Fr. Sirico in NRO: The Church as the Bride of Caesar

National Review Online a couple days ago had a great piece by Fr. Robert Sirico of Acton Institute.

My emphases and comments.

The Church as the Bride of Caesar
July 27, 2011 4:15 P.M.
By Fr. Robert A. Sirico

It is telling that the Washington Post report on the religious Left’s Circle of Protection campaign for big government describes the effort as one that would “send chills through any politician who looks to churches and religious groups as a source of large voting blocs,” because, in fact, this is not an honest faith-inspired campaign to protect the “least of these” from Draconian government cuts, as claimed. It is a hyper-political movement that offers up the moral authority of churches and aid organizations to advance the ends of the Obama administration and its allies in Congress.

The Circle of Protection, led by Jim Wallis and his George Soros-funded Sojourners group, is advancing a false narrative based on vague threats to the “most vulnerable” if we finally take the first tentative steps to fix our grave budget and debt problems. For example, Wallis frequently cites cuts to federal food programs as portending dire consequences to “hungry and poor people.”

Which programs? He must have missed the General Accountability Office study on government waste released this spring, which looked at, among others, 18 federal food programs. These programs accounted for $62.5 billion in spending in 2008 for food and nutrition assistance. But only seven of the programs have actually been evaluated for effectiveness. Apparently it is enough to simply launch a government program, and the bureaucracy to sustain it, to get the Circle of Protection activists to sanctify it without end. Never mind that it might not be a good use of taxpayer dollars.

It is also telling that the group’s advertised “Evangelical, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, African-American, and Latino Christian leaders” who are so concerned about the poor and vulnerable in the current budget negotiations have so little to say about private charity, which approached $300 billion last year. [QUAERITUR: To what extent would a rise in interest rates coupled with the abolition of tax breaks for charitable giving impact help for the poor and other worthy efforts?] To listen to them talk, it is as if a prudent interest in reining in deficits and limiting government waste, fraud, and bloat would leave America’s poor on the brink of starvation. It is as if bureaucratic solutions, despite the overwhelming evidence of the welfare state’s pernicious effects on the family, are the only ones available to faith communities. This is even stranger for a group of people who are called to “love the neighbor” first and last with a personal commitment.

Although the Circle of Protection has been endorsed by a few Catholic bishops, the predictably left-leaning social justice groups, and Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Church in America has long moved beyond the heady (and increasingly-distant) days of the 1980s when knee-jerk opposition to any reduction in government spending was the norm. That still holds, even if some of the staff and a few of the bishops at the Bishops’ Conference still imbibe such nostalgia.

The actions of Wallis and the co-signers of the Circle of Protection are only understandable in light of political, not primarily religious, aims. Wallis, after all, has been serving as self-appointed chaplain to the Democratic National Committee and recently met with administration officials to help them craft faith-friendly talking points for the 2012 election. And when Wallis emerged from that White House meeting, he crowed that “almost every pulpit in America is linked to the Circle of Protection … so it would be a powerful thing if our pulpits could be linked to the bully pulpit here.”

Think about that for a moment. Imagine if a pastor had emerged from a meeting with President George W. Bush and made the same statement. I can just imagine the howls of “Theocracy!” and “Christian dominionism!” that would echo from the mobs of Birkenstock-shod, tie-dyed, and graying church activists who would immediately assemble at the White House fence to protest such a blurring of Church and State.

But in the moral calculus of Jim Wallis and his Circle of Protection supporters, there’s no  problem with prostrating yourself, your Church, and your aid organization before Caesar. As long as he’s on your side of the partisan divide.

— Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. KAS says:

    I think Rev. Sirico has made some very good points. To hear many Catholics talk about the poor, the government welfare is the ONLY way to help the poor.

    It is as if they have lost all faith in God and grown a deep faith in government.

  2. Geoffrey says:

    “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury must be replenished, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of public officials should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to other countries must be removed so Rome does not go bankrupt. People must learn to work again, instead of living off the state” (Cicero, 55 BC).

