Sirico Silly Season

Sirico Silly Season June 27, 2012

Imagine you read a statement like this in the New York Times:

Jon O’Brien, a Catholic and president of “Catholics for Choice” says that the prohibition of artificial contraception in Catholic teaching is historically contingent. It matters, Mr. O’Brien said, that Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” was written in 1968, not today.

“In the sexual revolution, the church was concerned about sex, and not just libertinism but savage libertinism,” Mr. O’Brien said. “People were being brutalized. That’s just not the case in America today.”

A rather ridiculous statement, right? Well, rest assured, Mr. O”Brien never said this. Instead, the New York Times reported the following comments by the Acton Institute’s Robert Sirico:

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, a Catholic priest and the author of “Defending the Free Market,” says that the importance of unions in Catholic teaching is historically contingent. It matters, Father Sirico said, that Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” was written in 1891, not today.

“In the industrial revolution, the church was concerned about communism, and not just capitalism but savage capitalism,” Father Sirico said. “People were being brutalized. That’s just not the case in Pittsburgh today.”

Equally ridiculous! As Vincent Miller points out, the Church’s teachings on unions are rooted deeply in the natural law – they are forms of “private society” that serve as vital mediating institutions. If you do not see the importance of unions, then you simply don’t understand subsidiarity.

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  • Hm. I’m totally with you in supporting Unions when people want to have them and being against the Acton crowd and their capitalism.

    On the other hand, there is something to be said for the historical contingency thing. I think it would be hard to argue that the deposit of faith has any notion of “labor unions.” If Catholic Social Teaching supports them (and it does, generally speaking) it CAN only be by way of applying much more general principles to a given historical context.

    When the Workers in the Vineyard were complaining about being given equal pay for unequal work…Christ’s advice to them was NOT “Well, you should have formed a Union!”

    • brettsalkeld

      Um, the workers in the vineyard were in a parable whose point was quite different. In the story, wages were the functional equivalent of God’s mercy. Jesus’ point was clearly not that workers are dependent on the mercy of those who own capital. I don’t think your appeal to this parable works. Though maybe I am making more out of something that was meant to be a joke than I should. 😉

      • lol. It was a joke. But one with SOMETHING of a point, inasmuch as “labor unions” would have been an anachronistic idea back then. Would anyone really say that “form a union” would have been the correct application of Catholic Social Teaching to, say, medieval peasants under feudalism? To me the idea is just absurd. They may have been able to draw some things from the guild tradition, which is (I would think) another manifestation of some of the same more general principles (to a different time and system), but then (as we know from history) the “guild” idea can also tend towards Corporatism and Syndicalism of the fascist sort. So historical contingency is not to be overlooked.

        I personally am of the opinion that unions and what they achieve can only really be a stop-gap measure that can become ultimately counter-productive. The end of Production is to produce. It is not to distribute. If Production distributes (as wages for labor)…this is accidental, an accident of history, really. Production should produce as efficiently as possible. It would ideally do this without taking into account how that effects distribution. The idea of sacrificing efficiency of production in order to serve distribution is ultimately insane.

        The idea only makes sense under a system that assumes Production has two purposes that can be in conflict with each other: to produce, and to “create jobs.” However, this is simply a flaw in the system as it currently exists, which bootstraps distribution to production because of how the system is based on the private creation of credit (which is to say: usury).

        Unions may make sense to mitigate against problems WITHIN this system. But this system itself is ultimately flawed, and if we weren’t in this system, unions really wouldn’t be needed much I don’t think. So we’re talking here about what’s necessary in unideal circumstances. Ideally, we would have a system that condemned usury (in the sense of the private creation of credit) and recognize that credit is inherently and naturally a social good. This I think needs to be re-emphasized as a social teaching of the Church: the condemnation of usury needs to be restored under the positive formulation “Credit is inherently a social, not a private, good” and everything that implies practically re: money-creation and markets on money and credit.

        Social credit, creation of credit that was not controlled by these private monopolies of bankers, would allow distribution to become more and more detached from participation in production as technology more and more replaced labor.

        • You are arguing from liberalism, not Catholic social teaching. The idea that business should produce as efficiently as possible is usually interpreted as maximizing profits and minimizing costs, subject to minimal interference. But that is not the Catholic aproach. Read Caritas in Veritate. Profit cannot be be role aim of bsuniness. Going deeper, from a communio perspective, the first goal of business is not to serve the self, but the other, and any reward to self is incidental. That means, in the first instance, you treat your workers fairly.

          As for you medieval example, the Catholic teaching on unions springs directly from the medieval idea of guilds. this is made explicit in Quadragesimo Anno, for instance.

        • Kurt

          but then (as we know from history) the “guild” idea can also tend towards Corporatism and Syndicalism of the fascist sort.

