What if "Social Justice" Demands Small Government?: Interview with Robert Sirico, Part 3

You are making some important distinctions here, which perhaps also have some cash-value when discussing 'social justice.' For it is often conceptualized with wealth distributionist and equalitarian notions. Why is that a mistake, and is there an older (pre-Rawlsian), more robust concept of social justice that can be recovered?

The term "social justice" originates with 19th-century Italian Catholic thinkers who were trying to apply the Church's teaching on the nature of justice and the common good to the post-Enlightenment, post-mercantilist world. In many ways, it is a synonym for "the common good," which are the conditions that must exist in a given society if people are to be able to freely pursue human flourishing. In that sense, it is not value-neutral—as Rawls more-or-less tries to be—nor can it be reduced to efforts to equalize everything by eliminating differences or vast exercises in wealth-redistribution. Indeed, if you read some of the Italian writers on this subject—Blessed Antonio Rosmini being a good example—you discover that one of the things which they were trying to do was to remind individuals and communities that they also have responsibilities to their neighbor, and that they cannot and should not expect the state to do everything in this regard.

The "social" of social justice did not translate for them into a vast impersonal welfare state; rather, it was primarily about people fulfilling their responsibilities in justice to their neighbor in the circumstances they found themselves, with the state playing a subsidiary role.

I want to talk now about the religious-cultural factors of a free economy. Is the success of a free economy only a 'Westernized,' 'Judeo-Christian' construct?

It is true that the free economy and all the moral habits and institutions that enable it generally arose in a Western context. But that does not mean it cannot take root elsewhere. The question is whether such cultures heavily influenced by other religious and cultural traditions can sustain a free economy in the absence of generally Western norms and expectation. Of course, if it is built on a broadly natural law foundation, then by definition the free economy should be able to thrive in any society that takes the idea of natural law seriously. By definition, natural law is not culturally specific. It is simply the truth about reality that is inscribed into human reason itself.

That said, Christianity is the religion that, in my view, takes the idea of natural law the most seriously, precisely because it has such respect for reason and indeed understands that God is, among other things, the Logos—Divine Reason itself. The moment any culture—Western or otherwise—loses sight of this basic insight, it is not only in deep civilizational trouble, but I wonder how long it can sustain or develop the institutions and freedoms that ground economic liberty and the free society.

Evangelical philosopher and theologian, Dallas Willard (University of Southern California) has spoken of "pastors as teachers of the nations." Why? Because, historically, pastors have led with a body of knowledge—moral and spiritual knowledge and wisdom, to be exact—that is relevant to a flourishing life and society. On the subject of your book, how has your authorship and perspective been shaped by virtue of being a priest, as one who seeks (among other things) to shepherd people with theological wisdom and care?

Christian theology and history is so encompassing and broad in its scope, points of reference, and experience that I think this gives pastors a depth of understanding of the human condition, both its failures and excellence, difficult to achieve in any other specific discipline.

What does this look like for you?

As a priest who has visited the sick, heard confessions, and accompanied people sometimes literally from the "cradle to the grave," I cannot look at human society through a narrow frame of reference. Though I too often fail at it, I am nevertheless required to hear people out and listen to their perspectives, even when they disagree with my own—yet, at the same time, make an effective case for my own position and lead them to the truth in Christ. All this comes from my experience as a priest, which I would like to underscore, is my vocation: not my work in the more narrow field of economics, which is at best an outgrowth of some insights I have gained.

But let me be clear that I am not advocating that pastors become economists. I simply think that their ministry, theology, and certainly their public pronouncements will be enriched by a grasp of fundamental economic concepts. Beyond that, I think it is very different to attain a solid theological formation without a basic understating of philosophy, which enables a student to identify flaws in an argument.

6/24/2012 4:00:00 AM
  • Evangelical
  • Action Institute
  • Capitalism
  • Economics
  • History
  • Natural Law
  • politics
  • Christianity
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Evangelicalism
  • About