    I do not know whether or not Cicero’s advice was followed or not, but where is the Roman Empire now?

  3. AnAmericanMother says:


    It’s worse than that. A study done awhile ago showed that the most liberal, big-government statists give the very least to charity.

    They seem to believe that, if they support the government’s taking other people’s money at the point of a gun to distribute largesse to an amorphous mass called “the poor” (but often in actuality just “purchased voters”), that completely relieves them of their personal obligation to perform works of mercy, including charity to the individual poor in their own communities.

    So they not only have lost faith in God and put their faith in government, they cynically use that as an excuse not to do their duty to their brother.

  4. Pachomius says:

    Of course: the best way to create more charity is to create more poor people. Right.

  5. Pachomius says:

    … With that said, and having now read the article more carefully, this outfit looks very shady, and like a (more effective) version of the “Tony Blair Faith Foundation”.

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    This article presents me with a bit of a quandry.

    On the one hand I am certainly not a fan of big government and the state taking all your money to fund its grandiose projects which are totally pointless. I am also critical of people who are welfare dependent, who are a drain on hard working people.

    On the other hand I wonder what mechanisms exist to take over the role of helping the genuinely needy amongst us (myself included) who are simply down on our luck and are trying to get back into a position where we can contribute to society (I’m currently working at what amounts to an unpaid internship but that is coming to an end). Here in the UK their once existed inhumane institutions called ‘workhouses’ where the poor were brutalized (remember this is in Georgian/victorian England without a strong Catholic presence) by their “betters” simply for the crime of being indigent, clearly we do not want to return to these.

    What may I asked happened to the Active Congregations that provided medical care and ran good Catholic schools for the salvation of souls ?

    From my brief reading around the Acton Institute they seem to follow the Austrian School of Economics which in turn seems to be influence by calvinism (wealth = sign of God’s blessings) and the idea that all are born possessing equal talents (sorry such a wrong idea) and that the market ‘solves all problems’.

    Mark Shea has made some interesting comments for a while over at his own blog about economics and I do find myself drawn to the idea of distributionism, I shall have to investigate it further but from what I’ve heard it sounds as Catholic as economics can be

  7. kelleyb says:

    “And when Wallis emerged from that White House meeting, he crowed that ‘almost every pulpit in America is linked to the Circle of Protection … so it would be a powerful thing if our pulpits could be linked to the bully pulpit here.’ ”
    Seems to me that Wallis would like to be the founder of the Patriotic Church of America. Government controlling the pulpits and doctrines to support a Dear Leader. I find this a chilling prospect.
    St Michael the Archangel….

  8. AnAmericanMother says:


    The British poor relief system since Elizabeth’s day has been a series of not very intelligent responses to the disappearance of all the monastic foundations and chantries that had done an excellent job of supporting the poor.

    That of course was a result of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the religious orders . . . he was chronically hard up and couldn’t resist the lure of easy money.

    The “work’us” was the Victorian attempt at a quick fix, but it didn’t work any better than the others.

    There’s no substitute for the intelligent, prayerful, God-led charity that the Church and her religious orders provide. When they are destroyed — whether through the greed of a king or through the machinations of a nanny-state that arrogates all power to itself — bad things happen.

  9. albinus1 says:


    I would like to check the context of that Cicero quote. Could please cite the source where you found it? And by citing the source, I mean its location in the surviving works of Cicero, not in a modern secondary source or website.

    When I tried to do a quick Google check on it, I found the following comment about it: “No evidence has been found to confirm that Cicero said these words, and it is almost certainly spurious.” I’m not surprised; it was the reference to “assistance to other countries” that made me suspicious. I’m a classicist, and that doesn’t strike me as something the Romans ever got involved in, except for sending troops and then enriching themselves in the process. If anything, the Roman government would have been eager to pursue more such “assistance”.

    Further investigation suggests that the quote actually comes from Taylor Caldwell’s 1965 novel A Pillar of Iron, a fictionalized account of Cicero’s life.

