Dan Finn's Response to Commonweal

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 original piece in Religion and Liberty.

First, he asserts that Finn cited “selected passages” and “edited in such a way as to distort my position.” However, Sirico’s “line” about Jesus was actually part of a paragraph about collecting taxes to pay for programs to help the poor that I did not quote in full 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)? Fr. Sirico resists but does not explain why this depiction is inaccurate. As I indicated, 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 I am mystified why in discussing taxes he would say: “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.” This argument goes far beyond his letter’s sanitized rephrasing of it as “legal obligation does not always equate with moral obligation.” Does not this paragraph argue that the existence of a legal obligation transforms the moral character of our choices from action out of virtue to action out of fear? And this occurs, he clarifies, not just to some extent but “essentially,” which sounds quite fundamental. Fr. Sirico does not explain how he can hold both views.

Third, he quotes a paragraph on his view of taxes, which ends with “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 national earned income tax credit) should be seen as a part of fulfilling our Gospel obligation. I did not claim government can fulfil all of this obligation, but only that Sirico apparently thinks it can fulfil none of it.

At the end, Fr Sirico adds a fourth claim: that I have inaccurately and unfairly described his position. In my view of intellectual discourse, this is the 12/08/08 most serious charge he makes, since the distortion of others’ views is not only unjust to them, but is an acid that eats away at the common good and undermines the civility so badly needed in our Church and 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 the reader to decide. Dan Finn