Fr. Sirco's Blog

Commonweal's Heresy Hunt

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One does not broadcast his opinions in various forums over the years as I have done without receiving my fair share of disagreement from all sides, friends and foes alike. One participant who came to a recent conference remarked, “All my life I have been looking to build a fair and egalitarian society, but I have now learned why it is better to advance a free and virtuous society.” Yet, something new came my way when I received an envelope with the return address of Commonweal, a publication known for – how shall we put this gently? – a progressive stance on matters of faith and public policy. Inside was the September 26 issue of the magazine, with a helpful note from the editors pointing me to page 8 where I came upon the “Libertarian Heresy -- The Fundamentalism of Free Market Heresy” by Daniel Finn, who is a professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

In his essay my colleague Sam Gregg and I are his primary targets. In a single, canard-laden article, we are attacked for heresy, fundamentalism, neo-conservatism and on questions of law and morality, for voicing “libertarian” and generally un-Catholic, not to mention anti-Thomistic views. Professor Finn’s not-so-subtle polemical technique is to raise and make patently absurd questions and assertions and then leave it to the reader -- and me -- to conjecture an answer. Like so: “So has Fr. Sirico mixed libertarian heresy about human freedom into his Christian view of morality and law? I’ll leave that for him to reflect on.” As well as putting in my mouth the rather unnuanced argument that “raising taxes to help others is unchristian.” Facing an accusation of heresy from Commonweal was too delicious an irony to pass over without comment. So, on Oct. 13, I faxed the magazine this letter:

Commonweal Magazine Office of The Editor 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405 New York, NY 10115 Sir: For a magazine that regularly publishes authors who rather consistently dissent from some pretty non-negotiable moral and theological postulates of the Church’s Magisterium (e.g., the intrinsic evil of contraceptive acts, the impossibility of women’s ordination etc), it is, at the very least, nice to see that Commonweal has not lost all sense of opposition to heresy, which I and my colleagues at the Acton Institute are accused of in Daniel Finn’s “Short Take” column (“Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free-Market Theology”, September 26). Leaving aside the questionable reasoning characterizing his piece (including a rather shallow reading of Aquinas), the selected passages Mr. Finn cites from my brief essay are edited in such a way as 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. Of course, he neglects to let his readers know that the problem I am addressing is precisely the fundamentalism of “…the slick move from personal ethics to public policy.” Nor is it the case, as Finn would have it in his second charge that I believe or said that “a legal obligation makes virtuous behavior impossible.” Rather, I argue that legal obligation does not always equate with moral obligation. I illustrate this by quoting Ebenezer Scrooge who, in dismissing his need to be charitable, says: “Are there no poorhouses” – the Victorian version of the welfare state. Finn’s final anathema is based on a superficial summary of my conclusion as being, “raising taxes to help others is unchristian.” Of course, this is not a quotation, because I wrote no such thing. What I did write - which your readers, even if they do not agree with me, will nonetheless see is very different to what Mr. Finn says that I say - 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 does 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.” (Emphasis added.)

Mr. Finn concludes his essay 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, Mr. Finn might begin next time by stating his opposition’s position accurately. Not only would this engender a more fruitful and honest debate, but it is also a basic requirement of reason, not to mention justice. Sincerely, Fr. Robert Sirico, President Acton Institute.

While the editors were mulling over my letter, they found the time to publish a letter from Angus Sibley, of Paris, France, in the Oct. 24 issue. He applauded the Finn article and charged that I had an “un-Catholic and unbiblical” disrespect for the law based on a libertarian “obsession with ‘negative freedom.’” Obviously, Mr. Sibley had not read the original article for which I was being anathematized, or from what I could detect, anything I’ve ever written about law, government, economics or Catholic teaching. A brief visit to the Acton Institute Web site might have disabused him of these notions.

Then, on Oct. 27, I received an email from a Commonweal editor with an edited version of my Oct. 13 letter attached. Oddly, my first paragraph in which I note Commonweal’s habitual dissent from the Church’s authoritative teaching was excised from my letter. I spoke with this editor who pleaded space limitations. Understandable. So I asked how many words he had room for. He said 340. I submitted 343, reinserting what I suspected was the offending reference to Commonweal’s dissenting proclivity and murdering some of my other little darlings.

The next day I received an email from The Editor of Commonweal Himself, one Paul Baumann, who expressed his desire to print my letter, but only under the condition that I not insist on the first paragraph which he said was “irrelevant to the issue at hand as well as inaccurate.” Now, I find being judged a heretic by what some consider was once America’s leading Catholic opinion journal of dissent, a tad ironic. As to Mr. Baumann’s charge of inaccuracy, I leave to those of you with strong theological stomachs and powerful search engines to probe the bowels of Commonweal to determine the truth of the matter. One final point worth noting and that is that when I responded to him that I thought he was a bit thin-skinned about my criticism and that he did not have my permission to publish an edited version of my letter, he promptly replied that neither would I have permission to publish his to me. Ouch!