  10. chcrix says:

    A lot to discuss here in the original article, and something to be said about the comments.

    First, I don’t think this ‘circle’ will amount to much. Remember it is liberal, and basically the more liberal a religious group the less effective it tends to be IMO.

    I do admit I might have titled the original article using the expression Caesar’s Strumpet instead of bride though.

    KAS: I think that the real heresy of our age is the worship of government.

    Jack H: “the market ‘solves all problems’. ” I don’t think that is quite right. I would phrase it as “non-market solutions make all problems worse than they were to start with.”
    In other words, going against actual economic law is futile. For example, if one imposes price controls one will bring into existence black markets – like it or not. Furthermore, a healthy economy will produce more surplus that actually can be used to mitigate suffering. An economy choked in regulation and stifled by high taxes will not have the same resources available.

    Also: A look at government ‘charity’ will show that much of those budget dollars get eaten by the bureaucracy and don’t actually reach the (allegedly) intended beneficiaries.

    Most important: Economics is not meant to be a system of morality any more than chemistry is. But, like the physical sciences, the laws of economics can’t be defied successfully. One must work within their framework.

  11. Jack Hughes says:


    I remember talking about market vs non market solutions a few years ago with a lecturer before a visiting professor gave a presentation (irrelevent to the discussion) and after it had finnished I realised that whilst the market itself cannot solve all the problems neither can leglislation/big government.

    I realised that the only solution is build a moral and virtuous society where for example it is considered wrong to loan money to people who can’t afford it, where people should not be made homeless because of spiralling medical bills that they can’t pay, Indeed I think that profit should not be considered as far as healthcare, education and legal representation are concerned, in Catholic England the first two were largely preserves of religious orders and as for the virtue of lawyers……… obtaining true justice should not be a matter of having the money to hire a decent lawyer.

    As Mark Shea points out in one of his recent posts capitalists need to remember that money is not the be all and end all of life ; I remember reading on a Catholic blog (unam sanctum catholicum) a case in 17th Century America where a puritan community ‘excommunicated’ a man for adding a mark up of greater than 5-10 perecent to his products – Not a bad Idea.

    A good example of this in England were the (non catholic) confectionary producers, George Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree actually gave a damm about their employees quality of life.

    These are just a few thoughts of mine and not intended to be some grand economic treatse , I must however not that I am not suggesting that the government/people should be allowed to spend beyond their means for extended periods of time.


  12. Supertradmum says:

    Can’t we all see that the dependency on Big Government is exactly what the governments actually want? The independence of small businesses and the Protestant work ethic have been destroyed in our state school systems, by not rewarding excellence and by allowing mediocrity to be the order of the day, as some sort of antidote against what liberals label “elitism”. The elite are those who are supposed to help the poor, but when this group is undermined, even at the earliest ages in school, not to be the best, what happens is that people begin to have an expectation of the “nanny state”. Christ clearly said that the poor are always with us and that means it is our responsibility to help the poor in real ways, not in hand-outs or fake job creation. Christians must help the poor, not government.

    We now have in England, a large group of youth who know how to play the system. If one visits the touristy places on the south coast, one sees hundreds of idle youth, not working, but having enough money for drink, cigarettes, trendy clothes. The same is happening in the United States, where an underclass has been created of those who have no stake in society, nor do they want one. These are the anarchists of the future, who believe the world owes they a living just for being. I left education at the college and university level last semester, finally fatigued at fighting the systems which want and encourage dependency. My students were “at risk” and frequently the first in their families to go for a higher education. However, by mid-term, half in the classes disappeared after receiving their checks from the government. Why those checks do not go directly to the colleges and universities, I do not understand. There were a few of us instructors, professors, who held out against this tendency to baby those who should be taking their place in society and working. The genuine poor need help from good, Christian individuals. I have been very poor and still am poor, having raised a child by myself for years and trying to live on my own resources. But as I was raised with a work ethic, I find things to do. One of my fifteen-year-old acquaintances here told her grandma that she couldn’t work as a cleaner, an available job for her as a school leaver, as she couldn’t do such a thing, Why these prima donnas exist with the entitlement attitude is that they have been babied throughout their entire education at home and in school to expect things, life, status, just to be given.

