Acton Institute’s Fr. Robert Sirico had words for Catholics about poor people May 9 at the monthly Catholic Citizens of Illinois meeting: Treat them like human beings first and objects of your philanthropy second. It was a rich exposition of Catholic social teaching before a lunchtime crowd of 70 at Chicago’s Union League Club.
He billed his talk, “How helping the poor can hurt,” admitting it’s “provocative.” In explanation, he noted that Acton’s “Poverty Cure,” a new DVD, warns against solutions to poverty that leave the poor worse off than before, treats them as “political chips,” for instance employing tariffs when “trade not aid” is the answer to problems faced by the poor.
One thing for sure he presented at the start: Catholics have an obligation to the poor, whether those poor in money or in spirit. No options are available. The poor must be served. There is no disagreement on this. It’s a matter of “Christian anthropology.” Catholic teaching is that caring for the poor is part of human nature. The only question is how to fulfill this obligation.
Remember that not everything the Pope says is infallible, he said — the Pope would agree with that, he added — including how to help the poor, about which opinions vary.
He recalled how as a seminarian at Catholic University, he helped out in a soup kitchen in the rough D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia. It was run by a Catholic nun in a Protestant church and was aggressively ecumenical, with dinners supplied weekly by women’s groups of various D.C. churches of all denominations. He and another seminarian picked the meals up and brought them to the church, served them, took out garbage and the like.
All were welcome to the meals, no questions asked. Sirico and his fellow seminarian one Friday went to a nearby fish and chips restaurant, the Protestant ladies having prepared a meat dish, which at that time was not permitted on a Friday. This is where he had his realization what was going on: the soup kitchen was competing with the fish and chips place, a mom-and-pop operation, without the overhead.
This wasn’t fair, he realized. The kitchen should be asking something of the recipients, as poor as most of them were, whatever they would choose to offer. Why presume they had nothing to offer? he asked himself. “Ask them to give a little,” he told his fellow seminarian, who had objected to Sirico’s objecting to the free-lunch concept.
He cited ancient Christian tradition, quoting the first-century handbook for new Christians, the Didache, which advised on how to help the poor. Christians were to seek a reciprocal relationship with each other and were not to eliminate the poor as people without ideas and other resources.
Theirs were to be a less romantic view of the poor, such as Sirico witnessed years ago when two young women of refined demeanor and careful grooming approached him about joining Mother Teresa to help the poor in India, which they had never visited. Recognizing the need for some instant education, a sort of shock treatment, he told them, “The poor stink, you know.” Later, lecturing in New Zealand, he told that story and next day read in a headline that he had said the poor stink — without reference to his giving an instant lesson to the two naifs.
The welfare state failure, he said Friday, is like that, in that it fails to consider the poor as people, administering “politicized charity” that flies in the face of his “Catholic anthropology,” with its emphasis on individual dignity and its requirement of “solidarity with people in need.”
The church sometimes offends in this regard. For instance the American bishops’ web site lists seven social-justice principles, including devotion to environmentalism, but not the principle of subsidiarity, which prescribes solving problems at the lowest society level possible, from family to national government. “Proximity matters,” Sirico said. It’s “a mistake to presume” in these matters that the higher levels — county over municipality, state over county, federal government over state, etc. — should be deployed as a matter of course.
Nor is the welfare system to be permanent. Referring to modern capitalism, Pope Francis has in mind crony and state capitalism, not free-market capitalism, Sirico said. As to tariffs, favored to protect a nation’s work forces from competition, he said they inhibit trade, which generates prosperity. Legislation to favor one constituency is not the free market at work.
Solidarity, a sense of responsibility for others including the poor, has equal standing with subsidiarity, a preference for the proximate and the smaller unit of government. The first is not a liberal trait, any more than subsidiarity is a conservative one. Together they comprise the Catholic approach.
Beware presumptions here about what works to drive down poverty. And ask yourselves what happened in the last 150 years to feed the billion starving in China? What was the instrument? Global markets, he answered, not welfare supports. Government’s role is to drop the barriers to people’s ability to get work.
This refutes the zero-sum game of the Marxist, the attempt to carve up a static prosperity pie, rather than make the pie grow. This zero-sum model he linked to the “anti-natalist movement,” the “huma-phobic” approach that sees population growth as the enemy, when as John Paul said, “Man’s greatest resource is man.”
The popes caution about seeking prosperity. Make no idol of money, they tell us. Rather, see prosperity as a tool of bettering the lot of many. Mother Teresa took on the whole Marxist paradigm, the Hegelian dialectic. Economic life, she said, is “not a warfare of the classes but an encounter” of each with the other, whereby the rich and poor save each other. This, he said, is Christian solidarity.
He took a moment at the end of his talk to note the passing of his “great friend,” University of Chicago economist and Nobel prize winner Gary Becker, who led in extending economics to human behavior, “including nonmarket behavior,” as his Nobel award put it and whose Nobel lecture was about “The Economic Way of Looking at Life.”
Answering questions, Sirico took note of economist Francis Hayek’s “fatal conceit” which leads politicians to think they know what’s best for others, including the millions making market decisions daily. He referred the need for “massive education” of priests and other church leaders in these matters. He cited Frederic Bastiat, who called the state a “great fiction” by which “everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.”
Asked about encyclicals for reading about social justice, he named John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus of 1991 and Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891 as two basic sources, adding Veritatis Splendor for the nuances it offers of the mind of Pope Benedict.
Pressed by an objector to Pope Francis’s dismissal in his pastoral exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of “trickle-down economics,” he noted that Francis is neither socialist nor Marxist but a “Peronist populist.”
Asked about Catholic Charities’ 86% dependency on funding by the federal government in Chicago and the continued national collection for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, he said that his parish in Grand Rapids does not take up that collection but substitutes a collection for a local initiative — arguing the application here of subsidiarity. Asked about (Saul) Alinskyism, he called it “dangerous.” One of his closing remarks was that he would “abolish” the Campaign if he could.