          I can see how the guild idea can tend towards Corporatism and Syndicalism of the democratic and pluralist sort and the Church has shown strong sympathy for this, maybe even more sympathy than it deserves. I don’t see anything in history that shows it tending towards fascism. Can you cite me some examples?

        • No. I’m not arguing from the perspective of Liberalism, trust me. I’m arguing from the perspective of Social Credit, which is definitely Catholic and definitely not Liberal.

          All other things being equal, Production should produce as much as possible. If done sustainably, the most real wealth, which is to say the most goods and services, should be produced for the least cost.

          It is NOT the job of Production to “create jobs” or distribute the wealth in question. The idea, for example, that you should not replace workers with robots…is insane EXCEPT within a system that is ALREADY broken. Needing less human labor for the same production should be a LIBERATION, not a “problem.” And yet, because of how distribution has been bootstrapped to participation in production (“employment”)…it is a problem under the current system. This is madness.

          Any system that requires WASTE to be HUMANE, that requires producing LESS overall so that the distribution OF that (smaller) total can reach more people…is clearly a flawed system of distribution.

        • “I can see how the guild idea can tend towards Corporatism and Syndicalism of the democratic and pluralist sort and the Church has shown strong sympathy for this, maybe even more sympathy than it deserves. I don’t see anything in history that shows it tending towards fascism. Can you cite me some examples?”

          Well, most of the fascist governments of Europe of the 20th century actually tried to base their economics on Catholic Social Teaching of the corporatist/syndicalist sort. This was certainly what Mussolini tried to implement in Italy, etc

        • Kurt

          Guilds aline with a democratic and pluralist form of corporatism and syndicalism. Fascism alines with a totalitarian form of corporatism.

          Is your point that it is not guilds, by Catholic Teaching that enables Fascism?

        • My point was just that the particular organizational form in which the more general principles are embodied definitely changes based on historical context.

        • Kurt

          I think that is a very good point. Worker organization evolves.

  • Kurt

    On the other hand, there is something to be said for the historical contingency thing. I think it would be hard to argue that the deposit of faith has any notion of “labor unions.” If Catholic Social Teaching supports them (and it does, generally speaking) it CAN only be by way of applying much more general principles to a given historical context.

    Maybe something to be said, but not what Fr. S. is saying. There is not an iota in CST that says unions are something for situations of extreme brutality or than they are something extraordinary to correct extraordinary wrongs. The teaching has been about the natural fraternity of workers of a craft or industry. So whatever merit the historical contingency thing has, a change in thinking has to address not a change in the degree of oppression of workers but a change in the merit of craft fraternity in contemporary social circumstances.

    I’m interested in any such argument.

    Fr. S. does have a glimmer of insight on another point that I will try to address later. And it is not about the insights a reformed leather queen can offer about blue collar men being brutalized. 🙂

    • Well, I certainly don’t know what Fr. S. was saying. But I think he’s right that there is historical contingency here. As I said, unions only make sense in an economy where Production not only creates the wealth but also distributes it. Therefore, there might be a “competing” interest between maximizing overall production (ie, using the least resources to produce the most things) and fairness for labor (for example, workers don’t get fired even though this means less gets produced.) But that only makes sense in a world where distribution is tied to participation in production either as capital or labor. In a world where it wasn’t, labor unions wouldn’t make much sense, just like they wouldn’t make much sense for medieval peasants in the system of feudal inter-obligations.

  • dominic1955

    I second the notion put forward by A Sinner concerning unions and historical contingency and I am (generally) in favor of them. I think Fr. Sirico could have a point (I haven’t read his article yet) as the conditions of the 1890s and today are different. My own experience of unions (in the auto industry) is that they are a far cry from the original ideal set up in the days of laissez faire capitalism.

    Personally, to try to draw a parallel between contraception/Humanae Vitae and unions/Rerum Novarum is profoundly silly. You can find the Church’s constant condemnation of contraception from the early days but you will not find any such raising of the idea of unions anywhere near the status of the condemnation of contraception.

  • tausign

    I say let them fight the good fight and go for it! Since I wanted a little more background I searched ‘adjunct professor’ on google and came up with this…http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professors_in_the_United_States . I guess I expected a system that was somewhat less ‘heirarchical’ and more egalitarian. At any rate, if they want to form a union, let them have at it…better yet, let them enroll with tenured professors, link arms and fight for their common interests.

  • tausign

    A Sinner said in a comment above: The end of Production is to produce. It is not to distribute.

    I’m not aware of why you are speaking of production with a ‘capital P’, but if you are speaking of Production as a goal, then its only one among several human/economic goals. At any rate, one element that is often understated in the a discussion of production and efficiency is the human need/requirement for work.