    Part of the trouble is contraception and abortion, which has left families with two children, who are given everything without learning to earn it. The real poor are not those, but some who have genuinely not had a chance to work or learn, or have experienced health or economic tragedies, like mysel,. The others take from the real poor. Government wants this underclass, so that it can control those who have chosen to take the easy way.

    Faith communities do not need bloated government. The Acton Institute is one of the few prophetic voices crying in the wilderness.

  13. Jack Hughes says:

    Supertrad mom

    I agree with you on many points, at my current place of work the secretary who actually gets paid is a 17 yr old whiner who essentially answers the phones and does part of the filing. I on the other hand have actaully remembred how enjoyable it is to work and whilst I’d like to get something that pays whilst I find a seminary/congregation that will take me I’ve been grateful for the experience of working.

    Its interesting that all of the Traditional Congregations/Orders that I have come into contact with work hard to support themselves in addition to their Traditional Prayer life.

    I maintain that the role of charity is help those who are genuinely in need i.e. cannot help themselves or those who are currently experiencing hard times through no fault of their own (a good acquaitence of mine has a Undergrad degreee, a Masters and a Doctrate of Philosophy in addition to several years managerial experience and has problems getting a job.

    Whilst Faith communites do not need bloated government I do know that the rabid capitalism is not the answer.

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    The Church is not primarily about politics, from either the right or the left, any more than Christ was about the Caesars of Rome. A passage from scripture:

    “But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.

    The Church is not the Democratic party at prayer; the Church is not the Republican party at prayer; it’s not coincident with any political party at prayer. It is what it is, and it exists in this world while transcending it, because it’s bigger than politics.

    Sometimes Catholics get so desperate about issues, abortion or peace or justice or opportunity and such, that they identify with one party or another so firmly that they lose sight of this and start to give it their trust in ways that they shouldn’t. But it remains that the Church is like no other organization. Politics is only a tool, and a very poor one at that.

  15. Bill Foley says:

    from Bill Foley
    I would suggest that you good folks read the works of Martin Gross. He has examined the spending of the federal government better and in more detail than anyone. His latest book National Suicide give detailed, concrete ways for the federal government to curtail and cut its spending without hurting the truly needy and without damaging Social Security or Medicare.

    One should also note the words of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics: “Prosperity is associated with a growing population.” A non-replacement birth rate is having deleterious effects on the health of Western nations. This is a natural consequence of the grave evil of contraception.

    A constant leit-motif in the social teaching of the papal magisterium of the Catholic Church is the principle of subsidiarity. A bloated, far-reaching central government is not in accord with this principle.

    Onalee McGraw did a study several years ago that showed that 87% of every dollar that is earmaked for the poor is actually absorbed by the bureaucracy administering the programs.

  16. irishgirl says:

    I like Father Sirico of the Acton Institute-he’s unafraid to hit the nail square on the head! Kudos to him! Wish we had men of his caliber in government, instead of the idiots now in office!
    Supertradmum-I’m so sorry for you and what you had to put up with in the world of academia in England. No wonder you were sick and tired of it and left!
    Our future in this country is scarifying–God have mercy on us!

  17. mibethda says:

    A major portion of the expenditures of virtually every program for those deemed needy in one respect or another goes, not to those who are the advertised recipients of the program funding, but to an ever increasing governmental bureaucracy at the local, state and national level engaged in a highly inefficient administration of those programs. One might properly conclude that there is another interest group which benefits from these programs – and which has a much larger say in their implementation and expansion. Yet, to listen to the public comments of the proponents of these programs, one might conclude that every dollar by which such a program is reduced comes at the expense of the advertised recipients. In addition, many programs, such as those for education loans, actually work to the detriment of the immediate recipients by facilitating inflation in the cost of services which must eventually be repaid by loan recipients – in this latter respect, there is an increasing literature from economists which identify the true beneficiaries as the educational institutions which are thereby enabled to inflate the cost of their product with very little restraint imposed by the consumer since the loan programs cushion the immediate effect of the inflationary actions upon the loan recipients.

