Fr. Sirico’s advice to the Tea Parties

With a biretta tip to CatholicVote this is from Fr. Robert Sirico of Acton Institute.  Find the original on The Detroit News.

Tea party must define ideas
Father Robert Sirico

If the recent analysis by the New York Times on the success of the tea party movement is correct, the influence of this movement favoring limited government and low levels of taxation may have a decided impact in the upcoming elections, particularly in holding the Republican leadership’s feet to the fire on a variety of related issues.

The influence and more especially the authenticity of the tea party movement also is being debated in religious circles where some writers have expressed a skepticism as to how the evident religious sentiments expressed by many (but not all) tea party activists can be compatible with the undeniable Christian obligation to tend to the needs of “the least of these my brethren.”  [Liberals want big government nanny state to take care of the poor.  Conservatives think that is not the role of government.]

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said in critique of the tea party approach, “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.”  [Is that the “Catholic” argument?]

One of the leaders of the evangelical left, Jim Wallis, renders what I think is a wholly inaccurate image of tea party folks when he says, “When government regulation is the enemy, the market is set free to pursue its own self-interest without regard for public safety, the common good, and the protection of the environment — which Christians regard as God’s creation. Libertarians seem to believe in the myth of the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society; and if they don’t, it’s not government’s role to correct it.”  [Perhaps this is a use of synechdoche, but… can markets be sinful?  People sin and people create markets.  Markets can’t sin.]

From my conversations with numerous supporters of the tea party movement from around the country, these comments fail to grasp the essential point of what this movement is about, and why religious people are attracted to it.

I have no doubt there are people on the fringes of the tea party movement who hate government. Most of these, however, I would suggest hate government the way most of us “hate” the dentist — that is, we are not in favor of abolishing dentistry; we just want to make sure it hurts as little as possible and does not do permanent damage.

It is not that tea party folk believe in “the myth of the sinless market.”

It is that they, and most believers, indeed most Americans, do not believe that politicians and bureaucrats are not immaculately conceived and require limits to their interventions.

And so we come to what may be the real deficiency of this popular movement — it has yet to define a set of clear principles that permit it to consistently outline its view of society and the proper role of the state.

Such a set of principles exists within both the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant traditions and are known respectively as subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. Each term in different yet complementary ways states that needs are best met at the most local level of their existence and that higher orders of social organization (that is, mediating institutions and the public sector) may only temporarily intervene into lower spheres of social organization in moments of great crisis. This intervention by higher authorities should happen to assist, not replace, local relationships.

In his monumental encyclical “The Hundredth Year” Pope John Paul II [Centesimus annus] outlined the principle of subsidiarity and demonstrated an understanding of the reaction that can occur in the social sphere when the limits of the state are not clearly maintained. Although written almost a decade ago, his cautions and observations could have been penned today:

“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.”

Father Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids. E-mail comments to

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  1. danphunter1 says:

    “Conservatives think that is not the role of government.”
    Referring to taking care of the poor [materially, I assume] is not the role of the government, but rather is the role of every man who is materially able to help the poor.
    We, the everyday man, are usually closest to our financially strapped brethren and as such see his plight more on a face to face level and we walk with him daily, so it is up to us to help him.
    Everyone knows a poor family or homeless man. If we each gave him food and drink and clothing or the financial means to aquire such, there would be a greatly lessened need for the government to do so.
    After all we are mandated to observe not only the Spiritual Works of Mercy but also the Corporal, for Justice sake.

  2. Martial Artist says:


    How very right you are. To the best of my recollection, Christ did not instruct us that, when asked for a cloak or for food, we were to ask Caesar to provide them. My understanding of scripture is that His injunction was directed very explicitly to each of us, His followers, and that it really cannot be unthinkingly delegated to some impersonal mechanism, which latter would include any government bureaucracy at any level of government.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  3. TJerome says:

    Father Sirico is always worth reading or listening to. Not only does he undertand the Faith and its relationship to society, he just exhibits plain, good, common sense. Ironic that some “Catholics” look to government rather than themselves to assist the poor, particularly in light of the fact that oftentimes government policies lead to greater poverty and want all in the name of “fairness.” Although I am not anti-government in general, I think in our Country it has expanded into so many corners of our lives that it truly has become intrusive, over-bearing, and counter-productive. Hopefully November will bring a much needed correction in that regard.

  4. Brian Day says:

    “Much as we might like otherwise, the Catholic argument is that government and citizen are equally expected to be our brother’s keeper.“ Citation/Sources?

    I am a big believer in subsidiarity. Yes, both the individual and government have a responsibility towards our neighbor, but subsidiarity clearly calls for individuals to be the “front line” in being our brothers keeper.

  5. Martial Artist says:

    Jim Wallis, quoted by Fr. Sirico, not only

    renders … a wholly inaccurate image of tea party folks.

    He renders a wholly inaccurate image of what libertarians (the use of the lower case “L” is intentional) believe, in addition to anthropomorphizing the market, as Fr. Z points out [as an aside, I am not wholly convinced by Fr. Z’s suggestion that the statement is intended synedochically, but the statement is clearly meant to demonize by mischaracterization]. As a Catholic Christian libertarian (although I prefer to refer to myself, a la F. A. Hayek, as an Old Whig), I am unaware of any significant published adherent to libertarian principles who does not explicitly define a free market as solely possible in a society which strictly observes the Rule of Law and strictly enforces property rights. When those conditions are imposed, the self-interest of business owners and corporations is constrained in such a way that the opportunity for abuse of the poor becomes much less likely than the government-regulated market which we currently have, in which perverse results become every year more common and more widespread.

    It seems to me that Fr. Sirico has pretty well “hit the nail on its head.”

