reconcile the free market with the Church’s social doctrine?

What are the ethical limits of capitalism? Can there be an ethic that does not take God and the natural law into account?

Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute, answers these questions in the following interview, taking up the legacy of John Paul II to social doctrine.

Q: What was your relationship with the Pope and what do you think of his magisterium?

Father Sirico: My first interaction with the Pope was like everybody’s — from a distance. In watching his pastoral ministry unfold, in reading his writings and learning of his history, I began to undergo a deep interior conversion.

Prior to this time, I had been away from my faith. But the authenticity of his life drew me back, I went to confession and my vocation to be a priest was reborn — a vocation I had sensed when I was a child, but abandoned for a time.

Upon entering the seminary I began to read more deeply in his writings, especially those about the intrinsic dignity of the human person as a transcendent, unique and unrepeatable being in need of a rightly ordered liberty to pursue his destiny.

This connected to ideas I had formed in reading the history of economic thought and shed a profound light on the meaning of human action in the economic sphere as much more than a utilitarian endeavor. It is, and ought to be, a moral one.

Once I was ordained and began my life as a priest, I founded the Acton Institute which was inspired in many ways by the Pope’s social teaching; in many ways, it is a response to his 1991 encyclical “Centesimus Annus.”

In 1992 I met François X. Van Thuán, the saintly archbishop of Saigon, who was in exile in Rome. When the Holy Father asked him, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to coordinate the compilation of Catholic social teaching, he asked me and the Polish Dominican Provincial Maciej Zieba to compile a collection of magisterial texts entitled “The Social Agenda,” which was published in seven languages.

As a result of this and other work, I had the great privilege of audiences with the Holy Father and of celebrating Mass with him in his chapel in the Vatican and at Castel Gandolfo. My prize possession is a chalice he celebrated Mass with.

Q: What do you think about the Compendium of Social Doctrine?

Father Sirico: I think the Compendium evidences the development in Catholic social doctrine under this pontificate, especially in much of its understanding regarding the normative importance of a free economy in assisting the poor to rise out of poverty, and in its positive, but not uncritical view of the phenomena of globalization.

I wish the Compendium contained a clearer distinction between irreversible dogma and its prudential application, which is dynamic and provisional. The Compendium would have been helped by having compiled in one section a complete statement about the principle of subsidiarity, so poorly understood today, rather than scattering it throughout the volume.

Q: What do you answer to those who say that capitalism is against the poor and the Church should condemn it?

Father Sirico: A society with a rising population and a flourishing setting for social well-being must have a free economy. We know this from experience with the failures of socialist central planning and reflection on the moral norms associated with free economies, including the right to economic initiative, and the freedom of association.

As regards capitalism, I would ask what kind of capitalism is being spoken about. If what is implied in this assertion is what Pope John Paul II called a “savage capitalism,” which ignores the dignity of human person, is not rooted in a system of law and a religious and moral ethic, and fails to see human beings at the center of economic action — then I would agree.

But the global system of markets permits the integration of human intelligence with individual initiative and productivity, and provides widespread standards of living and access to both life’s necessities and benefits, while being rooted in religious and moral principles and guided by a just and open juridical system.

Such institutions are desirable and beneficial to the poorest of the poor and ought to be celebrated and recommend to those countries seeking a way out of the misery of their poverty. History demonstrates quite clearly that the business economy — what you call “capitalism” — is such a system.

At the same time, I fully recognize that every institution has failures and abuses: economics no less than education, the Church, etc. But let us not permit these failures to blind us to the advantages of such a system.

Q: How to relate faith and technology?

Father Sirico: Questions relating to morality and technology are often complex and require a great deal of expertise in specific fields to understand and properly analyze.

This is why the Church has investigated many aspects of this question, and at a very high level, through, for example, the Pontifical Academy of Science and the Pontifical Academy of Social Science.

The fundamental principle in this area is really the same as I mentioned earlier in relation to economics, namely, that human beings may never be instrumentalized, but rather must always retain their place at the center of such endeavors.

Science and technology, like economics, are made for man, and not man for them. We do well to recall the insights outlined in “Fides et Ratio”: Disciplines require a natural autonomy to blossom and flourish. At the same time they may not become hegemonic.

In all this, the authentic good of the human person, whose destiny is beyond our temporal reality, must always be at the center of our consideration.

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