  18. Banjo pickin girl says:

    mibethda, the same applies to the pricing of medical equipment such as motorized wheelchairs which it is assumed will be paid for by insurance. I recently bought some adaptive equipment for myself, paying cash to reduce the hassle, and was surprised at what some companies charge for things. I was able to find an inexpensive source that specializes in selling direct though, fortunately.

  19. Banjo pickin girl says:

    catholicmidwest, you hit the nail on the head with the reason why when the talk turns to politics i always say “none of the above.” i do vote but am careful not to vote along party lines, especially around Ohio which is “weird.” sometime democrats are republicans and vice versa, you have to be careful.

  20. Banjo pickin girl says:

    supertradmum, Contraception and abortion also let children know at least by implication that they are disposable and worthless. That is part of the source of the welfare culture mindset. It is a form of slavery. No, i am wrong, it IS slavery. (I don’t know how to make italics and stuff like the smart people do here). Albeit a very comfortable slavery. You don’t see chronic welfare recipients with keloid scars from whipping but their souls are scarred just the same.

  21. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Jack Hughes, Cadbury and Rowntree were both Quakers and the history of Bournville is interesting. Cadbury is said to have instituted the 6 day work week (vs. the 7 day work week) at Bournville so families could spend the Sabbath together to encourage tightly knit families.

  22. Jack Hughes says:

    Banjo pickin girl

    If you read my post carefully you will see that I noted that Cadbury and Rowntree were not Catholics,


    Although I do not have any figures to hand I’m not totally sure that the figures being banded around about x% of money going to bloated bueracracies is true, also can Catholics stop adopting the tea party mantra that all government employees are parasites, both of my parents work in the Public Sector and I can tell you that most government employees are hardworking people who put their best into their jobs and deliver vital public services (unless of course you would prefer

    Also, before you all clamouring for zero beuracracy please remember that without administrators most private and public organisations would fall apart. The phrase from “Yes Minster” adminstration saves the nation may not be sexy but it is true. They may not produce a good in the same way that a areospace engineer does but among other things they keep records that are essential for ordering the parts needed to produce the plane, that invoices are paid making sure that the company complies with health and safety regulations and making sure that accurate records necessary to the survivel of the organisation are kept. e.g. If my dad had to do all the admin work associated with the students that take his module then he would never have time to give lectures of mark their work, the admin staff at the University do all that work and enable him to teach.

    BWT what on EARTH is Fr. Sicaro doing founding the acton institute? I may be a somewhat dim trad but didn’t his ordination have something to do with the saving of souls? Correct my dimwitted observations but shouldn’t he be spending his days in the confessional, before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and offering the Immaculate Lamb to God?

  23. Supertradmum says:

    The Acton Institute does save souls…souls are brought to god through the intellectual, reasoning critique of politics. God uses all parts of the created world, including finance and politics, to bring people to Him. We need more Catholics willing to become real intellectuals. I am sure that Father is also a “pastoral” priest. But, a leader he is as well, and we need such, even if these are priests in the market place. Do we criticize Father Pavone or Father Groeschel for taking the Gospel to the people on the street, in the media, in areas of need? Same with Father Sirico, whose comments and radio broadcasts are challenging to the complacent Catholic.

  24. robtbrown says:

    Jack Hughes says:

    BWT what on EARTH is Fr. Sicaro doing founding the acton institute? I may be a somewhat dim trad but didn’t his ordination have something to do with the saving of souls? Correct my dimwitted observations but shouldn’t he be spending his days in the confessional, before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and offering the Immaculate Lamb to God?

    Why do you assume that he’s not saying mass and hearing confessions?