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  6. dad29 says:

    Markets can’t sin.

    About 20 years ago, I got into a…..umnnhhhh…..discussion…..with my pastor, a well-regarded Monsignor, over the term ‘sinful structures of society.’ I took the position that “structures are not sinful b/c they can’t sin.’

    He was unable to articulate an argument which proved that such structures DID ‘sin.’ But we maintained a friendship, nonetheless.

  7. TJerome says:

    “personal sin” had gone out of vogue at that time. Sin was all “collective, societal, or structural” or some other such pyscho-babble.

  8. Randii says:

    The wording on the “sinless market” is poor. Libertarians believe that the market is inherently moral in the wages, working conditrions and benefits that are arrived at. That the church/Popes have no valid claim to criticize economics and in particular capitalism.

    This is the thesis of Thomas Woods a neo-con libertarian when it comes to the economy. He dissents from the economic related encyclicals of a long string of Popes.
    A must read in this area IMO is The Church and the Libertarian by Christopher Ferrara.

    Not that I am a Sirrico fan. His comments in the past on the economic benefits of illegal immigration are simply wrong and I think if he is as well read an educated as he claims to be he knows that full well.

  9. Magpie says:

    I have no work. If it wasn’t for government handouts (dole), I would be in an even worse state than I am already, while I continue to look for work. Hanging around the parochial house begging for stale bread is not a realistic option for me, nor is sleeping on a park bench.

  10. chcrix says:

    “It is that they, and most believers, indeed most Americans, do not believe that politicians and bureaucrats are not immaculately conceived and require limits to their interventions.”


    Shouldn’t that read “…Americans, believe that…” omitting the (do not) ?

    As far as the ‘sinless market’ goes it is not that libertarians believe that those in the market dont sin, it is that they believe that government regulators are no better, and are in a position to do even more damage because of their coercive powers.

    “Thomas Woods a neo-con libertarian”

    Whoa there!

    Neo-Con and libertarian are contradictory terms.

    “Neo-cons” were originally known as liberals who had been mugged by reality. However, they were really trotskyites who had morphed into Scoop-Jackson democrats before becoming Republicans. They idolize Nicolo Machiavelli.

    Economically, they could most properly be called “mercantilist” in nature. That is they are in favor of using the government to further business interests (including bailouts). There is nothing even remotely libertarian about them.

    I expect Tom Woods would not object to being called a libertarian, but to call him a neo-con is the precise opposite of the truth.

    And besides he is a good guy. He pointed me to “Iota Unum” when I asked for a book that would explain to me what the …whatever… was going on during Vatican II.

  11. Gabriel Austin says:

    To understand the Tea Party movement, one should reflect on the mobs at the original tea party, and the mobs of the French Revolution, and the other mobs of the various revolutions. In essence the “demos” [as in democratic] have been isolated from the government, chiefly by an increase in bureaucracy which insulates the politicians from the bad effects of their misgovernment. So the mob rises up to sweep away the complex intricacies of the government [“We’ll read the bill after it passes”].

  12. Martial Artist says:


    You are absolutely correct in asserting that neocons and libertarians are inherently opposites. You are also correct that Thomas E. Woods, Jr., identifies himself as a libertarian. A couple of weekends back a presentation he gave on his newest book, Nullification, was carried on C-SPAN2. During the talk he used the phrase “we libertarians.”

    However, I wouldn’t call the neocons mercantilist, as that has, in economics, a specific meaning, namely “The theory and system of political economy prevailing in Europe after the decline of feudalism, based on national policies of accumulating bullion, establishing colonies and a merchant marine, and developing industry and mining to attain a favorable balance of trade.” Commercialists might be a better general term, as they do support government actions to further business interests. Mercantilists also thought of wealth as the accumulated god bullion, not realizing that actual wealth involves the velocity of money, which is zero if it is sitting in a bank account.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  13. Elizabeth D says:

    In “Caritas in Veritate” Pope Benedict XVI speaks favorably of government social welfare programs and even “wealth redistribution”, a phrase which actual American political liberals wouldn’t be caught dead using. I don’t agree at all with the idea that American conservatism/”the Right” corresponds in any simple way to Catholic social and economic teaching. Neither do the ideas of the American liberals/progressives/”the Left” correspond in any simple way with Catholic teaching. The truth is not well expressed by either of these polarities.

    From what I can see, both using government to help the poor, and also individuals and non govermnental groups helping the poor, are Catholic possibilities, or even both morally necessary.

  14. bookworm says:

    “Most of these, however, I would suggest hate government the way most of us “hate” the dentist — that is, we are not in favor of abolishing dentistry; we just want to make sure it hurts as little as possible and does not do permanent damage.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. As a matter of fact, I have a government job in which my goal is to attempt to insure that agency regulations “hurt as little as possible and do not do permanent damage” to the persons most affected by them. I ought to have that framed and hung on the wall of my office!

  15. chcrix says:

    Martial Artist:

    I agree that ‘mercantilist’ is imprecise. I was just trying to grab a term that would give a casual reader some idea of what I was going after – basically looking at the economy ‘management’ implied in mercantilism.

    It’s hard to have a general term that folks (who might not have paid a lot of attention to economics) will understand. Corporate State Capitalism? Crony Capitalism? It is hard to describe the kind of political string pulling that companies (e.g. Archer-Daniels-Midland) profit by in this country. Heaven knows we haven’t had free markets in living memory.

  16. Kerry says:

    Ah! I see the problem. “If the recent analysis by the New York Times… is correct… ” And this: “… it has yet to define a set of clear principles”. Huh? The principles are clearly outlined and enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. (Note especially the phrase, “Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”) A small ‘d’ small ‘i’ dies irae approaches in just under two weeks. “IHS”

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