    I’m not certain where to find this thought in CST, but in my Secular Franciscan Rule it states…“Let them esteem work both as a gift (from God) and a sharing in the creation, redemption and service of the human community.” This valuation of work is what gives the dignity to workers as well as a mission. The ‘mission’ aspect of work is often overlooked in the welfare/entitlement debates as cash or benefits are hailed even when the individual is left to languish in waste. I certainly would not buy into any dream of technology replacing the need for labor; even though I applaud improvements in technology when they give rise to a general increase in the standard of living.

    • Production is one “part” of the economic process. Distribution/Consumption is the other. (We can make it more complicated of course, but these are the two big parts of the process: making things and then consuming those things.)

      Production should not be limited for the sake of distribution. It is a flawed system if we have to do that. For example, take “minimum wage.” I fully support a living wage WITHIN the current system. But that’s only because the current system makes participation in production (either as labor or capital) the only way to get money, the only way to get a livelihood, and so for many people wages are the only thing they’re going to get, so we’d better force some re-distribution (from the capitalists, generally) to keep everyone living.

      However, any time an economic system has to invoke “RE-distribution”…it means things aren’t being distributed correctly IN THE FIRST PLACE.

      In an economic system where credit was Social, where we were all recognized as co-heirs of the enormous capital which credit, in fact, represents…wages would NOT be the only source of income, but everyone would have a share in the social dividend (in addition to whatever private dividends the owners of private capital could get). In THIS situation, therefore, we may well not need a “minimum wage” or “living wage” qua wage, because because people’s full income would be made up of more than just their wage. The money they did make as wages, then, could indeed be determined with maximum efficiency by the market, and so production would be maximized, without threatening humane distribution or equality

      Indeed, under such a system one assumes that even the private capital would quickly become much more equally distributed (as is the distributist ideal), because the common individual would finally have the means with which to invest, rather than the vicious cycle of usury which concentrates wealth more and more in the hands of those who control the creation of credit through “the monster feeding itself.”

    • Mark Gordon

      It’s great that folks are using HTML tags, but they have to be right or else they screw up everything that follows, as did your improperly closed italics tag, which I just edited. Thanks for being careful. 🙂

      • tausign

        Mea culpa…truly, I need a preview or edit feature so that I can see what the heck I’m trying to say before I screw things up.

  • The Acton Institute has won at least a limited amount of respect because its statements usually contain some nuggets of truth. Of course, “unions” meant something different to Leo XIII than they mean today, and the context in which CST has supported union organizing has not always existed and may not always exist in the future. As “A Sinner” rightly explains, Catholic support for organized labor–like much of CST–is considered by the Church as an application of more general principles (what Professor Bailey in the NYTimes piece describes as “the sociality of human nature” and the right to an adequate share in the goods of this world) to contingent circumstances.

    That said, Sirico is again proving himself a mouthpiece for the same sort of people who gave us the Iron Law of Wages. And he is slick at it, so slick that his acolytes are willing to overlook his own very questionable path to right-wing Catholicism and the priesthood itself. Truth be told, Sirico is just one more of the priests-without-a-bishop whose scandalous conduct has shaken up Catholic traditionalists, but he seems to have far more powerful backers than Corapi and company, so he and his organization are still going great guns.

    • Kurt

      Of course, “unions” meant something different to Leo XIII than they mean today,…

      A point worth reflecting on. Early 19th century unions were considered a radical threat by the Established Order. Hence to advocate for unions made one a radical opponent of the Established Order of which the Christian churches were and saw themselves as part. As a result, trade unionism and anti-clericalism often existed as one.

      Leo was truly visionary. He could of easily condemned unions. But he saw the essential need for them in a form that was neither anti-clerical nor anti-state. In Europe, he instructed Catholic Action to help set up unions in line with Christian principles and in America, he approved Cardinal Gibbons request that non-confessional unions be approved for Catholics.

      Fast forward to today, unions mean something different than they did in Leo’s time. The current meaning is much more in line with his thinking and is result of his efforts.

      Sirico is just one more of the priests-without-a-bishop whose scandalous conduct has shaken up Catholic traditionalists

      To be fair, he is a heck of lot less scandalous than Father Euteneuer (sexual exploitation while performing the rites of the church).

      Give Fr. Sirico credit for creating a good gig. A program that attracts wealthy benefactors and provides first class international travel all with the respectability of the priesthood. That’s a big move from the low pay and social disregard of being an MCC minister doing baptisms in bathhouses. You gotta say he knows how to get ahead it in the world.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Kurt, you wrote:

    “Give Fr. Sirico credit for creating a good gig. A program that attracts wealthy benefactors and provides first class international travel all with the respectability of the priesthood. That’s a big move from the low pay and social disregard of being an MCC minister doing baptisms in bathhouses. You gotta say he knows how to get ahead it in the world.”

    Since bathhouses have long had the reputation in the gay community of being the realm of the deeply closeted and self-loathing, it is possible that he originally met some of his “wealthy benefactors” there. Nothing like an indiscretion shared to unite people!