  25. Banjo pickin girl says:

    I read your post. Being a Quaker is so much more than just not being Catholic!

  26. mvhcpa says:

    Jack Hughes,

    You stated, “From my brief reading around the Acton Institute they seem to follow the Austrian School of Economics which in turn seems to be influence by calvinism (wealth = sign of God’s blessings) and the idea that all are born possessing equal talents (sorry such a wrong idea) and that the market ‘solves all problems’.”

    I do not believe you can paint all followers of the Austrian School (and their expressions of the principals thereof) with one brush. With full disclosure, the following mini-screed represents only my own personal reading of the Austrian School, with which I have been involved as a follower and reader, not a hardcore student, for about 25 years.

    With that said, I can assure you that “wealth equals blessing” is a misreading of the principals of the Austrian School. The Austrian School merely states that, as an axiom of economic law, free transactions/exchanges made by free people lead inexorably to an increase in mutual PERCEIVED well-being, whether the ends of that well-being be accumulated wealth, simple survival versus demise, or even altruistic endeavors–whatever the free people doing the free transactions define their well-being to be. I guess it is up to the Church to persuade said free people to see that a measure of altruism is part of a free people’s best character.

    I can also assure you that the Austrian School NEVER holds that all are born possessing equal talents–just that we should all be given equal opportunity, through our own free efforts, to use those talents and resources with which we were gifted to reach our own freely chosen goals. Thus, although inequality is a unavoidable fact of life, this apparently sad fact can be turned into a wonderful thing for the economy/society as a whole, as it allows for the specialization and division of labor which is the engine of a successful free-exchange economic system.

    You come close to accuracy with your last stated premise. It isn’t so much that the Austrians believe that the market solves all problems, but rather that any “problem” (note the sneer quotes) that cannot be solved by the market isn’t really a problem at all, just a sad state of affairs that the world just has to accept so that FREEDOM FREEDOM FREEDOM can march onward to produce all of the great, promised economic efficiencies. Actually, it isn’t for the sake of economic efficiency that the Austrians stick to this point of view (unlike the way the Chicago School does, according to Thomas Woods), but rather for the near-worship of FREEDOM FREEDOM FREEDOM as the only non-tangible thing in the universe worth having. This point, or rather not admitting this point, provides the weakest point upon which Austrian economics can be skewered by a skillful, disingenuous wielder of the liberal Left’s sword of “concern” for the poor.

    I have summed up the fundamental moral calculus of Austrian Economics (really, libertarianism, as economics is more of a descriptive science than a moral system) as this: It is more evil to take money from A to give it to B for B’s survival than it is to ALLOW (not encourage, but allow) A to tell B “Please go quietly die and leave me alone.” Austrianism/libertarianism would indeed say that A is despicable for thinking such of B, but the act of forcing “charity” out of A for the betterment of B, even for the preservation of B’s life, would be the greater evil. The real problem with the Austrians/libertarians is, they won’t come out and admit that calculus–they won’t defend that position–even though as God-fearing, truly altruistic Catholic Christians, it is possible to hold to that position with the right, honest arguments to support it. (Don’t anyone accuse me of being heartless and exploitative of the poor–I am NOT suggesting that we ignore the poor or that letting anyone die is a morally acceptable position–I am just stating that active coercion of others, especially by the State, is NOT a morally acceptable solution to the economic problems we face.)

    As for Distributionism, the three times I cursorily looked into it I got three different explanations of what it was all about, so, Jack, you might want to be careful to align yourself with it as a mere label (as it appears fashionable among social-justice Catholics to do). It could be that Distributionism is closer to Austrianism than either of those groups would like to admit, or it could be just another cute name for Socialism (that was such the variance that I saw in the partial explanations I came across). Again, I didn’t do an in-depth study, but when a cursory inquiry results in such wide points of view, I wonder if I can get a straight answer from any source about what it really means.

    Michael Val
    (who once again apologizes for this mile-long post on a less-than-simple issue)

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