If you heard the name Robert Sirico in the ’70s, you’d be thinking of a left-wing activist in California. However, sometime later, he read Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Saint Augustine and became both a passionate defender of liberty and the Catholic faith.
Therefore, if you hear “Robert Sirico” 50 years later, you’d think of a Catholic priest who found and leads Acton Institute, one of the most influential free-market think tanks in the U.S. and of the whole world. He’s also the author of many books regarding the Catholic tradition and free-market ideas such as Catholicism’s Developing Social Teaching, Toward a Free and Virtuous Society, and Defending the Free Market.
Before the pandemic, Grand Rapids, MI, in June was a must for religious leaders, students, and intellectuals willing to learn about the interconnection of religion and freedom ideas. Why? Because it was the stage of Acton University, a three-day conference that defended and explained its core values and mission: “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”
Father Robert Sirico spoke with us at El American about freedom ideas, the Catholic Church, and Latinos during the Biden presidency.
On how did he changed up his mind about economics and the faith
You rarely read someone saying that Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek were the first steps toward their religious conversions, but they certainly played a significant role in the case of Father Robert Sirico: “Somebody gave me some books that I had never read. I had never really heard the case for a free market economy argued outright (…) I’m talking about Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, and Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.”
“So, this got me thinking about what I cared about. I cared passionately about human rights, social justice, especially people who were marginalized and alienated by society. I came to find out is the best way to protect human dignity in society is for society to be free, and part of that freedom is the right to engage in work because work is natural to the human person,” Fr. Sirico said.
Father Robert Sirico on the Biden presidency
“The Democrats are always saying to the Republicans, I’ll see you and raise you, like in a poker game, I’ll just throw more money on the table. Then add to that something that didn’t happen in the Trump administration: these attacks on the traditional family, marriage, and human life and coming from a man who professes himself to be a serious Catholic? It is nothing short of appalling.”
He did not save any words on Biden’s purposed moderation during his campaign. “Every time he met anything that prevented his political advancement, he was willing to concede to achieve a broader coalition of support. That has put him in the position now of is having to kowtow and obey the most extreme wing of his party.”
On the future of the conservative movement
Father Robert Sirico doesn’t think the conservative movement should scrap its small-state tradition, even if some Republican personalities such as the Arkansas governor, Asa Hutchinson, use it as a justification not to fight back against invasive policies such as vetoing a law to ban the use of puberty blockers on minors.
“A limited government isn’t the absence of governance. It just shifts the burden of governance to other parts of the society that are non-state-centered. What has complicated this, to my mind, is that at least in the United States, some of the churches and, in particular, the Catholic Church have already conceded their role to the state by accepting so much government money so that they become agents of the state.”
On the American Catholic Church and Pope Francis
In a country where for a long time, being a Catholic was almost a synonym of being a Democrat and being at the forefront of social justice issues, it is fairly common to see bishops and priests who do not see free-market ideas with positive eyes. Yet, Father Sirico says that the Church “should be more open to free-market ideas because this is the way in which the vocation of most Catholic people in business is made real. If you say that business is a vocation, a call from God, then you should say there should be as little outside control over that as possible.”
“The Church has no formal economic system to present to the world. The Church has an expertise in the human person and the economic question is a secondary question about which good Catholics can disagree.”
President Joe Biden presents a fairly unique situation for American bishops. He’s just the second Catholic American president and a man to goes to Mass all Sundays and presents himself as a Catholic in good standing. Yet, he opposes the Church’s teachings on many different topics such as abortion and transgenderism. This has led to serious controversy among Catholic bishops in the U.S. about what to do.
“There’s a serious split in the Catholic hierarchy in the United States right now. I think there’s a small section that is supportive of Biden and doesn’t want any criticism of Biden. And I think there’s a larger section of Catholic bishops who are more critical of Biden (…) When Biden was inaugurated, a statement came out of the American Bishops’ Conference that made very clear: congratulations, Mr. President, second Catholic president of the United States. But here are some things that you need to consider immediately.”
Being a proponent of a free-market economy might put Father Robert Sirico at odds with Pope Francis, but that does not mean he disavows him or stops submitting to his authority when it is due. “The Pope is the Pope. And when he speaks on matters of doctrine and morals, he enjoys the special gift of God. We call it a charism of God, but when he makes economic and political prudential decisions, he’s no better than his advisers.”
“He wants to defend the poor. And I understand that; I agree with that. I just think there are better ways to do it than to allow socialist ideas to bear fruit in the Church,” he says.
Although there are serious challenges for the Catholic Church should as the ongoing abuse scandal, the rapid secularization process in the U.S., and the Biden presidency, Robert Sirico is optimistic about the future.
“If I can project into the future and see something that brings great hope, are the seminarians and the new priests because these young men are radically faithful to the Church.”
“These are people who are becoming priests in the United States at a time where the status of American priests is lower than it’s ever been in American history because of the pedophilia scandal. And when these guys are coming in, they’re coming in not because they want to be the lords of the manor. They want to be priests of the Catholic Church,” he adds.
“That’s the future of the American Catholic Church.”
On Latinos in the U.S.
Since the last election, where the Republican Party increased its support among Latinos, this demographic shift has been widely commented on. Latino business ownership increased by 34% in 10 years. This is part of what some call “the new Latino narrative.” Why are Latinos increasingly succeeding in the U.S.? Father Robert Sirico has a straightforward answer: “Because they’ve been freed of the statist apparatus that held them down.”
As for why Latinos are increasingly supporting the GOP, he says, “I’m not a member of the Republican Party or any political party. For me, it’s ideas that count. And I know that if we are articulate enough, if we’re sensitive enough, if we’re smart enough, we can communicate those ideas to people looking for freedom and going to be the first to want them.”
Most people during the first years of the U.S. as an independent nation were Protestants. Therefore, the Catholic Church in the U.S. mostly gained traction by constant waves of Irish, Italian, German, and Polish migrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, through mostly Latino, Filipino, and African migrants. What does Fr. Robert Sirico thinks about this? “The immigrant dimension always adds to the vibrancy of the Catholic Church. I go back to my own history, Mother Cabrini who came from Italy to minister to Italian immigrants in the United States, Saint John Neumann in the 19th century for the Czechs.”
“I grew up in Brooklyn in the ’50s, and almost all of our nuns and priests were of Irish descent. And so, yes, of course, the Church here has always been full of immigrants. So now it’s going to be Latinos and African.”
What’s the future of Acton Institute?
“Our principles, the bedrock principles, the foundational principles which are available to anyone to read are solid principles. They’re applicable under any administration. But I think they’re going to shine more brightly as things get darker.”